[Editor: This is the third part of Chapter Four of the novel Such is Life by Tom Collins (Joseph Furphy). A glossary has been provided to explain various words and phrases that may be unfamiliar to modern readers.]
I helped Tommy out of his embarrassment by an occasional ‘Ay, mun,’ interjected into his apologetic and cordial monologue; and so we reached the hut, where, after directing me to a seat, he filled a billy with some of the water he had brought, and hung it on the crook.
“An’ wha’ dae they ca’ ye?” he asked, turning his back to the fire, and surveying me with a kindly interest which made me feel as uneasy as if I had been sleeping in a fowl-house.
“Tam Collins,” I replied readily, though interrupted by a fit of coughing as I pronounced my surname.
“Ye’ll no be yin o’ the M’Callums o’ Auchtermauchtie?” he inquired eagerly. “A kent them weel.”
I shook my head. “An’ wha’ dae they ca’ yirsel’?” I asked.
“Tam Airmstrang-anither Tam, ye ken. An’ whaur ye frae? Wha’ pairt o’ the kintra was ye born in syne?” A boggy-looking place for a man to carry his integrity safely across; however, I replied,
“Ye’se aiblins be acquent wi’ yon auld sang: —
Braw, braw lads on Yarrow braff,
That wander through the bloomin’ heather.
Aweel, A was born on the braes o’ Yarra. Ye ken, the time’s gane lang wi’ me sin’ A rin aboot the braes, an’ pu’d the gowans fine. Ay, mun!”
“A-y-y, mun!” rejoined my companion, echoing my home-sick sigh. “D’ye ken-A wadna’ thocht ye was a Selkirksheer mon. A wad hae thocht ye was frae Lanarksheer, ir aiblins frae” —
“Whaur micht ye be frae yirsel’?” I interrupted desperately.
He seemed about to reply, but checked himself, and looked at me absently; then he turned to the fire, took his canister from the shelf, and mechanically measured out a handful of tea. He stood gazing into the fire till recalled to himself by the boiling of the billy; then a triumphant smile invaded his stern features; he took the billy off the crook, threw the tea into it, clapped both hands on my shoulders, and quoted with fine effect that lucid passage from Burns:—
Bye attour, ma gutcher has
A heigh hoose an’ a leigh
A’ firbye ma bony sel’,
The lad o’ Ecclefechan!
“Ha-ha-ha! The lad o’ Ecclefechan, ye ken-no the lass o’ Ecclefechan! Losh! A hae whiles laffit mysen gey near daft at yon! The lad o’ Ecclefechan!” He gave way to another burst of hilarity, in which I sincerely joined. “A henna’ thocht aboot yon a towmond syne,” he continued, wiping the dew of merriment from his eyes; “bit ye hae brocht it bock the nicht. The lad o’ Ecclefechan! ha-ha-ha! Ay, mun; A’m frae Ecclefechan, an’ ma feyther afore me. Syne, A hae been a’ ip an’ doon Ayrsheer, frae yin fair till anither wi’ nowte. Brawly dae A ken Mossgeil, an’ Mauchline, an’ Loughlea, an’ the auld Brig o’ Doon, firbye a wheen ither spotes ye ’se aiblins hear tell o’.”
“Ye’ll hae seen Alloway Kirk?” I conjectured.
“Seen’t! ay,” he replied magnificently. “A thocht naethin’ o”t!”
“Ye what?” I retorted, in the mere wantonness of power. “Ye hae seen yon auld hauntet kirk, whaur witches an’ warlocks Hang an’ loupit, an’ Auld Nick himsel’ screwt his pipes an’ gart them skirl, till roof an’ rafters a’ did dirl! ye hae keekit intil yon eerie auld ruin! — an’ syne ye daunert awa’, an’ thocht naethin’ o’ ’t! Be ma saul, Bobbie Birns didna’ think naethin’ o’ ’t! Heh!”
Tommy was now laying the table. He made no reply to my rebuke, but the forced and deprecating smile which struggled to his face showed that the Irresistible had scored again.
But one of the most unpleasant experiences I can now recall to mind was the sitting down with that unsuspecting fellow-mortal to his soda-bread and cold mutton, while I smiled, and smiled, and was a Scotchman. The easy victory, tested by that moral straight-edge we all carry, made me feel as mean as a liveried servant; and when Tommy requested me to ask a blessing, and sat with his elbow on the table and his face reverently veiled by his hand, whilst I wove a protracted and incoherent grace from the Lowland vocabulary, I seemed to sink to the level of a prince’s equerry. In fact, I would almost as soon make one of a crowd to hurrah for a Governor as go through such an ordeal again. My truthfulness — perhaps the only quality in which I attain an insulting pre-eminence — seemed outraged to the limit of endurance as I looked forward to the inevitable detection, soon or late, of the impromptu deception which, in spite of me, was expanding and developing like a snake-lie, or an election squabble.
However, I contented myself with directing the stream of conversation, and leaving the rest to Tommy. It transpired that he had been four months in his present situation, and only nine in the country altogether. He had got employment on Avondale by a lucky chance; and, though engaged only for six months, entertained hopes that he might be baptised into the billet, to the permanent exclusion of Bendigo Bill.
For menial employment on Avondale was like membership in a Church, only that, to the carnal mind, there was more in it; moreover, the initiation was attended with greater ceremony, and the possibility of expulsion was kept further in the background. Once admitted into Avondale fellowship, the communicant might turn out a white sheep or a black one; but he was still a sheep, whilst all outside the fold, white or black, as the case might be, were goats. This may be illustrated by the incident which had just given Tommy the footing of an unbaptised believer, provisionally admitted amongst the elect. He gave me the account, so far as it affected himself; and Bendigo Bill, sitting on the same kerosene-case, long afterward narrated the episode fully.
Two years before the date of this record, Bendigo Bill’s mind, such as it was, had been disturbed by the discovery of gold at Mount Brown. As time went on, the occasional sight of northward-bound drays and pack-horses revived the old lunacy in its most malignant form, till the demoniac at last gave formal notice of his intention to leave the station, and push his fortune on the diggings. His resignation was in due course forwarded to Captain Royce; whereupon that potentate sent him a peremptory order to mind his paddock, and not make an infernal exhibition of himself. The demon quaked and collapsed for the time, and Bill, in his proper person, acquiesced with the humility customarily manifested by Avondale people when Captain Royce was conducting the other side of the argument. But the evil spirit was scotched, not killed; and Bill became a harmless melancholic, dwelling on old time memories of the diggings, and gradually lying himself into the conviction that, if he had gone to Mount Brown, he could have told by the lay of the country, unerringly, and at the first glance, where the gold was.
