[Editor: This is the first part of Chapter Six 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.]
SAT. FEB. 9. Runnymede. To Alf Jones’s.
Not much in that bill of fare, you think? Perhaps not. Nor was Count Federigo degli Alberighi’s falcon much of a banquet for the Lady Giovanna, though that meagre catering cost a considerable jar to the sensibilities of the impoverished aristocrat — accurately represented, in this instance, by the writer of these memoirs. Of course, I am committed to any narration imposed by my random election of dates; but just notice that perversity, that untowardness, that cussedness in the affairs of men, which brings me back to Runnymede, above all places in the spacious south-western quarter of the Mother Province. The unforeseen sequences of that original option are masters of the situation, till they run their course — and most tyrannical masters they are. They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly, but, bear-like, I must fight the course. Ay! your first-person-singular novelist delights in relating his love-story, simply because he can invent something to pamper his own romantic notions; whereas, a similar undertaking makes the faithful chronicler squirm inasmuch as Oh! —— you’ll find out soon enough.
Five days before the date of this entry, I had received orders to proceed at once to Runnymede, and there to complete an M-form, which would in the meantime be forwarded from our Central Office to Mr. Montgomery. Twelve hours’ riding had brought me to the station, but the document had not arrived, so there was nothing for it but to wait till the next mail came in. That would be on the 9th.
Being a little too exalted for the men’s hut, and a great deal too vile for the boss’s house, I was quartered in the narangies’ barracks.
Social status, apart from all consideration of mind, manners, or even money, is more accurately weighed on a right-thinking Australian station than anywhere else in the world.
The folk-lore of Riverina is rich in variations of a mythus, pointing to the David-and-Goliath combat between a quiet wage-slave and a domineering squatter, in the brave days of old. With one solitary exception, each station from the Murray to the Darling claims and holds this legend as its own. On Kooltopa alone, the tables are turned, and the amiable Stewart makes a holy show of the truculent rouse-about. But on no station, not even on Kooltopa, has imagination bodied forth, or tradition handed down, any such vagary as might imply that a wage-slave saw the inside of the house or the barracks. And a narangy will always avoid your eye as he relates how, on some momentous occasion, the boss invited him to step in and take a seat. In the accurately-graded society of a proper station, you have a reproduction of the Temple economy under the old Jewish ritual. The manager’s house is a Sanctum Sanctorum, wherein no one but the high priest enters; the barracks is an Inner Court, accessible to the priests only; the men’s hut is an Outer Court, for the accommodation of lay worshippers; and the nearest pine-ridge, or perhaps one of the empty huts at the wool-shed, is the Court of the Gentiles. And the restrictions of the Temple were never more rigid than those of a self-respecting station. This usage, of course, bears fruit after its kind.
It was more than a mere custom with the mediaeval baron — it was a large part of the religion which guided his rascally life — to wolf his half-raw pork in fellowship with his rouse-abouts; hence he could bash the latter about at pleasure; and they, in return, were prepared to die in his service. A good solid social system, in its own brutal and non-progressive way. The squatter, of course, cannot get back to the long table with the dogs underneath; but he ought to think-out some practicable equivalent to the baron’s crude and lop-sided camaraderie — this having been a necessary condition of vassal loyalty in olden time. Without vassal loyalty, or abject vassal fear, the monopolist’s sleep can never be secure. Domination, to be unassailable, must have overwhelming force in reserve — moral force, as in the feudal system, or physical force, as in our police system. The labour-leader, of accredited integrity and capability, though (so to speak) ducally weedy, has moral force in reserve; and we all know how he controls the many-headed. Also, the man glaringly destitute of integrity or capacity, but noticed as having a bullet-head, a square jaw, countersunk eyes, and the rest in proportion, is suspected of having the other kind of force in reserve; and we know how he escapes anything like wanton personal indignity in his intercourse with gentle or simple. Now, the only reserve-force adherent to station aristocracy resides in the manager’s power to “sack.”
The squatter of half-a-century ago dominated his immigrant servants by moral force — no difficult matter, with a ‘gentleman’ on one side and a squad of hereditary grovellers on the other. He dominated his convict servants by physical force — an equally easy task. But now the old squatter has gone to the mansions above; the immigrant and old hand to the kitchen below; and between the self-valuation of the latter-day squatter and that of his contemporary wage-slave, there is very little to choose. Hence the toe of the blucher treads on the heel of the tan boot, and galls its stitches. The average share of that knowledge which is power is undoubtedly in favour of the tan boot; but the preponderant moiety is just as surely held by the blucher. In our democracy, the sum of cultivated intelligence, and corresponding sensitiveness to affront, is dangerously high, and becoming higher. On the other hand, the squatter, even if pliant by disposition, cannot spring to the strain; social usage being territorial rather than personal; so here, you see, we have the two factors which should blend together in harmony — namely, the stubborn tradition of the soil, and the elastic genius of the ‘masses’ — divorced by an ever-widening breach. There are two remedies, and only two, available; failing one of these, something must, soon or later, give way with a crash. Either the anachronistic tradition must make suicidal concessions, or the better-class people must drown all plebeian Australian males in infancy, and fill the vacancy with Asiatics.
My acquaintance with Runnymede dated from about seven years before. Tracking three stray steers, I had reached the station at sunset. I had come more than sixty miles — nearly all unstocked country — in two days, and with only one chance meal. My horse was provokingly fagged . I was ragged by reason of the scrub, and dirty for lack of water: whilst an ill-spelled and ungrammatical order on Naylor of Koolybooka, for £28, was the nearest approach to money in my possession. I had left my cattle-tracks, and was approaching the home-station, when I met Mr. Montgomery himself. I told him my story. ‘Oh, well; go to the store and get your rations,’ said he disgustedly. ‘And, see — if those steers of yours are on the run, get them off as quick as possible. Fence-breakers, no doubt. Come! hurry-up, or the store will be closed!’ The storekeeper measured me out a pannikin of dust into a newspaper, and directed me to the left-hand corner of the ram-paddock, as the best place for my horse. There, in the spacious Court of the Gentiles, I made a fire, worked up my johnny-cake on the flat top of the corner post, ate it hot off the coals, then lay down in swino-philosophic contentment, and read the newspaper till I could smell my hair scorching, and so to sleep.
My next visit to Runnymede took place about three years later. I had timed myself to draw-up to the station on a Saturday afternoon, with five-ton-seventeen of wire. Montgomery met me, as before. ‘You’re Collins, aren’t you? I’ve got the duplicate. We won’t disturb your load till Monday. Shove your trespassers in the ration-paddock, and go and stop in the hut.’ I was rising in the world.
Next time I called at Runnymede, it was to inspect and verify the register which Montgomery was supposed to keep for my Department. Being now worthy of the Inner Court, I was told-off to sleep in the spare bed in Moriarty’s room, and to sit at meat with the narangies, where we were waited on by a menial. If my social evolution had continued — if I had expanded, for instance, into a literary tourist, of sound Conservative principles — I would have seen the inside of the boss’s house before I had done. But, as it happened, I withered and contracted from that point — simultaneously, mind you, with a perceptible diminution of my inherent ignorance and correlative uselessness. Such, however, is life.
