Such is Life, by Tom Collins (Joseph Furphy) [chapter 6, part 2]

[Editor: This is the second 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.]

The half-caste had cantered up to the horse-paddock gate, had dismounted, had divested his horse of the saddle and bridle, and had given the animal a slap with the latter. Now he was depositing those equipments in the shed. Now he approached us, taking two letters and a newspaper from the tail-pocket of what had once been an expensive dress-coat of Montgomery’s.

“Yours, Collins,” said he. “Don’t say I never gave you nothing. Nix for you,

Mr. (adj.) Moriarty.”

“You’re very laconic,” observed the storekeeper in a hollow voice, yet eyeing the prince sternly; “very laconic, indeed, I must say. If I was you, I would n’t be quite so laconic. How the (sheol) comes it that you did n’t fetch the mail?”

“Need n’t look in that paper for the Flemington, Collins,” said the heir-apparent; “she’s a day too soon. I took a squint at her, comin’ along.”

“I was asking how the (adj. sheol) you managed to come without the mail?” repeated Moriarty, with dignity.

“I heard you, right enough. I ain’t deaf. Well, I come on a moke. Think I padded it? Fact was, Moriarty, I met Magomery at Bailey’s Tank, an’ he told me to go like blazes to Scandalous Sandy’s hut, on Nalrooka, an’ tell him a lot o’ his sheep was boxed with ours in the Boree Paddick. ‘I’ll fetch the mail home myself,’ says he. There now.”

“And why didn’t you go to Scandalous Sandy’s?” nagged Moriarty.

“Well, considerin’ you’re boss o’ this station, an’ my bit o’ filthy lucre comes out o’ your pocket, I got great pleasure informin’ you I met ole Gladstone, comin’ to tell us the same yarn. Anything else you want to know?”

“Did you hear which crew won the regatta?” asked Moriarty, almost civilly.

“Sydney,” replied the prince. “Think you Port Phillipers could lick us?”

“That’s a lie!” exclaimed Moriarty, catching his breath.

“Right. It’s a lie, if you like. I got no stuff on it. See what Collins’ paper says. An’ now I feel like as if I could do a bit o’ dinner — unless you got any objections?”

He stalked away toward the hut, whilst I opened what turned out to be a love-letter — evidently intended for some other member of our diffusive clan, for I could make neither head nor tail of it; nothing, indeed, but heart, and such heart as it has never been my luck to capture. Meanwhile, Moriarty had cut the string of the newspaper, and was running his eye over its columns.

“My mozzle is out, Collins.” said he, with an effort. “I’ll never clear myself — never in the creation of cats. It’s all up!”

“Yes; you suffer by comparison with the sanctimonious old hypocrites now,” I replied, in a fatherly tone, as I took the half-sovereign from the window-sill. “Feel something like an overproof idiot — don’t you? We’ll talk about that presently. But see what I’ve got here.”

My second letter ran: —

No. 256473

Central Office of Unconsidered Trifles,
Sydney, February 1, 1884.

Mr. T. Collins.
Sir, — I am directed to inform you that the Deputy-Commissioner purposes visiting Nyngan on the I7th prox. You are required to attend the Office of the Department in that township at 11 a.m. on the day above mentioned, to furnish any information which he may require.

I am, Sir
pro Assistant-Under-Secretary.

“Not a whisper about the M-form,” I remarked. “Perhaps it’s in your mail. No odds. Montgomery can complete it, and send it on, just as well as if I had n’t been near the place at all. But here’s something like two hundred and thirty miles to be done in seven days — and the country in such a state. This is the balsam that the usuring senate pours into captains’ wounds. Never mind The time is only too near, when I’ll sit in my sumptuous office, retaliating all this on some future Deputy-Assistant-Sub-Inspector. And, in the meantime, this long dusty ride will make a man of me once more. I must start at once; and I could do with some money. Moriarty, you’re owing me fifty notes.”

“I know I am,” replied the storekeeper, in a quivering voice. He was as punctiliously honourable in some ways as he was perfidious in others — being amiably asinine in each extreme.

“Now, including your little liability to me, how much are you out, even if the Flemington gamble goes in your favour?” I asked.

“Only sixty-eight notes,” he faltered. “I’ll clear it, right enough, if I’m not rushed, and if I don’t get the sack off the station.”

“But, by every rule of analogy, you’re also badly left on the Flemington,” I continued serenely. “How much does that leave you out?”

“Ninety-seven notes, and my rifle,” he replied, steadying his voice by an effort. “Mad-mad-mad! I wish I were dead!”

“Will you swear of gambling altogether till my claim is discharged? On that condition, I can extend the time — say to the Greek Kalends.”

“If you think I could raise the money by that time,” replied the poor fellow dubiously. “Anyway, I give you my solemn promise. But, I say,” he continued, with seeming irrelevance — “when do you expect promotion?”

“At any moment. My presentiments, being based on the deepest inductions of science, and the subtlest intuitions of the higher philosophy, are a trifle more trustworthy than yours; and I have a presentiment that the thing is impending. But you need n’t congratulate me yet. Think about yourself.”

“That’s just what I’m doing. If you tell her about this wager, I’ll suicide, or clear.”

“Well, upon my word! Do you think I’d condescend to undermine you, you storekeeper? Look out for Martin; never mind me.”

“I don’t mean her,” mumbled the young fool; “I mean Mrs. Beaudesart. You’re going to marry her when you get your promotion — ain’t you?”

There was such evident sincerity in his tone that I maintained a stern and stony silence, whilst his eyes met mine with a doubtful, deprecating look; then he remarked doggedly,

“Well, that’s what she told Mrs. Montgomery, last Sunday; and she said it seriously. Miss King was present at the time; and she told Butler, and Mooney, and me, across the gate of the flower-garden, the same evening. Mrs. Beaudesart takes it for granted, and so does everybody else. She says she accepted you some time ago.”

“You lying dog!” I remarked wearily.

“I hope I may never stir alive off this seat if I’m not telling you the exact truth. Ask Mooney or Butler.”

“If I do sleep, would all my wealth would wake me,” I murmured, half-unconsciously.

“You don’t want to marry her, then, after all?”