Things being in this posture, there reached Avondale, in the winter of ’83, a vague, intangible bruit of somebody expecting to hit it on Mount Brown; and, shortly afterward, Bill, in a vision of the night, found himself paddocking a bit of four-foot ground for a free, lively, six-inch wash, running something like ten ounces to the dish-rough, shotty, water-worn gold. Next night the dream was repeated, but with this addition, that the dreamer bent the point of his pick whilst hooking out of a sort of pocket in the pipeclay a flat, damper-shaped nugget that he could hardly lift. The third night found the ground richer than ever; but Bill, knowing it to be a dream, and having no way of permanently retaining the gold he might get under such conditions, very wisely contented himself with taking accurate observations of his landmarks, so that he might know the place again when he saw it by daylight. Whilst so engaged, his attention was attracted by two emus, which resolved themselves, respectively, into Captain Royce and Mick Magee — the latter being an old mate of his own, accidentally killed on the Jim Crow, about fifteen years before. This made the assurance of the thrice-repeated dream triply sure; for the emu is one of the luckiest things a person can dream about; and its identification with Captain Royce was as good as an old boot thrown by that awesome magnate; whilst its association with Mick Magee made the cup of blessing overslop in all directions — Mick having been, in the days of his vanity, a man that brought luck with him wherever he went, particularly in shallow ground.
So Bill wiped from the tablet of his memory everything except the picture of a place where two gullies met, after the fashion of a Y, and formed a bit of a blind creek, running between low ranges broken here and there by the outcrop of a hungry white quartz. His dream intuitively conveyed the further knowledge that the surrounding country had been prospected for a few floaters, and the creek, lower down, rooted-up for bare tucker, while this little spur of made ground, between the prongs of the Y, remained intact — and there was the jeweller’s shop.
Again Bill, emboldened by the unholy afflatus caught from his earlier life, gave notice to the manager; this time following up his action by buying a horse and spring-cart from a tank-sinker, and conditionally selling his own two horses. Then came Captain Royce’s ukase, to the effect that no man must be allowed to swag the country, ragged and homeless, with the story in his mouth that he had been boundary riding on Avondale for ten years. Therefore, Bill’s notice was passed over with the contempt it merited. But something must be done; so a six months’ leave of absence was granted; and the manager was instructed to employ, for that time only, the first likely-looking stranger who presented himself — the latter being clearly given to understand that he was only in the loosest sense of the word an Avondale employe. If Bill returned on the expiration of his furlough, he should be reinstated, and all would be forgiven; if he failed to return, such default would be taken as evidence of contumacy; excommunication would promptly follow, and the station would thereby be acquitted of all responsibility touching any destitute old bummer who might swag the country with the yarn that he had been boundary riding on Avondale for ten years. Captain Royce could be stern enough when he let himself out.
The emu-section of the dream being thus partly fulfilled, Bill clutched at a release in any form; and it happened that, simultaneously with the arrival of Captain Royce’s mandate, came Tom Armstrong and his mate, Andrew Glover, from a job of ringing on the Yanko. The manager, being named Angus Cochrane, plumped Tom into the vacancy, and supplied him with a couple of old station horses. Bill remained a few days longer, teaching Tom the routine of his work; then the manager slacked-off, and Bill harnessed his horse and fled northward — not because he disliked Avondale, but because he liked it so well that he was impatient to make Captain Royce such a bid for the property as that nabob could n’t think of refusing, with any hope of luck afterward.
On my mentioning Alf’s bullocks, Tom told me that he had heard bells among the lignum in the corner of Mondunbana, a few nights before, and had next morning found twenty bullocks and a bay horse on the Avondale side of the fence. He knew that the Chow had passed them on to him to save trouble, so he immediately passed them back to the Chow. Next evening, his neighbour had re-delivered them to Avondale f.o.b., and in the morning, Tom returned them to Mondunbarra c.o.d. Next night, the untiring Asiatic had them back on Avondale o.r.; and in the morning, Tom did what he should have done at first — put them across the river on to the station from whose bourne no trespasser returned. The ensuing adventures of the bullocks you already know.
Tom had acquired, without any severe wrench of his finer feelings, the boundary man’s hostility to the bullock driver, and was cultivating the same with all the energy of his race. His title, after all, was no more quizzical in its application than that of Ivan the Terrible; and to understand how nasty a station vassal can sometimes make himself, you must know a little concerning the manners none and customs beastly of the time and place wherein our scene is laid.
And, to my unspeakable disgust, I found that though Tom had never met Alf personally, the unfortunate outlaw was his Doctor Fell too. And the very spirit of Leviticus breathed in his tone as he informed me that gin he had umquhile kent the nowte belangit tae yon ill-hairtet raff, he wad hae whummelt them owre the burn (the Lachlan a burn! O, my country) lang syne, an’ no fashit himsel’ wi’ ony sic’ fiddle-fyke.
Nothing but extreme caution would do here. The brutal truth of my unwarranted solicitude for the sick man would certainly cause friction, and might spoil all. So, in a few well-chosen words, I informed Tom that there was a trifle between Alf and me; and he was sick, just when I wanted to keep him on his feet for a while. Would Tom (and my patois became so hideously homely that, for the reader’s sake, I have to paraphrase it) — would Tom, as a personal favour to me, call round at Alf’s camp, morning and evening, for a few days, and in the meantime keep his bullocks safe?
No answer. The silken bond of our nationality would n’t stand such a strain. Then I slowly drew out my pocket-book, and, with the stifled sigh of a thrifty man, handed my compatriot one of the four one-pound notes which excluded me from the state of grace enjoyed by Lazarus; remarking, half-sullenly, that he could n’t be expected to take all this trouble for nothing; and though I was a poor man like himself, it would pay me to get Alf at work again. And, considering that a bullock driver often has it in his power to do a good turn for a boundary man, would n’t it be better, I suggested, for Tom to do all this on his own account, without a whisper concerning my interposition?
