[Editor: This is the second part of Chapter One 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.]
A constrained silence fell on the grown-up children, till Willoughby politely sought to restore ease by contributing his quota to the evening’s feast of reason —
“There occurs to my mind a capital thing,” he said; “a capital thing, indeed, though apropos of nothing in particular. A student, returning from a stroll, encountered a countryman, carrying a hare in his hand. ‘Friend,’ said the student quietly, ‘is that thine own hare or a wig?’ The joke, of course, lies in the play on the word ‘hare’.”
Willoughby’s courteous effort was worse than wasted, for the general depression deepened.
“You’re right, Thompson,” said Cooper, at length. “Mostly everybody’s got a curse on them. I got a curse on me. I got it through swearin’ and Sabbath-breakin’. I’ve tried to knock off swearin’ fifty dozen times, but I might as well try to fly. Last time I tried to knock it off was when I left Nyngan for Kenilworth, four months ago; but there happened to be a two-hundredweight bag o’ rice in the bottom o’ the load; an’ something tore her, an’ she started leakin’ through the cracks in the floor o’ the wagon; an’ I could n’t git at her no road, for there was seven ton on top of her; an’ the blasted stuff it kep’ dribble-dribble till you could ’a’ tracked me at a gallop for over a hundred mile; an’ me swearin’ at it till I was black in the face; an’ it always stopped dribblin’ at night, like as if it was to aggravate a man. If it had n’t been for that rice, I’d ’a’ kep’ from swearin’ that trip; an’ then, comin’ down from Kenilworth with Thompson, I’d ’a’ kep’ from it easy; for Thompson he never swears. I give him credit for that much.”
“I don’t claim any credit,” remarked Thompson, with the unconscious spiritual swagger which so often antecedes, and possibly generates, lapse. “I never could see that swearing did any good; so I just say to myself, ‘You’d like to come out, would you? — well, then, once for all, you won’t.’”
“You’re a happy man, curse and all,” replied the giant gloomily. “For my own part, I was brought up careful, but I’ve turned out a (adj.) failure. Nobody would think, seeing me so brisk an’ cheerful, that I got more worry nor anybody on’y myself could stand. I got more trouble nor all you fellers put together.” He paused, evidently battling feebly with that impulse which bids us ease the loaded breast, even when discovery’s pain. His voice was even lower and sadder as he resumed:
“My father he was well off, with a comfortable place of his own on the Hawkesbury; an’ there was on’y me an’ my sister Molly; for my mother died of a cold she caught when I was about twelve or fourteen, and Molly she was hardly so old. If you was to travel the country, you wouldn’t meet another man like my ole dad. He was what you might call” ——
“My farther he was a sojer,” interposed Dixon. “He could whack any man of his weight in the 40th. Las’ word he says to me: ‘Bob,’ says he; ‘be a man — an’ keep Injun ink off o’ yer arms, for you never know,’ says he, ‘what you might do.’”
“Not many men like my ole dad,” pursued Cooper. “Fetch up your youngsters in the natur’ an’ admiration o’ the Lord, an’ don’t be frightened to dress the knots off o’ them. That was his idear, an’ he went through with it straight. ‘William,’ says he to me; ‘if I catch a oath out o’ your mouth, I’ll welt the (adj.) hide off o’ you ;’ an’ many’s the time he done it. ‘Always show respect to an ole man or an ole woman,’ says he; ’an’ never kick up a row with nobody; an’ when you see a row startin’, you strike in an’ squash it, for blessed be the peacemakers; an’ never you git drunk, nor yet laugh at a drunk man; an’ never take your Maker’s name in vain, or by (sheol) He’ll make it hot for you.’ That was my father’s style with me. Same with my sister. He used to lay a bit of a buggy-trace on the table, after supper: ‘There, Molly,’ says he; ‘that’s for girls as goes gallivantin’ about after night ;’ an’ many’s the dose of it Molly got for flyin’ round in the moonlight. Consequently, as you might say, she growed up to be the best girl, an’ the cleverest, in the district. The other girls was weeds aside of her; she stood inches higher nor any o’ them, an’ she was a picter’ to look at. Strong as whalebone, she was, an’ not a lazy bone in her body. She was different from me in regard o’ learnin’, for she always liked to have her nose in a book, an’ she went a lot to school. An’ as for singin’ or playin’ anything in the shape o’ music — why, there was nobody about could hold a candle to her. She was fair mad on it; an’ my ole dad he sent her to Sydney for over a year o’ purpose to fetch her out. Peanner, or flute, or fiddle, or the curliest instrument out of a brass band, it was all one to her; it come sort o’ natural to her to fetch music out of anything. Pore Molly!” Cooper paused awhile before he resumed ——
“She never took up with none o’ the fellers. I knowed fellers try to kiss her; but her style was to stiffen them with a clip under the ear, an’ they sort o’ took the hint, an’ never come back. But by-’n’-by a man from the Queensland border, he bought the place next ours but one; an’ our two fam’lies got acquainted. Wonderful clever ole feller he was, in regard o’ findin’ out new gases, an’ smells, an’ cures for snake-bites, an’ stuff that would go off like a cannon if you looked at it. This cove had got one son an’ two daughters, an’ his missis was sickly. Well, the son he was a young chap, about my own age at the time” ——
“An’ how old was you then?” demanded Mosey.