“How long do you suppose I would last?”

“Well, don’t marry her.”

“Does it occur to you,” I asked, with some bitterness, “that there are some things a person can do, and some things he can’t do? If the head of my Department orders me to Nyngan, I can reply by letter, telling him to mind his own business, and not concern himself about me; but if Mrs. Beaudesart assumes — if she merely takes for granted — that I’m going to marry her, I must do it, to keep her in countenance. How, in the fiend’s name, can I slink out of it, now that I’m accepted? Can I tell her I’ve examined my heart, and I find I can only love her as a sister? Now, would n’t that sound well? No, no; I’m a done man. Of course, she had no business to accept me unawares; but as she has done so, I must help her to keep up the grisly fraud of feminine reluctance; for, as the abbot sings, so must the sacristan respond. It is kismet. This is how all these unaccountable marriages are brought about; though, to be sure, I have the dubious satisfaction of knowing that the enterprise brings me a good many days’ march nearer home.”

The expression of heavenly beatitude on Moriarty’s face goaded my mind to activity. Sweeping, with one glance, the whole horizon of expediency and possibility, I caught sight of the idea glanced at in a former page, and suggested, you will remember, by my dialogue with Ida.

“By the way, Moriarty,” said I; “respecting that trifling debt of honour — there’s another condition that I didn’t think of. As a sort of payment on account, you must privately and insidiously circulate a very grave scandal for me.”

“Well, I won’t!” exclaimed the young fellow, after a moment’s pause.

“I don’t mind telling a lie when I’m driven to it; but a woman’s a woman. Do your own dirty work!”

“Then, by Jove, I’ll post you!”

If anyone had used this threat to me, I would have asked how the posting was usually done, and what results might be expected to follow; but Moriarty’s lip quivered under the threat.

“Do your worst,” said he, swallowing the lump in his throat.

“You may depend on that,” I replied quietly. “However, the scandal was only about myself.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I’ll enlighten you. I was going to ask you to take Nelson, or Mooney, or both of them, into your confidence. Then you would arrange that Mrs. Beaudesart should overhear you discussing some horrible scandal in connection with me. And mind, she would have to believe it, or you would be a ruined man for the rest of your life — you would be a defaulting gambler, a byword, a hissing, an astonishment, with the curse of Cain upon your brow. Then she would spurn me with contumely, and I would be my own man again. I would be in sanctuary, so to speak; inviolable by reason of my disgrace. Metaphorically, you could lay the blast, and fire it at your leisure, in my absence. I would leave all details to your own judgment, only holding you responsible for quality of fuse, and quantity of powder. I’d stand the explosion.”

“I’m on!” exclaimed Moriarty, brightening up. “Gosh! I’ll give you a character to rights! Mind, it’ll make you look small.”

“The smaller the better. I have a small aperture to crawl through, and no other means of escape. Of course, being innocent all the time, the scandal won’t even fizz on my inner consciousness. In fact, I’ll feel myself taking a rise out of everyone that believes the yarn; and I’ll live it down in good time. Now lay your plans carefully, Moriarty, and make a clean job of it, for your own sake.”

This being definitely settled, I soon demonstrated to the young fellow that his case, as regarded other liabilities, was by no means desperate; and his elastic temperament asserted itself at once. I may add, in passing, that he has never broken his anti-gambling pledge; also, that my £50 remains unpaid to this day.

“Now I must go and catch my horses,” said I. “Can you come?”

“Hold on,” replied Moriarty; “here comes Toby; we’ll send him.”

As the half-caste lounged out of the front door of the hut, the cook went out by the back door, and gathered an armful of firewood. Toby turned, and glided back into the hut, and, a moment later, the cook also re-entered, at the opposite side. Then the prince bounded out through the front door, with a triumphant grin on his brown face, and an enormous cockroach of black sugar in his hand. The next moment, a piece of firewood whizzed through the open door, smote H.R.H. full on Love of Approbation, ricochetted from his gun-metal skull, and banged against the weatherboard wall of an out-house.

“Will yo ever go home, I dunno?” laughed the prince, picking up his hat, while the baffled cook recovered his stick, and returned to the hut.

“Now what’s the use of arguing that a blackfellow belongs to the human race?” queried Moriarty — the last ripple of trouble having vanished from the serene shallowness of his mind. “That welt would have laid one of us out. And did you ever notice that a blackfellow or a half-caste can always clear himself when his horse comes down? The first thing a whitefellow thinks about, when he feels his horse gone, is to get out of the way of what’s coming; but it’s an even wager that he’s pinned. Never so with the inferior race. Now, last Boxing Day, when we had races here, we could see that the main event rested between Admiral Rodney — a big chestnut, belonging to a cove on a visit to the boss — with Toby in the saddle; and that grey of M’Murdo’s, Admiral Crichton, with” ——

“Repeat that last name, please?”

“Admiral Cry-ton. That slews you! Did n’t I tell you you’d be cutting yourself? It’s M’Murdo’s own pronunciation; and if he doesn’t know the proper twang, I’m dash well sure you don’t; for he owns the horse. But wasn’t it a curious coincidence of name — considering that neither the owners nor the horses had ever met before? Well, Young Jack was to ride Admiral Crichton; and I had such faith in the horse, with Jack up, that I plunged thundering heavy on him. So did Nelson. But, by jingo, the more we saw of Admiral Rodney, the more frightened we got — in fact, we could see there was nothing for it but to stiffen Toby. Toby was to get a note if he won the big event, and nothing if he lost; but it paid us to give him two notes to run cronk” ——

“One moment,” I interrupted — “just oblige me with the name and address of that horse’s owner?”

“Shut-up. It’s blown over now. But as I was telling you, the chestnut had been a few times round the course, under the owner’s eye, and he knew the road; and to make matters better, you might break the reins, but you could n’t get a give out of his mouth; and he could travel like a rifle-bullet; so when Toby tried to get him inside the posts, he pulled and reefed like fury, and bolted altogether; and came flying into the straight, a dozen lengths to the good. Of course, losing the race made a difference of a note to Toby; so he caught the horse’s shoulder with his spur, and turned him upside down, going at that bat. Then, to keep himself out of a row, he gammoned dead till we poured a pint of beer down his throat; and he lay groaning for two solid hours, winking now and then at Nelson and me. But that’ll just tell you the difference. Neither you nor I would be game to do a thing like that; we could n’t be trained to it; simply because we belong to a superior race. I say, Toby!” — for the half-caste had seated himself near Pawsome’s bench, and was there enjoying his cockroach — “off you go, like a good chap, and fetch Collins’s horses.