But on the present occasion I had been quartered in the barracks for four whole days, as idle as a freshly-painted ship upon an ocean made iridescent by the unavoidable dripping and sprinkling of the pigment used. (A clumsy metaphor, but happily not my own). This lethargy was inexcusable. I had three note-books filled with valuable memoranda for a Series of Shakespearean Studies; and O, how I longed for a few days’ untroubled leisure, just to break ground on the work. Those notes had been written in noisy huts, or by flickering firelight, or on horseback — written in eager activity of mind, and in hope of such an opportunity for amplification as I was now letting slip. But I have one besetting sin; and this Delilah, scissors in hand, had dogged me to Runnymede, and polled me by the skull. Nor could I plead inadvertence when I gravitated into the old familiar vice; but I left the consequences for an after-consideration. The opportunity was there, like an uncorked bottle under a dipsomaniac’s nose, and that was enough. ‘One more,’ I kept saying to myself; ‘one more, and that’s the last; so sweet was ne’er so fatal.’
According to the unhappy custom of besetting sins, this evil thing came upon me the moment I woke on the morning of the 9th. I slipped into my clothes, and started off along the horse-paddock fence toward a natural hollow, a mile from the station. Here twelve or fifteen years’ continuous trampling by the worst-smelling of ruminants (bar the billygoat) on ground theretofore untrodden except by blackfellows, birds, and marsupials, had developed a pond, sometimes a couple of acres in area, and eight feet deep in the middle, and sometimes dry. Full or dry, fresh or rotten, the pond was known as the ‘swimming-hole.’ At the time I speak of, the water was about half-gone, in both senses, and evaporating at the rate of an inch a day.
With a good supple stem of old-man saltbush I dispersed three snakes that lay around the margin, waiting for frogs; then I noticed my empty clothes lying on the bank, and found myself sliding through the lukewarm water, recklessly and wickedly discounting the prospective virility of another day; and there I remained till I thought it was time to go to breakfast.
Nothing but that integrity which springs from the certainty of being ultimately found-out, prompts me to the foregoing confession — a confession which I cannot but regard as damaging, from the literary, as well as from the moral, point of view. And for this reason.
During the last twenty or thirty years, the foremost humorist of our language has, from time to time, casually touched on the removal of natural and acquired dirt by means of bathing; but however lightly and racily this subject might leave his pen, it has been degraded into repulsiveness by the clumsy handling of imitators. Some things look best when merely implied in the dim background, and recent literature certainly proves this to be one of them. There is nothing dainty or picturesque in the presentment of a naked character washing himself; yet how few of our later novels or notes of travel are without that bit of description; generally set-off by an ungainly reflection on the dirt of some other person, class, or community. The noxious affectation is everywhere. Even the Salvation officer cannot now write his contribution to the War Cry without a detailed account of the bath he took on this or that occasion — a thing which has no interest whatever for anyone but himself. It would be much more becoming to wash our dirty skins, as well as our dirty calico, in private.
We might advantageously copy women-writers here. Woman, in the nature of things, must accumulate dirt, as we do; and she must now and then wash that dirt off, or it would be there still. (Like St. Paul, I speak as a man.) But the scribess never parades her ablutions on the printed page. If, for instance, you could prevail upon the whole galaxy of Australian authoresses and pen-women to attend a Northern Victoria Agricultural Show, in their literary capacity, you would see proof of this. Each would write her catalogue of aristocratic visitors, her unfavourable impressions re quality of refreshments, her sarcastic notice of other women’s attire, and her fragmentary observations on the floral exhibits; but not one would wind-up her memoir with an account of the ‘tubbing’ she gave herself in the seclusion of her lodgings when the turmoil was over. Woman must be more than figuratively a poem if she can promenade a dusty show-yard for a long, hot afternoon without increasing in weight by exogenous accretion; but her soulfulness, however powerless to disallow dirt, silently asserts itself when that dirt comes to be shifted.
However, mere fidelity to fact brings me into the swim — in the figurative sense, as well as in the literal — and the sad consciousness of fellowship with men who ‘tub’ themselves on paper is added to the humiliation of the disclosure itself. In a word, just as I lost my vigour in the swimming-hole, I lose my individuality in the confession. But I don’t lose my discrimination, nor my veracity. I don’t call my evil good. In Physical Science, or in Pure Ethics — whoop! I am Antony yet!
Nature, by a kind of Monroe Doctrine, has allotted the dry land to man, and various other animals; the water to fish, leeches, etc.; the air to birds, bats, flies, etc.; the fire to salamanders, imps, unbaptised babies, etc.; and she strictly penalises the trespass of each class on the domain of any other. Naturally then, about sixteen raids, within four days, on an alien element, had stewed every atom of vigour out of my system, and quenched every spark of heroism.
Consider the child. He is the creature of instinct; and instinct — according to my late relative, Wilkie Collins — never errs, though reason often does so, as we know to our cost. Now, the picaninny knows what is good for him. Place him in promixity to a dust-hole or an ash-heap, and observe what takes place. He approaches it with that droll, yet pathetic, method of locomotion peculiar to his period of life — travelling on both hands and one knee, whilst with the big toe of the other hind-foot he propels himself along. In the very centre of the dirt, he deftly whirls into a sitting position, and proceeds to redeem the time, maintaining, meanwhile, that silence which is the perfectest herald of joy. Ormuzd the Good has inspired him with this inclination. But the Minister of Ahriman the Evil is not far off. The able-bodied mother seizes the mite of a bambino by the wrist, and carries him at arm’s-length to the kitchen. It is to no purpose that he becomes alternately rigid and flaccid, lifting up his voice in clamorous protest, and making himself as heavy as a bag of shot. That misguided woman denudes him, washes him, rubs soap into his eyes, spanks him, re-arrays him, and sets him in a clean place, giving him a teaspoon to play with. Then she resumes her household work; whereupon Ormuzd whispers in the pledge’s projecting ear, and that heaven-directed bimbo straightway turns his head toward the dust-hole, and, again illustrating the first clause of the Sphynx’s not very complicated riddle, keeps the strictly noiseless tenor of his way, till Ahriman’s priestess looks round to see the metaphors fulfilled, of the pup turning again to his ashheap, and the papoose that was washed wallowing in the dust-hole. And so the pull-devil-pull-baker strife goes on to the last syllable of recorded time — not between mother and child, as you are prone to imagine, but between the two great principles of Good and Evil, so widely allegorised and personified, yet so uncertainly grasped, and so loosely defined. The result is sad enough: physically, not one in ten of us is what the doctor ordered, and, of course, brought; mentally, we are mostly fools; morally, we are, in a sense, little better than we ought to be. And such is life.
At breakfast, I remember, there occurred a slight misunderstanding between Mrs. Beaudesart, the housekeeper, and Ida, the white trash whose vocation was to wait on the narangies.
Mrs. Beaudesart was well-born. Don’t study that expression too closely, or you’ll get puzzled. Her father, Hungry Buckley, of Baroona — a gentleman addicted to high living and extremely plain thinking — had been snuffed-out by apoplexy, and abundantly filled a premature grave, some time in the early ’sixties, after seeing Baroona pass, by foreclosure, into the hands of a brainy and nosey financier. People who had known the poor gentleman when he was very emphatically in the flesh, and had listened to his palaver, and noticed his feckless way of going about things, were not surprised at the misfortune that had struck Buckley. Mrs. B. had then taken a small villa, near Sydney, where, in course of time, her son and daughter took positions of vantage, such as their circumstances allowed; each being prepared to stake his or her gentility (an objectionable word, but it has no synonym; and nasty things have nasty names) against any amount of filth that could be planked down by an aspiring representative of the opposite sex.