“About two-an’-twenty. He seemed to be a fine, off-handed, straightforrid, well-edicated young feller; an’ me an’ him we soon got great cronies; an’ by-’n’-by I seen he was collared on Molly, an’ she was collared on him. Well, thank God! he’s got a curse on him that he won’t get rid of in a hurry. Thank God for that much!”
“Ruined her?” queried Mosey briskly.
Cooper passed the question with unconscious dignity, and resumed. “Things went on this way for a couple o’ year; an’ this feller’s people was agreeable; an’, to make a long story short, the time was fixed for two months on ahead.”
“Your father was agreeable, of course?” said Thompson.
“He was dead,” replied Cooper reverently. “Gone to eternity, I hope. He deserved to go there if ever any livin’ man did. He died about a year after these people come to settle near our place.”
“What was the young feller’s name?” queried Mosey.
“Never you mind. Well, to make a long story short, one day pore Molly wanted to go somewhere, an’ she jumped on-to a horse I’d just left in the yard, an’ she shoved her foot in the stirrup-leather; an’ the horse he was a reg’lar devil; an’ he played up with her in the yard; an’ her heel went through the loop o’ the leather, an’ she come off an’ hung by her ankle; an’ the horse he was shod all round, an’ he kicked her in the face” —— Cooper paused.
“Killed her?” suggested Mosey.
“I caught the horse, an’ got her clear, an’ carried her into the house, all covered with blood, an’ just like a corp; an’ I left her there with the married woman we had, while I went for the doctor. Well, there she laid for weeks, half-ways between dead an’ alive, an’ me like a feller in a dream, thinkin’ an’ thinkin’, an’ not able to rec’lect anything but the hammerin’s I used to give her, an’ the things I used to take off of her, an’ set her cryin’. I would n’t go through that lot agen, not if I got a pension for it. Well, by-’n’-by she got her senses complete; an’ this young feller he had been hangin’ about the house every day, sayin’ nothing to nobody; but when she begun to come round, he begun to-keep away. At last she was all right in regard o’ health, but she was disfigured for life; she had to wear a crape veil down to her mouth. Then the young feller he used to come sometimes an’ just shake hands with her, but otherways he would n’t touch her with a forty-foot pole. Then he begun to stop away altogether; an’ by-’n’-by he suddenly got married to a girl out o’ the lowest pub. for ten mile round; an’ his father — real decent ole bloke he was — he told him never to show his face about the place agen. But there was no end o’ go in him. He had an uncle in Sydney, middlin’ rich, a ship-chandler, an’ this” ——
“What’s a ship-chandler?” demanded Mosey.
“A man that supplies candles to ships,” I replied.
“This uncle he’d had a saw-mill left on his hands, out somewhere south; an’ he give the saw-mill to the young feller on sort o’ time-payment; an’ I believe he got on splendid for a couple or three year; an’ his wife had one picaninny — so we come to hear — an’ suddenly he balled her out with some other feller. I on’y got hearsay for it, mind, but I know it’s true; for it’s just what ought to happen. Anyhow, the hand of God was on him, an’ he got it hot an’ heavy. Accordin’ to accounts, he sold out, an’ give her the bulk o’ the cash, an’ then he travelled. Last year, out on the Namoi, a man told me he seen him bullock drivin’ in the Bland country, seven year ago. It might be him, or it might n’t. I don’t know, an’ I don’t want to know; for he’s done all the harm he could. I got to thank him for all my troubles. On’y for him, I’d ’a’ been livin’ comfortable in the ole spot still. I don’t mention these things not once every three year on a average; but sometimes when you think I’m pleasant an’ cheerful, I’m fair wild with thinkin’ about that blasted cur; an’ you chaps fetched him up fresh in my mind to-night.”
