[Editor: This short story by “Tom Collins” (Joseph Furphy) was published in The Western Mail (Perth, WA), 8 February 1908. The story was printed in three parts; part 1 appeared on 25 January 1908, part 2 on 1 February 1908, and part 3 on 8 February 1908.]
The discovery of Christmas Reef.
By Tom Collins.
Smoke was issuing from several chimneys on the camp; but a queer instinct of exclusiveness, a dread of publicity and comment, led him straight to his own hut, which happened to be one of the nearest. Home at last; and he jealously closed the door behind him.
First he lay down on his bunk, and was immediately reminded of the hard, angular package on his belt. This package, by its heavy sagging, had caused him much discomfort on the way; now, with a heavy feeling of relief, he disengaged it, and dropped it into a pocket formed by a half cornsack nailed loosely against the wall. Then, though exhaustion had deadened the sharp cravings of hunger, he thought of food. There was half a loaf of baker’s bread in the mouse-proof “swinging chiffonier,” and a drop of tea, black and bitter, in a billy by the hearth. He ate some of the bread, after soaking it in the tea; then leaned back against the wall, sick, giddy, disgusted, and willing at last to relinquish all endeavour, and be at peace — at peace.
There was a knock at the door, and a voice — or did he dream? Or had he unknowingly crossed the boundary and entered the Hereafter? No; he was self-consciously alive and awake.
“Is there anyone in?”
He was silent. With an effort of reason he resolved that his own doubtful sanity should have a conclusive test. If the voice was real, it would sound again.
Another knock, and the question was repeated in the same clear, silvery tone. Now for the test.
He staggered to the door and opened it; then, with both hands on the low wall-plate, he stood looking down with delirious, blood-shot eyes into that seraph face which through the recent vicissitudes had been his pillar of cloud by day and his pillar of fire by night. For it was Molly herself, sweet, ethereal, despotic, as Home Sweet Home on the violin; and Sam’s disordered mind accepted the certainty without surprise at her unexpected appearance. But Molly’s countenance changed when confronted by this apparition of her lover; ragged of attire, wild-eyed, haggard, soiled and bloodstained.
“O, Sam, where have you been?”
He reflected for a moment, and shook his head; then replied with an effort, “I’ve been where Afric’s sunny fountains roll down their golden sand.” The sound of his own voice brought confidence, and he added gravely. “Truth is stranger than fiction, Molly. Everything is alive, with a life of its own; and we’re all dead, if we only knew it. I came through, in spite of all their plots.”
“Of course you did,” she replied genially, yet with whitening lips. “But why don’t you rest?” she continued, drawing him to the seat from which he had risen. As he sat down, her eye fell on the gaping, sun-dried wound on his head, with its added ghastliness of blackened blood and embedded hair. She caught her breath, glanced searchingly round the unfurnished den, and remarked calmly,
“I see you have a cut on your head. Wait one moment.”
She vanished through the door, but returned almost immediately.
“Just stay where you are and let me pull your boots off.” She knelt before him, grasping the toe and heel of one of his knee-boots. It was locked on the swollen foot.
“The leather nearly burns my fingers,” she remarked, placing her hand on the tensely stretched instep. “Is this sharp?” she continued, snatching Sam’s sheath-knife.
“Yes, it’s fine.” In a few seconds each foot came from the opened boot like a plaster cast from its mould. Then her scissors, professional armoury, you bet, ran down the side of each sock, exposing a pair of feet just in the condition that might have been expected.
Here two women bustled into the hut; one bearing a bucket of hot water, the other carrying a tub and a basket. Two other women followed, all close neighbours and warm friends of Sam. Molly now gave her attention to the scalp wound, whilst supertending several sub-contracts; and Sam, though awkwardly resenting, and unavailingly resisting, the sudden inundation of feminine services, rapidly sustained a great renovation. Meanwhile, another woman came; then, to Sam’s intense relief, three men. Molly kept them all busy or in attendance; and in a few minutes Sam forgot his own ignominy in the absorption of a liberal allowance of porridge, cunningly doctored with port wine.