I had known better than to make such a proposition to Sollicker. That impracticable animal — who would have uncovered his head to receive backsheesh, as backsheesh, from a ‘gentleman’ — would have spurned my lubricant as an unholy thing; and woe to Alf’s bullocks if he had caught them again! But I was n’t surprised to find my modus vivendi accepted by this passive product of a social code fabricated and compiled in the nethermost pit — a code which, under the heading of Thrift, frankly teaches the poor to grind each other without scruple, whilst religiously avoiding all inquiry into the claims of the rich — a code, in fact, which makes the greasing of the fat pig a work holy unto the Lord. The keen selfishness of my proposal touched a kindred chord in poor Tom’s bosom; the mettlesome casting of my sprat upon the waters, in sure hope of finding a mackerel after many days, awoke his admiration; whilst an immediate and prospective advantage to himself stood out through it all. Yet, under this crust of clannishness, cunning, and money-hunger, there lay a fine manhood. I saw the latter come to the surface a few months afterward. But that is another episode; and I must confine myself to the case before the Court.
Tom knew of an island among the lignum, where the bullocks would be safe; and he would put them there in the morning, after he had visited Alf. But I must take the bells off first. I thanked him with a sincerity out of all keeping with my accent, and shortly afterward drew the intolerable conference gently to a close. Upon the whole, I had impressed my host as a shrewd, well-informed person, too much taken-up with the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches to dwell upon personal memories of the auld kintra. I was touched to notice a certain disappointment and forlornness in his manner as he accompanied me to the boundary fence, where we shook hands, and parted — each looking forward to the probability of meeting again, but with different degrees of longing.
And now, thought I, as I recovered Alf’s saddle and bridle, heaven grant that that parting may be a Kathleen Mavourneen one; and let me have some other class of difficulty to deal with next time.
Thus, in the best of spirits, owing to the prospect of some smooth travelling on my main trunk line, after having traversed the steep and crooked section to which I had been committed by one touch of the switch two hours before, I made my way through the lignum to Alf’s camp; guided partly by the instinct which we share unequally with the lower creation, and partly by the smell of the dead dog, zephyr-borne on the night air. After dragging the poor animal’s body a little distance away, I vaulted into the wagon, and spoke cheerily to Alf.
No reply. I struck a match, and saw him sleeping the peaceful, dreamless sleep of a tired child. I lit a bit of candle I had noticed in the daytime, and sat down to note his progress in a professional way. His pulse was right, as I found by timing it with my own; and the hard swelling of the elbows seemed to have relaxed a little. The backs of his hands were pretty bad with the external scurvy known as ‘Barcoo rot’ — produced by unsuitable food and extreme hardship — but that had nothing to do with the complaint which had so strangely overtaken him. His breathing was gentle and regular, though his face was covered with gorged mosquitos. The healthy moistness of the skin showed that my prescription had operated as a sudorific, no less than as a soporific. Altogether, there was a marked diminution of what we call febrile symptoms; and, better still, he had managed to turn himself over since I left him.
I lit my pipe, and contemplated the unconscious outlaw. Without being aggressively handsome, like Dixon or Willoughby, Alf, in his normal state, was a decidedly noble-looking man, of the so-called Anglo-Saxon type, modified hy sixty or eighty years of Australian deterioration. His grandfather had probably been something like Sollicker; and the apprehensions of that discomfortable cousin were being fulfilled only too ruthlessly. The climate had played Old Gooseberry with the fine primordial stock. Physically, the Suffolk Punch had degenerated into the steeplechaser; psychologically, the chasm between the stolid English peasant and the saturnine, sensitive Australian had been spanned with that facilis which marks the descensus Averni.
But the question of racial degeneracy, past, present, or to come, troubled its victim very little as he lay there. Indeed, it had never troubled him much. He was one of those men who cannot learn to think systematically, but who make up their deficiency by feeling the more intensely. And now that the unseen Guide had given His beloved sleep, and the stern, defiant blue eyes were veiled, and the habitual frown smoothed from the fine forehead, I found something pathetic in the worn repose of the sleeper’s face.
Presently, drifting into a philosophic mood, I placed my propositions in order, and, by the inductive system applicable in such cases, read his history like a book, right back to the time when, according to a popular, though rather tough, assumption, he had lain helpless and imbecile on his mother’s knee, clad in a white garment about four feet long, and with a pulsating soft place on the top of the bald head which wobbled on his insufficient neck like a rain-laden rose on a weak stalk. Little dreamed that mother, poor mortal! when with tireless iteration she ticked off his extremities; — ‘This pig went to market; this pig stayed at home’ — little did she dream, when she wiped the perpetual dribble from his mouth; when she poured all manner of unintelligible tommy-rot into his inattentive and conspicuous ears — little did she then dream that the blind evolution of events would transform her inexplicably valued baby into a scrap of floating wreckage on a sea of trouble; scarcely amounting to a circumstance in the vast and endless procession of his fellow-waifs.
Doubtless, he would soon be on his feet again, but to what end? Merely to resume the old persecuted life, still achieving, still pursuing, that strictly congruous penalty which waits upon the man whose life is one protracted challenge to a world wherein no person except the systematic and successful hypocrite has too many friends, or too good a character. Any fool can get himself hated, if he goes the right way to work; but the game was never yet worth a rap, for a rational man to play. This in clear view of the fact that most people lose more by their friends than by their enemies. But there are few sins more odious than ill-nature; and there’s nothing blessed about the persecution you undergo on that account. Your position is not heroic; at best, it is only pitiable; at worst, it is detestable. Athanasius contra mundum is grand only in cases where the snag is right, and the mundus wrong. Then persecution becomes the second-highest form of blessedness — the highest form, of course, being the ability to turn round and flatten-out the persecutor. Now, if Alf could open the windows of his understanding —— But then, one of the gravest disabilities in the leopard of thirty-five, or thereabout, is connected with the changing of his spots. Such is life.
With these reflections, I extinguished the candle, and left the wagon. The bullocks happened to be close by. After the manner of workers, they had collected themselves on a piece of open ground; some folded asleep, head to flank, while others lay chewing meditatively, reviewing the events of the day, and wondering what the morrow might bring forth. Amidst the reposing group stood the hardy bay horse, the world forgetting, by the world forgot; for, contrary to popular supposition, the horse has not half the innate sagacity of the ox, though he is to a much greater extent the creature of habit, and therefore appears more teachable.