“Impidence ain’t worth a d—n, if it ain’t properly carried out,” replied the inferior creation. “Think you git a note a week jist for eatin’ your (adj.) tucker an’ orderin’ people about? I done my day’s work. Fork over that plug o’ tobacker you’re owin’ me about the lenth o’ that snake. Otherways, shut up. We ain’t on equal terms while that stick o’ tobacker’s between us.”

“I’ll straighten you some of these times,” replied Moriarty darkly. “It’s coming, Toby!”

“No catchee, no havee, ole son!” laughed the prince. “The divil resave ye, Paddy! Macushla, mavourneen, tare-an’-ouns! whirroo! Bloody ind to the Pope!”

“Toby,” said Moriarty, with a calmness intended to seem ominous; “if I had a gun in my hand, I’d shoot you like a wild-dog. But I suppose I’d get into trouble for it,” he continued scornfully.

“Jist the same’s for layin’ out a whitefeller,” assented the prince, still rasping at his cockroach, like Ugolini at the living skull of Ruggieri, in Dante’s airy conception of the place where wrongs are rectified. (That unhappy mannerism again, you see).

“Permit me to suggest,” said Moriarty, after a pause, “that if you contemplated your own origin and antecedents, it would assist you to approximate your relative position on this station. Don’t you think a trifle of subordination would be appropriate to” ——

“A servile and halting imitation of Mrs. B.; and imitation is the sincerest flattery,” I commented. “I’ll tell Miss K.”

“Manners, please! — Appropriate, I was saying, to a blasted varmin like you? Permit me to remind you that Mrs. Montgomery, senior, gave a blanket for you when you were little.”

“I know she did,” replied the prince, with just a suspicion of vain-glory. “Nobody would be fool enough to give a blanket for you when you was little. Soolim!”

“Come on, Moriarty,” said I, rising; “I must take a bit off the near end of my journey to-night.”

“Howld your howlt, chaps,” interposed the good-natured half-caste “I’ll run up your horses for you. I was on’y takin’ a rise out o’ Mr. Mori — (adj.) — arty, Esquire; jist to learn him not to be quite so suddent.” And in another minute, he was striding down the paddock, with his bridle and stockwhip.

Half an hour later, my horses were equipped; and, all the Levites being absent, four or five tribesmen slowly collected under Pawsome’s shed, waiting to see what would happen. Cleopatra was not without reputation.

“Tell you what you better do,” said Moriarty to me — “better hang your socks on Nosey Alf’s crook to-night. His place is fifteen mile from here, and very little out of your way. Ill-natured, cranky beggar, Alf is — been on the pea — but there’s no end of grass in his paddock. And I say — get him to give you a tune or two on his fiddle. Something splendid I believe. He’s always getting music by post from Sydney. Montgomery had heard him sing and play, some time or other; and when old Mooney was here, just before last shearing, he sent Toby to tell Alf to come to the house in the evening, and bring his fiddle; and Alf came, very much against his grain. Young Mooney was asked into the house, on account of his dad being there; and he swears he never heard anything like Alf’s style; though the stubborn devil would n’t sing a word; nothing but play. And he was just as good on the piano as on the fiddle, though his hand must have been badly out. Mooney thinks he jibbed on singing because the women were there. Alf’s a mis-mis-mis-dash it” ——

“Mischief-maker?” I suggested.

“No. — mis — mis” ——

“Mysterious character?”

“No, no. — mis — mis” ——

“Try a synonym.”

“Is that it? I think it is. Well Alf’s a misasynonym — womanhater — among other things. When he comes to the station, he dodges the women like a criminal. And the unsociable dog begged of Montgomery not to ask him to perform again. One night, Nelson was going past his place, and heard a concert going on, so he left his horse, and sneaked up to the wall; but the music suddenly stopped, and before Nelson knew, Nosey’s dog had the seat out of his pants. Nosey came out and apologised for the dog, and brought Nelson in to have some supper; and Nelson stayed till about twelve; but devil a squeak of the fiddle, or a line of a song, could he get out of Alf. But, as the boss says, Alf’s only mad enough to know the difference between an eagle-hawk and a saw — foolish expression, it seems to me. Best boundary man on the station, Alf is. Been in the Round Swamp Paddock five years now; and he’s likely a fixture for life. Boundary riding for some years in the Bland country before he came here. Now I’ll show you how you’ll fetch his place” — Moriarty began drawing a diagram on the ground with a stick — “You go through the Red Gate — we’ll call this the gate. The track branches there; and you follow this branch. It’s the Nalrooka track; and it takes you along here — mind, you’re going due east now” ——

“Wait, Moriarty,” I interrupted — “don’t you see that you’re reversing everything? A man would have to stand on his head to understand that map. There is the north, and here is the south.”

“Don’t matter a beggar which is the real north and south. I’m showing you the way you’ve got to go. We’ll start afresh to please you. Through here — along here — and follow the same line from end to end of the pine-ridge, with the fence on your right all the way” ——

“Hold on, hold on,” I again interrupted — “you’re at right angles now. Don’t you see that your line’s north and south? — and did you ever see a pine-ridge running north and south? Begin again. Say the Red Gate is here; and I turn along here. Now go ahead.”

“No, I’m dashed if I do! I’m no hand at directing; but, by gosh, you’re all there at understanding.”

“Jack,” said I, turning to the primeval t’other-sider — “can you direct me to Nosey Alf’s?”

