[Editor: This is the first part of Chapter Seven 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 reader, however unruly under weaker management, is by this time made aware of a power, beyond his own likes and dislikes, controlling the selection and treatment of these informal annals. That power, in the nature of things, resides napoleonically with myself, and has, I trust, been exercised toward the information and edification of the few who fall under its jurisdiction — suggesting, as it does, Tom Hood’s idea of perfect rule: An angel from heaven, and a despotism.
Encouraged by this assurance, and prompted, as usual, by a refinement which some might construe into fastidiousness, I shall once more avail myself of the prerogative hitherto so profitably sustained. The routine record of March 9 is not a desirable text. It would merely call forth from fitting oblivion the lambing-down of two stalwart fencers by a pimply old shanty-keeper; and you know this sort of thing has been described ad sickenum by other pens, less proper than mine — described, in fact, till you would think that, in the back-country, drinking took the place of Conduct, as three-fourths of life; whilst the remaining fourth consisted of fighting. Whereas, outside the shearing season, you might travel a hundred miles, calling at five shanties, without seeing a man the worse for drink; and you would be still more likely to go a thousand miles, calling at fifty shanties, without seeing any indication of a fight. Of course, there are some queer tragedies, and many melancholy farces, enacted at the shanties; but speaking in a broad, statistical way, the shanty-keeper gets such a miserably small percentage of the money earned out-back that he usually lives in saint-like indigence, and dies in the odour of very inferior liquor. Here and there, the exceptional case of a shanty-keeper retiring on his Congealed Ability goes to show the fatuity of the curse — hypothesis, rounding us up on the one unassailable bit of standing-ground, namely, that such is life.
It would do you no good to hear how the old Major (he was an ex-officer of the Imperial army) fawned on my officialship, and threw himself in rapport with my gentlemanship — how his haggard, handsome wife leered at me over his shoulder — how the open-hearted asses of fencers, in weary alternation, confidentially told me fragmentary and idiotic yarns — how they shook hands with me till I was tired, and wept over me till I was disgusted — how they irrelevantly and profusely apologised for anything they might have said, and abjectly besought me, if I felt anyway nasty, to take it out of their (adj.) hides — I say, it would do you no good.
So, for this and two other reasons, I shall take as my text the entry of March 28, and a portion of the following verse. This arbitrary departure in dates will give you another glimpse of Alf Jones. Also, the peculiar scythe-sweep of my style of narrative will take in a rencontre with another person, to whom, in your helpless state as a reader, you have already been introduced. And if you take it not patiently, the more is your mettle.
FRI. MARCH 28. Wilcannia shower. Jack the Shellback.
SAT. MARCH 29. To Runnymede. Tom Armstrong and mate.
I had spent the night of the 27th at Burke’s camp, on Boottara; my horses faring decently for the season. Burke, the regular station-contractor, had been off work for a month, keeping his twenty horses and twenty-four bullocks in the Abbotsford Paddock, and watering them daily at Granger’s Tank. The Abbotsford Paddock, having gone dry in the spring, had fair grass in it, but, of course, no station stock.
In spite of all the loafing I could do, the season was telling on my horses. Their hoofs were worn to the similitude of quoits; you could count their ribs a quarter of a mile off; and they had acquired that crease down the hip pathetically known as ‘the poor man’s stripe.’ Cleopatra’s bucking had become feeble and mechanical, and so transparently stagey that I used to be ashamed of it. Still, my aversion to lending the horse, or having him duffed, compelled me to keep his performance up to the highest standard compatible with justice to himself.
Runnymede homestead — to which that strange fatality was again driving me — was thirty miles from Burke’s camp; but, by losing a few miles in a slight detour, I could make a twenty-mile stage to Alf Jones’s, and, next day, a fifteen-mile stage to the station. This rate of travelling, with frequent holidays, was fast enough for a man without official hopes, or corresponding fear of the sack. If Alf was gone, so much the better for himself; if he was still in the old spot, so much the better for me. That was the way I looked at it.
In view of the soul-destroying ignorance which saturates society, it may be well to repeat that this central point of the universe, Riverina Proper, consists of a wide promontory of open and level plain, coming in from the south-west; broken, of course, by many pine ridges, clumps of red box, patches of scrub or timber, and the inevitable red gum flats which fringe the rivers. Eastward, the plain runs out irregularly into open forests of white box, pine, and other timber. Northward — something over a couple of hundred miles from the Murray — the tortuous frontier of boundless scrub meets the plain with the abruptness of a wall. Boottara is half plain and half scrub; Runnymede is practically all plain.
When I left Burke’s camp, heading south-west for Alf’s paddock, there was a strong, dry, and — as it seemed to me then — useless, north-west wind tearing through the tops of the trees. I thought it might lull before I left the shelter of the scrub, but it only increased. The willowy foliage of the scattered myalls on the plain stood out horizontally to leeward; and an endless supply of lightly-bounding roley-poleys were chasing each other across the level ground. I lashed my hat on with a handkerchief, one side of the brim being turned down to keep some of the sand and dust out of my weather-ear. The horses, with ears flattened backward and muzzles slanted out to leeward, caught the storm on their polls, and, leaning sideways against the still-increasing pressure, pushed on gallantly. They remembered Alf’s grass as well as I remembered his music.
About mid-day — having crossed the main track diagonally, without seeing it — I came upon the portable engine and centrifugal pump belonging to Runnymede, set up for work at Patagonia Tank.
On a well-managed station, like Runnymede, a tank is, whenever possible, excavated on the margin of a swamp. The clay extracted is formed into a strong wall, or enclosing embankment, a couple of yards back from the edge of the excavation; and under this wall, an iron pipe connects the swamp with the tank. The swamp being full, and the water in the tank having reached the same level, the outer end of the pipe is closed, and the portable pumping plant sent out to fill the space inside the wall, thus doubling the capacity of the tank.
Three days before the time I speak of, a thunderstorm of a few miles’ area had filled the Patagonia Swamp; and Montgomery, dreading a rainless winter, had seized the opportunity to secure a supply of water. The pumping plant had been set-up on the evening before, but not started; and now the wind had swept all the water to the other end of the swamp. The engine-driver and his mate had struck their tent to prevent its being blown away, and were lying in the lee of the tank wall, trying to get a smoke.
Young Mooney had come early from the station, to see how the pump started, and had been drawn into a controversy with his half-broken colt; the point in dispute being whether it was safe to go within forty yards of the engine. Mooney had maintained the affirmative, and the colt, the negative. The Pure Logic which the colt had opposed to Mooney’s Applied Logic had ultimately prevailed, and the narangy had withdrawn from the argument on his ear, whilst the colt had disappeared through the rising dust-storm. Now Mooney was sitting in the lee of the embankment, cursing the day he elected to be a squatter rather than a clergyman.