“And the poor girl — is she still at home?” asked Thompson.
“No,” replied Cooper hoarsely; “she’s somewhere at the bottom o’ the Hawkesbury river; an’ there’s no more home. About three or four year after her accident, I was away in Sydney one time, on some business about shares; an’ when I come home, Molly was gone. She’d left a letter for me, sayin’ she’d nothing to live for; an’ we’d meet on the other side o’ the grave; an’ I must always think kind of her; an’ to remember ole times, when there was on’y the two of us; an’ prayin’ God to bless me for always bein’ good to her —— Why it knocked me stiff, for I’d always been a selfish, unfeelin’” —— He stopped abruptly; he had uttered the last sentences only by a strong effort.
Presently Dixon, pitying his emotion, remarked to Thompson in a gratuitously lively tone, and with diction too florid for exact reproduction,
“Say — was I tellin’ you I seen that white bullock you swapped to Cartwright las’ year? I think he’s gittin’ a cancer; mebbe it’s on’y blight; I would n’t say. An’ that lyin’ (individual), Ike Cunningham, told me he busted his self with trefile jist after Cartwright got him.”
“Ah!” replied Thompson absently.
“What become o’ yer place?” asked Mosey, turning to Cooper.
“I’ll answer that question, but not to satisfy you,” replied Cooper coldly. “Well, chaps, when pore Molly’s day was fixed, I scraped up a hundred notes, an’ borrered two hundred on the place, to give her a start when the thing took place. My ole dad he left everything to me, with strict orders to see Molly through. He did n’t want to make her a bait for loafers. Well, when the thing was squashed — me, like a fool, I was advised to lay the money out in minin’ shares for Molly; an’ then I kep’ risin’ more money, an’ buyin’ more shares; an’ I got sort o’ muddled somehow; an’ to make a long story short, the whole (adj.) thing went to (sheol). It was goin’ that road when I seen the last o’ pore Molly; an’ when I lost her, I jist roused round an’ got a team together, an’ signed everything the lyin’, cheatin’ (financiers) told me to sign; an’ then I cleared off. Must be gittin’ on for — let’s see — Molly was twenty-three when she got her accident, an’ it was three year after when she made away with herself. That was nine year ago, so she’d be thirty-five if she was alive now. She need n’t ’a’ done it! O, she should n’t ’a’ done it! — for she’d the satisfaction o’ knowin’ the curse that come on that blasted dog! I told her all the particulars I got, thinkin’ to satisfy her; but I believe it on’y done her harm, for the end come a week or ten days after. Seems strange, lookin’ back at it, to think how simple our fam’ly’s been broke up, an’ my gran’father’s old home gone into the hands o’ strangers.”
“Never got a trace of your sister?” asked Thompson.
“Not a trace. Some people would have it she was gone to America, or California, or somewhere — but why would she go? Me an’ the Ryans — that was the married couple we had — we knowed most about it, an’ we cared most; an’ we was sure from the first, though we done everything that could be done. She went away at night, an’ took nothing with her — not a single item o’ clothes, but jist as she stood. Ah! I’d give what little I got, an’ walk a thousand mile on to the back of it, to see her pore bones buried safe, an’ then I’d be satisfied.”
Cooper sighed deeply, and lit his pipe; then, for a time, the utter stillness of the bright starlight was broken only by the faint jingle of the horses’ hobble-chains, and the sound of some of the nearer bullocks cropping the luxuriant grass.
“The ram-paddick’s a fool to this spot,” remarked Mosey, at length. “Mind you, it was friendly of Number Two to lay us on. On’y decent thing I ever knowed him to do. He ain’t the clean spud.”