By the light of a good half-moon, now declining in the west, I got the two bells off without much trouble, and threw them under the wagon. Then, in case the Confucian might be an earlier bird than the lad o’ Ecclefechan, I put the bullocks and horse across the boundary fence, carefully replacing the brush I had removed for their passage. From there I struck across to the sound of Cleopatra’s bell, and brought my two most useful friends to where the most valuable was still chained-up. In ten minutes, I had packed my share of the things that make death bitter, and in another half-hour I had left Mondunbarra behind, and was well into Avondale, working out in my own mind an abstruse ethical problem, which would have no interest for the shallow-pated reader. And so ends the day.
But not the narrative. I am mindful of my promise. As hour after hour passed, the insecurity of Alf’s situation grew upon me, till I could think of nothing else. Philosopher-seer, I might say — as it has pleased heaven to fashion me, I confess I could arrive at no definite forecast of the order which the outlaw’s affairs would assume at the next turn of the kaleidoscope. But I knew that it was in the nature of the kaleidoscope to turn.
In due time, the stars dimmed and disappeared; the deep-blue of the south-eastern sky paled to a greenish tint, like the under side of a melon, changing slowly to an opaline hue; then imperceptibly succeeded a blush of shell-pink, presently shot with radial bars of dusky red; and now every object above the horizon stood vividly revealed through the limpid air — soon to be blurred, distorted, or entirely withdrawn from view. In the favourable interval of ten or fifteen minutes, I saw Poondoo homestead, six or eight miles ahead. In the intermediate distance appeared a moving dot, which, as I was travelling at a walk, brought my field-glass into use. Only an iron-grey man, in a pith hat, driving a pair of chestnuts in a buggy. No business of mine, I thought, in my human short-sightedness; and I was lowering the glass, when the figure of another traveller crossed its field. This last was a person bearing a startling resemblance to Mungo Park, inasmuch as he was evidently a poor white man, with no mother to bring him milk, no wife to grind his corn. The solitude of the place made the contrast between the two travellers impressive. I replaced the glass, thinking, with sorrow rather than conceit, that I could make a better world myself, with my eyes shut. There was no irreverence in the thought; the irreverence is on the part of any profane reader who forges the Creator’s endorsement to that good old rule and simple plan which was, is, and ever shall be, the outcome of Individualism. But the good old rule, as you shall perceive, worked happily in this instance. Now try to imagine a writer of fiction deliberately inventing an incident which seems to strike at the very root of his own argument. Then you will have some idea of the annalist’s stern veracity as opposed to the mere expediency of the novelist.
I was within a quarter of a mile of the swagman when the buggy overtook him. The driver drew up to a walk, apparently yarning with Mungo; and I nearly tumbled off my horse when I saw him stop on the off lock, and wait whilst the swagman deposited bluey on the foot-board and himself on the seat. Then the chestnuts tossed their heads, and the buggy resumed its way, surging across the crab-holes like a canoe on rough water. My soul went forth in a paean of joy, for, exactly as the perfect circle of a flying scrawl bespoke Giotto, this action bespoke Stewart of Kooltopa, now masquerading under a pair of strange horses. Here was my opportunity. Figuratively, I would put Alf in a basket, with a note pinned to his bib, and leave him on Stewart’s door-step.
Those whose knowledge of the pastoral regions is drawn from a course of novels of the Geoffrey Hamlyn class, cannot fail to hold a most erroneous notion of the squatter. Of course, we use the term ‘squatter’ indifferently to denote a station-owner, a managing partner, or a salaried manager. Lacking generations of development, there is no typical squatter. Or, if you like, there are a thousand types. Hungry M’Intyre is one type; Smythe — petty, genteel, and parsimonious — is another; patriarchal Royce is another; Montgomery-kind, yet haughty and imperious — is another; Stewart is another. My diary might, just as likely as not, have compelled me to introduce, instead of these, a few of the remaining nine-hundred and ninety-five types-any type conceivable, in fact, except the slender-witted, virgin-souled, overgrown schoolboys who fill Henry Kingsley’s exceedingly trashy and misleading novel with their insufferable twaddle. There was a squatter of the Sam Buckley type, but he, in the strictest sense of the word, went to beggary; and, being too plump of body and exalted of soul for barrow-work, and too comprehensively witless for anything else, he was shifted by the angels to a better world — a world where the Christian gentleman is duly recognised, and where Socialistic carpenters, vulgar fishermen, and all manner of undesirable people, do the washing-up.
Stewart, it must be admitted, was no gentleman. Starting with a generous handicap, as the younger son of a wealthy and aristocratic Scottish laird, he had, during a Colonial race of forty years, daily committed himself by actions which shut him out from the fine old title. He was in the gall of altruism, and in the bond of democracy. Amiable demeanour, unmeasured magnanimity, and spotless integrity, could never carry off the unpardonable sin in which this lost sheep-owner wallowed — the taint, namely, of isocratic principle. When a member of the classes takes to his bosom that unclean thing, in its naked reality, he thereby forfeits the title of ‘gentleman,’ and becomes a mere man. For there is no such thing as a democratic gentleman; the adjective and noun are hyphenated by a drawn sword. If the said unclean thing eats into its victim to the same extent that the wolf did into Baron Munchausen’s sleigh-horse, the metamorphosed subject comes perilously near being what the Orientals call a dog of a Christian. For there is no such thing as a Christian gentleman, except as loosely distinguished from the Buddhist, Parsee, or Mahometan gentleman. Try the transposition: gentleman-Christian. And why not, since you have the gentleman-this-or-that? Taking the shifty, insidious title in its go-to-meeting sense, every Christian is prima facie a gentleman; taking it in its every-day sense, no ‘gentleman’ can be a Christian; for Christianity postulates initial equality, and recognises no gradation except in usefulness.
So Stewart was never, even by inadvertence, spoken of as a gentleman — always as a Christian. Three-score years of wise choice in the perpetually-recurring alternatives of life, had made the Golden Rule his spontaneous impulse; and now, though according to the shapen-in-iniquity theory, he must have had faults, no one in Riverina, below the degree of squatter, had proved sharp enough to detect them. It was considered bad form to express approval of anything he did. ‘Stewart! Oh, he’s a (adj.) Christian!’ That was all. He had reached a certain standard, and was expected to live up to it. Such is life.