I watered my horses and Pup at the tank, condoled with Mooney, joined the two other chaps in severe criticism on the weather, replenished my water-bag, and passed on. I may add that the pump was n’t started on that occasion at all; the water being blown clean out of the swamp, and scattered, fine as dust, through the thirsty atmosphere.
The steady intensity of the shower augmented as I went on. It got under my hat, and the next moment that product of German industry was flying across the wilderness, for the good of trade. At last I had to give-in. The increasing broadside pressure, with the sand and dust, was becoming too much for the horses; and, in any case, I should have had to stop on Pup’s account. I turned Cleopatra’s head to leeward, and began carefully to dismount. But the wind ballooned the back of my coat and the right branch of my other garment, and I went three yards through the air, like a bird shot on the wing. Recovering foothold, I fought my way to Bunyip, and relieved him of his pack. Then, with Cleopatra’s rein over my arm, I sat down on the ground to see it out. At this low elevation, the air was thick with skipping crumbs of hard dirt, which rattled on my skull like hail; in fact, everything not anchored to the ground was at racing speed, and all in the same direction.
But this strong, thirsty wind, coming from the north-western deserts with a clear fetch of a thousand miles, was not going to last many hours; meantime, I set myself to work out scientifically its genesis, operation, and hidden purpose. The first and second considerations were merely matters of research and calculation; the third was largely speculative, admitting of no more definite conclusion than that the time had come when hygienic necessities required a thorough rousing and ridding-out of microbes, bacteria, and other pests too minute to be worth particularising. But I was better enlightened before another day had gone over my head.
Whilst engaged in these not unpleasing studies, I caught a momentary glimpse of something, ten yards away to the left, which seemed to be moving slowly against the wind. The volume of flying dust was, of course, far from uniform in density; and presently I caught sight of the object again. It was a man, creeping slowly and painfully across the stubbly knobs of cotton-bush on his hands and knees. I hailed him in a voice that took the skin off my throat, but another glimpse showed him still travelling; his head bent almost to the ground. I rose carefully to my feet, facing the shower, but only to be hurled down on top of the faithful Pup, and savagely snapped at. Then I went like a quadruped till I reached the wayfarer, and caught him by the ankle. He looked round; I beckoned, and crept back to my former seat, whilst he followed close behind. Then a bearded, haggard, resolute face, framed by an old hat tied down over the ears, confronted me.
“You look like some worn and weary brother, pulling hard against the stream,” I shouted.
The dry, cracked lips moved without speech, and the bloodshot eyes left my face to scan the pack-saddle beside me.
“Water?” I suggested.
He nodded. Cleopatra was close behind me, propped against the wind. I drew myself up by the near stirrup, till I could unbuckle the water-bag from the cantle. Though filled with half a gallon of water not two hours before, it was now half-empty. I drew the cork; my visitor clasped the cool, damp canvas between his trembling hands, and, with fine self-control, barely wetted his lips again and again. At last he took a moderate drink.
“Making for Patagonia Tank,” he hoarsely remarked.
“You were going past it. It ’s about a mile and a half straight across there. I’ve just come from it.”
“Disappointed of water last night,” he continued. “It was dark when I struck the little tank I was making for, and I found her dry; and my throat like a lime-kiln. Too dog-tired to go any further, so I rested till morning, and then struck for the Patagonia, with a devil of a headache to help me along. I knew of another tank nearer, but I would n’t trust myself to find her in the dust. I helped to sink the Patagonia. Fine tank — ain’t she?”
“First-class. Have you no swag?”
“I had a very good one a few hours ago, but Lord knows where she is now. I left her behind when the wind put me on all-fours. Kept pretty well in the same quarter, I think?”
“About the same.”
“That’ll be a bit of a guide. You’ll be staying here till she slackens-down?’
“There’s nothing else I can do.”
“Well, I’ll stay with you. If you shoot me straight for the swamp I’ll be right. I’ll spell to-night at the tank, and then have a try for my swag.”
“You’ll find two very decent coves camped at the tank, with the engine and pump. They’ll put you on your feet.”
“Which way are you travelling?” I asked.
“Any way. Work’s scarce; contractors camped for want of water; too late for burr-cutting; nothing doing. I wish to God the rabbits would come something worth while.”
And so the profitless conversation (conversation is generally profitless) went on by fits and starts, till the sand and dirt-pellets ceased to drift. Half-an-hour later, it was an almost perfect calm, though the air was still charged with dust.
By this time, I had re-packed, and was ready to start. My guest was now on his feet, but shaky enough. With Bligh-like impartiality, I meted out half a pint of water to him, the same quantity to Pup, and the remaining quarter-pint to myself.
“Got a bit of tobacco to spare?” he asked. “Mine’s all in my swag.”
“Certainly,” I replied. “Are you hard-up? Because I can lend you five bob till we meet again.”
“No, thank-you. I ’ve got a couple or three notes left, and even if I hadn’t, I’d think twice before I touched your money. Money’s a peculiar thing.”
“Especially in the sense of being peculiar to certain sections of society,” I replied. “Now strike straight across there, and you’ll fetch the tank in a mile and a half.”
“What’s your name?” he demanded, as I placed my foot in the stirrup.
My horses went off freely. I struck the wicket-gate with accuracy and bowled on toward the declining sun, which showed dull and coppery through suspended dust; till, just at that hour which calls the faithful Mussulman to prayer, and the no less faithful sundowner to the station store, I reached my destination.
One glance was enough. Two strange horses were in the paddock; the kerosene-tins still stood in the sheltered angle by the chimney, but the flowers were dead; the smooth-trodden radius round the door was no longer swept except by the winds of heaven, and was becoming a midden whence antiquaries of future ages might sift out priceless relics with unpronounceable names. A strange dog came to the door-step, gave a single bark, and re-entered; then Jack the Shellback appeared, and, recognising me, got a larger quantity of profanity and indecency into his cordial welcome than you might think possible. Scarce as water was, he cursed me into washing the sand out of my hair with two consecutive goes of the precious liquid, whilst he swore the saddles of my horses, and obscene-languaged some supper for me. Even before the shower, the whole area of my mortal shrine, back from high-water mark round neck and wrists, had been pistol-proof with a thousand samples of dust, patiently collected over the same number of miles; but that did n’t trouble me. I could get rid of it — along with much moral and mental virtue, unfortunately — possibly at the Runnymede swimming-hole, or failing that, at the place where the Lachlan had been.
