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

[Editor: This is the third part of Chapter Three of the novel Such is Life by Tom Collins (Joseph Furphy). A glossary has been provided to explain various words and phrases that may be unfamiliar to modern readers.]

Approaching the house, I judged by the style of window curtains that the light was in a bedroom. I made my way to the front door, and knocked.

“Who’s there?” inquired a discouraging soprano.

“A most poor man, made tame by Fortune’s blows,” I replied humbly.

“Is the boss at home?”

“Yes!” she exclaimed, in a hysterical tone.

“Would you be kind enough to tell him I want him?”

“Clear off, or it’ll be worse for you!” she screamed.

“It can’t be much worse, ma’am. Will you please tell the boss I want him?”

“I’ll let the dog loose! — that’s what I’ll do! I got him here in the room with me; and he’s savage!”

“No more so than yourself, ma’am. Will you please tell the boss I want him?”

“Clear off this minute! There’s plenty of your sort knockin’ about!”

“Heaven pity them, then,” I murmured sorrowfully; and I went round to the back yard, in hope of finding something on the clothes-line, but it was only labour lost.

I was on my way back to the road when I saw another lighted window. The reason I had seen so few lights was simple enough. As a rule, farmers’ families spend their evenings in the back dining room; and the front of the house remains dark until they are retiring for the night, when you may see the front bedroom window lighted for a few minutes.

Turning toward the new beacon, I waded through a quarter of a mile of tall wheat, which occasionally eclipsed the light. When I emerged from the wheat, the light was gone. However, I found the house, and went prowling round the back yard till I roused two watch-dogs. These faithful animals fraternised with Pup, while I prospected the premises thoroughly, but without finding even an empty corn-sack, or a dry barrel with both ends out.

In making my way back to the road, I noticed, far away in the river timber, the red light of a camp-fire. This was the best sight I had seen since sunset. Some swagman’s camp, beyond doubt. I could safely count on the occupier’s hospitality for the night, and his help in the morning. If he had any spare ——, I would borrow them; if not, I would, first thing in the morning, send him cadging round the neighbourhood for cast-off clothes, while I sought ease-with-dignity in his blanket. This was not too much to count on; for I have yet to find the churlish or unfeeling swagman; whereas, my late experience of the respectable classes had not been satisfactory. At all events, the fire would give me respite from the mosquitos.

Encouraged by this brightening prospect, I crossed the road and entered on the heavy timber and broken ground of the river frontage. But all preceding difficulties, in comparison with those which now confronted me, were as the Greek Tartarus to the Hebrew Tophet. So intense was the darkness in the bush that I simply saw nothing except, at irregular intervals, the spark of red fire, often away to right or left, when I had lost my dead reckoning through groping round the slimy, rotten margins of deep lagoons, or creeping like a native bear over fallen timber, or tacking round clumps of prickly scrub, or tumbling into billabongs. I could show you the place in daylight, and you would say it was one of the worst spots on the river.

Still, in pursuance of my custom, I endeavoured to find tongues in the mosquitos (no difficult matter); books in the patches of cutting-grass; sermons in the Scotch thistles; and good in everything. Light and Darkness! — aptest of metaphors! And see how the symbolism permeates our language, from the loftiest poetry to the most trifling colloquialism. “There is no darkness but ignorance,” says the pleasantest of stage fools; “in which thou art more puzzled than the Egyptians in their fog.” And what many-languaged millions of passably brave men have sympathised with Ajax in his prayer — not for courage or strength; he had those already — not for victory; that was outside the province of his interference — but for light to see what he was doing.

No obligatory track so rugged but man, if he be any good at all, may travel it with reasonable safety, in a glimmer of light. And no available track so easy but man, however capable, will blunder therein, if he walks in darkness; nay, the more resolute and conscientious he is, the more certainly will he stub his big toe on a root, and impale his open, unseeing eye on a dead twig, and tread on nothing, to the kinking of his neck-bone and the sudden alarm of his mind.

And Light, which ought to spread with precisely the rapidity of thought, is tardy enough, owing solely to lack of receptivity in its only known medium, namely, the human subject. But — and here is the old-man fact of the ages — Light is inherently dynamic, not static; active, not passive: aggressive, not defensive. Therefore, as twice one is two, the momentum of Light, having overborne the Conservatism of the Paleolithic, Neolithic, and other unpronounceable ages, has, in this 19th century, produced a distinct paling of the stars, with an opaline tint in the east. And, as a penny for the first nail, twopence for the second, fourpence for the third, and so on, amounts to something like a million sterling for the set of horse-shoes, so the faint suggestion of dawn observable in our day cannot do otherwise than multiply itself into sunshine yet. Meantime, happy insect is he whose luminosity dispels a modicum of the general darkness, besides shedding light on his own path as he buzzes along in philosophic meditation, fancy free ——

Here I trod on something about as thick as your wrist — something round and smooth, which jerked and wriggled as my weight came upon it. I rose fully three feet into the air without conscious effort, and thenceforth pursued my difficult way with a subjective discontent which, I fear, did little honour to my philosophy; thinking, to confess the truth, what an advantage it would be if man, figuratively a mopoke, could become one in reality when all the advantage lay in that direction; also, feeling prepared to wager my official dignity against a pair of —— that Longfellow would never have apostrophised the welcome, the thrice-prayed-for, the most fair, the best-beloved Night, if he had known what it was to work his passage through pitch-black purgatory, in a state of paradise — nudity, with the incongruity of the association pressing on his mind. Ignorance again; but such is life.

It was about three-quarters of a mile from the edge of the timber to the fire; and I should think it took me an hour to perform the journey. It was a deserted fire, after all, and nearly burnt out; but I soon raised a good smoke, and had relief from the mosquitos. The passage from the road had given me enough of exploring for the time; so I parted the fire into three lots, and, piling bark and rubbish on each, lay down between them, to enjoy a good rest, and think the thing over thoroughly.