But young Mr. Buckley, who was something indefinite in a bank, presently ventured on a bit of blacksmith work, and being, by reason of hopeless impecuniosity, not worth lenient treatment, got a tenner hard. About the same time, Miss Buckley — then a singularly handsome young lady — became a veritable heroine of romance. A German prince, whose name I forget at the present moment, visited these provinces; and our Beatrix Esmond —— Well, perhaps a reflected greatness is better than no greatness at all.
So, at all events, thought Mr. Lionel Fysshe-Jhonson, who married Miss Buckley on the strength of her celebrity. This young man in less than two years went to his reward; and his widow, after a seemly interval, reinforced her financial position by accepting the hand and heart of old Mr. Tidy, an aitchless property-owner, whose hobby was to collect his own rents. Bottoming on gold this time, she buried the old man within eighteen months, and paid probate duty on £25,000. After three years of something like life, she accepted the addresses of the Hon. Henry Beaudesart, a social refugee from Belgravia (wherever that may be). This was a gentleman of such refined tastes that it took over £10,000 a year to satisfy his soul-yearnings; so, when she buried him, after two years’ trial it was in the sure and certain hope that he would stay where he was put. This brought her to about the year ’78. And the tide had turned.
For the next two years, the poor gentlewoman hung round the scene of her former glories, wearing garments that were out of fashion, and otherwise drinking to its very dregs the cup of bitterness which a heartless society holds to the lips of its deposed queen. The elegancies of life were necessities to her; but those elegancies would cost — to put it tangibly — the balance of profit accruing from the continuous labour of at least fifty average industrious women. And when the industrious women were not to the fore, where were the elegancies to come from? Where, indeed! It is a question which has broken many a gentler heart than Maud Beaudesart’s, and will break many more. It is a cruel question; but not to put it would be more cruel still. For while this or that gentlewoman is in danger, no gentlewoman is safe. And the basest type of mind is that which gloats on the adversity of the world’s spoiled child; the next basest is that which concentrates its sympathy on the same adversity; the least base, I think, is that which, goaded by a human compassion for all human distress, longs to get a lever under the order of things which necessitates the spoiling of any particular child.
Two or three years before the date of this record, Mrs. Montgomery, a distant relation and boarding-school friend of Mrs. Beaudesart, had met the latter in Sydney, and had brought her out to Runnymede. Montgomery, viewing the tenacious widow as a fixture, had insisted upon her having some definite status on the place, and she was therefore installed as housekeeper. Little wonder that the poor gentlewoman, remembering her own departed greatness, and chafing under the mild yoke of Mrs. Montgomery, used to make the handmaidens of the household wish themselves in Gehenna. Dionysius the Younger, shifted from his throne, opened a school, so that he might take it out of the boys. Such is life.
Levites, tribesmen, and Gentiles alike, used to poke fun at me over Mrs. Beaudesart; but the fact that they thought they knew my real standing, whereas they did n’t, seemed to weigh so much in my favour as to make their banter anything but provoking. Yet my relations with the gentlewoman were painful enough. I’ll tell you exactly how we stood.
On my first official visit to Runnymede, whilst Montgomery and I stood talking in front of the store, Mrs. Beaudesart passed by. He detained her a moment to speak of my sleeping-accommodation, but first, with grave courtliness, introduced me to her as the last lineal descendant of Commander David Collins, R.N. Situated as I was, what could I say? — what would you have said? I had to fall in with the thing at the time; and having done so, of course, I had to live up to it; moreover this meant a good deal when I had to beat time with a woman like Maud. In spite of my chivalrous disinclination to flaunt superior descent in the face of a lady, our shuddersome intimacy deepened; and the necessity for keeping up my accompaniment seemed to grow more imperative as it became more difficult. But even at this distance of time, it soothes me to remember that I went through the ordeal without any sacrifice of veracity — partly by modest reticence touching my forbears, and the rest by a little diplomacy. For instance, in remarking that my grandfather, Sir Timothy Collins, had been well known in connection with the turf, I omitted to explain that he was allowed to obtain it only from a specified bog, and that his custom was to sell it at the stump for so much per donkey-load, to be taken out in spuds or oatmeal. Altogether, I got on better than you might expect. Meanwhile, some unhappy hitch in the Order of Things, as well as that strange fascination which accompanies danger of detection, kept dragging me to Runnymede on every pretext.
Another thing. Mrs. Beaudesart possessed a vast store of Debrett — information touching those early gentlemen-colonists whose enterprise is hymned by loftier harps than mine, but whose sordid greed and unspeakable arrogance has yet to be said or sung. Socially, she knew something fie-fie about most of our old nobility; and her class-sympathy, supported by the quasi-sacredness which invests aristocratic giddiness, lent tenderness of colour and accuracy of detail to some queer revelations. She could make me fancy myself in ancient Corinth.
And such was her hypnotic power, or my adaptability, that in the atmosphere of Runnymede I became a Conservative of the good old type, and actually enjoyed the communion of soul necessarily subsisting between a pedigreed lady and a pedigreed gentleman. We habitually spoke of the Montgomerys as of the wealthy lower orders, people of yesterday, and so forth; and because we took especial care to let nobody hear us, the jealousy of our inferiors manifested itself in that badinage so dear to the middle-class mind. ‘Inferiors,’ I say advisedly, for there was an indescribable something about us two when we got together, a something too subtle for expression in the vulgar tongue, which made us feel the station aristocracy to be a mere bourgeoisie, and ourselves the real Mackay. Of course, Montgomery had forgotten my high descent as soon as the words of introduction were out of his mouth; and I had begged the lady to conceal my gentilesse for the present; family pride causing me to be extremely sensitive on the subject of my low position. This was the only witchcraft I had used.
Ida, the handmaid of the barracks, was a common person. She certainly belonged to the same mammiferous division of vertebrata as Mrs. Beaudesart, but there the affinity ended with a jerk. In a word, she was the low-born daughter of a late poverty-stricken Victorian selector. Her father, after twelve years’ manful struggle with a bad selection, had hanged himself in the stable; whereupon the storekeeper had sold the movables, and the mortgagee the farm. Runnymede was Ida’s first situation. Her wages, month by month, went to the support of her broken-down mother, then living frugally in a country township, taking care of Ida’s remaining brother, who had been knocked out of shape through getting run-over, in a painfully protracted way, by a heavy set of harrows. Her other brother had unfortunately sat down to eat his lunch on the wrong side of a partly grubbed tree.
Altogether, poor Ida had very little to be thankful for. Personally, she was, without any exception, the ugliest white girl I ever saw. She measured about twice as long from the chin to Self-Esteem as from Benevolence to Amativeness; not one feature of her face was even middling; her skin was of a neutral creamy tint; and she had a straggly goatee of dirty white, with woolly side-boards of the same colour, in lieu of the short, silky moustache which is the piquant trade-mark of our country-women. Besides this, she was lame, on account of the back-sinew of one of her ankles having been cut through by a reaping-machine; and in addition to all this, the fingers of her left hand had been snipped to a uniform length, through getting into the feed of a chaff-cutter. Montgomery had picked her purposely for the barracks — so, at least, he told Mrs. Montgomery; so she told Mrs. Beaudesart, and so the latter told me. For myself, I often felt an impulse to marry the poor mortal; partly from compassion; partly from the idea that such an action would redound largely to my honour; and partly from the impression that such an unattractive woman would idolise a fellow like me.
The daughter of an unlucky selector is not taught to spare herself; and Ida was an untiring and conscientious worker. For the rest, she was a generous, patient, self-denying girl, transparently honest in word and deed; the gentle soul shining through its homely mask, like a candle in a bottle. Upon the whole, ugly, illiterate — and, above all, ill-starred, lowly, and defenceless — as she was, she would have made an admirable butt for the flea-power of your illustrated comic journal.