“Stiff little breeze we had,” I remarked, as I sat down to supper.
“Well, no,” replied Jack, in reluctant and compassionate negative; and this was the only part of his long reply fit to place before the sanctimonious reader. He went on to tell me, in the vulgar tongue, that if I had ever been at sea, I would think nothing of a whiff like that. He told me of storms he had weathered — particularly, one off Christiana Cooner, a solitary island in the south Atlantic — and the effect of his discourse is that I have ever since been careful, in the company of sailors, to avoid speaking of the winds I have encountered.
“I’ll fix you up for a hat,” he continued, in language of matchless force and piquancy. “Bend her; she’ll about fit you. I dropped across her one day I was in the road-paddock.”
‘She’ was a drab belltopper, in perfect preservation, with a crown nothing less than a foot and a half high, and a narrow, wavy brim. She proved a perfect fit when I ‘bent’ her. I wore her afterward for many a week, till one night she rolled away from my camp, and I saw her no more, though I sought her diligently. Take her for all in all, I shall not look upon her like again.
“Now, if you’d a pair o’ skylights athort your cutwater, you’d be set up for a professor of phrenology, or doxology, or any other ology,” suggested Jack, with one oath, two unseemly expletives, and two obscenities.
“How is that for high?” I asked, putting on a pair of large, round, clouded lenses, which my experience of ophthalmia has warned me to carry continually. Then, without interrupting my good host’s torrent of unrepeatable congratulation, I turned aside and unstrapped a portion of Bunyip’s pack. Presently I advanced and resumed my seat, with the ancestor of all pipes pendent from my mouth. The hat, glasses, and pipe chorded (if I may use that expression) so perfectly that Jack’s merriment died-away in a reverent petition to be struck dead.
The pipe has already been referred-to in these annals. It was probably the most artistic, the most opulent-looking, the most scholarly, the most imposing, and, from a Darwinian point of view, the most highly specialised, meerschaum ever seen on earth. It was a pipe such as no smoker parts with during life, but bequeaths to his best-beloved son — a pipe such as would make any man wish to have a Benjamin, but for the fear that the heir-presumptive might be exposed to unfair temptation, and the old man himself to grave peril.
This nonpareil lies before me now, on an old, cracked dinner-plate, with my knife and tobacco. Its head, ideally perfect as that goddess who rose from similar material, carries, in spite of its vast size, no suggestion of the colossal, but rather of the majestic. Its aspect would be overpowering but for the soothing and reassuring effect of colour — as where, at point of contact, the opaque snow of the upper half, with cirrhus-like edge, overlies rather than meets the indescribable wealth of lucent and fathomless umber, which soul-satisfying colour intensifies toward the rounded heel, softening to a paler tint in its serene re-ascent, till the meerschaum terminates in a heavy, semi-cylindrical collar, of almost audacious simplicity. Then a thick, flexible, silk-chequered stem takes up the wondrous tale, in its turn extending, with a most magnanimous restraint, barely four inches ere transferring its glories to the worthy keeping of such a piece of Baltic amber as you shall not match in any democratic community. The slight silver mounting hints a princely concession to the great pipe family; and the two little red crackers, depending from the junction of mouthpiece and stem, whilst giving no encouragement to presumptuous rivalry, soften the austere, unapproachable, super-Phidian perfection of the whole ongsomble.
Here it occurs to the subtle critic that this is something like what a novelist would write. A novelist is always able to bring forth out of his imagination the very thing required by the exigencies of his story — just as he unmasks the villian at the critical moment, and, for the young hero’s benefit, gently shifts the amiable old potterer to a better land in the very nick of time. Such is not life. And to avoid any shadow of the imputation in which that incident-begging novelist wallows, I must now turn aside for one moment to tell how I came into possession of such a pipe as no other Australian bushman ever owned. As for the digression — well, I suppose even the most insubordinate reader is by this time educated up to my style.
Shortly before the previous wool-season, I had found myself, on a rather chilly night, drawing toward the western boundary of Gunbah, on the track from Hillston to Hay. A spark of red fire, miles ahead, told of someone camped at a clump on Illilliwa, just about the spot I had marked out as my own destination — there being grass anywhere inside the boundary of Illilliwa, and none in the road-paddocks of Gunbah. As I drew nearer, the impotent tinkle of one of those hemispherical horse-bells indicated a new-chum’s camp.
I casually noticed a man sitting before the fire, though he vanished before I arrived, leaving an empty camp-stool. As I unsaddled my horses, he reappeared out of the darkness — a large, blonde, heavily-moustached young fellow, with a light rifle in the hollow of his arm, Being too hungry for conversation, I merely tendered about three words of civil remark whilst raking out some coals for my quart-pot; and he resumed his seat in silence, watching me across the fire.
But during my ample repast — the second one of the day — I introduced myself more fully, and partly won my way through the suspicious reserve of the strong man armed. By the time my supper-service was re-packed, and I was stretched in Aboriginal contentment beside the fire, I had noticed, by the uncertain light, an eight-by-six tent, which seemed to contain two camp-bedsteads, on one of which lay a sleeping man. Some yards behind the tent stood a spring-cart.
My new acquaintance, becoming quite frank and cordial, supported his end of the conversation in rather laboured English, with a slight foreign accent. Gold-mining was the topic which had risen to the surface; and, as an hour — two hours — passed, I was fairly abashed by the extent and accuracy of his information. He talked so confidently, so scientifically, and, as far as my knowledge went, so veraciously, not only of the principal Australian gold-fields, but of the different notable claims, that curiosity broke through ceremony, and I asked him how long he had been out.
Just three weeks, he told me. His name, he added, with an inimitable bow, was Franz von Swammerbrunck, very much at my service. His friend, Schloss, and himself, fellow-students, had left Frankfort only three months before.
“Frankfort-on-the-Main, or Frankfort-on-the-Oder?” I asked, veiling a mild and inoffensive pedantry under the guise of friendly interest.
His courteous reply tailed-off naturally into such a volume of condensed information as re-impressed on my mind a fact which we are, perhaps, too prone to lose sight of — namely, the existence of a civilisation north of Torres Straits. Desiring, of course, to avail myself of some few rays of this boreal light, I tried to steer the conversation in the direction of bainting and boetry (for such subjects go well at camp-fires), but Franz hung so persistently on one rein that I had to give him his head, and he edged back to gold-mining. Turn the discourse whatever way I would, that wearisome topic was adroitly made to occur as if of its own accord.
“But don’t let me be keeping you out of bed,” I remarked, at length.