“He’s ill-natured, certainly,” observed Thompson; “but I can’t help taking an interest in him. As a general rule, the more uncivilised a man is, till you come right down to the level of the blackfellow, the better bushman he is; but I must say this of Thingamybob, that he comes as near the blackfellow” ——
“Hold on,” interrupted Dixon, whose private conversation with Bum had caused him to lose step in the march of conversation — “Who the (sheol) is this Thingamybob — bar sells?”
“I wish somebody would fetch me a drink of water,” replied Thompson, dropping his subject in pointed rebuke of Dixon’s behaviour. “I’d rather perish than go for it myself; and I won’t live two hours if I don’t get it. It’s Cooper’s fault. When he keeps the meat fresh, it walks away; and when he packs it in salt, and then roasts it in the pan — like this evening — you can see the salt all over it like frost. Grand remedy for scurvy, and Barcoo rot, and the hundreds of natural diseases that flesh is subject to, as the poet says.”
“Lis’n that (adj.) liar,” growled Cooper, with a fairly successful attempt at easy good-nature. “An’ I’m as bad off as him; an’ there ain’t a whimper out o’ me.”
“I’ll bring a drink for you both,” said I, rising and taking two pannikins from the lid of the tucker-box. “I would n’t do it only that I’m famishing, myself; and I’m tired of waiting for some one else to give in.”
Then, whilst helping myself to a drink from the water-bag under the rear of Thompson’s wagon, and filling the pannikins for my friends, I couldn’t possibly avoid overhearing the conversation which sprang into life the moment my back was turned ——
“My lord Billy-be-damd,” remarked Mosey. “Wonder why the (sheol) he ain’t at Runnymede to-night, doin’ the amiable with Mother Bodysark. Bright pair, them two.”
“Would n’t trust him as fur’s I could sling him,” said Dixon. “Too thick with the (adj.) squatters for my fancy. A man never knows what game that bloke’s up to.”
“Can’t make him out no road,” confessed Cooper. “Seems a decent, easy-goin’, God-send-Sunday sort o’ feller; but I’ll swear there’s more in his head nor a comb’ll take out.”
“He calls himself a philosopher,” murmured Thompson; “but his philosophy mostly consists in thinking he knows everything, and other people know nothing. That’s the principal point I’ve seen in him; and we’ve been acquainted since we were about that high. It was always his way.”
“Who’s this Mother Bodysark — if it’s a fair question?” asked Cooper.
“Mrs. Beaudesart,” corrected Thompson. “She’s a widow woman — sort of forty-second cousin to Mrs. Montgomery, and housekeeper at the station. I never heard of anybody grudging her to Collins.”
“Between ourselves, Thompson,” remarked Willoughby, “his conversation this afternoon rather amused me. It recalled to my mind an excellent and most characteristic pleasantry, which you may not have heard. The story goes that Coleridge once asked Lamb, ‘Did you ever hear me preach?’ ‘Preach!’ said Lamb; ‘Gad, I never heard you do anything else!’ And yet, if Mr. Collins had enjoyed the advantages accruing from even the rudiments of a liberal ed” ——
“He’s got summick to do with Gub’ment lately,” said Price cunningly.
“My ’pinion, he’s shadderin’ summedy.”
“He ain’t a gurl o’ that sort,” interposed Bum hastily. “My ’pinion, he’s a spieler. No more a detective nor I am.”
I returned to the group. My friends drained their pannikins; Thompson threw his at the tucker-box, and Cooper was just aiming his, when Willoughby, who had shared the frosted mutton, interposed — —
“If you please, Cooper.”
“Seen better days, pore (fellow),” observed Cooper sympathetically, as the ripple of the water into the pannikin indicated that the whaler was at the tap.
“Can’t see much worse,” mused Thompson.
“My (adj.) oath — can’t he?” chuckled Mosey. “Hold on till he gits old.”
“People seem to think Gawd made these here colonies for a rubbage-heap,” said Bum. “That’s the English idear of” ——
“Stiddy, Charley,” interrupted Dixon. “Everybody’s got a right to live, an’ that pore (fellow)’s got jist as much right as me or you. A man ought to show respect to misforcune, Charley.”
“Shall I bring a pannikin of water for any of you gentlemen?” asked Willoughby, without a trace of ironical emphasis on the last word.