It may surprise the inexperienced reader to know that I had often before found myself in a similar state of nature, and in far more prominent situations. I had repeatedly found myself doing the block, or stalking down the aisle of a crowded church, mid nodings on, and had wakened up to find the unsubstantial pageant faded, and my own conspicuousness exchanged for a happier obscurity. So, throughout the trying incidents of the evening I have recalled, the hope of waking up had never been entirely absent from my mind; and now, as I lay drowsing, with Pup beside me, and not a mosquito within three yards, it occurred to me that if I did n’t get out of the difficulty by waking up, I would get out of it some other way. Philosophy whispered that all earth-born cares were not only wrong, but unprofitable. Though I had inadvertently switched my little engine on to the wrong line when I postponed my intended smoke, and had so lost the clothes which evidently went so far toward making the man, it would be true wisdom to accept the consequent kismet, and wait till the clouds rolled by. The end of the section could n’t be far ahead. Sufficient unto the day —— And I dropped asleep.

Here the record properly ends. I have faithfully recounted the events of the 9th of November, at what cost to my own sensibilities none but myself can ever know. But the one foible of my life is amiability; and, from the first, I had no intention of breaking off abruptly when my promise was fulfilled, leaving the reader to conclude that I woke up at my camp, and found the whole thing a dream. The dream expedient is the mere romancist’s transparent shift — and he is fortunate in always having one at command, though transparency should, of course, be avoided. The dream-expedient vies in puerility with the hero’s rescue of the heroine from deadly peril — a thing that has actually happened about twice since the happily-named, and no less happily extinct, Helladotherium disported itself on the future site of Eden. I am no romancist. I repudiate shifts, and stand or fall by the naked truth.

Therefore, though legal risk here takes the place of outraged sensibility, I shall proceed with the record of the next day, till my loco. reaches the end of the current section. By this large-hearted order of another herring, the foolish reader will be instructed, the integrity of narrative preserved, and the linked sacrifice long drawn-out. And if, in the writing of annotations yet to come, the exigencies of annalism should demand a repetition of this rather important favour, I may be trusted to grant it without fishing for compliments, or in any way reminding the recipient of his moral indebtedness. I can’t say anything fairer than that.

It was good daylight when I woke, a little chilled and smarting, but otherwise nothing the worse. Let me endeavour to describe the scene which I stealthily, but carefully, surveyed during the next few minutes. The Victorian river road, running east and west, lay about three-quarters of a mile to the south. North and west, I could see nothing but heavy timber and undergrowth. The eastern prospect was more interesting. Within twenty yards of my lair, a long, deep lagoon lay north and south, the intervening ground being covered with whipstick scrub. Beyond the lagoon, a large promontory of red soil, partly cultivated and partly ringed, projected northward from the road into the State Forest. Beyond this, still eastward, the river timber again came out to the road.

A roomy homestead, with smoke issuing from one of the chimneys, stood almost opposite my point of observation, and about a hundred yards distant, whilst a garden occupied the space between the house and the lagoon. At the north side of the garden, the lagoon was divided by a dry isthmus. The nearer boundary fence of the farm, half-buried in whipstick scrub, ran north and south along the edge of the lagoon, the lower line of garden-fence forming part of it; and a gate opposite the isthmus afforded egress to the river frontage.

Again, opposite my fire, but considerably to the right, a deep, waterworn drain came down from the table land into the lagoon; and between this drain and the house stood a little, old, sooty-looking straw-stack, worn away with the Duke-of-Argyle friction of cattle to the similitude of a monstrous, black-topped mushroom. The stack was situated close to the drain, something over a hundred yards from the house, and about the same distance from my camp. The paddock intersected by the drain was bare fallow — that is, land ploughed in readiness for the next year’s sowing. There were several other old straw-stacks on different parts of the farm, but they have nothing to do with this record.

Away beyond the farm, two or three miles up the main road, and just to the right of the river timber, I recognised the F——’s Arms Hotel. B——’s place lay beyond, and to the right, but shut out of view by a paddock of green timber. The sight of the pub. — a white speck in the distance — suggested to my mind an expedient, which, however, I had to dismiss.

We read that Napoleon Bonaparte, on the eve of signing his first abdication, walked restlessly about, with his hands behind his back, muttering, “If I only had a hundred thousand men!” Similarly, as I contemplated that pub., I muttered, “If I only had a handful of corks!” Ay, if! My prototype wanted the men to abet him in maintaining his Imperial dignity, whilst I wanted the corks to assist me in carrying-out an enterprise attempted by a good many people, from Smerdis to Perkin Warbeck, namely, the personation of Royalty. Something similar, you see, even apart from the fact that neither of us found any truth in Touchstone’s statement, that “there is much virtue in an ‘if’.”

Nice customs curtsey to great kings. Jacky XLVIII, under whose mild sway I have spent many peaceful years, wears clothes exactly when it suits his comfort. When his royal pleasure is to emulate the lilies of the field, he simply goes that way; thus literally excelling Solomon in all his glory. The Evolution of Intelligence has stripped him of every other prerogative; but there its stripping-power ends, and his own begins. European monarchs will do well to paste a memorandum of this inside their diadems, for, let them paint an inch thick, to this favour they must come at last. Howevers that is their business. My own Royal master can still do no wrong in arraying himself in any one of his three changes of attire — the put-on, the take-off, or the go-naked — and if I could only counterfeit his colour for a few hours, I would stalk majestically to my camp, caparisoned in the last-named regalia, and protected by the divinity that doth hedge a king. But I had no corks.

The homestead was cheerful with voices which reached my ambush clearly, though unintelligibly, through the still morning air. At last I saw a woman advance toward the edge of the fallow, and stand for a minute facing the direction of the old straw-stack; then she looked over her shoulder toward the house, and called out,

“Can any of you see Jim comin’ with that horse? Father’ll be ready in a minute, and then there’ll be ructions.”

A little boy climbed the garden fence, and stood on the corner post.

“Not comin’ yet, Mam.”

Mam went back to the house, and the boy followed her. Here was my opportunity. The topography of the place was so perfectly suited to the simplest plan of campaign that it may suggest to the suspicious reader a romancist’s shift, diaphanous as the “woven wind” of Dacca. Let me repeat, then, that such a flimsy thing is entirely out of my line, and would have been so even at that time.