“Tear Mr. Tongcollin, you haf dot impertinence perpetrate nefer,” replied my companion earnestly. “Dis schall pe mine period mit der sentry-vatch. Dot molestation to youzelluf solitary vill pe, unt von apology ver despicable iss to me reqvire ass der conseqvence. Bot you magnificent superb garrulity mos peen to der strange-alien-isolate in dot platty dilemma mit Schloss unt minezelluf, invaluable unt moch velcome. Dot gootdefine kevartz reef, by instance, vich you loquacious-delineate, mit der visible golt destitute-by tam! he schall mine eyes from der skleep fly-away mit der enchantment-glitter! Ach Gott! Nefer py vhite man vitness, you schall say, pefore fife unt seex yare pass-gone, unt by pushmen diminutive nomber unt platty few altogedder. Bot der localisation-topography unt der route you schall py der map mit you gross magnanimity indicate, unt Gott pless! Tousand pig tank you, Mr. Tongcollin! For von trifle-moment, you ver munificent reprieve” ——
He entered the tent, and spoke to the sleeper, with suppressed eagerness in his voice. The watch below attired himself and came forth; then followed a formal introduction; and in another couple of hours — such was the clearness and receptivity of these young men’s minds — I had made them acquainted with all I knew of the geology of Upper Riverina. And not less remarkable than their infatuation for non-auriferous reefs was their vivid interest in bushrangers and blackfellows; but whereas they received my crude geological information with the attention which its frankness certainly merited, it was plain that their idea of prospecting the back-blocks with the pick in one hand and the rifle in the other, remained unshaken by my repeated assurances of peace and safety. That was all right. The topography of the wilderness was the thing they wanted; they would manage the peace and safety for themselves. Schloss, in particular, was almost as eager for the inevitable brush with outlaw or savage as he was for the no less inevitable golden reef.
In due time, the stars paled to indistinctness, then to invisibility, and the landscape came into view in the fresh, chilly dawn, showing a strong grey horse feeding with Fancy and Bunyip, two hundred yards away. I was in no hurry to start, but my friends were like greyhounds in the leash. Therefore, whilst I dozed off to sleep, they packed up their elaborate camp, and harnessed their horse in the spring-cart. They would stop for breakfast after a few hours’ travelling; meantime, they had a cup of coffee. I roused myself to reiterate the directions I had already given respecting the locality of half a dozen reefs in the back-blocks; then my friends stowed away their maps and diagrams, and shook hands with me so affectionately — so Germanly, in fact — that I called up a certain sardonic expression of face, as the best safeguard against possible kissing. Finally, when they were seated side by side under the tilt of the spring-cart, Swammerbrunck said, whilst his blue eyes twinkled with merriment,
“Vit Mr. Spreenfeldt shall you peen von acquaintance?”
Yes; I was slightly acquainted with Mr. Springfield. He was the landlord of a hotel in Hay.
“Vill you said, mit you proximate-ensuing interview, dot der two Yarman moreprogues schall peen ass pig fools ass efer!”
I promised to deliver the message, whereupon the wise men of the north laughed heartily. Then the three of us raised our hats with aristocratic gravity; and the vehicle moved away toward the land of Disillusionment. As I lay down again, I heard the poor fellows burst into unintelligible song; and, after the spring-cart had jogged a quarter of a mile, one of the adventurers looked past the edge of the tilt toward me, and waved his handkerchief. Not having any similar article on me at the time, I half-rose and returned the farewell with my hat.
As big fools as ever! Between asleep and awake, I pondered on the quantity and quality of Australian-novel lore which had found utterance there. The outlawed bushrangers; the lurking blackfellows; the squatter’s lovely Diana-daughter, awaiting the well-bred greenhorn (for even she had cropped-up in conversation) — how these things recalled my reading! And yet they were quite as reasonable as the discovery of the rich reef by the soft-handed, fastidious young gentleman-digger.
I had only wasted time in asseverating that barren reefs are twice as plentiful as half-tucker reefs; ten times as plentiful as wages reefs; and a hundred times as plentiful as pile reefs. Both margraves had listened with polite toleration when I compassionately added that the pile reef is always discovered by an ungrammatical person, named Old Brummy, or Sydney Bob, or Squinty-eyed Pete, or something to the same general effect; and this because few ‘gentlemen’ can stoop low enough, and long enough, and doggedly enough, to conquer; whereas Brummy &c., does n’t require to stoop at all — and his show is little better than Buckley’s.
Also, the barons had derived keen enjoyment from my honest suggestion, that the ‘gentlemans’’ best show is to discover the discoverer, and prevail upon the latter, per medium of fire-water and blarney, to affix his illegible signature to some expropriating document. And yet those visionaries were highly informed men — at least, as far as schools, lecturerooms, laboratories, museums, and the whole admirable machinery of modern academic and technical training could take them. This, let me add, is the record of an actual occurrence. It will just show you how much the novelist has to answer for; following, as he does, the devices and desires of his own heart; telling the lies he ought not to have told, and leaving untold the lies that he ought to have told.
I am not forgetting the pipe. Leaving the camp at about ten in the forenoon, I noticed, lying among the tussocks where the spring-cart had stood, something which, at the first glance, I took for the sumptuous holster of an overgrown navy revolver. I need say no more. It may have been the landgraves’ pipe-case, or, on the other hand, it may not. At all events, regarding the article as treasure-trove, within the meaning of the Act, I formally took possession under 6 Hen. III., c. 17, sec. 34; holding myself prepared at any time to surrender the property to anyone clever enough to sneak it, and cunning enough to keep it; though a sense of delicacy might prevent me chasing the Kronprinzes round the country, as if they had stolen something. When the pipe had eaten its magnificent head off in tobacco, then, of course, I sold it to pay expenses, and bought it in myself. So I have it still. And if the censorious reader has detected here and there in these pages a tendency toward the Higher Criticism, or a leaning to State Socialism, or any passage that seemed to indicate a familiarity with cuneiform inscriptions, or with the history and habits of Pre-Adamite Man, he may be assured that, at the time of writing such passage, I had been smoking the mighty pipe — or rather, the mighty pipe had been smoking me — and the unlawful erudition had effervesced per motion of my scholastic ally.
“I can better that yet,” remarked Jack unprintably. “I’ll swap you coats. Yours ain’t a bad one, but your arms goes a foot too fur through the sleeves, an’ she ’s ridiculous short in the tail. She’ll jist about fit my soul-case; an’ I got an alpacar one here, made a-purpose for some clipper built (individual) like you. I would n’t ’a’ speculated in her, on’y she was the last the hawker had left. She’s never bin bent.” He produced a slate-coloured alpaca coat, which, when I tried it on, extended down to my knuckles and knees, trailing clouds of glory where there was none before. “You’ll do a bit o’ killin’ at the station, in that rig-out,” continued my host, with a lewd reference to some person who shall be nameless.