By a notable coincidence, Stewart was rich. Not owing to his Christianity, bear in mind; but partly to a faculty for knowing by the look of a sheep, as it raced past, whether the animal was worth six-and-tenpence or seven shillings; partly to his being able to tell, by what was happening in some other quarter of the globe, how the wool-market was going to move; partly to his being connected with a thing that paid; partly to his knowing when he was well off, and leaving the reflected meat to the inverted dog in the water; partly to a stubborn crotchet which made him hold the giver of usury, as well as the taker, to be beyond the pale of mercy; partly to a fine administrative ability; partly to the avoidance of expensive habits — partly to all these combined, but chiefly to the fact that his mana never failed.
Anyway, he could afford to impart, in judicious assistance to deserving and undeserving people, more than the average squatter spends in usury and extravagance put together, and be better off all the while. An illustration may not be amiss here. I’ll tell you what I saw in the Miamia Paddock, on Kooltopa, during the autumn and winter of ’83 — that is, from six to nine months before the date of this discursive, yet faithful, record.
’83 was a bad year. The scanty growth of the ’82 spring had been eaten off nearly as fast as it grew, and afterward the millions of stock had to live — like the Melbourne unemployed of later times — on the glorious sunshine. Then when the winter came, it brought nothing but frost; and the last state of the country was worse than the first. The mile-wide stockroute from Wilcannia to Hay was strewn with carcases of travelling sheep along the whole two hundred and fifty miles. On one part of the route, some frivolous person had stooked the dried mummies (they were lying so thick) in order that drovers and boundary men might have the pleasure of cantering on ahead to run the little mobs out of the way. And as human nature, thus sold, never grudges to others participation in the sell, the stooks improved in size and life-likeness for weeks and months. I remember noticing once, in passing along the fifty-mile stretch of that route which bisects the One Tree Plain, that, taking no account of sheep, I never was out of sight of dying cattle and horses — let alone the dead ones. The famine was sore in the land. To use the expression of men deeply interested in the matter, you could flog a flea from the Murrumbidgee to the Darling. Or, to put it in another way: the life of stock in Riverina was as cheap as the life of the common person in the novels of R. L. Stevenson, Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, and some other modern classics.
Kooltopa, being the best of land, and lightly stocked, was an exception; and thither flocked nearly all the uncircumcised of Riverina, with their homeless bullocks and horses. Stewart was n’t the man to order them off, while ordering would have been of any use; and in affairs of this nature, the squatter who hesitates is lost. The time comes when grass-loafers will stand a lot of ordering off; in extreme cases, such as the one under review, they are about equal in tenacity to the Scythians or the Cimbri of olden times.
There was no end to them. Week after week, month after month, they came stringing-in from seven-syllabled localities on all points of the compass; some with sunburnt wives, and graduated sets of supple-jointed keen-sighted children — the latter, I grieve to admit, distinctly affirming that disquieting theory which assumes evolution of immigrating races toward the aboriginal type.
There was plenty of rough feed in the Mia-mia Paddock, and there the tribes congregated to hold their protracted Feast of Tabernacles, their vast camp-meeting, which they by no means conducted on religious lines. For the easy profanity, unconscious obscenity, and august slang of the back country scented the air like myall; whilst the aggregate repertory of bonâ fide anecdote and reminiscence was something worth while. No young fellow in that great rendezvous dared to embellish his narrative in the slightest degree, on pain of being posted as a double-adjective blatherskite; for his audience was sure to include a couple of critical, cynical, iron-grey cyclopedias of everything Australian — everything, at least, untainted by the spurious and blue-moulded civilisation of the littoral.
An evangelist, collecting money for the support of an Aboriginal mission, went fifty miles out of his way to give these unregenerate brethren a word of exhortation. This good man — he probably never had a sovereign which he regarded as his own; and, rest his soul! he needs no money now — this good man afterward told me, with tears of gratitude and sorrow in his eyes, that he got a fine collection in the Mia-mia, but no souls; and both clauses of his statement seemed to have the ring of truth.
Stewart sullenly avoided this gathering of the clans. He knew he was n’t wanted there; and, as the paddock consisted chiefly of purchased land, he felt that the conventionalities were, in a sense, violated. But what could the people do? It was a miserable business altogether.
At last, moved by the report of the Mia-mia boundary rider, he drove slowly along the river frontage, and saw five miles of wagons, wagonettes, spring-carts, buggies, tents, women, children, dogs, cooking-utensils, and masculine laundry. He saw fellows patching tarpaulins, mending harness making yokes, platting whips, fishing, pig-hunting, reading Ouida, yarning round fires, or trying to invent some new form of gambling; but he only saw their backs, and they did n’t see him at all. He took a tour round the paddock, and found a racecourse duly laid out in a suitable place, with a few fellows training their bits of stuff for a coming event. Others were duck-shooting in the swamps, and others after turkeys on the plains, whilst a few diverted themselves by coursing rabbits on the sand-hills. And as for bullocks and horses — why, they were as grasshoppers for multitude.
A closer examination brought to light his own sheep. Wild and shy, as paddocked merinos always are, these had withdrawn to the quietest places they could find, and were there making the best of a bad job. Stewart lost his temper, for once; and he that is without similar sin among the readers of this simple memoir is hereby authorised to cast the first stone.
He allowed the sun to go down upon his wrath. Next morning, he rallied up all his station hands; mustered the Mia-mia Paddock; distributed the sheep elsewhere over the run; and thus washed his hands of all responsibility touching the welfare of his guests.
Toward spring, he drove round the camps again, pausing here and there to give the trespassers a bit of his mind: ‘Now, boys; I must get you to shift. Lots of perishing teams not able to get down out of the back country till now, and all making for this paddock. Must leave a bit of grass for them when they come.’ And more to the same effect. So the settlement gradually broke-up, and things returned to their normal monotony.
But not altogether so. Some of the nomads wanted land, and had means to back their desire. Rambling leisurely over the station paddocks, with the county map for reference, these people saw where the most eligible allotments were, and presently picked the eyes out of the run; in some cases, shifting straight from their camps to their selections. Such is life.