Availing myself of the abundant cover of whipstick scrub, I made my way down to the lagoon, swam silently across, darted along the drain in a stooping position, till I could “moon” the house with the old stack, and finally took my post in a convenient recess on the side of the stack farthest from the house. Sure enough, there was a cattle-track across the fallow and a culvert on the drain close to my refuge. Jim would soon be coming down that track toward the house. And, as my unhappy condition might appear more compatible with the nature of an alien than of a Britisher, I would accost him with a slight foreign accent, state my difficulty, and ask him, pour l’amour de Dieu, to bring me a pair of his ——. My name would be Frongswaw Bongjoor.

I sat down with my back against the stack to recover breath, for already Jim was in sight, approaching at an easy gallop, and in two minutes was within fifty yards. Then hope for a season bade the world farewell, and a cold shiver ran down my spine. Horror-stricken, but without moving from my niche, I desperately tore down handfuls of Irish feathers from the overhanging eave, to form a sort of screen; for “Jim” was a magnificent young woman, riding barebacked, á la clothes-peg; the fine contour of her figure displayed with an amazonian audacity which seemed to make her nearly as horrid as myself. My brow was wet with honest sweat whilst, from the poor concealment already described, I watched her swing the horse aside from the culvert, and send him at the drain: and, with that danger-begotten fascination by trifles which, in situations like mine, you must often have experienced, I noticed her pliant waist spring in easy undulation to the horse’s flying leap. And so, with that thick cable of platted hair flapping and surging down her back, she vanished from the scene. She was a phantom of delight, when first she gleamed upon my sight; but the revulsion of feeling was one of the quickest and fullest I ever experienced.

It was some minutes before I became my own philosophic self again. Then I crept to the corner of the stack, and reconnoitred the homestead. Near the back-door, Jim had just saddled the horse, and, with the near flap resting on her head, was taking up the slack of the girth with her teeth, whilst her left hand, grasping the rein close to the horse’s mouth, prevented the animal from taking a piece out of her. Presently Dad trotted out of the house and took possession of the horse, while she stepped back a pace. Then she seemed to say something of great pith and moment, for Dad paused, evidently questioning her. At last he returned hastily into the house, leaving the horse again in her charge.

I made an effort to concentrate my remnant of faith on a double event, namely, that he would n’t delay long, and that he would come my way when he started. He, at least, was a man and a brother. I would interview him as he passed, and ——

Faith scored. He didn’t delay long, and he came my way straight. But he came on foot, and he came with a gun; speaking over his shoulder to Jim as he bustled past. Even in the distance, I fancied her attitude was that of a girl who had imprudently set in motion a thing that she was powerless to stop.

I could n’t believe in the reality of the spectacle. But the illusion was there, palpable enough; and it consisted chiefly of a determined-looking man hurrying toward the stack, his right hand on the lock of a long duck gun, his left partly along the barrel, and the cheek of the stock resting against his hip. Beyond doubt he was after something, and beyond doubt he meant mischief. I glanced behind me, and round the expanse of bare fallow, but there was n’t even a magpie in sight. At the same time, the sportsman’s general bearing, his depressed head and downward vigilance, showed that he was stalking ground game, and was n’t interested in anything perched on the stack. This was apparent to me by the time he had got within thirty or forty yards, and was holding the gun ready to clap to his shoulder. Also I noticed that several other women had joined Jim, and were watching his progress. Having now approached within point-blank range, he deployed to the left, in order to outflank whatever he was after.

Of course, you would have rushed him; you would have wrenched the gun from his grasp, and broken it across your knee; you would have despoiled him of his ——, and cuffed him home with ignominy. Yes, I know. So would I.

What I actually did, however, was to make two kangaroo-rat springs, which landed me in the bottom of the drain. I called to mind that, less than half-way down to the lagoon, I had noticed a deep, narrow, miniature ravine, eaten into one side of the drain by a tributary channel, and well sheltered by the foliage of large docks, now run up to seed. In thirty seconds, I was rustling into this friendly cover. There my confidence speedily returned, and, raising my head among the seeding stems, I noted the guerilla tactics of that white savage.

Still holding his weapon at the ready, he had circled round the stack till his view commanded all its recesses. Then he looked up and down the drain, peered under the culvert, and cast his eye across the fallow in every direction. Apparently satisfied, he threw the gun on his shoulder, and started off toward the lower end of the garden. I saw him disappear in the whipstick scrub, between the garden and the lagoon; then I backed out into the drain.

But I could gain nothing by staying there, and just as little by going back to my camp; whereas from the stack I could see any advantage that might offer itself, either about the house or across the lagoon. And, logically, the stack ought now to be one of the safest places in the province. So I returned to my old post, and, almost hopelessly, brought one eye to bear on the homestead.

I was just in time to catch occasional glimpses of Dad’s head above the foliage of the fruit trees, as he rode down along the farther side of the garden to the dry crossing in the lagoon; and presently I saw him go up the opposite bank, and disappear in the scrub. Another instance of erratic shunting on my part. If I had stayed at my camp, I might have accosted him on neutral ground, without his gun, and with his mind unpoisoned by any of Jim’s hysterical imaginings. What on earth had she told him about me? She had certainly told him something.

Just at this moment, the sun, which had risen behind a dense bank of clouds, suddenly burst forth. The colourless monotony of the scene flashed into many-tinted loveliness under the magic pencils of golden light; and, against the sombre background of river timber, a pair of white ——, hanging, with other drapery, on a line between the house and garden, leaped out in ravishing chiaro-oscuro!

A lifelong education, directing the inherent loyalty of human nature, invests anything in the shape of national or associational bunting with a sacredness difficult to express in words. Loyalty to something is an ingredient in our moral constitution; and the more vague the object, the more rabid will be our devotion to the symbol. Any badge is good enough to adore, provided the worshipper has in some way identified the fetish with himself — anything, from the standard of St. George to the “forky pennon” of Lord Marmion; from the Star-spangled Banner to the Three Legs of the Isle of Man.