“By-the-way, what’s come of Alf Jones?” I asked, as we resumed our seats.
“Gone to (sheol),” replied his successor tersely. Alf, it appeared, had left the station six or eight weeks before, bound for no one knew where. Jack’s opinion was that in so doing he had made a slippery-hitch. I spoke of Alf’s singing; and Jack told me how the fellows at the station had persuaded him to give them a couple or three songs before he left.
“Was n’t he something wonderful?” I remarked.
“Well, no,” Jack replied, deferentially but positively; “nothing like what you ’d hear in a fo’c’sl.”
In fact, according to Jack’s account, he used to be reputed a middling singer himself. And he straightway rendered a mawkishly sentimental song, and a couple of extremely unchaste ones, in a voice which made the tea-embrowned pannikins on the table rattle in sympathy.
I remembered Alf’s minstrelsy, and the contrast was painful. Jack noticed a depression creeping over me, and, with the intuition of true hospitality, exerted his conversational powers for my entertainment. His discourse ran exclusively on a topic which, sad to say, furnishes, in all grades of masculine society, the motif of nearly every joke worth telling. In this line, Jack was a discriminating anthologist, and, moreover, a judicious adapter — all his gestes being related in the first-person-singular. His autobiographical record was a staggerer; but I happened to recognise amongst his affaires de coeur several very old acquaintances, and made allowance accordingly. If he had been a truthful man, the floor of the hut would have opened that night and swallowed him alive; but his vain-glorious emulation of St. Paul’s chief-of-sinners hyperbole covered as with a mantle his multitude of bonâ-fide transgressions, and preserved him for better things.
Yes; better things. For, mind you, beyond this rollicking blackguard there stood a second Jack, a soft-hearted, self-sacrificing other-phase, chivalrous to quixotism, yet provokingly reticent touching any act or sentiment which reflected real credit on himself. Not that every blackguard is a Bayard, any more than every wife-beater is a coward; but almost all moral and immoral qualities are in reality independent of each other. And Jack, for one thing, was eminently religious — as indeed were those greater geniuses and equally hard cases, Dick Steele and Henry Fielding. Says the First Lord (neither of the Admiralty nor the Treasury), ‘The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair if they were not cherished by our virtues.’
“I always make a bit of a prayer before turnin’-in,” remarked Jack, in appendix to a story which Chaucer or Boccaccio would have rejected with horror; then the poor fellow laid his pipe on the table, and, kneeling by his bedside, repeated in a firm, reverent voice an almost unrecognisable version of the Lord’s Prayer, and an unconscious parody on Ken’s Evening Hymn: — ‘Glory to Thee, my God, this night.’
“See, it’s this way with me,” he continued, rising from his knees and re-lighting his pipe — “las’ time I seen my pore mother — widow-woman, she was, for my ole man he ’d shipped bo’sun o’ the Raglan, las’ time she weighed — ‘Jack,’ says the ole woman to me, an’ the tears rollin’ down her face — it’lI be goin’ on five year ago now — ‘Jack,’ says she; ‘promise me you’ll always make a bit of a prayer before turnin’-in; for the Lord says anybody that ’s ashamed o’ Him, He’ll be ashamed o’ him at the day o’ judgment.’ Awful — ain’t it? Course, I promised, but it went in o’ one ear, an’ out o’ the other, till about two year after, when I got word she was dead. I was on Runnymede then — for I come straight here when I bolted from the ship — an’ I begun to bethink myself that she could see how I was keepin’ my promise; so I braced-up, an’ laid a bit closer. Lord knows, I gev her worry enough while she was alive, without follerin’ her up any furder.” I have taken some trouble in weeding the language of Jack’s confession, so as not to destroy its consecutiveness.
And, co-existing in the worthy fellow’s mind with this childlike simplicity, was a really fine store of the best kind of knowledge, namely, that acquired from observation and experience. It is surprising how much a landsman, however well-informed, may gather from a sailor when he listens like a three-years’ child, and the mariner hath his will. I only wish I was as well posted up in devil-fish, stingarees, krakens, and other marine commonplaces, as I am — thanks to Jack’s information — in the man-o’-war hawk and the penguin. It came about in this way:
The door was left open for ventilation when we retired to rest, Jack in his bunk, and I on the floor. We were both asleep, when I became aware of an icy touch on my face, accompanied by a breath strongly suggesting to my scientific nose the hydro-carburetted oxy-chloro-phosphate of dead bullock. Drowsily opening one eye, I saw Pup standing by my side. He had thought I was dead; but, finding his mistake, he walked away through the gloom with an injured and dissatisfied air, and began trying to root the lid off Jack’s camp-oven with his pointed nose. One peculiarity of the kangaroo-dog is, that though he has no faculty of scent at the service of his master, he can smell food through half-inch boilerplate; and he rivals Trenck or Monte Cristo in making way through any obstacle which may stand between him and the object of his desires.
The clattering of the oven-lid roused Jack. He looked up, and then left his bed.
“Pore creature’s hungry,” is near enough what he said. He opened a sort of safe, and took out all the cooked mutton, which he divided into two unequal portions, then gave the smaller share to his own dog, and the larger to Pup. “Bit evener on your keel after you’ve stowed that in your hold,” he soliloquised profanely.
“Thank-you, Jack!” said I. “Would you just see that everything’s safe from him before you turn-in again. There’s always a siege of Jerusalem going on in his inside. The kangaroo-dog’s the hungriest subject in the animal kingdom.”
“Well, no,” replied Jack forbearingly, as he returned to his bed; “he ain’t in it with the man-o’-war hawk. That’s the hungriest subject goin’; though, strictly speakin’, he don’t belong to no kingdom in particular; he belongs to the high seas. If you’d ’a’ had a chance to study man-o’-war hawks, like I’ve had, you’d never think a kangaroo-dog was half hungry. Why, he dunno what proper hunger is.”
Then he gave me such a description of this afflicted bird as, in the interests of science, I have great pleasure in laying before the intelligent public. I must, however, use my own language. Jack’s rhetoric, though lucid and forcible, would look so bad on paper that the police might interfere with its publication.