Saint Peter, I should imagine, had narrowly watched the squatter’s attitude when the Assyrian came down like a person flying from perdition. Afterward, he had noted with approval that the new selectors were treated with the same forbearance and benevolence they had formerly experienced as refugees. But not until he saw Stewart pounce on the incident of the mammoth surprise-party as a clinching argument against land-monopoly, did that austere janitor hang his keys on his thumb, to hunt-up, far back in his book, the page reserved in case of rich men. And still the metaphor of the camel and the needle’s eye stands unimpaired. The difficulties vanish only when you attain some conception of what the Kingdom of God is — how much more to the purpose than pearly gates or jasper seas; how accordant with the Ormuzd in man; how premeditated in design; how indomitable in patience; and how needfully and inexorably guarded by the diminutive portal above referred to.
“Good morning, Collins.”
“Good morning, Mr. Stewart. An early stirrer, by the rood.”
“Yes; I have a (sheol) of a long stage before me to-day. Been travelling all night?”
“Only since about twelve. I camped yesterday in the Dead Man’s Bend, on Mondunbarra. I’ve been kept on the move since dinner-time, or so. Tell you how it came. I was lying in the shade of a tree, having a smoke, and thinking about one thing or another, when I heard some one calling from the other side of the river. It was Mosey Price; and he told me” &c., &c.
Stewart sighed, glanced toward the south-east, produced a cigar-case, took thence three cigars, handed one to me and another to Mungo Park lit the third himself, then smoked listlessly and mechanically.
“Good,” he remarked, throwing away the inch-long stump of his cigar, and gathering his reins. “What’s your name?” he continued, turning to the swagman.
“Bob Stirling,” replied the African explorer. “I worked on Kooltopa, many years ago, but I don’t suppose you remember me.”
“I’m not sure. However, I’ll find a nice comfortable week’s work for you, at all events. Collins, I give you credit. You should have gone into politics. You’d have made a d——d good diplomatist.”
“I’m glad you think so, Mr. Stewart. But the main body of the story has to come. You see, I was, in a sense, no farther forward than at first. Alf’s bullocks were only respited, and briefly at that. So, as I was telling you, I left them against the boundary fence, and walked across to interview this Terrible Tommy. He was my last resource. I just met him carrying home a couple of buckets of water from the lagoon. ‘Evening, sir,’ says I, as sweet as sugar” &c., &c.
Stewart glanced at the blazing orb, now slowly climbing the coppery sky, sighed again, lit another cigar, and smoked impassively.
“D——d if I approve of your action in that instance, Collins,” he remarked gravely, throwing away his second stump, and groping for something under the buggy-seat.
“Indeed, Mr. Stewart, I don’t defend the action. I only endeavour to palliate it on the plea of necessity. And, if Adam fell in the days of innocency, what should poor Tom Collins do in the days of villainy?”
“Shakespear,” observed the squatter approvingly, as he drew a bottle and glass from a candle-box under the seat. “Misquoted, though, unless my memory betrays me. But I look at the thing in this way —— The Poondoo people put a couple of bottles of Albury into the buggy; and I think we can do one of them now, early as it is. When shall we three meet again? Eh? How is that for aptness? A Roland for your (adj.) Oliver. — I look at the thing in this way, Collins — But you mustn’t take anything on an empty stomach. I have some sandwiches here.” He handed a couple to me, a couple to Bob, and reserved a couple for himself. — “I look at the thing in this way. I put myself in Tommy’s place. Now, if any man presumed to play such a trick on me — why, d——n me, I should take it very ill. Now, Collins” ——
“O, stop, please! don’t fill that glass for me! I’m very sensible of your disapproval, Mr. Stewart. I’m more sorry than I can express — not in the way of penitence, certainly, but that I should be unfortunate enough to have incurred your displeasure. I wish you could put yourself in my place, instead of Tommy’s. — Well, long life to you, Mr. Stewart, both for your own sake and the sake of the public.”
“Thanks for the good wish, Collins, and to (sheol) with the flattery. I may tell you that I do put myself in your place, as well as in Tommy’s. But, d——n it, you don’t seem to be alive to the principle of the thing. —— You ’re not a blue-ribboner, I suppose?” And he tendered the replenished glass to Bob. “Bad hand you’ve got, poor fellow. Severe accident apparently?”
“Sepoy bullet at Lucknow, sir. I was a lad of nineteen then; just joined.”
“You’ve been a soldier?”
“Yes, sir; I was an ensign in the Queen’s 64th. We formed part of Havelock’s column of relief.” The placid, unassertive, incapable face told the rest of the poor fellow’s story.
“You don’t seem to be alive to the principle of the thing,” repeated Stewart, turning again to me. “Your cosmopolitanism is a d——d big mistake. Every man has a nationality, remember; and though you’ll find many most excellent fellows of all races, yet, if you want the real thing, you must look” ——
“May God bless you, Mr. Stewart!” murmured Stirling of Ours, raising the glass to his lips.
“Thank you, my friend. —— You must look to Scotland for it. And, d——n it, man, this is the very nationality you have been fleering at. Of course, I don’t dwell on the subject because I happen to be a Scotsman myself; only, I must say I should never have expected —— But what do you think is the matter with Alf Morris?”
“Difficult to say. Some sort of arthrodynic complaint, I fancy; at all events, he’s badly gone in most of his joints.”
“Poor devil!” soliloquised the squatter, filling the glass for himself. “He’s a bad lot — a d—n bad lot — a d—nation bad lot. Bitter, vindictive sort of man. You’re familiar, like myself, with Shakespear; now, Morris reminds me of Titus Andronicus. —— Better luck, boys.”
“Thank you, Mr. Stewart.”
“Thank you, Mr. Stewart.”
“This Titus, as you may remember, was expelled from Athens by the people, after they had elected him consul. They could n’t stand his d—d pride. He took up his abode in a cave, and, for the rest of his life, met every overture of friendship with taunts and insults. Even in his epitaph, written by himself:—
Here rests his head upon the lap of earth——
“Now, d—n it, I committed those lines to memory — ay, forty-five years ago.
I wish I could recall them.”
“I think I can repeat the passage, Mr. Stewart,” said I modestly: —
Here lies a wretched corse, of wretched soul bereft;
Seek not his name. A plague consume you wicked catiffs left.