Now, with insignia, as with everything else, it is deprivation only that gives a true sense of value; and, speaking from experience, I maintain that even the British Flag, which covers fabulous millions of our fellow-worms, dwindles into parochial insignificance beside that forky pennon on the farmer’s clothes-line, which latter covers, in a far more essential manner, one-half of civilised humanity. Rightly viewed, I say, that double-barrelled ensign is the proudest gonfalon ever kissed by wanton zephyrs. Whoop! Vive Les ——! Thou sun, shine on them joyously! Ye breezes, waft them wide! Our glorious Semper eadem, the banner of our pride.

There was no time to lose. The bifurcated banner might be taken into the house at any moment. In the meantime, several sharp-eyed women were unwittingly maintaining a sort of dog-in-the-manger guard over their alien flag. The —— to him who can wear them, thought I. I must give this garrison an alerte, though I should have to sacrifice the old straw-stack. ’Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes between the pass and fell incensed points of mighty opposites: the old straw-stack is the baser nature; the mighty opposites are the meteor-flag and myself.

Few men, I think, have a healthier hatred of incendiarism than I have. This hatred dates from my eleventh year, or thereabout; when I was strongly impressed by a bush-fire which cleaned the grass off half the county. The origin of that fire still remains a mystery, though all manner of investigation was made at the time; one of the most dilligent inquirers being a boy of ten or twelve, who used to lie awake half the night, wondering what could be done to a person for trying to smoke a bandicoot out of a hollow log, without thinking of the dead grass.

But now it was a choice between the old straw-stack and my citizenship, and the former had to go. I am aware, of course, that the Law takes no cognisance of dilemmas like mine, and has no manly scruple against raking up old grievances that would be better forgotten; but, as I said before, Come on with your clue.

Embittered though I was by Abraham’s idea of hospitality, I still felt some lingering scruple as my order of battle unfolded itself in detail. Every great operation, as well as every small or middle-sized one, consists of details, as a circle consists of degrees; and the person responsible for the grand enterprise must unavoidably be responsible for its most uninviting detail. The details of a death-penalty, for instance, are revolting enough; and here you must judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment. You must perceive that the white hands of the ultra-respectable judge are the hands which reeve the noose; which adjust the same round the neck of the man (or woman); which pull down the night-cap; which manipulate the lever; and which, if necessary, grip the other person’s ankles, and hang on till he is dead-dead-dead and the Lord has mercy on his soul. It is as unreasonable to despise M. de Melbourne, or M. de Sydney, for his little share in a scragging operation as it would be to heap contumely on comp. or devil because of this somewhat offensive paragraph.

Having, in the present instance, no subordinate to carry out my details, I realised their unpleasantness, even whilst speciously justifying the enterprise as a whole. Further provocation was required to overcome my aversion to the dirty work; and this provocation was forthcoming in ample measure.

I had withdrawn from the corner of the stack into my nook, to lay a few plans, and to hastily review the ethics of the matter; now I crept back to feast my eyes once more on the ——, before making my coup-de-clothesline. But another object met my sight first; and I nearly fainted. When I recovered myself, a few minutes later, I was in the lagoon. I daren’t swim across, for I would have been in full view from the stack. A cluster of leafy reeds, growing in two feet of water, and the same depth of slimy, bubble-charged mud, was the nearest cover; and in the midst of this I cowered, hardening my heart against society, and watching Jim herself as she tripped blithely past the end of the stack, and looked into my recess. It seemed incredible; and yet, in spite of the cold and misery and difficulty of the situation, I could n’t wake up to find myself in my possum-rug.

I always make a point of believing the best where women are concerned, and I had been prepossessed in Jim’s favour; yet it now seemed to me that if she had been worthy of her high calling, she would have brought that pair of white —— off the line, with, perhaps, a supplementary garment or so, and modestly left them in the drain, instead of thus seeking further occasion against me. She looked under the culvert, across the paddock, and toward the lagoon, as Abraham had done, then walked round the stack, and finally returned home by the lower end of the garden, even pausing to look over the picket fence, and scanning right and left as she entered the whipstick scrub.

Enough, and to spare, thought I. These barbarians have given me the sign of their Order; now let me respond with the countersign. Not without practical protest shall I die a nude fugitive on their premises; and not if I can help it shall the post-mortem people find the word —— written on my heart.

The intervening garden and whipstick scrub effectually concealed my movements from the enemy as I recrossed the lagoon, and made my way with all speed to the unfurnished lodgings I had occupied on the preceding night. There I selected a piece of thick bark, about the size of your open hand, and solid fire for half its length. I swam the lagoon with this in my teeth, and in a few minutes more had buried it in the broken, half-decayed straw at the base of the stack. Then I returned along the drain, but instead of crossing the lagoon, sneaked through the thick fringe of whipstick scrub to the lower end of the garden, and there waited for something to happen.

I had to wait a good while. The old straw-stack wasn’t in sight from my post; and I began to think I should have to get another piece of bark, when I heard a youngster’s voice squeak out,

“Oo, Mam! th’ ole straw-stack’s a-fier!”

Then followed sundry little yelps of surprise from the women; and, after giving them a start of a minute or two, I went loping round the left-hand side of the garden, and into the back yard. Before the enemy’s vanguard reached the stack, I had captured the flag that braved a thousand years, and applied it to its proper use. I also made free with another banner, which I tucked into the former. I was like the man who wrapped his colours round his breast, on a blood-red field of Spain.

Glancing into the combined kitchen and dining-room, I saw a row of wooden pegs along the wall, with several coats and hats hanging thereon I appropriated only an old wide-awake, shaped like a lamp-shade, even to the aperture at the top; and from three pairs of boots under the sofa, I chose the shabbiest. Astonished, like Clive, at my own moderation, I next rummaged all the most likely places in search of a pipe and tobacco, but without avail. I even extended my researches into the pantry, and thence into the sacred precincts of the front parlour. But the tobacco-famine raged equally everywhere. The place was a residence, but by no stretch of hyperbole could you call it a home.