But Molly knew (though Sam himself did not) that all the energy so recklessly discounted during the last few days had begun to levy on the drawer for fell satisfaction and refund. She therefore, caused her feminine serfs to clear up the wreckage; then called upon two masculine vassals to place Sam carefully in bed. By this time, he could scarcely move a limb.
In five minutes he had fallen into a sleep that no noise could disturb; and all his everyday friends had gone about their business, — that business being to discuss Molly, and her unexpected appearance on the Bagh. Meanwhile, though watching over Sam like a mother, she had found time to unfold her business to the bondwoman first subjugated.
She was the eldest of her family. Her father, a tenant farmer, had attended land lotteries till he was tired without getting a call. But as this was the only means of obtaining land in those days, he resolved on one more attempt. Molly obtained leave of absence, in order to double his chance; her two brothers being under age, and her two intermediate sisters disqualified by marriage. But the old man’s luck had turned. He got an early call, and secured a fine allotment of 320 acres. A few more calls; then Molly’s name was shouted to the four winds of heaven. She had a carefully compiled list, and the officials assisted her choice to the utmost; so she was enabled to secure a fine half-section, with a creek frontage. Now, her father already had as much as he could manage, and the allotments were 17 miles apart. Her selection was worth at least £3 an acre beyond its cost — in fact, it was a bonus from the State of more than £1,000. But the selection was not transferable; moreover, the conditions of residence and improvement were imperative, under penalty of forfeiture. And now she had come to ascertain whether Sam could suggest any way out of the predicament. This explanation, filtering rapidly through the camp, met with general approval, for Sam was a favorite.
That casual young citizen awoke from a dream of strenuous and futile climbing to find himself in bed at home, with head bandaged but painless, and limbs that required circumspection in the slightest movement. It was night again — not that night which seems a miasmatic exhalation of earth, teeming with uncanny battalions on furlough from the Pit; but rather the Night which descends as a benediction from heaven, to seasonably veil the field of effort, and impart to weary and heavy-laden pilgrims the anodyne of rest. A true Australian Night, laden with peace and restoration, most meetly typified by the woman’s form which noiselessly passed from a candle-lighted space into the tranquil shadow where Sam lay.
“Are they all gone?” he asked.
“They have no name. They tried to stop me, but it seems I got away at last. Curious how you appear in sight when they vanish. O, Molly, don’t you disappear too!”
“No; I’m too solid to disappear. There! there! there! Now do you believe it’s me, you goose?”
She removed the extemporised screen; and he saw that his own familiar alarm-clock registered half-past three.
“What day is this, Molly?”
“Sunday’s just in. December the 30th.”
“How long have I been asleep?”
“Nineteen hours and twenty minutes.”
He was silent for a space, but his mind was very busy.
“What brought you all this way so suddenly, Molly?”
“That’s more than I can tell you, Sam. On Christmas evening there was a feeling grew upon me that I ought to be with you. I tried to reason myself out of it, and kept my mind on my duties; but it was no use. I couldn’t rest. I wrote two letters, trying to relieve my uneasiness — they must be here in the post office now. And the matron couldn’t let me go, for we were short-handed on account of the holidays. But on Wednesday there came a letter from a competent nurse, applying for a position. By that time I was just in the humour to stir things up; and you may be sure I did. Anyway, after two or three telegrams went back and forward, this nurse was safe on the way; and I just fled by the night train. Then on Thursday I caught the coach and next day your mailman’s buggy. So I got here on Friday night, and the people at the store found me very nice lodgings with a family close by. They told me you were out prospecting, but in the morning I came over to your hut, in hopes you might have got back. And I wasn’t a bit too soon — was I? You didn’t get that letter I wrote when the lottery was over? No! You negligent thing, you don’t deserve to hear the good news.”
Then she told the story of her selection. “Of course, this was the only account I gave of myself to your neighbours,” she added. “They might think I was bold.”