“Fetch me one while yer hand’s in,” replied Bum
Willoughby brought the drink. I fancied even an accession to the subdued suavity of his manner as he picked up and replaced on the tuckerbox the empty pannikin which Bum had thanklessly tossed on the ground at his feet. Then he resumed his place; and Thompson, palpably turning his back on Dixon and Bum, selected him as chief hearer of his recommenced discourse ——
“Comes as near the blackfellow as it’s possible for a white man to get. And you couldn’t kill him with an axe. Then start him at any civilised work — such as splicing a loop on a wool rope, or making a yoke, or wedging a loose box in a wheel — and he has the best hands in the country. At the same time, it’s plain to be seen that he has been brought up in the class of society that sticks a napkin, in a bone ring, alongside your plate at dinner.” Here Thompson paused, and the recurrence of some distressing memory elicited a half-suppressed sigh.
“There is nothing unreasonable in that phenomenon,” remarked Willoughby — “rather the reverse. Probably the person you speak of is a gentleman. Now, the man who is a gentleman by birth and culture — by which I mean a man of good family, who has not only gone through the curriculum of a university, but has graduated, so to speak, in society — such a one has every advantage in any conceivable situation. The records of military enterprise, exploration, pioneering, and so forth, furnish abundant evidence of this very obvious fact. You will find, I think, that high breeding and training are conditions of superiority in the human as well as in the equine and canine races; pedigree being, of course, the primary desideratum. Non generant aquilae columbas, we say.”
“Don’t run away with the idear that nobody knows who Columbus was,” retorted Bum. “He discovered America — or else my readin’s did me (adj.) little good.”
“More power to yer (adj.) elbow, Bum,” said Mosey approvingly. “But, gentleman or no gentleman, if a feller ain’t propped up with cash, this country’ll (adj.) quick fetch him to his proper (adj.) level.”
“Pardon me if I differ from you, Mosey,” replied Willoughby blandly. “A few months ago, I travelled the Lachlan with a man fitted by birth and culture to be a leader of society; one whose rightful place would be at least in the front rank of your Australian aristocracy. How do you account for such a man being reduced to solicit the demd pannikin of flour?”
“Easy,” retorted the sansculotte: “the duke had jist settled down to his proper (adj.) level — like the bloke you’ll see in the bottom of a new pannikin when you’re drinkin’ out of it.”
“Mosey,” said Cooper impressively; “if I git up off o’ this blanket, I’ll kick” — (I did n’t catch the rest of the sentence). “Give us none o’ your (adj.) Port Phillip ignorance here.”
“You can git a drink o’ good water in ole Vic., anyhow,” sneered Mosey, with the usual flowers of speech.
“An’ that’s about all you can git,” muttered Cooper, faithfully following the same ornate style of diction.
“Now, Mosey,” said Willoughby, courteously but tenaciously, “will you permit me to enumerate a few gentlemen — gentlemen, remember — who have exhibited in a marked degree the qualities of the pioneer. Let us begin with those men of whom you Victorians are so justly proud, — Burke and Wills. Then you have ——”
“Hold on, hold on,” interrupted Mosey. “Don’t go no furder, for Gossake. Yer knockin’ yerself bad, an’ you don’t know it. Wills was a pore harmless weed, so he kin pass; but look’ere — there ain’t a drover, nor yet a bullock driver, nor yet a stock-keeper, from ’ere to ’ell that could n’t ’a’ bossed that expegition straight through to the Gulf, an’ back agen, an’ never turned a hair — with sich a season as Burke had. Don’t sicken a man with yer Burke. He burked that expegition, right enough. ‘’Howlt! Dis-MOUNT!’ Grand style o’ man for sich a contract! I tell you, that (explorer) died for want of his sherry an’ biscakes. Why, the ole man, here, seen him out beyond Menindie, with his ——”
“Pardon me, Mosey — was Mr. Price connected with the expedition?”
“No (adj.) fear!” growled Price resentfully. “Jist happened to be there with the (adj.) teams. Went up with stores, an’ come down with wool.”
Willoughby, who probably had wept over the sufferings of Burke’s party on their way to Menindie, seemed badly nonplussed. He murmured acquiescence in Price’s authority; and Mosey continued,
“Well, the ole man, here, seen him camped, with his carpet, an’ his bedsteed, an’ (sheol) knows what paravinalia; an’ a man nothin’ to do but wait on him; an’ — look here! — a cubbard made to fit one o’ the camels, with compartments for his swell toggery, an’ — as true as I’m a livin’ sinner! — one o’ the compartments made distinctly o’ purpose to hold his belltopper!”