The side window of the parlour looked toward the conflagration; and there I counted four women, one half-grown girl, and a little boy. Three of the women, to judge by their gestures, were laughing and joking, whilst the fourth, and most matronly, was talking to the others over her shoulder as she turned her steps toward the house.

Then I bethought myself of Dugald Dalgetty’s excellent rule respecting the provant, and re-entered the kitchen. Early though it was, the breakfast-things had been cleared away; so I took the lid off the boiler under the safe, in search of the cake which ought to be kept there. But the house was afflicted with cake-famine too. However, having no time to fool-away, and being constitutionally anything but an epicure, I just helped myself to the major part of a dipper of milk which stood on the dresser, then secured a scone and a generous section of excellent potted head from the safe.

Eating these out of my hand, I departed without ostentation; reflecting that it was better to be at the latter end of a feast than the beginning of a quarrel; and pervaded by a spirit of thankfulness which can be conceived only by those who have undergone similar tribulation, and experienced similar relief. Relief! did I say? The word is much too light for the bore of the matter.

There is a story — bearing the unmistakable earmark of a lie, and evidently not a translation from any other language — to the effect that once a British subject, in a foreign land, was taken out to be shot, just for being too good. Pinioned and blindfold, he stood with folded arms, looking with haughty unconcern down twelve rifle-barrels, all in radial alignment on his heart of oak. Twelve foreign eyes were drawing beads on the dauntless captive, and twelve foreign fingers were pressing with increasing force on the triggers, when a majestic form appeared on the scene, and, with the motion of a woman launching a quilt across a wide bed, the British Consul draped the prisoner from head to foot in the Union Jack! That’s all. The purpose of the lie is to convey the impression that it is a grand thing to be covered by the flag of Britain; but give me the forky pennon before referred to, and keep your Union Jack.

Cardinal Wolsey, you may remember, as a consequence of putting his trust in princes, found himself at last so badly treed that his robe and his integrity to heaven were all he dared now call his own. The effect was a peace above all earthly dignities. So with me, but in larger beatitude. Having my —— and my integrity to heaven, I found myself overflowing with the sunny self-reliance of the man that struck Buckley.

And before you join the hue-and-cry against the “barbarous incendiary” of the —— Express, just put yourself in my place, and you won’t fail to realise what a profitable transaction it was to get a puris naturalibus lunatic clothed and in his right mind by the sacrifice of a mere eyesore on a farm. The old straw-stack was n’t worth eighteen pence, but I would gladly have purchased its destruction with as many pounds — to be paid, say in nine monthly instalments. To be sure, it did n’t belong to me; but then, neither did the splitters’ bark. So there you are.

Crossing the dry place in the lagoon, I dived into the whipstick scrub and turned northward, intending to get across the river as soon as possible, and follow up the New South Wales side to my camp. I should have been — well, not exactly happy; having taken degrees in philosophy which place me above a state fit only for girls — I should have been without a ripple on my mirrored surface, but I was n’t. Serenely sufficient as I felt, and fit for anything, some ingredient seemed lacking in my fennel-wreathed goblet. There was a vacant chair somewhere in my microcosm. I knew I was forgetting something — but how could that be, when, in the most restricted sense of the word, I had nothing to forget?

Thus musing, I had gone through half my provant; now I turned round to give the rest to —— Ah! where was Pup? I knew he had followed me on my first journey up the drain, but I had n’t seen him since, and had been too busy to notice his absence. He would probably be at the farmhouse. I must get my clothes changed, and look after him.

It was about a mile and a half northward to the river. Before reaching it, I saw, crossing the flat in the direction of the Victorian river road, a swagman whom I recognised in the distance as my friend Andy. In casual surprise — for, as you may remember, I had last seen him on the New South Wales side, eight or ten miles away, and going in the opposite direction — I went on without exchange of greeting. Shortly afterwards, I came plump upon Abraham, sitting on his horse, and talking to a young fellow with an axe on his shoulder. I respectfully swerved aside, not wishing, in this particular case, to come under the provisions of that unsound rule which judges a man by the clothes he wears.

Presently I became aware of the jingle of a horse-bell, and the smoke of a camp-fire; and, close to the river, I found a tilted spring-cart, near which an elderly man, with tattooed arms, sat on a log, enjoying his after-breakfast smoke. Now, if I had only known this a couple of hours earlier!

After the usual civilities, I reinforced my provant by a pannikin of tea, some fried fish, and a slice off the edge of a damper which rivalled the nether millstone in more than one respect; thus assuring myself that I had attained Carlyle’s definition of a man: “An omnivorous biped that wears ——.” Meanwhile, in response to my host’s invitation to tell him what I was lagged for, I explained that I was travelling; my horses were on the other side of the river; I had come across to see a friend, had been bushed all night, and wanted to get back.

He could manage the river for me, he said. He followed fishing and duck-shooting for a living; but there was so many informers about these times that a man had to keep his weather-eye open if he wanted to use a net or a punt-gun. People needn’t be so particular, for there was ole Q—— had been warning and threatening him yesterday, and here was the two young Q——s out this morning at the skreek of daylight, falling red-gum spars to build a big shed, and the ole (man) out on horseback, picking the best saplings on the river. Ole Q—— was a J.P. His place was just across the flat, with a garden reaching down to the lagoon. Q—— himself was the two ends and the bight of a sanguinary dog.

After breakfast, the old fellow furnished me with smoking-tackle, and paddled me across the river. During the passage, for want of something else to say, I mentioned to him that I had seen Andy crossing the flat, apparently from his camp. He explained that the swagman had been on his way to a new saw-mill, the day before, but had met one of the owners, who told him the mill would n’t start till after harvest, and promised him work on the farm in the meantime. So Andy, on his return journey, had seen the outlaw’s fire in the dusk; and, after some one-sided conversation across the river, the latter had ferried him over, and entertained him for the night. I mention this merely to show with what waste of energy the so-called sundowner often hunts for work, particularly if he happens to be the victim of any physical infirmity.

On reaching the north bank, I reminded the old fellow that I wanted to return by-and-by to look after a dog I had lost when I was bushed; and he promised to bring his skiff for me when I would sing-out.