“I’ll try,” replied the veteran; and he slowly drew a diagram, true to the points of the compass. “‘Ere’s the Red Gate — mind you shet it — then along ’ere, arf a mile. Through this gate — an’ mind ’ow you leave ’er, f’r the wire hinclines to slip hover. Then straight along ’ere, through the pine-ridge, f’m hend to hend. You’re hon the Nalrookar track, mind, t’ wot time you see a gate hin the fence as you’re a-kerryin’ hon yer right shoulder. Gate’s sebm mile f’m ’ere. Nalrookar track goes through that gate; b’t neb’ you mind; you keep straight ahead pas’ the gate, hon a pad you’ll ’ar’ly see; han jist hat the fur hend o’ the pine-ridge you’ll strike hanuther gate; an’ you mus’ be very p’tic’lar shettin’ ’er. Then take a hangle o’ fo’ty-five, with the pine-ridge hon yer back; an’ hin fo’ mile you’ll strike yer las’ gate — ’ere, hin the co’ner. Take this fence hon yer right shoulder, an’ run ’er down. B’t you’ll spot Half’s place, fur ahead, w’en you git to the gate, ef it ain’t night.”

“Thank you, Jack, I replied, and then imprudently continued — “It would suit some of these young pups to take a lesson from you.”

“You hain’t fur wrong,” replied the good old chronicle, that had so long walked hand in hand with Time. “Las’ year, hit war hall the cry, ‘Ole hon t’ we gits a holt o’ Cunnigarn’s mongreals!’ — ‘Ole hon t’ we gits a holt o’ Thompson’s mongreals!’ — ‘We’ll make hit ’ot f’r ’em!’ Han wot war the hupshot? ‘Stiddy!’ ses Hi — ‘w’e ’s y’ proofs?’ ‘Proof be dam!’ ses they — ‘don’t we know?’ They know a ’ell of a lot! Has the sayin’ his: — ‘Onct boys was boys, an’ men was men; but now boys his men, an’ men’s” —— (I did n’t catch the rest of the sentence). “Han what were the hupshot? W’y, fact was Cunnigam an’ Thompson ’ad bin workin’ hon hour ram-paddick wun night; an’ six Wogger steers got away, an’ a stag amongst ’em; makin’ f’r home; an’ they left a whaler mindin’ the wagons; an’ the two o’ them hover’auled the steers way down hin hour Sedan Paddick. Well, heverybody — Muster Magomery his self, no less — heverybody ses, ‘Ole hon t’ we gits a holt of ’em fellers’ mongreals! — bin leavin’ three o’ hour gates hopen; an’ the yowes an’ weaners is boxed; an’ puttin’ a file through Nosey Half’s ’oss-paddick, an’ workin’ hon it with ’er steers!’ ‘Stiddy!’ ses Hi — ‘w’e’s y’r proofs?’ Way it war, Collings; ’ere come a dose o’ rain jis’ harter, an’ yer could n’t track. Well, wot war the hupshot? W’y, Warrigal Half war hunloadin’ hat Boottara; an’ a yaller bullick ’e ’d got, Pilot by name” ——

“Yes,” I gently interposed. “Well, I’ll have to be” ——

“‘Is Pilot starts by night f’m Boottara ration-paddick, an’ does ’is thirty mile to hour ’oss-paddick; an’ the hull menagerie tailin’ harter. ‘Shove ’em in ’e yaad, Toby,’ ses Muster Magomery. Presinkly, up comes Half, an ’is ’oss hall of a lather. ‘Take yer dem mongreals,’ ses Muster Magomery; ’an’ don’ hoversleep y’self agin.’ Think Half war goin’ ter flog ’is hanimals thirty mile back? Not ’im” ——

“It would hardly be right,” I agreed. “Well, I must be jogging” ——

“Not ’im,” pursued Jack. “‘E turns horf o’ the main track t’ other side the ram-paddick; through the Patagoniar; leaves hall gates hopen; fetches Nosey’s place harter dark; houts file, an’ hin with ’is mob, an’ gives ’m a g—tful. Course, ’e clears befo’ mo’nin’; an’ through hour Sedan Paddick, an’ back to Boottara that road. ’Ow do Hi know hall this? — ses you?”

“Ah!” said I wisely. “Well, I must be” ——

“No; you’re in for it,” chuckled Moriarty.

“Tole me ’is hown self, not three weeks agone. Camped hat hour ram-paddick, shiftin’ Stewart’s things to Queensland. An’ wot war the hupshot? ‘Stiddy, now,’ ses Hi — ‘w’e ’s y’ proofs?’ ‘Some o’ these young pups horter take a lessing horf o’ you, Jack,’ ses you, jist now. You’re right, Collings. Did n’ Hi say, las’ lambin’ — did n’ Hi say we war a-gwain ter hev sich anuther year as sixty-hate? Mostly kettle wot we hed then, afore the wool rose; an’ wild dogs bein’ plentiful them times; an’ we’d a sort o’ ’ead stock-keeper, name o’ Bob Selkirk; an’ this feller ’e started f’m ’ere with hate ’underd an’ fo’ty sebm ’ead” ——

“And he would have his work cut out for him,” I remarked, in cordial assent. “You’ve seen some changes on this station, Jack. Well, I must be going.”

Leaving the old fellow talking, I threw the reins over Cleopatra’s head, and drew the near one a little the tightest. He stood motionless as a statue, and beautiful as a poet’s dream.

“Would n’t think that horse had a devil in him as big as a bulldog,” observed the horse-driver. “Shake the soul-bolt out of a man, s’posen you do stick to him.”

“And yet Collins can’t ride worth a cuss,” contributed Moriarty confidentially. “He’s just dropped to this fellow’s style. Boss wanted to see him on our Satan, but Collins knew a thundering sight better.”

A slight, loose-built lad, with a spur trailing at his right heel, advanced from the group.

“Would you mind lettin’ me take the feather-edge off o’ this feller?” he asked modestly. “If he slings me, you can git on-to him while he’s warm, an’ no harm done. I’d like to try that saddle,” he added, by way of excuse. “Minds me o’ one I got shook, five months ago, with a redheaded galoot I’d bin treatin’ like a brother, on account of him bein’ fly-blowed, an’ the both of us travellin’ the same road. Best shape saddle I ever had a leg over, that was. Will I have a try?”

“Not worth while, Jack,” I replied. “He might prop a little, certainly; but it’s only playfulness.” So I swung into the deep seat of the stolen saddle, and lightly touched the lotus-loving Memphian with both spurs.