Sam was silent and pensive, not to say glum. Molly was the light of his life; but he shrank from facing the future as Mrs. Boyd’s job lot. Moreover, the glamour of gold — which is by no means another name for avarice — was on him. And Molly’s intuition, keen as a two-edged sword, was following his insubordinate thought through all its equivocations. At length he spoke, with some constraint.
“Fact is, Molly, I’ve found a reef, and I must go back to it as soon as possible.”
“Then you better clod me away from your old sanctum at once,” she retorted brokenly. She had inspected her land on the day following the lottery, and had found it transformed by anticipation into a new Eden. And land-frenzy it was tyrannous as gold-witchery. Half sorrowfully, half resentfully, she continued, “O, Sam! don’t you know that you’ve been delirious? You’ve been rambling, and climbing, and famishing, when you should have been under medical treatment; and you’ve had strange delusions of reefs, and gold, and unburied bones, and all sorts of wild imaginations. I’ve pieced a lot of things together while you were asleep.”
“Perhaps I’ve had a touch of temperance horrors,” replied Sam doubtfully. “Seems like it anyway. But don’t fret, Molly. I’ll agree with anything you propose, when you’ve heard my story. What day did you say this was?”
He paused, in deep thought; then recounted the story of his adventures and mishaps; frequently returning upon his narrative to master the sequence of events, and, of course, laying equal stress upon real and fancied phenomena. Despite his recovered balance of mind, there was no standard by which he could disentangle abnormal actualities and corresponding hallucinations. “And now, Molly,” he concluded, “how much delusion is there in that?”
“About nine-tenths,” she replied gently. “But see the daylight coming through the cracks of your horrible hut; and you ought to be ready for the fine breakfast that I’m going to share with you. Can you sit up, and lean against the wall? That’s right. Now I’ll shift the table over — ah! fixture, I see — stuck into the floor — never mind.”
Sam absently watched her improvising a table by his side; and as she began to lay it for breakfast he asked,
“But which is the one-tenth of fact?”
“Everything up to the time you fell down the precipice, you poor thing. Since that time you’ve done nothing but wander about these hills, quite deranged. And no wonder. Oh! you may trust my hospital experience.”
“Maybe,” replied Sam, dubiously. “In that case, the reef was genuine, and the little bag of gold was a dream. Perhaps so. But didn’t I — or did I dream I was doing it? I say, Molly! when I came home, I put the handkerchief of gold in that pocket on the wall beside you.”
“Poor boy!” murmured Molly tenderly, as she up-ended a gin-case beside the table, and seated herself on it. “Now, wait till I ask a blessing.”
She asked a blessing; and Sam contentedly addressed himself to the best breakfast he had seen for years. But the feminine mind must clinch its victories — must scrupulously take the opponent’s last draught-man off the board, instead of magnanimously turning away when the game is virtually won. So Molly continued:
“When you’ve had a good breakfast to strengthen you for the shock, I’ll take everything out of that pocket, and spread them on this table. Gold! gold! Ah, Sam, you were sure to find gold in you delirium — tons of it — and you would cling to it from a digger’s force of habit.”
Overruled but unconvinced, Sam changed the subject, and they talked of other things till the meal was over and the table cleared. Then, with a light laugh, the unrelenting girl inserted her hand in the pocket, and drew forth a small parcel, tightly bound in a red-and-white handkerchief. A slight scream broke from her lips; the bundle slipped from her shrinking fingers; and as it struck the floor she instinctively recoiled from this apparent evidence of her lover’s abnormal experience. But her disciplined intelligence refused to accept external appearances as conclusive testimony. The little bundle packed in irresponsible frenzy, would doubtless disclose some pathetic proof of a disordered mind. And indeed the fall had forced a corner of blue-rusted scrap iron through the frayed handkerchief.
She placed the package on her extemporised table, and opened the hard knots with firm, dexterous fingers. Then the heavy lustre of £200 worth of rough gold gleamed forth where the sickly candle-light struggled with advancing dawn; and the lovers’ eyes met — on Molly’s side, amazement and perplexity; on Sam’s side, a sombre earnestness and trance-like retrospect. Not for a while did the economic value of the gold obtrude on either mind.