In a couple of hours I was at my camp. In another fifteen minutes I was arrayed in my best and only. Shortly afterward, my horses were equipped, and Cleopatra being in fine trim, was bucking furiously in the sand-bed where I had mounted. In an hour and a half more, I had unsaddled and hobbled both horses on a patch of good grass, nearly opposite where the spring-cart stood. My persecuted acquaintance, in response to my coo-ee, appeared with his skiff, and ferried me over. Then I hurried across the flat, to the residence of Mr. Q——. A man loses no time when such a dog as Pup is at stake.

It could n’t have been later than half-past-one when I walked up along the garden fence, and approached the door of the kitchen. A modest-looking and singularly handsome girl had just filled a bucket of water at the water-slide, and was hammering the peg into the barrel with an old pole-pin. I recognised her as Jim, and forgave her on sight.

“Good day to you, ma’am,” said I affably. “Sultry weather is n’t it? I’m looking for a big blue kangaroo dog, with a red leather collar. Answers to the name of ‘Pup’.”

She hesitated a moment. “You better see my father. He’s at dinner. Will you come this way, please.”

I followed her into the parlour. In passing through the kitchen, I noticed that dinner was over, and a second young woman — apparently the original owner of my boots — was disposing the crockery on the dresser. In the parlour, Mr. Q——, a man of overpowering dignity, redolent of the Bench, and, as I think, his age some fifty, or by’r lady inclining to threescore, was dining in solitary grandeur, waited on by young woman number three. Lucullus was dining with Lucullus.

“Good day, sir,” said I, with a respectful salaam. “Have I the honour of addressing Mr. Q——?”

“Your business, sir?” he replied, surveying me from head to foot.

“I’m looking for a dog I lost last night, or this morning; a big blue kangaroo dog, with a” —

“Are you sure he’s your dog?”

“Perfectly sure, Mr. Q——.”

“How did you come in possession of him?”

“I bought him eight months ago. Am I right in assuming that he’s on your prem” ——

“Steady, my good man. Who are you? What’s your name?”

“I must apologise for not having given my name at first. My name is Collins — of the New South Wales Civil Service. I’m Deputy-Assistant-Sub-Inspec” ——

“And what leads you to imply that I’ve got your dog?”

“Information received.”

“Leave the apartment, Naomi,” said the magistrate loftily. “Now, Mr. Collins,” he continued, pouring out a glass of wine, and holding it between his eye and the light; “I want to ask you” — he drank half the wine, set the glass on the table, and leisurely wiped his mouth with his serviette — “I want to ask you” — he paused again, pursed his lips, and placed his forefinger against his temple — “I want to ask you how you come to imply that the dog is here? ‘Information received’ was your statement. Be precise this time, Mr. Collins. I’m waiting for your answer.”

“I had my information from a man who saw the dog on your premises, Mr. Q——.”

“Very good, indeed! At what time did he see the dog? Be punctual, Mr. Collins. Punctuality implies truth.”

“About sunrise, I think.”

“You think! Are you sure?”

“Well, yes; I’m sure.”

“Describe your informer, please.”

“Describe him! If I described him ever so accurately, you would n’t know him from Adam,” I replied sharply, and withal truthfully. “Is my dog here, Mr. Q——? If he is, I’ll take him, and go. I don’t want to be trying your patience after this fashion.”

“Steady, Mr. Connell. Was your informer a man about my height?”

“I have no idea of your height, Mr. Q——.”

“Was he a man about your own height? We’ll get at it presently.”

“You’ve got at it first try. I should say you’ve struck his height to about a sixteenth of an inch.”

“Sunburnt face? Skulking, fugitive appearance generally?”

“Your description’s wonderfully correct, Mr. Q——. You might, without libel, call him a sansculotte.”

“I’m seldom far out in these matters. How was he dressed?”

“In a little brief authority, so far as I remember. But is my dog ——”

“Do you imply a sarcasm?” inquired the J.P. darkly. “I would n’t do so if I was you. I’m not thinking about your dog. You and your dog! I’m thinking about a valuable stack of hay I had burnt this morning; and you’ve give me a clue to the incendiary.” He paused, to let his words filter in. “You done it without your knowledge, Mr. O’Connell,” he continued pompously, again holding up his glass to the light.

In the silence that ensued, I could hear the murmur of the girls’ voices about the house, and the irregular ticking of two clocks; while there dawned on my mind an impression that somebody had fallen in the fat.

“I’m sorry to hear of your loss, Mr. Q——,” I remarked, at length.

“So far as the loss goes, that gives me no inconvenience, though it might break a poorer man. I been burnt out, r——p and stump, by an incendiary, when I was at Ballarat” ——

“Ah!” said I sympathetically, but my sympathy was with the other party ——

“And then I could afford to offer a hundred notes for the apprehension of the offender, before the ashes was cold.”

“But mightn’t this last affair be an accident, Mr. Q——? A horse treading on a match for instance? I think you ought to make strict inquiries as to whether any horse, or cow, or anything, passed by the stack shortly before the fire was noticed.”

“I know my own business, Mr. O’Connor,” he replied severely. “I been the instigation of bringing more offenders, and vagabonds, and that class of people, to justice than anybody else in this district. If I’d my way, I’d stamp out the lawless elements of society.”

“I admire your principles, Mr. Q——; and you may count upon my assistance in this matter. By-the-way, there are two illicit red-gummers down here” ——

“I was talking to you about this stack-burning affair,” interposed the beak. “I’m annoyed over it. I been on the wrong lay, so to speak, all this morning; but that never lasts long with me. I got the perpetrator in my eye now, in his naked guilt; and, take my word for it, Mr. Connor, I’ll bring him to book. I’ll make an example of him. I’ll make him smoke for it. It was an open question this forenoon; but to show how circumstantial evidence sort of hems in a suspected party — why, here I can lay my hand on the very man; and, what’s more, he can’t get out of it. I can point out the very mark of his body, where he slep’ at a fire among the whipstick scrub, just across that lagoon. And a party I’m acquainted with seen him yesterday afternoon, some distance up the river, on the other side; and I seen him this morning, crossing the flat here, more or less about the time the fire was noticed. What do you think of that for circumstantial evidence, Mr. Connelly? And in addition to this, I can point out his incentive — which I prefer to hold in reserve for the present. He might think his incentive justifiable; but the Bench might differ with him.” And El Corregidor held me with his glittering eye while he sipped his wine.