First, a reeling, dancing, uncertain panorama of buildings, fences, and spectators; then a mechanical response to the surging, jerking, concussive saddle, and a guarded strain on the dragging reins. Also a tranquil cognisance of favourable comment, exchanged by competent judges — no excitement, no admiration, remember; not a trace of new-chum interest, but a certain dignified and judicious approbation, honourable alike to critic and artist. Fools admire, but men of wit approve.

“You see, it’s — only playfulness — I remarked indifferently; the words being punctuated by necessity, rather than by choice. Magnificent, but — not war. There’s not a-shadow of vice in his com-position. As the poet says: —

This is mere — madness,
And thus awhile the — fit will work — on him.
Anon as patient as the female — dove,
When that her — golden couplets have dis — closed,
His silence will — sit drooping.

There you are!” And Cleopatra stood still; slightly panting, it is true, but with lamb-like guilelessness in his madonna face.

Then, as the toilers of the station slowly dispersed to see about getting up an appetite for supper, Moriarty advanced, and laid both hands on Cleopatra’s mane.

“Collins!” he exclaimed; “I’m better pleased than if I had won ten bob. What do you think? — that verse you quoted from Shakespear brought the question to my mind like a shot of a gun; the very question I wanted to ask you a couple of hours ago. I know it’s been asked before; in fact, I met with it in an English magazine, where the writer uses the very words you quoted just now. I thought perhaps you had never met with the question, and it might interest you — Was Hamlet mad?”

Of some few amiable qualities with which it has pleased heaven to endow me beyond the majority of my fellows, a Marlborough-temper is by no means the least in importance. I looked down in the ingenuous face of the searcher after wisdom, quenching, like Malvolio, my familiar smile with an austere regard of control.

Semper felix,” I observed hopelessly. “You’re right in saying that the question has been asked before. It has been asked. But daylight in the morning is the right time to enter on that inquiry. For the present, we must leave the world-wearied prince to rest in his ancestral vault, where he was laid by the pious hands of Horatio and Fortinbras — where, each in his narrow cell for ever laid, the rude forefathers of The Hamlet sleep.”

“Quotation — ain’t it?” suggested Moriarty critically.

“No.” I sighed.

“Well then, I’m beggared if I can see anything in that sort of an answer,” remarked the young fellow resentfully.

“Dear boy,” I replied; “I never imagined that you could. I would you had but the wit; ’twere better than your dukedom. By-the-way-what is Jack’s other name?”

“Which Jack? Old Jack, or Young Jack, or Jack the Shellback, or Fog-a-bolla Jack?”

“Young Jack; the chap that offered to ride Cleopatra.”

“Jack Frost.”

“Right. Good-bye. And remember our arrangement.”

“Good-bye, ole man. Depend your life on my straightness.”

Then I whistled to Pup, noticed that Bunyip had n’t got on the wrong side of the fence, and turned Cleopatra’s head toward the Bogan.

G. P. R. James rightly remarks that nothing is more promotive of thought than the walking pace of a horse. We may add that nothing on earth can soothe and purify like the canter; nothing strengthen and exhilarate like the gallop. The trot is passed over with such contempt as it deserves. So, for the first mile I was soothed and purified; for the next half-mile I busied myself on a metaphysical problem; and so on for about five miles.

The metaphysical difficulty (if you care about knowing) arose in connection with the singular issue of that preposterous wager. Whence came such an elaborate dispensation? If from above, it was plainly addressed to Moriarty, as a salutary check on his growing propensity; if from beneath, it must have been a last desperate attempt to decoy into evil ways one who was, perhaps, better worth enlisting than the average fat-head. To which of these sources would you trace the movement? Mind you, our grandfathers — to come no closer — would have piously taken the event on its face value of £50, as a blessing to the Prodistan, and a chastisement to the Papish. But we move. And, by my faith, we have need.

Presently I entered on the narrow pine-ridge; and now, carrying a line of fence on my right shoulder, I followed the pleasant track, winding through pine, wilga, needle-bush, quondong, and so forth. Two miles of this; then on my right appeared the white gate, through which ran the Nalrooka track. Up to this time, I had been following the route which a harsh usage of the country had interdicted to Priestley.

Montgomery and Folkestone, returning from their drive, had just come through this gate; the buggy, turned toward home, was on the track in front of me, and Montgomery was resuming his seat, after shutting the gate. The station mail-bag, loosely tied, was lying on the foot-board.

I had just done explaining where I was bound for, and on what business, and where I intended staying that night, when I nearly tumbled off my horse with a sort of white horror.

For straight behind the buggy, and less than eighty yards away, Priestley’s fourteen-bullock team came crawling along the fence, with the evident purpose of catching the Nalrooka track at the gate. Priestley had chanced it. Knowing every gate on the run, he had merely gone round the ration-paddock, and had already made a seven-mile stage in ten miles’ travelling — that is, losing three miles in the detour. Once through this gate, the track would be lovely, the wagon would chase the bullocks; evening would soon be on; he would fetch feed and water at the Faugh-a-ballagh Tank, in the quiet moonlight; moreover, if he met a boundary man, he could easily say he had permission from the boss; in any case, it would soon be not worth while to order him back; and he would be off the run some time to-morrow forenoon. I could read his thoughts as I looked at him across Montgomery’s shoulder. Concealed from distant observation by the timber of the pine-ridge, he had dismissed all apprehension, and allowed his mind to drift to a bend of the Murrumbidgee, a couple of miles above Hay. There were his young barbarians all at play; there was their dacent mother; he, their sire, looking blissfully forward to superhuman work, and plenty of it.

Straight into the lion’s mouth! Heaven help — but does heaven help the Scotch-navigator? I question it. Half an hour’s loafing, at any time during the day, would have timed his arrival so as not only to obviate the present danger, but to spare him the disquieting consciousness of narrow escape. And heaven helps those who help themselves

He knew the gate was near; and, with the automatic restlessness of an impatient dog tied under a travelling dray, he walked back and forward, backward and forward beside his weary team; often looking back to see the wagon clear the trees, but never, by any chance, looking forward against the blaze of the declining sun intently enough to notice the back of the buggy, partly concealed, as it was, by an umbrageous wilga. As I watched him, I wished, with Balaam, that there were a sword in mine hand, that I might slay the ass.