Mrs. Beaudesart abhorred Ida for her ugliness, for her vulgarity, for her simplicity, but chiefly for her name. (I can sympathise with the gentlewoman here — remembering how rancorously I once hated another boy because he came from the Isle of Wight.) Yet the two mammals’ chronic state of friction was partly chargeable on Ida, who would answer back, in her own milk-and-water way. And, to add to the aggravation, she could n’t answer back without crying.
Something had gone wrong, as usual, this morning; and Mrs. Beaudesart remained in the narangies’ breakfast-room, mildly glowering into Ida’s tear-stained face, and noting with polite deprecation the convulsive sobs which the sensitive girl vainly tried to repress before the young fellows. Beauty in distress is a favorite theme of your shallow romancists; but, to the philosophic mind, its pathos is nothing to that of ugliness in distress. At the best of times, poor Ida was heart-breaking; her sunniest smile wrung my soul with commiseration; and when the sympathy naturally accorded to helpless anguish was superimposed upon that which she claimed as her birthright, the pressure became intolerable. It had always been my consolation to think that she would yet be a bright and beautiful angel; and now I fell back for solace upon that thought — though how the thing was to be accomplished seemed a problem too vast for the grasp of a water-worn and partially dissolved understanding like mine.
“Remember, Mary, I reprimand you for your own good,” murmured the lady. “Of course, brought up as you have been, you can’t be expected to have the manners we look for in the servants of a well-conducted household; so when I consider it my duty to instruct you in the decencies of life, you mustn’t take it ill. People have to suffer for their ignorance, Mary, as well as for their faults. I know how you must feel it; but parents in the position that yours were in should send their children to service before they are too old for the necessary training.”
“My parents done the best they could to keep their home together,” protested the girl, in a choking voice.
“Speak grammatically, my dear. No doubt your parents did as you say, but my point is, that they forgot their position. Instead of accepting the fair wages and abundant food which society offers to their class, they joined the hungry horde that has cut up those fine Victorian stations. Part of the retribution justly falls on their children; part, of course, on themselves. Your father, I venture to say, often envied the life of the domestic animals on the station where he had selected. But he aimed at independence — independence! A fine word, Mary, but a poor reality. This idea of independence is much too common amongst people who, however poorly they may fare, are nevertheless better fed than taught. I’m afraid you wilfully overlook the religious side of the question, Mary; the divine command to do our duty in that state of life in which it has pleased God to call us. Service is honourable” ——
Here Ida sobbed out something that sounded like a rejoinder; and there was a harder ring in the lady’s voice as she continued, without pausing:
“Yes, my dear; if your parents had known themselves, and had cheerfully remained in the position for which their birth and education fitted them, you would have been spared many humiliations, and it would have been better for your father, both in time and in eternity.”
“O, can’t you let him rest in his grave?” sobbed the girl.
“I have no wish to condemn him, Mary,” replied the lady soothingly. “I assure you it is dreadful to me to realise the fate of that poor man, where the worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. I was only wishing to show you what a tempting of Providence it is for people of the lower classes to have notions above what their Maker intends for them. And you know how prone you are to forget your place — as you did this morning. Susan has the same fault, I’m sorry to say; but I condone it to some extent in her. She has the advantage of good looks, and naturally expects to better her condition by marriage; but surely, Mary, one glance at yourself in the glass ought to show you the impropriety of counting upon any endowment of nature.”
“Indeed, I know I’m no beauty,” blubbered Ida; and her tears rained hot and fast on the back of my neck, as she replaced my coffee-cup.
“Of course, you didn’t make yourself,” pursued the lady blandly; “but in view of your lack of personal attractions, you should endeavour to cultivate the modest and respectful demeanour which befits a sphere of life that you are likely to occupy permanently. No doubt it was good policy to transport yourself to a locality where the males of your own class are in such large majority; but the movement is still attended by certain disadvantages. A female whose looks approach repulsiveness should, at least, have a character beyond suspicion; and for any woman to run away from the neighbourhood where her doings are known, is not the way to inspire confidence. And though it has pleased God, for your own good, to remove the snare of beauty far from you, yet —— Well, we must believe what we hear on good authority. Your master, before engaging you, should have made some inquiry regarding your antecedents, and not have left these things to leak-out. I wish I could hold you guiltless, Mary. Ask your own conscience whether you were justified in obtaining entry to an establishment like this. It places me in a very difficult” ——
Here Ida turned, and, with blazing, tearless eyes, fearlessly fronted her fellow-mammal. The latter faltered, and paused. She had gone a step too far, and had trod on the lion’s tail.
“What’s that you say, you wicked woman?” demanded Ida, in a calm voice, yet breathing heavily. “Ain’t I miserable enough without you lyin’ away my character? I’ll make you prove your words, as sure as you’re standin’ there.”
“You’re forgetting yourself!” replied the housekeeper haughtily, though still quailing before the girl’s terrible plainness of speech and person.
“Am I, indeed? Well, we’ll both go straight to Mrs. Montgomery — she’s your missus as well as mine, she is — an’ we’ll git her to write to a dozen people that knows me since I wasn’t as high as that windy-sill. I’ll make it hot for you, Mrs. Bodyzart, so I will.”
“What impertinence!” ejaculated the lady, moistening her lips. “Leave the apartment, this instant, Mary; and send” ——
“How dare you call me out o’ my name? — for two pins, I’d slap your face!” replied Ida, her voice rising to a hysterical scream. “You know what my proper name is, so you do! An’ I won’t leave the apartment to please you, so I won’t! Think God made me for the likes o’ you to wipe your feet on? Think I bin behavin’ myself decent all my life, for you to put a slur on me? If I wanted to bemean myself, could n’t I cast up somethin’ you would n’t like to be minded of? Ain’t you ashamed o’ yourself, you ole she-devil?”
“Gentlemen, I must apologise for my servant,” said the housekeeper, with quiet dignity. “She seems to have taken leave of her senses. I trust you will overlook her rudeness. She knows no better.”
“They can’t help doin’ me justice; an’ that’s all I ask from anybody,” rejoined Ida, looking appealingly round the table. “An’ look here, Mrs. Bodyzart: I bin full up o’ your nag-nag ever since I come to this house: an’ I put up with it for the sake o’ other people; but now you’ve put a slur on my character; an’ it’s me an’ you for it. I ain’t goin’ to let this drop.”
“I must withdraw, gentlemen,” said the lady forbearingly. “Pray forget the unhappy scene you have been forced to witness; and let me beg of you, for this poor woman’s sake, to leave all further pursuit of the matter entirely in my hands. Whilst she remains in this establishment, I must continue to shield her from the penalties to which she insists upon exposing herself. Come, Mary; dry your eyes, and attend to your duties. The time is coming when you will thank me for the discipline to which you are now subjected.” And Mrs. Beaudesart retired, greater in defeat than in victory.
“I never expected anybody to put a slur on me,” faltered Ida apologetically, after a minute’s silence.
“Haud yir toang, lassie, fir Gode-sak,” snarled the sheep-overseer, who was the senior of our company. “Be ma saul, an A hid ony say intil’t, A’d whang the de’il oot o’ ye baith wi’ a stokewhup.”
“By George! you better not include Mrs. Beaudesart in your goodwill,” remarked young Mooney gravely. “You’ll have Collins in your wool.”
“Keep your temper, Collins,” murmured Nelson. “I can imagine your feelings; but M’Murdo didn’t think of you being here when he spoke.”