“Quite so,” replied Willoughby approvingly. “We must bear in mind that Burke had a position to uphold in the party; and that, to maintain subordination, a commander must differentiate himself by” ——
“It’s Gord’s truth, anyhow,” remarked Price, rousing his mind from a retrospect of its extensive past. And, no doubt, the old man was right; for a relic, answering to Mosey’s description, was sold by auction in Melbourne, with other assets of the expedition, upon Brahe’s return.
“They give him a lot o’ credit for dyin’ in the open,” continued the practical little wretch, with masterly handling of expletive — “but I want to know what else a feller like him could do, when there was no git out? An’ you’ll see in Melb’n’, there, a statue of him, made o’ cast steel, or concrete, or somethin’, standin’ as bold as brass in the middle o’ the street! My word! An’ all the thousands o’ pore beggars that’s died o’ thirst an’ hardship in the back country — all o’ them a dash sight better men nor Burke knowed how to be — where’s theyre statutes? Don’t talk rubbage to me. Why, there was no end to that feller’s childishness. Before he leaves Bray at Cooper’s Creek, he drors out — what do you think? — well, he drors out a plan o’ forti — (adj.) — fications, like they got in ole wore-out countries; an’ Bray had to keep his fellers workin’ an’ cursin’ at this thing till the time come for them to clear. An’ mind you, this was among the tamest blackfellers in the world. Why, Burke was dotin’. Wants a young feller, with some life in him, for to boss a expegition; an’ on top o’ Burke’s swellishness an’ uselessness, dash me if he wasn’t forty!”
“Well, no; he war n’t too old, Mosey,” interposed Price deprecatingly. “Wants a experienced man fer sich work. Same time, you could n’t best Burke fer a counterfit.”
“Sing’lar thing, you’ll never hear one good word o’ that man,” observed Cooper.
“Different from all the other explorers. Can’t account for it, no road.”
“Another singular thing is that you’ll never read a word against him,” added Thompson. “In conversation, you’ll always learn that Burke never did a thing worth doing or said a thing worth saying; and that his management of that expedition would have disgraced a new-chum schoolboy; and old Victorian policemen will tell you that he left the force with the name of a bully and a snob, and a man of the smallest brains. Wonder why these things never get into print.”
“De mortuis nil nisi bonum is an excellent maxim, Thompson,” remarked Willoughby.
“It is that,” retorted Mosey. “Divil a fear but they’ll nicely bone anythin’ in the shape o’ credit. Toffs is no slouches at barrickin’ for theyre own push. An’ I’ll tell you another dash good maximum, — it’s to keep off of weltin’ a dyin’ man.”
“Did you ever read Burke’s Diary, Willoughby?” asked Thompson. “It’s just two or three pages of the foolishest trash that any man ever lost time in writing; and I’m afraid it’s about a fair sample of Burke. I wish you could talk to some fellows that I know — Barefooted Bob, for instance. Now, there’s a man that was never known to say a thing that he was n’t sure of; and he’s been all over the country that Burke was over, and heard all that is to be known of the expedition. And Bob’s a man that goes with his eyes open. I wish you could talk to him. Lots of information in the back country that never gets down here into civilisation .”
“There is a certain justice in Mosey’s contention,” I remarked, addressing Willoughby. “He argues that, as Burke, by dying of hardship, earned himself a statue, so Brown, Jones, and Robinson — whose souls, we trust, are in a less torrid climate than their unburied bones — should, in bare justice, have similar post-obituary recognition. For Burke’s sake, of course, the comparison in value of service had better not be entered on. Mosey would have our cities resemble ancient Athens in respect of having more public statues than living citizens.”
“Your allusion to Athens is singularly happy,” replied the whaler; “but you will remember that the Athenians were, in many respects, as exclusive as ourselves. The impassable chasm which separates your illustrious explorer from Brown, Jones, and Robinson, existed also in Athens, though, perhaps, not so jealously guarded. But let us change the subject.”