I dare n’t ride past the buggy, for fear of Montgomery looking round to say something. I half-heard him tell me that the Sydney crew had won the regatta, and that Jupiter was starting a hot favourite for the Flemington. And all this time, the unconscious son of perdition was crawling nearer; not a jolt nor a click-clock came from his wagon as it pressed the yielding soil; and the faint creaking of the tackle was drowned in the rustle of a hot wind through the foliage.

“I’m sorry to see you starting so late in the day, and Saturday too,” continued the squatter courteously. “The barracks will be lively to-night over these sporting events.”

I bowed. I would have licked the dust to see him stand not upon the order of his going, but go at once. “Well, I must be moving,” I mumbled hastily, glancing behind me at the sun, and backing Cleopatra into the scrub, to let the buggy pass — noting also that Priestley was n’t forty yards away.

“Now, confess the truth, Collins — you’ve been having a tiff with Mrs. Beaudesart?” continued Montgomery. “Lovers’ quarrel? That’s nothing. I did n’t think you were so pettish as to run away like this.”

“Indeed, Mr. Montgomery,” said I earnestly; “I assure you I’m only going at the call of duty. I’ll show” ——here it struck me that the production of my letter would delay things worse, and ——

“By the way, there’s a parcel for Alf Jones in the mail-bag,” continued the squatter, with hideous dilatoriness. “I see it’s a roll of music. Better take it. And his newspaper. Get him to give you a tune on his violin, if you can. It will be something to remember.”

“Thank you for the suggestion, sir,” I continued slavishly, whilst backing Cleopatra a little further into the scrub, and clearing my throat with a sharp, pentrating sound, as if I had swallowed a fly.

Just then, the bullocks stopped of their own accord, within ten yards of the buggy; and Priestley, pre-occupied in laying out fresh work for himself, was roused by my loud r-r-rehm! and took in the situation.

Montgomery seemed amused at my tribulation. “Why, your manner betrays you, Collins! Never mind. You’ll grow out of that in good time. When is it coming off?” He crossed his knees, and held the reins jammed between them, whilst deliberately filling and lighting his pipe. Meanwhile, Priestley, in silent communion with his Maker, stood by his team as if waiting to be photographed. The buggy was in a cool, pleasant shade; and Montgomery would maintain this flagitious procrastination of his managerial duties while I remained a butt for his ill-timed chaff. Critical is no name for the state of affairs.

But an angel seemed to whisper me soul to soul. I responded to the inspiration.

“Well, I’ll show you the letter, Mr. Montgomery,” said I, with a petulance tempered by sycophancy. I first felt, then slapped, my pockets — “By japers! I’ve left my pocket-book on the seat in front of the barracks!” I continued hurriedly, as I turned Cleopatra back toward the station, and bounded off at a canter. I had n’t gone five strides, when, flick! went the buggy-whip; the vehicle started after me; and Priestley was saved. But there is no such thing as permanent safety in this world. The first rattle of the wheels was followed by a loud, pompous, bank-director cough from one of the bullocks.

“Hullo! what the (sheol) have we here?” It was Montgomery’s voice, no longer jocular. I turned and rode back, as he swung his buggy round on the lock, skilfully threading the trees and scrub, till he resumed his old position, but now facing the bullock team. “And what, in the devil’s name, brings you round this quarter?” he demanded sternly. “This is a bad job!”

“You’re right, Mr. Magomery,” assented the bullock driver, with emphasis; “it is a bad job; it’s a (adj.) bad job. Way it comes: you see, I got a bit o’ loadin’ for Nalrookar” ——

“Two-ton-five. I know all about that, though I’m not interested in the transaction,” retorted Montgomery. “I asked you what the (sheol) brings you here?”

“Well, that’s just what I was goin’ to explain when you took the word out o’ my mouth. You see, Mr. Magomery, the proper road for me would ’a’ been back along the main track to the Cane-grass Swamp, an’ from there along the reg’lar Nalrookar track; but I was frightened o’ the Convincer, so I thought I’d just cut across” ——

“Great God! You thought you’d just cut across! Do you own this run?

“Well, no, Mr. Magomery, I don’t; that’s (adj.) certain. But if I’d ’a’ thought you’d any objection, I’d ’a’ ast leaf.”

“That’s what you should have done. You’ve acted like a d—d fool.”

“You’d ’a’ give me leaf?” suggested the bullock driver, in a tone full of unspoken entreaty.

“I’d have seen you in (sheol) first. I decline to make a thoroughfare of the run. But by condescending to ask me, you’d have saved yourself some travelling. The nearest way to the main road is past the station. Here! rouse up your d—d mongrels, and make a start along this track. I’ll see that you’re escorted. If you loose-out before you reach the main road, I shall certainly prosecute you. Once there, I’ll take care you don’t trespass again during this trip. Come! move yourself!”

Priestley had never been taught to order himself lowly and reverently to all his betters; yet there was deeper pathos in the rude dignity of his reply than could have attended servility.

“It s this way, Mr. Magomery — I don’t deny I got here in a sneakin’ way. I feel it, Mr. Magomery; by (sheol) I do. Still, I’m here now. Well, if I tackle this track out to the main road, there’s three o’ them bullocks’ll drop in yoke before I fetch the station. Would you like to see the bones layin’ aside this track, every time you drive past? I bet you what you like, you’d be sorry when your temper is over. Then we’ll say I’m out on the main road — how ’m I goin’ to fetch Nalrooka? Not possible, the way I’m fixed. I would n’t do it to you, Mr. Magomery.”

I had ridden to the side of the buggy. “Mr. Montgomery,” said I; “I wish to heaven that you were under one-tenth of the obligation to me that I am under to you, so that I might venture to speak in this case. But the remembrance of so much consideration at your hands m the past, encourages me. There’s a great deal in what Priestley says; my own experience in bullock driving brings it home to me; and I sympathise with him, rather than with you. Of course the matter rests entirely in your hands; but to me it appears in the light of a responsibility. It is noble to have a squatter’s strength, but tyrannous to use it like a squatter.”