The man-o’-war hawk, it appears, utters a thrilling squeal of hunger the moment his beak emerges from the shell; and this hunger dogs him — kangaroo-dogs him, you might say — through life. At adult age, he consists chiefly of wings; but, in addition to these, he has a pair of eager, sleepless eyes, endowed with a power of something like 200 diameters; and he has also a perennially empty stomach — the sort of vacuum, by the way, which Nature particularly abhors. He can eat nothing but fish; and, since he suffers under the disadvantage of being unable to dive, wade, or swim, some one else must catch the fish for him. The penguin does this, and does it with a listless ease which would excite the envy of the man-o’-war hawk if the unceasing anguish of hunger allowed the latter any respite for thought.
The penguin also lives on fish, but there the resemblance happily ends. In every other respect he presents a pointed antithesis to the man-o’-war hawk; and that is the only pointed thing about him, for he consists wholly of a comfortable body, a blunt neb, and a pair of small, sleepy eyes. He has no neck, for he never requires to look round; no wings, for he never requires to fly; no feet, for he stands firmly on one end, like a 50lb. bag of flour, which, indeed, he closely resembles. His life is unadventurous; some might call it monotonous. He takes his position on a smooth rock, protected from cold by the beautiful padded surtout which clothes him from neb to base, and from heat by the cool, limpid wave, softly lap-lapping against the impenetrable feathers. He feels like a stove in the winter, and like a water-bag in the summer. When, from a sort of drowsy, felicitous wantonness — for he never requires to act either on reason or impulse — he desires to visit an adjacent island, he simply allows the tide to encircle him to about two-thirds his total altitude; then, by the floatative property of his peerless physique, and by the mere volition of will, he transports himself whither he lists.
He has few wants, and no ambition. Dreaming the happy hours away — that is his idea. He knows barely enough to be aware that with much wisdom cometh much sorrow; therefore, no Pierian spring, no tree of knowledge, thank you all the same. He is right enough as he is; the perpetual sabbath of absolute negation is good enough for him. His motto is, ‘Happy the bird that has no history.’ Once a day, he experiences a crisp, triumphant appetite, which differs from hunger as melody differs from discord; then he slowly half-unveils his currant-like eyes, and selects from the finny multitudes swimming around him, such a fish as for size, flavour, and general applicability, will best administer to his bodily requirements, and gratify his epicurean taste.
Whilst he is in the act of dipping his neb in the water to help himself to the fish, a man-o’-war hawk espies him from a distance of, say, five miles. Emitting a quivering shriek of hunger, the strong-winged sufferer cleaves the intervening air with the speed of a telegram, and has siezed and swallowed the fish before his own belated shriek arrives.
The penguin, living in total ignorance of the man-o’-war hawk’s existence, vaguely and half-amusedly apprehends his deprivation. In this way. You have heard the boarding-house girl rap at your bedroom door, and tell you that breakfast is on the table. You have thought to yourself: Now I’m turning out; now I’m putting on my — — ; now, my socks; now — Why, I’m in bed still, and no nearer breakfast than at first! Here we have a reproduction of the penguin’s train of thought, plus the slight shock of surprise which marks your own relatively imperfect organisation. The whole thing does n’t amount to a crumpled rose-leaf beneath the penguin’s base; so he apathetically depresses his dreamy eyes in casual quest of another fish.
Now if the feathered martyr could only wait one minute, he might obtain the second morsel on the same terms as the first; but Nature has so constructed him that, in his estimation, the most important of all economies is the economy of time; and his Dollond eye has descried another penguin, seven miles distant, in the very act of dipping for a fish. Can he make the return trip? He must chance it. He negotiates with lightning speed the interspace between his tortured stomach and the second penguin’s provender, whilst his own steam-siren screech of famine comes feebly halting after, and blends with the desolate plop of his prey into the abysmal emptiness of his ever-yearning epigastrium. Then, wheeling madly round — his Connemara complaint freshly whetted by what he has taken — he sees the first penguin dropping asleep as the fish he has just caught slides down head-foremost, to be assimilated by the simple clockwork of his interior.
Too late, by full fifteen seconds! and the wild despair of lost opportunity lends a horrid eeriness to the banshee utterance with which the man-o’-war hawk greets this crushing discovery, barbed, as it is, by the prior knowledge that every penguin within twenty miles is in Nirvana for the present. Now he must wait — ah! heavens, wait! — while one with moderate haste might tell a hundred. By that time, the bird beside him will have caught another fish; and though it be only — By my faith, he must wait longer; for the penguin, concluding that his own appetite will be more finely matured by another half-hour’s sleep, is just dozing off. Woe for the man-o’-war hawk! he must decide on something without delay, and he must do that something quickly — quickly — quickly — for there will be loafing enough in the grave, as the great American moralist says.
But, five hundred miles away across the restless, hungry waste of waters is another rock, where penguins steep themselves in sinless voluptuousness; and, with one prolonged, ear-splitting yell, wrung from him by the still-increasing torment of his fell disease, the unhappy bird expands his Paradise-Lost pinions, and, with the speed of a comet passing its perihelion, sweeps away to that rock; for, like Louis XVI., he knows geography.
After listening with much interest to the description here loosely paraphrased, I fell asleep with the half-formed longing to be a penguin, and the liveliest gratitude that I was not a man-o’-war hawk.
Next morning, whilst I caught and equipped my horses, Jack tailed his own two into the catching-yard. Every Runnymede boundary man was expected to find himself in horses; and Jack, on being rated, had purchased the two quietest and most shapeless mokes on the station — or, indeed, off it. ‘Mokes’ is good in this connection. But in a week or two, lazy as the mokes were, Jack could n’t grapple either of them, stabbard or port, in the open paddock; they had learned to await, and even approach him, starn-on. So he had to pelt them into the little yard, where an ingeniously devised adjustable crush, formed by one barbed wire, kept them broadside-on till he caught the one he wanted for the day. Let Jack alone.
Having caught one of his mokes, he caparisoned the — (I forget his own designation) with what in dearth of adequate superlative, I shall simply call a second-hand English saddle, of more than ordinary capacity. The barrow-load f firewood which had once formed the tree was all in splinters, so that you could fold the saddle in any direction; and the panel had from time to time been subjected to so much amateur repairing that, when Jack mounted, he looked like a hen in a nest, so surrounded he was with exuding tufts of wool, raw horse-hair, emus’ feathers, and the frayed edges of half a dozen plies of old blanket, of various colours. But when he said it was the softest saddle on the station, though it would be nothing the worse for a bit of an overhaul, I was bound to admit that the statement and the reservation were equally reasonable.