“Yes; do,” said Cooper cordially. “I hate argyin’. Fust go off, it’s all friendly; — ‘Yes, my good man.’ — ‘No, my dear feller.’ — ‘Don’t run away with that idear.’ — ‘You’re puttin’ the boot on the wrong foot.’ — ‘You got the wrong pig by the tail.’ — an’ so on, as sweet as sugar. But by-’n’-by it’s, ‘To (sheol) with you for a (adj.) fool!’ — ‘You’re a (adj.) liar!’ — ‘Who the (adj. sheol) do you think you’re talking to?’ — an’ one word fetchin’ on another till it grows into a sort o’ unpleasantness.”
“Hear anything of Bob and Bat lately?” asked Thompson, after a pause.
“Both gone to have a confab with Burke; an’ good enough for the likes o’ them,” replied Mosey. “Them sort o’ varmin’s the curse o’ the country. I ain’t a very honorable sort, myself, but I’d go on one feed every two days before I’d come as low as them. Well, couple or three year ago, you know, ole M’Gregor he sent the (adj.) skunks out with cattle to some new country, a hundred mile beyond (sheol); an’ between hardship, an’ bad tucker, an’ bad conscience, they both pegged out. So a feller from the Diamantinar told me a fortnit ago.”
“Smart fellows in their way,” remarked Thompson. “I don’t bear them any malice, though they rounded me up twice, and made me fork out each time.”
“Boolka horse-paddick?” suggested Mosey. “They grabbed us there once, an’ it was touch-an’-go another time. But the place is worth a bit o’ risk.”
“No; both times it was on Wo-Winya, on the Deniliquin side,” replied Thompson. “First time was about nine years ago. Bob and Bat were dummying on the station at the time, and looking after the Skeleton paddock. Flash young fellers they were then. Cunningham and I worked on that paddock one night, as usual, coming up empty from the Murray. Of course, we were out in the morning at grey daylight, but it was a bit foggy, and instead of finding the bullocks, we found Bob and Bat cantering round, looking for them. Cunningham and I separated, and so did the other two; and the four of us spent the liveliest half-hour you could wish for; chasing, and crossing, and meeting one another in all directions, and not a word spoken, and not a hoof to be seen. At last the fog lifted a bit, and Cunningham spotted cattle in a timbered swamp, but Bat was between him and them; so he circled round gently, and was edging up to get a good start when Bat took the alarm, and saw the cattle; then it was neck-or-nothing with them for possession. Bob and I happened to be in sight and when we saw our mates go off on the jump, we both went for the same spot. Cunningham beat Bat by a few lengths, and got possession; but when I got within a quarter of a mile, I saw there was only part of our lot there. Just then I saw Bob turn his horse, and race straight toward me; and when I looked in the direction he was going, I saw more cattle. I went for them with a clear start of a hundred yards, and would have won easy, only that I saw they were station cattle; and at the same time I caught sight of another little lot in a hollow to the left, and Bat travelling for them. I slewed round, and gave him a gallop for it, but he won by fifty yards. However, there was only five of our lot in the little mob. There was thirteen wanted still; and Bob had possession of them among the station cattle. So they got eighteen altogether, and we only got sixteen, after running the legs off our horses.”
“Port Phillip,” observed Cooper pointedly.
“Another time, going on for three years ago,” continued Thompson, “Bob had me as cheap as dirt for the whole twenty, while Bat snapped Potter’s horses the same night. That was on Wo-Winya again — shortly before M’Gregor sold the station to Stoddart, and just before the two of them were sent out to the Diamantina” ——
“M’Gregor and Stoddart, of course?” I gently suggested.
“Yes, Tom; I thought I made that clear.”
“So you did, Steve. I beg pardon.”
“Don’t mention it, Tom.”
True friendship lay underneath this severity, for when Thompson got started on his reminiscences, he was apt to continue indefinitely, to the ruin of his own dignity.
“But why this solicitude and panic over being detected in trifling trespass?” asked Willoughby. “Like most things in this country, it appears to be purely a matter of £ s. d. Now, I have taken the liberty of totting up, in my own mind, some of your earnings. Will Thompson permit me to take his case as an illustration? I find, Thompson, that the tariff of your wool is exactly sevenpence half-penny per ton per mile. You have eight tons on your wagon at the present time. This will give you five shillings for each mile you travel. You have travelled ten miles to-day” ——
“Sabbath day’s journey,” sighed Thompson.