Here lie I, Timon, who, alive, all living men did hate.
Pass on, and curse thy fill, but pass, and stay not here thy gait.
“Good,” replied the squatter — all his hurry forgotten in the fascination of profitless gossip. “Now there you have Morris to the very life. Hopeless d—d case!”
“But the misanthropy of the Shakespearean hero was not without cause, Mr. Stewart,” I urged. “Given certain rigorous circumstances, acting on a given temperament, and you have a practically inevitable sequence — perhaps a pious faith; perhaps a philosophic calm; perhaps an intensified selfishness; perhaps a sullen despair — in fact, the variety of possible results corresponds exactly with the variety of possible circumstances and temperaments. In the case of the Greek misanthrope, the factor of temperament is first carefully stated; then the factor of circumstances is brought into operation; then the genius of the dramatist supplies the resultant revolution of moral being, in such a manner as to excite sympathy rather than reprobation. Reasoning from cause to effect, we see the inevitableness of the issue. But in Morris’s case, we must reason from effect to cause. We see a certain outcome” ——
“D—d unmistakably,” muttered the squatter.
—— “And it rests with us to account for this from prior conditions of temperament and circumstances. Then we shall have, so to speak, the second and third terms; and from these it won’t be difficult, I think, to calculate the term which should antecede them, namely, temperament. Morris is a widower. His wife was a magnificent singer, and, in a general way, one of those tawny-haired tigresses who leave their mark on a man’s life, and are much better left alone” ——
“Has he any children?” asked Stewart.
“Well, no; these tawny-haired tigresses don’t have children. Anyway, she died some ten years ago; but at the time of her death they had been separated for about three years.”
“They could n’t have been living long together; or else he married young,” suggested Stewart.
“No, they were n’t long together: but Alf is a man of peculiar moral constitution; he frets a lot over her memory; loves and hates her at the same time. Secondary to this, is a misunderstanding with his father, which caused Alf to clear off, leaving the old man to mind everything himself. Of course, I’m only giving you the heads; and my information is derived from no random hearsay, but is obtained by an intransmissible power of induction, rare in our times.”
“Thought as much!” muttered Stewart.
“It remains, then,” I continued, “to determine the temperament which, acted upon by these circumstances, has given the result which is already before us. Now, I think that that temperament, though, perhaps, tending to the volcanic, must have been a sensitive and an amiable one; however it may have soured and hardened into misanthropy and avarice. We can’t all be philosophers, Mr. Stewart.”
“If there’s one thing I hate like (sheol)” replied the squatter gravely, “it is the quoting of Scripture as against my fellow-creature; but, d—n it, we are told that ‘when the righteous man turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity all the days of his vanity which God giveth him under the sun, he shall be likened unto a foolish man that built his house upon the sand.’ You know the rest. If we take upon us to judge Morris at all, we must judge him as he is. Your judgment is generous, but nonsensical; mine is rational, but churlish — d—d churlish.” He paused, in evident discomfort, flicked a roley-poley with his whip, and continued. “You know, I had him on Kooltopa for a couple of months, bringing in pine logs, when Barker’s sawing-plant was there. Well, without going into details —— Capable fellow, too; fine combination of a cultivated man and an experienced rough-and-ready bushman. Strictly honest, also, I think — only for his d—nable disposition.”
“Doctor Johnson liked a good hater,” I suggested sadly, for it was evident that my unfortunate protégé had already, in his own peculiar way, recommended himself to Stewart.
You can imagine, by that circumstance alone, what a strong tincture of venom was held in solution by this feeble tenant of an hour. Indeed, if the matter had rested with the squatters, they would have starved him out of Riverina by industrial boycott. But the in-transport of wool, and the out-transport of goods, are cares that, as a rule, fall to the lot of the forwarding firms; and these resemble George IV., in having no predilections (though, let us hope, the similarity ceases here). Hence, the jolly good soul of a carrier, with lots of spring in him — the man who seldom buys any groceries, whose breath often smells like broached grog-cargo, and who makes a joke of camping for a few weeks with a load on his wagon — is very naturally passed over in favour of the misanthrope who neither asks nor gives quarter. And the personal popularity of the latter with his own guild is not enhanced by this preference.
“Doctor Johnson be d—d!” replied the squatter warmly. “What is his dictum worth? What the (sheol) entitled him, for instance, to sneer at the very element of population that has made Britain a nation? You know what I allude to? Now, speaking with strict impartiality, it strikes me d—d forcibly that the finest prospect England ever saw is the road that leads from Scotland.” He checked himself, and continued in a gentler tone. “That just reminds me of a very able article I read some time ago — I think it was in Blackwood’s. The writer proves that your Shakespear must have imbibed his genius, to a great extent, in Scotland. He grounds his argument partly — and I think, justly — on the fact that the best play in the collection is a purely Scottish one. He makes a d—d strong point, I remember, of the expression, ‘blasted heath.’ ‘Say from whence, upon this blasted heath you stop our way, making night hideous?’ —— and so forth.”
“Yes,” I replied mechanically. And then, avoiding the eye of the grand old saint, and hating myself as a buffoon, I continued, “My own conjecture is that something must have occurred to irritate the dramatist whilst he was writing that passage, and the expression slipped from his pen unawares.”
“Never!” replied Stewart. “No man under the influence of petty irritation ever wrote anything like the passage where that expression occurs. Criticism is not your forte, Collins. The writer I’m speaking of sees a landscape photographed in those two words. Pardon me for saying that your talent seems to run more in the line of low-comedy acting. I don’t like referring to it again, but d—n it all, my interest in you personally makes me feel very strongly over your interview with this Tom Armstrong.”
“Indeed, Mr. Stewart, I can’t tell you how sorry I am to have fallen in your estimation. But you were speaking of Alf Morris when I unfortunately drew you from the subject.”
“Ay. To return to Morris. Do you know how he came to leave the Bland country, some five or six years ago?”
“Well, yes,” I replied reluctantly; “rates are a lot higher here than there.”
“Did you ever hear that he shot anyone? A boundary rider, for instance?”
“The kernel of truth in that report, Mr. Stewart, is that he spoke of a certain boundary rider as a man that deserved shooting.”