“The de’il haet A care fir Collins, ony mair nir A dae fir yir ain sel’, Nelson!” replied Mac defiantly. “Od! air ye no din greetin’ the yet, lassie?” he continued, turning to Ida. “No anither pegh oot o’ yir heed, ir bagode A’ll tak’ ye in han’.”
Ida dried her eyes, and with the more alacrity forasmuch as an approaching step crunched the gravel outside. It was Priestley, a bullock driver who had drawn up to the store on the previous-evening; a decent sort of vulgarian, but altogether too industrious to get any further forward than the extreme tail-end of his profession.
Some carriers never learn the great lesson, that to everything there is a time and a season — a time for work, and a time for repose — hence you find the industrious man’s inveterately leg-weary set of frames in hopeless competition with the judiciously lazy man’s string of daisies. The contrast is sickening. Moreover, the same rule holds fairly well throughout the whole region of industry. But the Scotch-navigator can’t see it. He is too furiously busy for eighteen hours out of the twenty-four to notice that, even in the most literal sense, loafing has a more intimate connection with bread-winning than working can possibly have. Such a man finds himself born unto trouble, as the sparks fly in all directions; but he is merely aware of undergoing a chastening process, just as the tethered calf is aware that he always turns a flying somersault when he impetuously charges in any direction away from his peg; and this simply because the man knows as much about the Order of Things as the calf knows about Euclid’s definition of a radial line. The fact is, that the Order of Things — rightly understood — is not susceptible of any coercion whatever, and must be humoured in every possible way. In the race of life, my son, you must run cunning, reserving your sprint for the tactical moment. Priestley ran bull-headed. In consequence of being always at work, he could get very little work done; and, being pursuantly in a chronic state of debt and destitution, he got only the work that intermittently slothful men would n’t take at the price. It is scarcely necessary to add that he had a wife and about thirteen small children, mostly girls.
“Mornin’, chaps,” said this plebeian, standing between the wind and our nobility, with a hand on each door-post. “Hope you’re enjoyin’ yourselves. Say, Moriarty; I’m waitin’ to git that bit o’ loadin’ off.”
“I’ll be with you in two minutes,” replied the young storekeeper. “I know you always want to get away.”
“Say, chaps,” continued the bullock driver, advancing into the room, and glancing confidentially round the table, “think there’s any use o’ me stickin’ up the boss for leaf to take the buggy-track to Nalrookar? See, I could make the Fog-a-bolla Tank to-night; an’ there’s boun’ to be a bit o’ blue-bush, if not crows-foot, on them sand-hills. Then I’d fetch Nalrookar to-morrow, easy. I got two-ton-five for there; an’ I’m thinkin’ I’ll have a job to deliver it, if I can’t git through your run. What do you think, chaps?”
“Why didn’t you take this into consideration when you loaded?” demanded young Arblaster.
“Well, beggars ain’t choosers,” replied the apostle of brute force and ignorance. “Fact was, Arblaster, I bethought me what a lot o’ work I’d done for Magomery, one time or another, an’ what good friends me an’ him always was; an’ I says to myself, ‘Well, I’ll chance her — make a spoon, or spoil a horn.’ That’s the way I reasoned it out. See, if I got to turn roun’, an’ foller the main track back agen to the Cane-grass Swamp, an’ take the Nalrookar track from there, I won’t fetch the station much short o’ fifty mile; an’ there ain’t a middlin’ camp the whole road. Everythin’ et right into the ground. Starve a locust. ’Sides, I’m jubious about the Convincer Sand-hill, even with half a load. Bullocks too weak.”
“Well, it’s hardly likely the boss would let you cross the run,” replied Arblaster. “He’d be a d—d fool if he did.”
“I’m afraid there’s no use asking him, Priestley,” added Nelson. “He won’t make a thoroughfare of the run, at any price. For instance, when Baxter and Donovan delivered that well-timber in the Quondong Paddock, the other day, they were n’t five mile from the main road — and a gate to go through — but he made them come right back by the station; thirty mile of a roundabout; and their cheques were n’t forthcoming till they did it. No, Priestley; to ask Montgomery is simply to get a refusal; and to argue with him is simply to get insulted.”
“Well, I s’pose I must worry through, some road,” said the bullock driver resignedly, as he turned and went out.
“Fifty miles instead of twenty-two,” remarked Mooney. “Hard enough case.”
“And yet it’s necessary, in a sense,” replied Nelson. “Same time, anybody except the like of Montgomery would spring a bit in a season like this. I couldn’t crush a poor, decent, hard-working devil like that. I’d give him a thorough good blackguarding for calculating upon crossing the run; and then, as a matter of form, I’d send a man with him, to see him across. Well, I suppose we must go and get our mot d’ ordre, boys.”
So we left the breakfast-room to Ida. The four narangies, with the practical M’Murdo, went to the veranda of the boss’s house for their day’s orders; Moriarty, with a ring of keys in his hand, sauntered across to the store; and I managed to drag myself out to a seat built against the south side of the barracks, whence I torpidly surveyed the scene around, whilst listening to my vitality whistling out through four million yawning pores.
In an open shed, near the store — where two tribesmen were now assisting Priestley to unload — a travelling saddler and Salvationist, named (without a word of a lie) Joey Possum, was at work on the horse-furniture of the station; his tilted wagonette, blazoned with his name and title, JOSEPH PAWSOME, SADDLER, standing close by. Watching these lewd fellows of the baser sort at their sordid toil, my mind reverted to certain incidents of the preceding night, and so drifted into a speculation on the peculiar kind of difficulties which at certain times beset certain sojourners on the rind of this third primary orb. The incidents, of course, have nothing to do with my story.
But as the mere mention of them may have whetted the reader’s curiosity, I suppose it is only fair to satisfy him.
The night in question seemed, from an astrological point of view, to be peculiarly favourable to the ascendancy of baleful influences. The moon hung above the western horizon, in her most formidable phase — just past the semicircle, with her gibbous edge malignantly feathered. Being now in the House of Taurus, she had overborne the benignant sway of Aldebaran, and was pressing hard on Castor and Pollux (in the House of Gemini). Also, her horizontal attitude was so full of menace that Rigel and Betelgeux (in Orion) seemed to wilt under her sinister supremacy. Sirius (in Canis Major), strongest and most malevolent of the astral powers, hung southwest of the zenith, reinforcing the evil bias of the time, and thus, from his commanding position, overruling the guardianship of Canopus (in Argo), south-west of the same point. Lower still, toward the south, Achernar seemed to reserve his gracious prestige, whilst, across the invisible Pole, the beneficent constellations of Crux and Centaurus exhibited the very paralysis of hopelessness. Worst of all, Jupiter and Mars both held aloof, whilst ascendant Saturn mourned in the House of Cancer.
Such was the wretched aspect of the heavens to my debilitated intelligence, as I slunk home from the swimming-hole, toward midnight. I was somewhat comforted to observe in Procyon a firmness which I attributed to the evident support of Regulus (in the House of Leo); but the most reassuring element in an extremely baleful horoscope was Spica (in the House of Virgo), scarcely affected by the moon’s interference, and now ascending confidently from the eastern horizon.
Still, to my washed-out mind, there was something so hopeless in the lunar and stellar outlook that, for comfort, I turned my eyes toward the station cemetery, which was dimly in view.