“I beg your pardon, Mr. Q——,” said I, clearing my throat. “I can’t help taking a certain interest in this matter. Would it be impertinent in me to ask who the person was that saw the suspected incendiary up the river on yesterday afternoon?”

“I’ve no objection to answer your question, Mr. Conway. I quite expect you to take a strong interest in the matter. In fact, I’ll require to know something of your whereabouts after you leave my premises. I think you’ll be wanted over this affair. The party that seen the incendiary yesterday was Mr. H——, of H—— Brothers.”

“Mr. Charles H——?” I inquired casually.

“No; Mr. Arthur H——. Very respectable man, having personal knowledge of the incendiary.” Again the J.P. sipped his wine; and the girls’ voices murmured, and the clocks ticked, and the hens clucked in the yard; also, the magpies tootled beyond the lagoon, and a couple of axes sounded faintly across the flat; and I even heard, through the open window, the noise of some old back-delivery chattering through a crop of hay on an adjacent farm. “Give me your address,” continued Mephistopheles, replenishing his glass. “Writing-material on the side table.”

I wrote my name and official title, giving our departmental office in Sydney as a fine loose postal address, and laid the paper on the table beside the magnate. It reminded me of old times, when my Dad used to send me to bring him the strap. It was time to shake my faculties together, for ne’er had Alpine’s son such need.

“I’ve made a study of law, myself, Mr. Q——,” I remarked thoughtfully. (This was perfectly true, though, in the urgency of the moment, I omitted to add that my researches had been confined to those interesting laws which govern the manifold operations of Nature). “I’ve made a special study of law; and I think you will agree with me that a successful criminal prosecution is a Pyrrhic victory at best. At worst — that is, if you fail to prove your case; and, mind you, it’s no easy matter to prove a case against a well-informed man by circumstantial evidence alone — if you fail to prove your case; then it’s his turn, for malicious prosecution; and you can’t expect any mercy from him. When you think your case is complete, you find the little hitch, the little legal point, that your opponent has been holding in reserve. Now, you ’re a gentleman of substance, Mr. Q——.You’re a perfect target for a man that has studied law.” I paused, for I noticed the Moor already changing with my poison. “By heaven! I’d like to have a shot at you for a thousand!” I continued, eyeing him greedily.

“One of the obstacles in a position like mine is the thing you just implied, Mr. Connellan,” responded the waywode, almost deferentially. “Same time, this case ought to be followed up, for the sake of the public weal. As valuable as the stack was, I don’t give that for it.” And he snapped his finger and thumb.

“You may be morally certain of the identity of the scoundrel, but your proofs require to be legally impregnable,” I continued, pressing home where he had disclosed weakness of guard. “I know a very respectable man — a Mr. Johnson — who dropped something over a thousand in a case similar to this. The scoundrel was a deep subject; and he got at Johnson for false imprisonment. These roving characters can always get up an alibi, if they’re clever. Excuse my meddling in this case, Mr. Q——, but you’ve interested me strongly. You have evidence that this suspected incendiary was seen somewhere down the river yesterday — or up the river was it? — and you saw him somewhere here, this morning. Very well. Would the two descriptions of dress and deportment tally exactly with each other, and with the appearance of the person whom, independently of that evidence, you know to be the perpetrator — I mean the scoundrel of the camp-fire? Consider the opening for an alibi there! You hold the incentive in reserve, I think you said? Pardon me — is it a sufficient one?”

“It don’t take much incentive to be sufficient for a vagabone without a shirt to his back” replied the ratepayer, suddenly boiling-over.

“True,” I conceded; “but, ‘Seek whom the crime profits,’ says Machiavelli. What profit would it be to such a scoundrel to do you an injury, Mr. Q——?”

“The propertied classes is at the mercy of the thriftless classes,” he remarked, with martyr-pride.

“But incendiarism! Mr. Q——,” I urged in modest protest. “Why, the whole country lives by the farmer: and I’m sure” ——

“We won’t argy the matter, Mr. Collingwood,” replied my antagonist, lowering his point. “Possibly I won’t trouble you any further over this affair. Your business keeps you on the move,” he continued, looking at the paper beside him; “and it might be difficult to effect service. You want your dog. Go into the kitchen; inquire for Miss Jemima, and tell her I authorise her to give you the dog. And a very fine dog he is.”

“Thank you, Mr. Q——. Good day.”

“Good day,” replied the boyard, acknowledging my obeisance by a wave of his hand.

It was a near thing, but I had scored, after all. You can’t beat the pocket-stroke. Passing through the kitchen, I met the graceful Jim.

“Are you Miss Jemima?” I asked, in the tone you should always use towards women.

A dimple stole into each beautiful cheek as she nodded assent.

“Well, Mr. Q—— authorises Miss Jemima to give me the kangaroo-dog.”

“Come this way, then, please.” There was a slight flush of vexation on the girl’s face now. And, indeed, it was scarcely fair of Dogberry, when his own soft thing had fallen through, to make Jim cover his dignified retreat. With deepening colour, she led the way to the stable, and opened a loose-box, disclosing Pup, crouched, sphynx-like, with a large bone between his paws. The red collar was gone; and he was chained to the manger by a hame-strap. Of course, I did n’t blame the franklin, nor do I blame him now; rather the reverse. There seems something touching and beautiful in the thought that respectability, at best, is merely poised — never hard home; and that our clay will assert itself when a dog like Pup throws himself into the other scale. But I could feel the vicarious crimson spreading over Jim’s forehead and ears as I unbuckled the hame-strap, whilst vainly ransacking my mind for some expression of thanks that would n’t sound ironical. A terrible tie of sympathetic estrangement bound this sweet scapegoat and me asunder, or divided us together; and each felt that salvation awaited the one who spoke first, and to the point — or rather, from the point. All honour to Jim; she paced ——

“You call him ‘Pup’,” observed the girl girlishly. “He’s a big pup.”