Something like a smile struggled to Montgomery’s sunburnt face; and I could see that the battle was over.

But another was impending. It was now half-an-hour since I had met the buggy. Folkestone had calmly ignored me from the first. When the trouble supervened, his haughty immobility had still sustained him at such an altitude as to render Priestley, as well as myself, invisible even to bird’s eye view. But the small soul, rattling about loose in the large, well-fed body, could n’t let it pass at that. On my interposing, he placed a gold-mounted glass in his eye, and, with a degress of rudeness which I have never seen equalled in a navvies’ camp, stared straight in my face till I had done speaking. Then the lens dropped from his eye, and he turned to his companion.

“Who is this person, Montgomery?” he asked.

The squatter looked plainly displeased. He was as proud as his guest, but in a different way. Folkestone, being a gentleman per se, was distinguished from the ordinary image of God by caste and culture; and to these he added a fatal self-consciousness. Don’t take me as saying that caste and culture could possibly have made him a boor; take me as saying that these had been powerless to avert the misfortune. He was a gentleman by the grace of God and the flunkeyism of man. Montgomery was also a gentleman, but only by virtue of his position. So that, for instance, Priestley’s personal fac-simile, appearing as a well-to-do squatter, would have been received on equal terms by Montgomery; whereas, Folkestone’s disdain would have been scarcely lessened. The relative manliness of the two types of ‘gentleman’ is a question which each student will judge according to his own fallen nature.

“Pardon me for saying that you Australians have queer ways of maintaining authority,” continued the European, lazily raising his eyebrows, and speaking with the accent — or rather, absence of accent — which, in an Englishman, denotes first-class education. “A vagrant, by appearance, and probably not overburdened with honesty, is found trespassing on your property; then this individual — by Gad, I feel curious to know who our learned brother for the defence is — bandies words with you on the other fellow’s behalf. I confess I rather like his style. I expected to hear him address you as ‘old boy,’ or ‘my dear fellow,’ or by some such affectionate title. Pardon my warmth, I say, Montgomery! but this phase of colonial life is new to me. Placed in your position (if my opinion, as a landlord, be worth anything), I should make an example of the trespassing scoundrel; partly as a tonic to himself, and partly as a lesson to this cad. If I rightly understand, you have the power to punish, by fine or imprisonment, any trespass on your sheep-walks. You don’t exercise your prerogative, you say? By Gad, you’ll have to exercise it, or, let me assure you, you will be sowing thorns for your children to reap. Here, I should imagine, is an excellent opportunity for vindication of your rights as a land owner.”

This reasoning would n’t have affected Montgomery’s foregone decision to suspend his own rights in the current case, had not Priestley been too industrious to notice the opening avenue of escape. But to the bullock driver’s troubled mind it appeared that he had managed to wander inside the wings of the stockyard of Fate, and that Folkestone was lending a willing hand to hurroo him into the crush. Moreover, the rough magnanimity of the man’s nature was outraged by some supposed insult sustained by me on his behalf.

Just three words of comment here. Built into the moral structure of each earthly probationer is a thermometer, graduated independently; and it is never safe to heat the individual to the boiling-point of his register. You never know how far up the scale this point is, unless you are very familiar with the particular thermometer under experiment. Romeo, for instance, pacific by nature, and self-schooled to forbearance by the second-strongest of inspirations, meets deadly public insult by the softest of answers — ‘calm, dishonourable, vile submission,’ his friend calls it. But the slaying of that friend touches Romeo’s 212° Fahrenheit — then! ‘Away to heaven, respective lenity, and fire-eyed fury be my conduct now!’ Whereupon, Tybalt, the tamperer, is scalded to death. In Ida, as we have seen, the insinuated aspersion of unchastity touched 100° Centigrade; and the experimentalist was glad to retreat, with damaged dignity, from the escaping steam. So, in Priestley, the wanton hostility of Folkestone touched 80° Reaumur; and the billy boiled over, wasting the water, and smothering the owner with ashes.

One moment more, please. Nations, kindreds, and peoples are individuals in mass; and here the existence of an overlooked boiling-point is the one thing that makes history interesting. Cowper puts on paper a fine breezy English contempt for the submissiveness and ultra-royalism of the pre-Revolutionary French — and lives to wonder at the course of events. Macaulay’s diction rolls like the swelling of Jordan, as he expatiates on the absolute subserviency, the settled incapacity for resistance, of the Bengalee — till presently the Mutiny (a near thing, in two widely different senses, and confined to the Bengalee troops) shakes his credit. So it has ever been, and ever shall be. But for that ingrained endowment of resilience, Man would long ago have ceased to inhabit this planet.

When Priestley came to the boil, all considerations of expediency, all natural love of peace and fear of the wrath to come, all solicitude for wife and children, vanished from his mind, leaving him fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils. I must suppress about half the language in which he clothed his one remaining thought.

“An’ who are you?” he thundered, advancing toward the buggy. “A loafer! — no better! — an’ you must shove in your lip! I don’t blame Magomery for bein’ nasty; he’s got a right to blaggard me, the way things is; an’ I give him credit. But you! Cr-r-ripes! if I had you a couple o’ hundred mile furder back, I’d learn you manners! I’d make you spring off o’ your tail!”

Folkestone, his head canted to a listening angle, noted with a half-amused, half-tired smile the outlaw’s tirade. Then he rose, drew off his light coat, and laid it across the back of the buggy seat.

“I will thump this fellow, Montgomery,” said he, and he certainly meant it. Priestley was a man of nine stone.

By your favour, once more, and only once. The Englishman proper is the pugilist of the world. The Australian or American maxima may be as brutal, or even more so, but the average efficiency in smiting with the fist of wickedness is, beyond all question, on the English side. ‘English fair play’ is a fine expression. It justifies the bashing of the puny drapers’ assistant by the big, hairy blacksmith; and this to the perfect satisfaction of both parties, if they are worthy the name of Englishmen. Also, the English gentleman may take off his coat to the potsherd of the earth; and so excellent is his discrimination that the combat will surely end even as your novelist describes; simply because no worshipper can make headway against his god, when the divinity hits back. At the same time, no insubordinate Englishman, named Crooked-nosed Yorkey, and made in proportion, ever did, or ever will, suffer manual mauling at the hands of an English gentleman — or any other gentleman, for that matter. What a fool the gentleman would be! No; Crooked-nosed Yorkey is always given in charge; and it takes three policemen to run him in.