There several shapeless forms, some white, and others of neutral hue, seemed to be moving slowly and silently amongst the dwellings of the dead, as if holding what you could scarcely call a carnival, in their own sombre way. The time, the place, the supermundane conditions, acting together on a half-drowned mind, gave to the whole scene a weird reality which writing cannot convey; so, after pinching myself to make sure I was awake, and doing a small sum in mental arithmetic to verify my sanity, I advanced toward the perturbed spirits, got them against the sky, and identified them as cattle, greedily stevedoring the long, dry grass.
It seemed a pity to turn the poor hungry animals out; yet I knew that somebody would have to suffer for it if Montgomery knew of anything trespassing here. But how had they got in, through seven wires — the upper one barbed — with rabbit-netting along the bottom? ——
“Evening, Priestley. Working the oracle?”
“Inclinin’ that road. Dangerous — ain’t it? Good job it’s on’y you. Nobody else stirrin’?”
“Not a soul. They ’re as regular as clockwork on this station. How did you get in?”
“Took the hinges off o’ the gate with my monkey-wrench. I’ll leave that all straight. Course, they’ll see the tracks by-’n’-by, an’ know who to blame; but I’ll be clear by that time; an’ I must guard agen comin’ in contract with Runnymede till the st-nk blows off o’ this transaction. Natural enough, Magomery’ll buck; but the ration-paddick’s as bare as a stockyard; an’ I can’t ast the bullocks to die o’ starvation.
“Certainly not, Priestley. Mind, it’s only four hours till daylight. Good night.”
“Good night, ole man.”
My way led me past a small, isolated stable, used exclusively for the boss’s buggy-horses. Nearing this building, I heard a suppressed commotion inside, followed by soothing gibberish, in a very low voice. This was bad. Priestley’s bullocks were within easy view; and Jerry, the groom, was a notorious master’s man. I must have a friendly yarn with him.
“What’s up with you this hour of the night, Jerry?” I asked, looking through the latticed upper-wall. “Uneasy conscience, I bet.” Whilst speaking the last words, I distinguished Montgomery’s pair of greys, tied, one in each back corner of the stable, whilst Pawsome’s horses — a white and a piebald — were occupying the two stalls, and voraciously tearing down mouthfuls of good Victorian hay from the rack above the manger. Pawsome, silently caressing one of the greys, moved to the lattice on hearing my voice. “Sleight-of-hand work?” I suggested, in a whisper.
“Sort of attempt,” replied the wizard, in the same key. “You gev me a start. All the lights was out two hours ago, an’ I med sure everybody was safe.”
“So they are. I’ve only been down for a swim. Good-night, Possum.”
“I say, Collins — don’t split!”
“Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this great thing?”
“Second Kings,” whispered the poor necromancer, in eager fellowship, and displaying a knowledge of the Bible rare amongst his sect. “God bless you, Collins! may we meet in a better world!”
“It won’t be difficult to do that,” I replied dejectedly, as I withdrew to enjoy my unearned slumber.
Now the night, replete with such sphere-music, was past, and the cares that infest the day had returned to everyone on the station, except myself and two or three equally clean, useless, and aristocratic loafers in the boss’s house. Toby, the half-caste, was cantering away toward Clarke’s, for the weekly mail. Priestley, at his wagon, was bullocking even more desperately than usual, with a view to getting out of sight of the station as soon as possible. Pawsome, repairing a side-saddle, on his extemporised bench, was softly crooning a familiar hymn, the sentiment of which seemed appropriate to himself, whilst the language breathed the very aroma of his social atmosphere: —
Must I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to gain the prize,
And sail’d through (adj.) seas?
In the veranda of the house, Mr. Folkestone, a young English gentleman of not less than two hundred-weight, lolled on a hammock, smoking a chibouque, and reading a magazine; while straight between us two aristocratic loafers, Vandemonian Jack, aged about a century, was mechanically sawing firewood in the hot, sickly sunshine. This is one of the jobs that it takes a man of four or five score years to perform ungrudgingly; and, to any illuminated mind, the secret of these old fellows’ greatness is very plain. Bathing, though an ancient heresy, has been of strictly local prevalence, and, for the best of reasons, of transient continuance. Our relapse belongs to the present generation. Though our better-class grandsires understood no science unconnected with the gloves, a marvellous instinct taught them the unwholesomeness of sluicing away that panoply of dirt which is Nature’s own defence against the microbe of imbecility, and which, indeed, was the only armour worn by the formidable Berserkers, from whom some of them claimed descent. We have done it however (at least, we say so), whilst our social inferiors have held on to the old-time religion (at least, we say so, here again); wherefore ——
“I say, Mr. Collins,” faltered Ida, breaking in on my reflections, “I picked up this little buckle aside o’ your b—d; it’s come off o’ the back o’ your tr——rs. I’ll sew it on for you any time, for I notice you’re bothered with them slippin’ down. O, Mr. Collins!” — and the poor unlovely face was suddenly distorted with anguish and wet with tears — “ain’t Mrs. Bodyzart wicked to put a slur on me like that? There ain’t one word o’ truth in it; I’d say the same if I was to die to-night; an’ you may believe me or believe me not, but I’m tellin’ the truth. Far be it, indeed!”
“Hush! Stop crying, Ida! Don’t look round — Mrs. Beaudesart’s watching you from the window, over there. You poor thing! you should n’t trouble yourself over what anybody says. Did you feed Pup this morning?”
“I give him a whole milk-dish full o’ scraps; but if people tells the truth, there’s nobody in the world can say black is the white o’ my eye; an’ you may believe me or believe me not” ——
“You’ll need to give Pup a drink, Ida.”
“He ’s got a dish o’ good rain-water aside him; but if people would on’y consider” ——
“True — very true. Now go away, dear, and don’t come fooling about me, or you’ll give her liberty to talk.”
The girl limped back to the scene of her unromantic martyrdom, and I made a feeble effort to shake the dew-drops from my mane, and, so to speak, look myself in the face. I must give this life over, I thought; and I will give it over; an I do not, I am a villain. After all, there are not two sides to this question; there is only one; and you may trust an overclean man to be an authority on the evil effects of bathing, upon mind, body, and estate; just as the grogbibber is our highest authority on headaches, fantods, and bankruptcy.
The Spartans (so ran my reflections) were as much addicted to dirt as the Sybarites to cleanliness; and just compare the two communities. The conquering races of later ages — Goths, Huns, Vandals, Longobards, &c. — were no less celebrated for one kind of grit than for the other. It is the Turkish bath that has made the once-formidable Ottoman Empire the sick man of Europe. Latifundia perdidere Italiam (Large estates ruined Italy). Yes. Blame it on the large estates. Would a large estate ruin you? Bathing did the business for Italy, as it does the business for all its victims. If Rome had left to the soft Capuan his baths and his perfumes, she would have pulled-through. But think of the polished Roman debating the question of survival with the superlatively dirty barbarian of the North! Polished is good, for, in the ruins of the fatal Roman baths, the innumerable strigulae, used by the bathers to polish their skins, bear sad testimony to the suicidal cleanliness of that doomed race. And just compare your strigula-polished Roman, morally and physically, with his contemporary, the filth-encrusted anchorite of the Thebaid — the former flickering briefly in a puerile, semi-vital way, and going out with a sulphurous smell; the latter, on a ration of six dates per week, attaining an interminable longevity, and possessing the power of striking scoffers dead, or blind, or paralytic, at pleasure.