“His proper name is ‘The Eton Boy’,” replied the wretch wretchedly. And neither of us could see anything in the other’s remark.

But the tension was relaxed; and, leaving the stable together, we gravely agreed that a thunderstorm seemed to be hanging about. Still a new embarrassment was growing in the girl’s face and voice, even in the uneasy movement of her hands. At last it broke out ——

“I s’pose you haven’t had any dinner?”

“Don’t let that trouble you, Miss Q——.”

“Father’s not himself today,” she continued hastily. “He blames us for burning an old straw-stack; and I’m sure we never done it. Mother’s been at him to burn it out of the way this years back, for it was right between the house and the road; and it was ’78 straw, rotten with rust. But I’m glad we did n’t take on us to burn it, for father’s vowing vengeance on whoever done it; and he’s awful at finding out things.”

“Mr. Q—— mentioned it to me,” I replied, with polite interest. “But don’t you think it seems a most unlikely thing for a stranger to do? Perhaps some of your own horses or cattle trod on a match that Mr. Q—— had accidentally dropped there himself?”

“That couldn’t be; for father never allows any matches about the place, only them safety ones that strikes on the box. And he hates smoking. My brothers has to smoke on the sly.”

“Have you many Irish people about here, Miss Q——?”

“None only the Fogartys; and they’re the best neighbours we got.”

“And was nobody seen near the stack before the fire broke out?”

“Not a soul. I was past there myself, not twenty minutes before we seen the fire; but I was going middling smart, and I did n’t see anybody — nothing only Morgan’s big white pig, curled under the edge of the stack, that always jumps out of the sty, and comes over here, and breaks into our garden. Well, father’s always threatening to shoot that pig; and me, never thinking, I told him it was there; and he got his gun and went after it; and us in a fright for fear he would find it, but he did n’t. Then when we seen him well out of sight, I went over to the stack quietly, to shoo the pig home, but it was gone; and there was no sign of fire then, and nobody in sight. Then my sisters and me was just starting out to the milking-yard, and mother had begun to take the things off the line, when little Enoch seen the fire. We couldn’t make it out at all; and I examined up and down the drain for boot-marks, but there was none. And just before you come, I picked up the track of the horse I was riding, to see if his feet had struck fire on anything; but I was as wise as ever.”

“Ah! the horse was shod, Miss Q——?”

“No; he’s barefooted all round. Well, he trod on a piece of a brick, near the corner of the garden; but the fire never travelled from there. It’s very unaccountable.”

“Very. I wonder would there have been such a thing as a broken bottle anywhere about the stack, Miss Q——? The sun came out unusually strong this morning, I noticed; and it’s a well-known scientific fact that the action of the solar rays, focussed by such a medium as I have suggested, will produce ignition — provided, of course, that the inflammable material is in the angle of refraction.”

“I don’t know, sir,” she replied reverently.

“Why, gold has been melted in four seconds, silver in three, and steel in ten, under the mere influence of the sun’s heat-rays, concentrated by a lens” — she shivered, and I magnanimously withheld my hand. “If this hypothesis should prove untenable,” I continued gently, “we may assume spontaneous ignition, produced by chemical combination. Nor are we confined to this supposition. Silex is an element which enters largely into the composition of wheaten straw; and it is worthy of remark that, in most cases where fire is purposely generated by the agency of thermo-dynamics, some form of silex is enlisted — flint, for instance, or the silicious covering of endogenous plants, such as bamboo, and so forth. A theory might be built on this.”

“It seems very reasonable, sir,” she murmured. “Anyway, I’m glad the old stack’s out of the road. The place looks a lot cleaner.”

“Well, I won’t keep you out in the sun,” said I reluctantly. “Good bye, Miss Q——. And I’m very much obliged to you.”

“Oh, don’t mention it! I’m sure we’re very happy to” —— she hesitated, blushing desperately.

“Well, good-bye, Miss Jemima.”

“Good-bye,” she murmured, half-extending her hand.

“I might see you again, some time,” I remarked, almost unconsciously, as our fingers met.

“I hope so,” she faltered.

“Good-bye, Jim,” said I, slowly releasing her hand.

“Good-bye.” The word sounded like a breath of evening air, kissing the she-oak foliage.

Then the maiden with the meek brown eyes, and the pathetic evidence of Australian nationality on her upper lip, returned to her simple duties. And the remembrance of Mrs. Beaudesart came down on me like a thousand of bricks. Such is life.

But my difficulties were over for the time being. My loco. had jolted its way over the rough section, carrying away an obstruction labelled V.R., and had reached the next points. I was still two or three days ahead of my official work; and there had happened to be a stray half-crown in the pocket of the spare oriflamme I had unfurled at my camp. Should I push on to Hay on the strength of that half-crown, draw my £8 6s. 8d., and send my clothier a guileful letter, containing a money-order for, say, thirty shillings? This would test his awfulness at finding out things, besides giving myself, morally, a clean bill of health. Or should I first walk across to B——’s and get Dick L—— to shift some of my inborn ignorance re Palestine?

I decided on the latter line of action, and followed it with —— Well, at all events, I have the compensating consciousness of a dignity uncompromised, and a nonchalance unruffled, in the face of Dick’s really interesting descriptions of South-eastern Tasmania. Concerning my lapse of engagement on the previous evening, I merely remarked that the default was caused my circumstances over which &c.

I spent a couple of days, besides Sunday, at B——’s place; while the fisherman kept an eye on my horses. I helped B—— to work out a new and rotten idea of a wind-mill pump; Dick handing me things, and holding the other end. On the first afternoon, a couple of hours after my arrival, I drove into —— for some blacksmith work; and, whilst it was being done, I looked in at the Express office, and had a gossip with Archimedes on the topics of the day.

And now, whilst duly appreciating the rectitude of soul which has carried me through this trying disclosure, you will surely condone the obscurity in which I have been compelled to envelop all names used herein.



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

Such is Life
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