—— “that is two pounds ten. Now, — all things considered — an occasional penalty of, say, one pound, appears to me by no means ruinous. It is not to be mentioned in comparison with other losses which you have been unfortunate enough to sustain, yet it appears to be your chief grievance.”
“Yes; that’s one way of looking at it,” muttered Thompson, after a pause. The other fellows were silently and futilely wrestling with the apparent anomaly. A metaphysical question keeps slipping away from the grasp of the bullock driver’s mind like a wet melon-seed.
[Yet the solution is simple. The up-country man is decidedly openhanded; he will submit to crushing losses with cheerfulness, tempered, of course, by humility in those cases where he recognises the operation of an overhanging curse; he will subscribe to any good or bad cause with a liberality excelled only by the digger; he will pay gambling debts with the easy, careless grace which makes every P. of W. so popular in English sporting circles — in a word, the smallest of his many sins is parsimony. But the penal suggestiveness of trespass — penalty touches the sullen dignity of his nature; and the vague, but well-grounded fear of a law made and administered solely by his natural enemies makes him feel about as apprehensive as John Bunyan, though certainly more dangerous. Of course, Willoughby, born and bred a member of the governing class, could n’t easily conceive the dismay with which these outlaws regarded legal seizure for trespass — or possibly prosecution in courts dominated by squatters.]
“I knows wun respectable man with two teams wot’s seed the time he’d emp’y a double-barr’ll gun on them two fellers jis’ same’s if they was wild dogs,” remarked Price ominously. “I happen ter mind me o’ wun time this man hed ter fetch hees las’ wool right on ter Deniliquin, f’m Hay, f’r two-five hextry, ’count o’ there bein’ no river that season. An’ that man ’e war shaddered hevery day acrost Wo-Winyar, an’ hees bullicks collared hevery night with Bob or Bat; an’ them bullicks har’ly fit ter crawl with fair poverty. Dirty! W’y, Chows ain’t in it with them varmin f’r dirtiness.” Here followed a steady torrent of red vituperation, showing that Price took a strong personal interest in the respectable man with the two teams.
“To my (adj.) knowledge, they dummied land for ole M’Gregor, an’ never got a cent for it,” remarked Dixon. “Same time, I got nothin’ to say agen ’em, for they never got a slant to snavel my lot. Brothers — ain’t they?”
“No (adj.) fear,” replied Mosey. “You never seen brothers hangin’ together like them chaps. I know some drovers that’s been prayin’ for theyre (adj.) souls every night for years, on account o’ the way they used to rush travellin’ stock across M’Gregor’s runs. Whenever there was dirty work to be did, them two blokes was on hand to do it. An’ I got it on good authority that they chanced three years chokey for perjury, when they was dummyin’ for M’Gregor; an’ all they got for it was the fright hangin’ over them. A man should n’t make a dog of his self without he’s well paid for it. That’s my (adj.) religion.”
“So far as dummying is concerned.” said I; “no one except their Maker and M’Gregor knows how the thing was worked. But if they had owned all the land they secured for M’Gregor, by perjury, and personation, and straightforward dummyism, they would have been little squatters themselves. At the same time, they were true-hearted, kindly, unselfish men, according to their uncertain light; and in all probability they’re gone to heaven. Such is life, boys.”
“Anyhow, they ain’t goin’ to trouble us no furder,” rejoined Mosey complacently. “Theyre toes is turned up. Lis’n! — that’s the sound I like to hear!” The sound was the deep, heavy sough of a contented bullock, as he lay down with a couple of days’ rations in his capacious first stomach.
“Grass is generally a burning question with you teamsters,” observed Willoughby.
“I never make no insinuations, myself,” replied Dixon coldly.
“Good!” interjected Mosey. “If you was inclined that road, you might say the carrier’s got as much interest in the grass as a squatter. It’s the traveller as don’t give a (compound expletive) if the whole country’s as black as Ole Nick’s soot-brush.”
“Well, I s’pose that’s about a fair thing for to-night,” remarked Cooper; and he pulled off his boots, preparatory to wrapping himself in his blanket. “Time to vong tong cooshey, as the Frenchman says. Must n’t oversleep in the mornin’, if the place is ever so safe.”
Tom Collins [Joseph Furphy]. Such is Life, The Bulletin Newspaper Company, Sydney, 1903