And, talking of hermits — do you think Peter of Picardy could have launched the muscular Christianity of Western Europe against the less muscular, because cleaner, Islamism of Western Asia, but for his well-advertised vow, never to change his clothes, nor wash himself, till his contract should be completed? Prouder in his rags than the Emperor in his purple! and justly too, for he achieved the very apotheosis of dirt — animate, no doubt, as well as inanimate. Or take the first Teutonic Emperor of Rome — conqueror, arbitrator, legislator, and what not. In those middle ages, you know, it was the custom to name monarchs from some peculiarity of person or habitude — and I put it to any reasonable soul; Was this mere Yarman Brince likely to have become the central figure of the 10th century, but for such rigid abstinence from external application of water as is implied in the significant name of Otto the Great?
Indeed, the most sweepingly appropriate bestowal of the title, ‘Great,’ is made when we refer to the adherents of the dirt-cult, collectively, as the Great Unwashed. Again, Dr. Johnson’s biographies lovingly preserve the personal habits of most of the loftiest and sweetest poets that ever trod English soil; and think what a large percentage of those Muse-invokers, according to their historian, carried a fair quantity of that soil perennially on their hides. And speaking of the Diogenes of Fleet Street himself, we know, on good authority, that his antipathy to the Order of the Bath caused him to appeal to more senses than one. He was another Otto the Great. The original Diogenes, by the way, revelled in dirt, as well as in wisdom. And the mighty scholar, Porson, as you may remember, never needed to wash, because he never perspired.
Yet in spite of this cloud of witness, and in the face of our own experience, we will entice external leakage of such incipient greatness as we have — soaking ourselves in water, as if we were possums, and our virility a eucalyptus flavour that we sought to dissipate. Look at myself — now a king; now thus! Thunder-and-turf! have I fallen so low? And yet I was once like our Otto and Co.!
Before touching the forbidden thing, I felt as if I wanted to pursue an inspiring, if purposeless, journey up uncomfortable Alpine heights, with my Excelsior-banner in my hand, and a tear in my solitary bright blue eye; now, the maiden’s invitation seems to be the only part of the enterprise that has any pith in it. Then, I gloried in the fiendish adage of, ‘Two hours’ sleep for a man, three for a woman, and four for a fool’; now, my livelist ambition is to gaze my fill on yon calm deep, then, like an infant, sink asleep on this form, and so remain till dinner-time — lunch-time, I should say; belonging, as I do, to the better classes. Then, I was like Hotspur on his crop-eared roan; now, I merely wish the desert were my dwelling-place, with one fair Spirit for my minister. To confess the truth, I note a certain weak glimmer of self-righteousness investing the thought that I would be content with one fair Spirit. Got to, go to! By virtue, thou enforcest laughter.
“I wish I was as happy as you,” murmured Ida, who had again silently approached. “Here’s two newspapers; they done with them in the house. O, Mr. Collins!” — and the girl’s tears broke forth afresh, whilst ungovernable sobs shook her from head to foot — “I can’t git it off o’ my mind what Mrs. Bodyzart said.”
“Ida! Ida!” I remonstrated; “you’re making your nose red.” The information acted like a charm; her crying was over, though she still persisted in chewing her grievance.
“I can prove there ain’t one word o’ truth in it,” she continued pertinaciously.
“What’s your idea of proof, Ida?”
“I can prove it on the Bible,” she replied eagerly.
“That settles the matter beyond controversy — considering that you rightly belong to the Middle Ages.”
“Indeed I don’t!” she replied, with a flash of resentment. “I was twenty-seven last birthday; an’ I don’t care who knows it — on the third of July, it was — an’ I would n’t care tuppence if her ladyship snoke roun’ tellin’ people I was forty. But to put a slur on me like that! I leave it to your own self, Mr. Collins — was it right?”
“Right? I repeated wearily. “In heaven’s name, girl, what does it signify to you whether it was right or otherwise? That’s Mrs. Beaudesart’s own business, not yours. Why, if she charged me with stooping to folly, I would merely say, ‘Sorry to undeceive you, ma’am; but I’ve been too much given to letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would,” like the poor bandicoot i’ the adage.’ But I certainly shouldn’t concern myself with a question lying entirely between herself and Saint Peter.”
“Ah! but you’re different,” replied the girl sadly.
“Simply because I’m a philosopher, Ida. I’ve held communion with the Unfathomable, and watched the exfoliation of the Inscrutable; and, you know, these things are altogether beyond the orbit of the girl-mind. Now clear off, like a good fellow, and let me read the papers.”
But I was too far gone to take any interest in either of the loathsome contemporanes; too much afflicted even to drift down to the swimming-hole again, much as I desired to do so. I also longed for the opinion of my mighty pipe on the dirt-question; but that faithful ally was packed among my things, forty feet away, and it might as well have been forty miles. So I just lay on the seat, clean, frail, and inert, as a recumbent statue, moulded in blanc-mange; whilst the ancient t’other-sider oscillated his frame — saw, and the pious Pawsome lightened his toil with selections from Sankey, and the perspiring Priestley hurried up his bullocks from the ration-paddock, and Sling Muck, the gardener, used his hoe among the callots and cabbagee, with the automatic stroke of a man brought up to one holiday per annum, and no Sunday. Meanwhile, the unreturning sands of Life dribbled through the unheeded isthmus of the Present Moment; and the fixed cone of the Past expanded; and the dimple deepened in the diminished and hurrying Future.
Nevertheless, I collected the wreckage of what had been very fair faculties, and attempted to grapple with an idea which Ida’s conversation had suggested. Finding this impossible, I made a mental memo. of the inspiration — and by the same token, I neatly utilised it within the next few hours. Your attention will be drawn to the circumstance in due season.
At mid-day, the bell sounded from the hut. Pawsome and the tribesmen quitted their work, and went to dinner. Priestley had started an hour before, bound for Nalrooka, with the remaining half of his load.
All the Levites, except Moriarty, were out on the run, but Martin, the head boundary rider, had timed himself for lunch. This man’s status was a vexed question. He certainly rated — but did he rate high enough for the barracks? As head boundary man, decidedly not; but as recent proprietor of a small station absorbed by Runnymede, he was not destitute of pretensions. Out in the open air, he was, of course, as good as any Levite, but —— Well, though we rather resented his presence in the Inner Court, we yielded him the benefit of the doubt; and he took that benefit, just as if he had been born in the purple, like ourselves.
Martin was an Orangeman of rank. He had attained the Black Degree. It was whispered that he held all the loyal brethren of Riverina under the whip, by reason of his being the only man in the region beyond the Murrumbidgee who could confer the Purple Degree. For, owing to an inherent haziness in the theses and aims of Orangeism, there are Orders in the Society as hard to attain as those German university degrees which no man ever took and had his eyesight perfect afterward; though, to be sure, there is a certain difference in the relative value of the two species of attainment.
Moriarty — whose front name was Felix — was, if anything, a Catholic; and, partly on this account, partly on account of his being a young fellow, and partly on account of Miss King, the governess, Martin set him. Now, there was just one man within a hundred miles who knew less of Irish History than Martin, and that man was Moriarty; consequently, the two jostled each other as they rushed into that branch of learning where scholars fear to tread — each repeatedly appealing to me for confirmation of his outlandish myths and clumsy fabrications. I listlessly confirmed anything and everything. Having lost all mental, as well as physical, energy where King John lost his regalia, namely, in the Wash, the line of least resistance was the line for me.
After a hearty lunch, I made my way back to the seat against the wall, while Moriarty lounged across to the store, and Martin went to speak to the High Priest at the door of the Sanctum Sanctorum. Then Martin mounted his horse, and rode away; and presently the tribesman, Jerry, brought a buggy and pair to the front door. Montgomery and Folkestone — the latter in knickerbockers — took their seats in the buggy, and whirled away down the horse-paddock fence. Then all was still, save for the faint pling-plong of a piano in the Holy of Holies.