We journeyed together as far as the western gate of Jack’s paddock; and, the conversation turning on saddles, he expressed himself in actionably misdemeanant language on the folly of riding horses like Cleopatra and Satan without a specially-rigged purchase. His idea of such a purchase was simple enough — merely the ordinary saddle, with two standing bulkheads of, say, thirty inches in height by eighteen in width, rigged thortships, one forrid of the rider, and one aft, and each padded on the inside surface. A couple or three rope-yarns, rove fore-and-aft on each side, would prevent the rider listing to stabbard or port, while the vertical pitch would be provided for by a lashing rove across each shoulder. If the horse reared and fell back, you would just draw your head in, like a turtle, and let the bulkheads carry the strain. With such a tackle (pr. tayckle), Jack would undertake to ride the Evil One himself, let alone his namesake at the station; whereas, there was Young Jack at work on the (horse) for the last week, while the (horse) aforesaid, knowing the purchase he had on his rider, would be a fool to give in. But these young Colonials had nothing in them; and Jack’s spirit was moved within him by reason of their degeneracy.
After parting from this secret of England’s greatness, I detected a certain spontaneous self-complacency creeping over my soul, and slightly swelling my head; a certain placid cockiness not to be fully accounted for by the consciousness of birth, which naturally broadened as I approached Runnymede. I thereupon resolved myself into a committee of inquiry, and, applying the analytical system befitting these introspective investigations, discovered, in the first place, furtively underlying my philosophy, a latent ambition to be regarded as a final authority on things in general. Hitherto this aspiration had fallen short, partly owing to the clinging sediment of my congenital ignorance, but more especially because I lacked, and knew I lacked, what is known as a ‘presence.’ Now, however, the high, drab belltopper and long alpaca coat, happily seconded by large, round glasses and a vast and scholarly pipe, seemed to get over the latter and greater difficulty; and, for perhaps the first time in my life, I enjoyed that experience so dear to some of my fellow-pilgrims — the consciousness of being well-dressed. This would naturally come as a revelation to one who had always been satisfied with any attire which kept him out of the hands of the police. There was something in presenting an academic-cum-capitalistic appearance even to the sordid sheep, as they looked up from nibbling their cotton-bush stumps, and to the frivolous galahs, sweeping in a changeably-tinted cloud over the plain, or studding the trees of the pine-ridge like large pink and silver-grey blossoms, set off by the rich green of the foliage. But outside all possible research or divination lay the occult reason why my bosom’s lord sat so lightly on his throne. This will be explained in its proper place.
In the last sheep-paddock, just after clearing the pine-ridge, I met Young Jack on Satan. Satan was an ornament to the station; a magnificently beautiful cream-coloured horse, with silver mane and tail; but unfortunately spoiled, a couple of years before, in the breaking-in.
Now the shallow, inattentive reader may not grasp all that is implied in the remark that a specialist, unconscious of his own peculiar and circumscribed greatness, and cheaply replaceable in case of extinction, was exercising a seasoned colt, thoroughly spoiled beforehand. Your novelist, availing himself of his prerogative, fancifully assigns this office to the well-educated, well-nurtured, and, above all, well-born, colonial-experiencer, fresh from the English rectory. But I am a mere annalist, and a blunt, stolid, unimaginative one at that; therefore not entirely lost to all sense of the fitness of things.
Listen, then: When, after an assiduous and inglorious apprenticeship, you can wheel a galloping horse round in his own length, without paraboling over his head, or turning him upside down — when you can take him safely across any leap he is able to clear — when you can send him at his uttermost, with perfect safety, through forest or scrub — you are scarcely one step nearer to the successful riding of an equine artist that has sworn to get you off, or perish. Scarcely one step nearer than you were at first, unless you constitutionally possess certain qualifications, and are at the same time distinguished by a plentiful lack of other gifts and acquirements, for which, notwithstanding, you are fain to take credit. This rather obscure apostrophe is written expressly for the benefit of such imaginative litterateurs and conversational liars as it may concern.
For it should be known that the perfect rider ‘nascitur, non fit’, to begin with; that his training must begin in early boyhood, and be followed up sans intermission; that his system of horse-breaking must be the Young-Australian, which is, beyond doubt, the most trying in the world; that his skill is won by grassers innumerable; that, in short, there is no royal road to the riding of a proper outlaw — a horse that, not with any view of showing-off before girls, but with the confirmed intention of flattening out his antagonist, plays such fantastic jigs before high heaven as make the angels peep.
And yet, to be an ideal rider, man wants but little here below, nor is it at all likely he will want that little long. He wants — or rather, needs — a skull of best spring steel; a spinal column of standard Lowmoor; limbs of gutta-percha; a hide of vulcanised india-rubber; and the less brains he has, the better. Figuratively speaking, he should have no brains at all; his thinking faculties should be so placed as to be in direct touch with the only thing that concerns him, namely, the saddle. Yet his heart must not be there; he must by no means be what the schoolboys call a ‘frightened beggar.’
Perfect horsemanship is usually the special accomplishment of the man who is not otherwise worth his salt, by reason of being too lazy for manual labour, and too slenderly upholstered on the mental side for anything else. Sir Francis Head, one of the five exceptions to this rule — Gordon being the second, ‘Banjo’ the third, ‘Glenrowan’ the fourth, and the demurring reader the fifth — says the greatest art in riding is knowing how to fall. And here we touch the very root of the matter. It is the moral effect of that generally-fulfilled apprehension which makes one salient difference between the cultivated, or spurious, rider, and the ignorant, or true rider. In this case, Ignorance is not only bliss, but usurps the place of Knowledge, as power.
Edward M. Curr knew as much of the Australian horse and his rider as any writer ever did; and this is what he says of the back-country natives: —
‘They are taciturn, shy, ignorant, and incurious; undemonstrative, but orderly; hospitable, courageous, cool, and sensible. These men ride like centaurs,’ etc., etc.
Yes, yes — but why? Looking back along that string of well-selected adjectives, does n’t your own inductive faculty at once place its finger on Ignorance as the key to the enigma? Notice, too, how Curr, being a bit of a sticker himself, is thereby disqualified from knowing that the centaurs were better constructed for firing other people over their heads than for straddling their own backs.
Your true-rider must audibly and sanguineously challenge every unfamiliar scientific fact; stated in conversation, and be prepared to stake his rudimentary soul on the truth of anything read aloud from a book. He must believe, with the ecclesiastics of yesterday, that the earth is flat and square, like them, he must be a violent supporter of the geocentric theory; unlike them, his aeschatological hypothesis must be that the fire we wot of is only a man’s own conscience — the wish, in his case, being father to the thought. Above all, he must have no idea how fearfully and wonderfully he is made. He must think upon himself as a good strong framework of bones, cushioned and buffered with meat, and partly tubular for the reception and retention of food; he must further regard it as a rather grave oversight in his own architectural design that the calf of his leg is riot in front. Just consider what advantages such a man enjoys in cultivating the art of knowing how to fall. Why, a spill that perils neck or limb, a simple buster is to him, and it is nothing more.