English fair-play! Varnhagen von Ense tells us how Continental gentlemen envied the social usage which permitted Lord Castlereagh, in 1815, to show off his bruising ability at the expense of a Viennese cabman — probably some consumptive feather-weight, and certainly a man who had never seen a scrapping-match in his life. But English fair-play doesn’t stand transplantation to Australia, except in patches of suitable soil. For instance, when bar-loafer meets pimp, at £1 a side, then comes the raw-meat business. The back-country man, though saturnine, is very rarely quarrelsome, and almost never a pugilist; nevertheless, his foot on his native salt-bush, it is not advisable to assault him with any feebler weapon than rifle-and-bayonet. There is a radical difference, without a verbal distinction, between his and the Englishman’s notions of fair-play. Each is willing to content himself with the weapons provided by nature; but the Southern barbarian prefers a natural product about three feet long, and the thickness of your wrist at the butt — his conception of fair-play being qualified by a fixed resolution to prove himself the better counterfeit.

So Priestley, with a sinister glitter in his patient eyes, had reversed his whipstick, pliant end downward, and bent along the ground. He knew the nature of seasoned pine. A sharp jerk, and the whipstick would snap, supplying a nilla-nilla which would make him an over-match for a dozen Folkestones in rotation. My hand was on Cleopatra’s mane, and my off-foot clear of the stirrup; it would be a Christian act to save Folkestone from the father of a batin’, and Priestley from that sterner father, namely, old father antic, the law. But imminent as the collision seemed, it did n’t come-off.

“Sit down, Folkestone,” said Montgomery, holding his companion’s sleeve with a firm grip, whilst gazing steadily northward through the narrow fringe of timber. Following his eye, I saw a horseman, a mile and a half distant, heading for the homestead at a walk.

“Is that Arblaster, Collins?” demanded the squatter.

I brought my binocular to bear on the horseman. “Nelson,” I replied.

“Better still. Signal him.”

I galloped out into the plain, wheeled broadside on, and waved my hat. The equestrian profile changed to a narrow line, and I returned to the buggy, followed, at a decent interval, by Nelson. I was glad to see Priestley in the act of driving through the gate.

“Come, here, Priestley,” said Montgomery quietly. “You have my permission to follow this track to the Nalrooka boundary” ——

“I hope I’ll git some slant to do as much” ——

“Silence! — But if you trespass on my feed or water, by God I’ll prosecute you. Another thing. Never in future load anything for me, or come to this station expecting wool. And I may as well warn you that every boundary man in my employ will be on the look-out for you from this time forward. Nelson; you ride behind his wagon to the boundary, and see that he keeps the track.” —— A frown gathered on the young fellow’s face, reinforced by a burning blush as Montgomery went on —— “Perhaps you scarcely expected me to concur in your opinion, that one ought to spring a bit in a season like this; yet I have no intention of crushing a poor, decent, hard-working devil — that is, if he can add nine miles more to to-day’s stage, without unyoking. I have already given him a thorough good blackguarding for calculating upon crossing the run. If he trespasses on feed or water — if he does n’t go straight on with his team, wagon or no wagon — you and I may quarrel.” Who was the spy? Ah! who is the ubiquitous station spy?

“Good-bye, Mr. Montgomery,” said I abjectly.

“Are n’t you coming back to the station for your pocket-book?” he asked, with a glance out of the corner of his eye.

“I find I’ve got it here all the time — wonder how I came to overlook it.”

“Thinking too much about Mrs. Beaudesart,” suggested the squatter. “She won’t be at all displeased to hear of it. Good-bye, Collins. Safe joumey.”

I raised my wideawake to Folkestone, who again placed his glass in his eye, and stared at me wonderingly till we tore ourselves apart.

Another mile, and I cleared the pine-ridge. Looking back to the right, I could see Priestley and his guard of honour crawling toward the Faugh-a-ballagh Sand-hills, which lay two miles from the gate where we had parted. They would reach the tank as twilight merged into moonlight. Then Nelson would say, ‘I’m going to have a drink of tea at Jack’s hut. I’ll be back in three or four hours. Pity you’re not allowed to loose-out, for there’s a grand bit of crow’s-foot round that pine tree in the hollow. Don’t kindle a fire, unless you want to get lagged.’ And Priestley would get to the boundary by ten o’clock on the morrow, without the loss of a beast; thanking heaven that he had n’t been escorted by Arblaster or Butler, and racking his invention to provide for the coming night. Also, Montgomery would, within a week, know all the details of the trip (station-spy again), but, being a white man, he would silently condone Nelson’s disobedience.

One more little incident enlivened the monotony of my journey to Alf’s hut. Whilst giving my horses a half-mile walk, I took out the newspaper Toby had brought. I did n’t look for any marginal marks, having recognised Jeff Rigby’s handwriting in the address. Rigby is a man who never writes except on his own account. His way of acknowledging a letter is to pick up a newspaper, of perhaps a month old, tie a string round it, stamp and address it, and drop it in the nearest letter-box. This paper, however, happened to be the latest available issue of a Melbourne daily, and contained a copious account of the regatta, followed by the coarsely-executed portrait of a young man, with the neck and shoulders — and, by one of Nature’s sad, yet just, compensations, also the face and head — of the average athlete. Rude as the engraving was, the subject of it at once suggested what the Life-Assurance canvassers call an ‘excellent risk’; and underneath ran the title: Mr. RUDOLPH WINTERBOTTOM — STROKE OF THE WINNING CREW. An ensuing paragraph briefly sketched the hero’s history, habits, and physical excellencies. He was twenty-two years of age; had a good position in the N.S.W. Civil Service; and was now on leave of absence. He was a non-smoker, a life-abstainer, and in a word, was distinguished in almost every branch of those gambol faculties which show a weak mind and an able body. It gave me quite a turn. Sic transit, thought I, with a sigh. Such is life.

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

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