Whom have we here? Moriarty to disturb me. Let him come. It is meat and drink to me to see a clown; by my faith, we that have good wits have much to answer for; we shall be flouting; we cannot hold. — —
The young Levite, closing the door of the store behind him, advanced with the indescribably weary step of a station man when the day is warm and the boss absent, and seated himself by my side.
“Why ain’t you in the barracks having one of your quiet palavers with Mrs Beaudesart?” he asked.
“Prithee be silent, boy; I profit not by thy talk,” I murmured.
“Something I wanted to ask you, Collins,” he resumed; “but I’m beggared if I can think what it is. Slipped away like a snake, while you’re looking round for a stick. Singular how a person can’t remember a thing for the life of them, when once they forget it; and suddenly it crops up of its own accord when you’re not thinking of it.”
“Parse that,” said I, listlessly.
“Parse your granny!” he retorted. “I don’t believe you could parse it yourself, as clever as you think you are. Beggar conceitedness; beggar everything. I wish I was about forty.”
“And know as much as you do now?” I barely articulated.
“Yes — and know as much as I do now,” he repeated doggedly. “In fact, I never met anyone that knows as much as I do; but people won’t pay any attention to a young fellow, no matter if he was Solomon. That Martin wants a lift under the ear.”
“Does he?” I asked faintly. “I did n’t hear him express the desire.”
“Gosh! you’ve been on the turkey; you’ll be cutting yourself some of these times. I wish Toby was back with the mail. I hope he’ll forget to ask for your letters.”
“Now the Lord lighten thee; thou art a great fool,” I sighed. “What time does Toby generally get back?”
“Any time between two in the afternoon and sunrise next morning, according to the state of the mailman’s horses. Beggar such a life as this. At it, early and late; working through accounts, and serving-out rations, and one thing or another; and no more chance of distinguishing myself than if I was in jail. I can’t stand it much longer, and what’s more, I won’t. I wish the mail was in. I’ve got a presentiment of something good this time. If you don’t speculate, you won’t accumulate, as the saying is; and if a man can’t make a rise by some sort of gambling, he may as well lie down and die, straight-off. But the first rise is the difficulty; and, of course, you’ve got to take the risk.”
“What do you do with the rise when you get it?” I asked, drowsily.
“Why, distinguish yourself, of course — what else? There’s a great future sticking out for a fellow, if he’s got his head screwed on right.”
“So there is. Well, what shall it be? Mechanics? Fine opening for an inventive genius there — but you must be up and doing, as the poet says.”
“You had all the chances when you were my age,” replied Moriarty bitterly. “I’m too late arriving. Everything’s invented now.”
“True,” I observed. “I hadn’t thought of that objection. Then why not take up some interesting study, and work it out from post to finish? Political Economy, for instance?”
“Anybody could do that,” replied the young fellow contemptuously. “I want to distinguish myself.”
“Then I’ll tell you what you’ll do, Moriarty. Take a narrow branch of some scientific study, and restrict yourself to that. Say you devote your life to some special division of the Formicae?”
“Formicae. The name is plural. It embraces all the different species of ants.”
“Why, there’s only about three species of ants altogether; and there’s nothing to learn about them except that they make different kinds of hills, and give different kinds of bites. That sort of study would about suit you. Fat lot of distinction a person could get out of ants.”
“Still, every avenue to distinction is not closed,” I urged. “We’re knocking at the gates of Futurity for the Australian pioneer of poetry — fiction — philosophy — what not? You’ve got all the working plant ready in your office. There you are!”
“No use, Collins,” he replied hopelessly. “I’ve got the talent, right enough, but I haven’t got the patience. In fact, I’m too dash lazy.”
“Charge it on the swimming-hole, brother,” I sighed.
“No; I can’t very well do that. I haven’t been there for the last month. I’d go to-night if I had a horse.”
“Heavens above!” I murmured; “what would he be like if he was clean? He would distinguish himself in one direction. The material is there.”
“Jealousy, jealousy,” replied Moriarty disgustedly. “Never mind. I’ll make things hum yet. Do you know — I stand to win twenty-four notes on the regatta, besides my chance of the station sweep on the big Flemington, let alone private bets. We’ll get news of both events to-day; and I have a presentiment of something good. Gosh! I wish Toby was here!”
“And how much do you stand to lose, if your mozzle is out?” I asked. “By-the-way, didn’t I incidentally hear that you were playing cards all last Sunday?”
“I don’t believe that has anything to do with it,” replied Moriarty, in an altered tone. “But, to tell you the truth, I dare n’t count up how much I’ll lose if things go crooked. I’ve plunged too heavy — there’s no doubt about that — but I did it with the best intention. I made sure of scooping; and, for that matter, I make sure of it still. But whatever you do, don’t begin to preach about the evils of gambling — not now, Collins; not till after we get news of these events. Doesn’t everybody gamble, from the Governor downward — bar you, and a couple or three more sanctimonious old hypocrites, with one foot in the grave, and the other in the devil’s mouth? Why, Nosey Alf is the only fellow on this station that has no interest in the sweep, besides no end of private bets.”
“Is n’t that Toby?” I asked, indicating a horseman, half-a-mile away.
“Gosh, yes!” replied Moriarty nervously. “I wonder what brings him from that direction? Come, Collins — will you give me five to one he has letters for you? I’ll take it at that.”
“Indeed you won’t, sonny.”
“Well, let’s have some wager before he gets any nearer,” persisted Moriarty, with an unpleasant laugh. The suspense was beginning to tell upon a mind not originally cast in the Stoic mould. So much so, that I felt inclined to lose a trifle to him, even as a teetotaller would administer a nip to a man who was beginning to see things. “Come!” he continued recklessly; “I’ll give you two to one he has letters for you; twenty to one he has letters for the station” —— And so he gabbled on, whilst, drifting into my Hamlet-mood, I charted the poor fellow’s mind for my own edification.
“Hold on, Moriarty,” I interrupted, recalling myself. “Let’s hear that fifty-to-one offer again. Am I to understand that if Toby has letters for the station and none for me, you win; if he has letters for me and none for the station, I win; and, failing the fulfilment of either double, the wager is off?”
“That’s it. Are you on?”
“Make it a hundred to one.”
“Done! at a hundred to one — in what?”
“Half-sovereigns,” I replied, feeling for the purse which, vulgar as it is, bushmen even of aristocratic lineage are compelled to carry. I placed the little coin — about one-tenth of my total wealth — in Moriarty’s hand. He shrank from the touch.
“What do you mean?” he asked petulantly. “I might n’t win it, after all.
Don’t be more disagreeable than you can help.”
“You intend to get it without giving an equivalent — don’t you? You know it’s yours. Are n’t you betting on a certainty? Lay it on the window-sill, if you like, and pick it up when you can read your title clear. If you don’t speculate, you won’t accumulate; and I suppose you’ve no objection to looking into the morality of your speculation” ——
I had cleared my throat for a disquisition which would have been intolerable to the unprincipled reader, when a very curious thing arrested the attention both of Moriarty and myself — the strangest coincidence, perhaps, within the personal experience of either of us — a conjuncture, in fact, which for a moment threw us both staggering back on the theology of childhood. At the present time, I feel too meek to attempt any unravelment, and too haughty to offer any apology other than that such is life.
Tom Collins [Joseph Furphy]. Such is Life, The Bulletin Newspaper Company, Sydney, 1903