“How do you know?”
“Well, in the first place, I’m only allowing for fair average growth in the report; and in the second place, when a person shoots a boundary man, he’s not allowed to just change his district, and go his way in peace.”
“Sometimes he is. I’ll tell you how it happened with Morris.” And the man who had a profanely long stage before him settled into an easy position, his heels on top of the splash-board, and his arms behind the back of the seat, whilst Bob held the reins. “It was on Mirrabooka. O’Grady Brothers had owned the place for a few years; but they were careless and intemperate, great lovers of racehorses, and d—d extravagant all round” ——
“Familiar faults with people named O’Grady,” I remarked.
“You’re perfectly right. They got involved, and had to sell the place. Prescott bought it; and it was about a month after he had taken possession that the thing occurred. During the O’Grady’s time, the bullock drivers had made a d—d thoroughfare of the run, zigzagging from one tank to another, and passing close to the home station. Prescott determined to put a stop to this. He locked all the gates on the track, and secured the tanks with cattle-proof fences, and kept his men foxing the teams day and night; and along with all this, he prosecuted right and left. D—d hard on the bullockies, of course, and far from generous on Prescott’s part; but it acted as a check; and in a couple of months the track was closed for good. However, just in the thick of the trouble, Morris crossed the run, and, of course, fared neither better nor worse than the rest. One evening he was seen taking down a fence and camping at a new tank, a couple of miles from the homestead; and at nine or ten o’clock that night he rode up to the station, and asked to see Mr. Prescott. When Prescott appeared, Morris drew him aside and told him, as cool as a d—d cucumber, that he wanted to make a deposition before him, as a magistrate, to the effect that he had just shot a man for attempting to remove his bullocks. Prescott refused to take the deposition just then; but he had a pair of horses put in a wagonette, and took the storekeeper with him, to accompany Morris to where the thing had happened. When they got there, d—n the sign of a body could they find; but Morris showed them the spot, and strictly charged them to note it well. Then he refused to have anything more to do with the d—d business, and went after his bells, while Prescott and the other fellow returned to the station, cooeeing and listening as they went. They overtook the man on the way, with a revolver bullet-hole through his arm, and the bullet lodged in his side. Of course, he was one of the station men — I forget his name at the present moment, but it’s no matter. When they got the chap home, and found there was nothing dangerous, Prescott had his horse saddled at once, and followed the track till he came to Morris’s wagon; from there he went to the bells, and found Morris minding his bullocks. They had a long conference, and Prescott went home. Next morning, Morris continued his journey; and when he unloaded — about sixty miles this side of Mirrabooka — he came right on to Riverina. Now, Collins; you put a d—d big value on your acumen, and your sagacity, and your penetration, and all the rest of it — What do you make of that story? Mind, I vouch for the truth of it.”
“There’s a hitch somewhere, Mr. Stewart.”
“Confess you’re at fault, d—n you!”
“I am at fault — for once.”
“Good,” replied the squatter complacently. “Now I’ll give you the key. When the O’Gradys sold the station, there was a £200 tank nearly finished, but not paid for; and somehow (d—d if I know how people can make such blunders!) — somehow this tank was overlooked in the valuation. Prescott considered that the terms of sale included the tank, the liability being still on the O’Gradys; while they imagined that the whole transaction was taken off their hands. If the truth must be told, Prescott tried to do a sharp thing, under the cloak of an oversight; and the O’Gradys checkmated him with a d—d sight sharper thing. In this way. Their last action, while the station remained in their power, was to transfer the tank to the Department, on condition that a section of land should be reserved round it. The Department accepted it on these terms, and struck the section off the Mirrabooka assessment; but Prescott got wind of the thing before it was gazetted, and was moving heaven and earth to secure the reserve, just at the time Morris camped there. How Morris came by this information beats the devil; but, of course, all he had to say to Prescott was, ‘I caught some d—d scoundrel stealing my bullocks by night off the Government reserve close by here. I tried without effect to get them from him peaceably; and I was compelled to stop him by force. I was careful to ask him if he was a Government official; but, d—n it, he gave me an insulting answer; then, knowing him to be a cattle-thief at large, I shot him in the act of felony.’ It did n’t suit Prescott to stir-up the question of the reserve just at that time-so what the (sheol) could he do? And, in any case, Morris was within his legal rights; the reserve was as free to him as to Prescott; and, d — n it all, stock must be protected. Curious case altogether. Of course, Prescott afterward got the land secured quietly. But just think of the cold-blooded calculation and d—d unscrupulousness of Morris. He’s a man to be avoided, Collins.”
“Well,” I replied, baffled and hopeless, “I’ve nothing more to say, except that, generally speaking, the man who ought to be avoided is just the sort of person that my own refractory nature clings to with the fellow-feeling which makes us wondrous kind. Therefore I’ll go away sorrowful — not because I have great possessions, for I certainly have n’t — but because my last hope for Alf was that you might interest yourself in his present difficulty.”
A half-inquiring, half-incredulous look crossed the frank face of the fine old believer, followed by one of his evanescent frowns.
“Why, d—n it, man, have n’t I arranged that already with Bob here?” said he, resuming a normal position on the seat, and taking the reins from his companion’s hand. “We’re going straight to the Dead Man’s Bend. Never you fear; I’ll see Morris through.”
“I’ll never forget your kindness, Mr. Stewart.”
“Nonsense. But is n’t it a most remarkable thing — what we’re too apt to call a mere coincidence? Here I find Bob footsore, through walking in bad boots; and while I’m wondering what in the devil’s name to do with him, you tell me of Morris; and I see immediately why Bob was placed in my way. It’s the legislation of an unsleeping Providence, Collins-nothing short of it. We meet with these Divine adjustments of circumstances every day of our lives, if we only choose to recognise them. Thinking over these things makes me feel devilish small in my own eyes, but all the more confident, knowing that not a sparrow falls to the ground without — — Oh, d — n it! look where the sun has got to! Good-bye! I mightn’t see you again. I’ve sold Kooltopa.”
“Ay. Crowded-out. Going to Queensland. They’ll tell you about it at Poondoo. Good-bye.”
“Good-bye, Mr. Stewart.”
Tom Collins [Joseph Furphy]. Such is Life, The Bulletin Newspaper Company, Sydney, 1903