“Ah, Molly!” said Sam, thinking aloud; “the unfortunate chap that found it! — he perished alone, helpless and crippled! Wonder how long he had to wait for such a poor satisfaction as death? Still he died like a man — crawling to no one; loafing to no one; independent of everyone but God.”
“Oh, Sam!” faltered Molly, also thinking aloud; “you must come away from this awful place as soon as you’re able to walk. How simply somebody else might have gone prospecting afterward, and found two dead men together” — here her voice gave way, and there was a long silence.
The rest of the story may be summarised. Molly, as a matter of course, had her way, with something to spare. Sam’s surrender so far overlapped her demands that he caused her to take possession of the gold, by way of hostage. Next morning, half the population of the Bagh assembled to see her off in the mailman’s buggy. A week later, Sam conducted four friends to the reef, and gave them full possession. And, according to a social-economic usage worthy of record, no compensation was asked, offered, or thought of. Then Sam followed his guiding star into a region of wider horizon and flatter landscape.
Six months later, a pack-horse track gave easy access to Christmas Reef; and the primeval silence of that wild spot was disturbed by the voices of women and children; whilst the crashing cadence of a little 4-head battery kept half-a-dozen echoes at work. The reef was no bonanza, but a singularly consistent claim, good enough to start its proprietors — one as a farmer; another as a storekeeper; another as a publican; and the fourth as a poultry faddist.
The subsequent career of the Boyds has been, if anything, too calm and prosperous; so that Sam now thinks nothing of being a Shire Councillor, a J.P., and a Deacon; whilst Molly’s record comes about as near perfection as the present stage of Moral Evolution will permit. And Hamlet’s hobby-horse is not more completely forgotten than is the red-bearded stranger, the real discoverer of Christmas Reef.
The Western Mail (Perth, WA), 8 February 1908, p. 50
Also published in:
Southerly (Sydney, NSW), September 1945, pp. 19-37
J.L. Waten and V.G. O’Connor (editors), Twenty Great Australian Stories, Melbourne: Dolphin Publications, 1946
Joseph Furphy (Tom Collins), The Buln-Buln and the Brolga, and Other Stories, Adelaide (SA): Seal Books, 1971
Afric = Africa
battery = a machine which uses a heavy metal vertical arm, or multiple arms, to stamp down upon and crush ore, so that minerals could be extracted; the building in which such machines are located (also known as a “stamp battery” or a “stamper battery”)
billy = a metal pot or tin (usually with a wire or steel handle), used for boiling water over a camp fire (also known as a “billy can”)
digger = a gold digger, a man seeking gold by digging in the ground; a miner
Eden = a place or situation which is regarded as a paradise; the Garden of Eden, mentioned in the Bible
fell = bad, cruel, destructive, fierce, or sinister (as used in the phrase “one fell swoop”)
Hereafter = the after-life (the existence after death)
J.P. = Justice of the Peace
meetly = (archaic) suitably, fitly, or properly
miasmatic = the state or quality of a miasma: an unwholesome, corrupting, or foreboding atmosphere (can also refer to pollution or noxious vapours in the air)
the Pit = the Pit of Hell (also rendered in the plural, “the pits of hell”), also given as “the fiery pit”
seraph = an angel (one of the Seraphim), regarded as a highly-ranked order of angel (the Seraphim are mentioned in the Bible, in Isaiah 6: “I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne . . . Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings”)
supertending = (archaic) superintending
temperance horrors = the DTs: “delirium tremens”, being a violent delirium with tremors that can occur, as withdrawal symptoms, when someone ceases a prolonged period of excessively imbibing alcohol drinks
vassal = a person or state which is in a subordinate position to another person or state; (in a feudal society) a holder of land who owes allegiance, entailing certain obligations, to a lord
[Editor: Changed “officals assisted” to “officials assisted”, “which noiselessly passed from, which passed from” to “which noiselessly passed from”, “,You negligent” to “You negligent” (removed the comma), “retortted” to “retorted”, “it as tyrannous” to “it was tyrannous”, “his side ;and” to “his side; and” (moved the position of the semi-colon).]