But it is a great deal more to one who has been nourishing a youth sublime with the curious facts of Science and the thousand-and-one items of general information necessary to any person who, like the fantastical duke of dark corners, above all other strifes contends especially to know himself; and that physically, as well as morally. To him it is a nasty scrunch of the two hundred and twenty-six bones forming his own admirably designed osseous structure; a dull, sickening wallop of his exquisitely composed cellular, muscular, and nervous tissues; a general squash of his beautifully mapped vascular system; a pitiless stoush of membranes, ligaments, cartilages, and what not; a beastly squelch of gastric and pancreatic juices and secretions of all imaginable descriptions — biliary, glandular, and so forth. And all for what? Why, for the sake of emulating the Jack Frosts of real life in their own line!
My contention simply is, that the Hamlet-man is only too well seized of the important fact that his bones cost too much in the breeding to play at heels-over-tip with them. And I further maintain that, for reasons above specified, the man of large discourse, looking before an after (ah! that is where the mischief lies!) never, in spite of his severest self-scrutiny, knows what a frightened beggar he is till he finds himself placing his foot in the stirrup, preparatory to mounting a recognised performer.
Just take yourself as an example. You remember the time you were passing the old cattle-yards in the flat, and saw four fellows of your acquaintance putting the bridle on a black colt in the crush? You remember how the chaps inspected your saddle, and, the concurrence of opinion being that it was the best on the ground, how they asked the loan of it for an hour? You lent it with pleasure, you will remember, and assisted them to girth it on. You liked to be at the second backing of a colt — not as the central figure, of course, but in the capacity of critic and adviser. There was the probability of some decent riding; also the probability of a catastrophe. You may, perhaps, further remember that whilst the ceremony of saddling was in progress, you casually related one of your most ornate and unassailable anecdotes — how, with that very saddle, you had once backed a roan filly that on the preceding day had broken a circus man’s collar-bone? For reasons of your own, you located the performance a hundred miles away; and for proof, you pointed to the saddle itself. Yes; I see you remember it all like yesterday.
The colt, with a handkerchief across his eyes, was led out of the yard to some nice level ground; then a dead-lock supervened. The chap who had backed him on the previous evening for a couple of hours, and was to have ridden him again, did n’t like the set of your saddle, now that he saw it girthed-on. The owner of the colt, speaking for himself, frankly admitted that he never pretended to be a sticker. The third fellow, whilst modestly glancing at his own unrivalled record, regretted he was sworn with a book-oath against backing colts for the current year. The fourth was also out of it. Owing to a boil, which kept him standing in the stirrups even on his own old crock, he was compelled to forego the one transcendant joy of his life. But you ——
Well, to begin with, there was your own saddle on the colt; secondly, your conversation had not been that of a man who did n’t pretend to be a sticker; thirdly, the book-oath expedient was simply out of the question; and fourthly, it was too late in the day to allege a boil. What was the use of your remarking that the first backing of a colt is nothing — that, in this case, it is the second step that costs? The four fellows knew as well as you did — everyone except the tenderfoot novelist knows — that in nearly every instance, a freshly backed colt is like a fish out of water; stupid, puzzled, half-sulky, half-docile. It is at the second backing that he is ready to contest the question of fitness for survival; he has had time to think the matter over, and to note the one-sidedness of the alliance. Again, there is a large difference between riding a colt upon a warm evening, and doing the same thing on a cold, dry, gusty morning, when his hair inclines to stand on end. But there was your own reminiscence of the roan filly staring you in the face.
One of the fellows holds the blindfolded colt, whilst another rubs the saddle all over with a wet handkerchief. The colt stands still and composed, with one ear warily cocked, the other indifferently slouched; with his back slightly arched, and — ah! the saints preserve us! — with his tail jammed hard down. Carelessly humming a little tune, you hang your coat on the fence; and in the saying of two credos (note the appositeness of Cervantes’ expression here), you are in the saddle — the same saddle, by the way, with which you took the flashness out of the roan filly that had broken the circus man’s collar-bone. What! have I pinch’d you, signior Gremio?
The chap should have let the colt go at once, for, in situations like yours, a person keeps breaking-up as the moments pass. But no ——
“You’re sure you’re ready?”
“I think he’ll buck middlin’ hard.”
Is there no pity sitting in the clouds, that looks into the bottom of your woe? We’ll see presently. Meantime, console yourself with the recollection of the roan filly that had broken the circus man’s collar-bone.
“You’ve got the off stirrup all right, Tom?”
“I’m goin’ to let the beggar rip.”
“Look out now” ——
“Right.” But your voice is not what it ought to be, and the soles of your boots are rattling on the flat part of the stirrup-irons.
The chap draws the handkerchief from the colt’s eyes, and walks backward. The colt catches sight of your left foot, and skips three yards to the right. In doing so, he catches sight of the other foot, and skips to the left. Then everything disappears from in front of the saddle — the wicked ears, now laid level backward — the black, tangled mane — the shining neck with the sweeping curve of a circular saw — the clean, oblique shoulders — they have all disappeared, and there is nothing in front of the saddle but a precipice. There is something underneath it, though.
How distinctly you note the grunting of the colt, the thumping of his feet on the ground, and the gratuitous counsel addressed to you in four calmly critical voices: —
“Lean back a bit more, Tom, and give with him.”
“Don’t ride so loose if you can help it, Tom.”
“Hold yourself well down with the reins, and stick to him, Tom.”
“Stick to him, Tom, whatever you do.”
Ay! stick to him! Stick to the lever of a steam hammer, when the ram kicks the safety-trigger! Stick to the two-man tug-of-war rope, when an Irish quarryman, named Bamey, has hold of the other end! Stick to him, quotha! Easier said than done — is it not? And yet you’ve been riding all manner of horses, on and off (mark the significance of that expression) since you were a mere kiddie. However, you have stuck to him for a good solid sixty seconds; now, one of your knees has slipped over the pad, and your stirrup is swinging loose. Good night, sweet prince.
And away circles the colt, slapping at the bit with his front feet, whilst your historic saddle shines in the sun, and the stirrup-irons occasionally meet high in the air. And away in chase go two of the chaps on their bits of stuff. Meanwhile, you explain to the other two that the spill serves you right for riding so carelessly; and that, though your soul lusts to have it out with the colt, a stringent appointment in the township will force you to clear as soon as you can get your saddle. Such is life.
Tom Collins [Joseph Furphy]. Such is Life, The Bulletin Newspaper Company, Sydney, 1903
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