[Editor: This is the second part of Chapter Three 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 longer I smoked, the more charmed I was with the rounded symmetry and steady lustre of that pearl of truth which the swagman had brought forth out of his treasury. For philosophy is no warrant against destitution, as biography amply vouches. Neither is tireless industry, nor mechanical skill, nor artistic culture — if unaccompanied by that business aptitude which tends to the survival of the shrewdest; and not even then, if a person’s mana is off. Neither is the saintliest piety any safeguard. If the author of the Thirty-seventh Psalm lived at the present time, he would see the righteous well represented among the unemployed, and his seed in the Industrial Schools. For correction of the Psalmist’s misleading experience, one need go no further down the very restricted stream of Sacred History than the date of the typical Lazarus. Continually impending calamities menace with utter destitution any given man, though he may bury his foolish head in the sand, and think himself safe. There lives no one on earth to day who holds even the flimsiest gossamer of security against a pauper’s death, and a pauper’s grave. If he be as rich as Croesus, let him remember Solon’s warning, with its fulfilment — and the change since 550 B.C. has by no means been in the direction of fixity of tenure. Where are one-half of the fortunes of twenty years ago? — and where will the other half be in twenty years more? Though I am, like Sir John, old only in judgment and understanding, I have again and again seen the wealthy emir of yesterday sitting on the ash-heap to-day, scraping himself with a bit of crockery, but happily too broken to find an inhuman sneer for the vagrants whom, in former days, he would have disdained to set with the dogs of his flock. I could write you a column of these emirs’ names. And if there is one impudent interpolation in the Bible, it is to be found in the last chapter of that ancient Book of Job. The original writer conceived a tragedy, anticipating the grandeur of the Oedipus at Colonos, or Lear — and here eight supplementary verses have anti-climaxed this masterpiece to the level of a boys’ novel. “Also the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before,” &c., &c. Tut-tut! Job’s human nature had sustained a laceration that nothing but death could heal.
Is there any rich man who cannot imagine a combination of circumstances that would have given him lodgings under the bridge? — that may still do so, say, within twelve months? Setting my knighthood and my soldiership aside, I can imagine a combination that would have quartered me in that airy colonnade — nay, that may do so before this day week; and my view of the matter is, that if I become not the bridge as well as another, a plague of my bringing up! We are all walking along the shelving edge of a precipice; any one of us may go at any moment, or be dragged down by another.
And this is as it ought to be. Justice is done, and the sky does not fall. For, from a higher point of view, the Sabians and Chaldeans of the present day don’t dislocate society; they only alter the incidence of existing dislocation; and all this works steadily towards a restoration — if not of some old Saturnian or Jahvistic Paradise-idyll, at least of a Divine intention and human ideal. Vicissitude of fortune is the very hand of “the Eternal, not ourselves, that maketh for righteousness,” the manifestation of the Power behind moral evolution; and we may safely trust the harmony of Universal legislation for this antidote to a grievous disease; we may rest confident that whilst this best of all possible worlds remains under the worst of all possible managements, the solemn threat of thirty-three centuries ago shall not lack fulfilment — the poor shall never cease out of the land. And no man knows when his own turn may come. But all this is strictly conditional.
Collective humanity holds the key to that kingdom of God on earth, which clear-sighted prophets of all ages have pictured in colours that never fade. The kingdom of God is within us; our all-embracing duty is to give it form and effect, a local habitation and a name. In the meantime, our reluctance to submit to the terms of citizenship has no more effect on the iron law of citizen reciprocity than our disapproval has on the process of the seasons; for see how, in the great human family, the innocent suffer for the guilty; and not only are the sins of the fathers visited upon the children, but my sins are visited upon your children, and your sins upon some one else’s children; so that, if we decline a brotherhood of mutual blessing and honour, we alternatively accept one of mutual injury and ignominy. Eternal justice is in no hurry for recognition, but flesh and blood will assuredly tire before that principle tires. It is precisely in relation to the palingenesis of Humanity that, to the unseen Will, one day is said to be as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. A Divine Idea points the way, clearly apparent to any vision not warped by interest or prejudice, nor darkened by ignorance; but the work is man’s alone, and its period rests with man.
My reason for indulging in this reverie was merely to banish the thought of my late guest. (Of course, my object in recording it here is simply to kill time; for, to speak like a true man, I linger shivering on the brink of the disclosures to which I am pledged. I feel something like the doomed Nero, when he stood holding the dagger near his throat, trying meanwhile to screw his courage to the sticking-place by the recitation of heroic poetry. Trust me to go on with the narrative as soon as I choose.)
I did n’t want to think of Andy personally. Intuition whispered to me that the swagman, who would have parted his last sprat to a former mate, hadn’t that humble coin in his pocket; whilst purse-pride hinted that I had four sovereigns and some loose silver in mine — not to speak of £8 6s. 8d. waiting for me in Hay. If I had allowed my mind to dwell on these two intrusive intimations, they would have seemed to fit each other like tenon and mortice; though when the opportunity of making the joint had existed, a sort of moral laziness, together with our artificial, yet not unpraiseworthy, repugnance to offering a money gift, had brought me out rather a Levite than a Samaritan. In mere self-defence, I would have been constrained to keep up a series of general and impersonal reflections till the swagman lost his individuality — say, five or six hours — but I was rescued from this tyranny by the faint rattle of a buggy on the other side of the river. Idly turning my glass on the two occupants of the vehicle, I recognised one of them as a familiar and valued friend — a farmer, residing five or six miles down the river, on the Victorian side. I rose and walked to the brink as the buggy came opposite.
“Hello! Mr. B——,” I shouted.
“Hello! Collins. I thought you were way back. When did you come down? Why did n’t you give us a call?”
“Could n’t get across the river without sacrifice of dignity and comfort.”
“Yes, you can; easy enough. You can start off now. I’m going across here with Mr. G——, to see some sheep, but I’ll be back toward sundown. I’ll tell you how you’ll manage: Follow straight down the road till you come to the old horse-paddock, nearly opposite our place; then turn to your left, down along the fence ——”
“No use, Mr. B——. I want to get away to-morrow; and you know when we get together ——”
“Yes; I know all about that. But you must come, Collins.
There’s a dozen things I want your opinion about.”
“Indeed I appreciate your sensible valuation of me as a referee, Mr. B——, but I must still decline. I wish I had gone this morning; it’s too late now.”
“Well, I’ll feel disappointed. So will Dick. By-the-by, Dick L—— has turned up again. He’s at our place now. He’s off next week — to Fiji, I suspect.”
“Where has he been this last time?”
“You would n’t guess. He’s been in the Holy Land. Poked about there for over six months.”
“Yes; he’s been a good deal in Jerusalem. He lived in Jericho for a month; but he spent most of his time at different places up and down the Jordan.”
“Did he meet many Scotchmen wandering along that river?”
“I suppose he would meet a good many anywhere — but why there particularly?”
“Well, Byron tells us that on Jordan’s banks the arab Campbells stray.”
“I don’t take.”
“Neither do I, Mr. B——.”
“But I’m perfectly serious, Tom; I am, indeed. I thought you would like to have a yarn with Dick. His descriptions of the Holy Land are worth listening to.”
“Say ‘Honour bright’.”
“Honour bright, then. I say, Collins — did you ever have reason to doubt my word?”
“No; but I always get demoralised out back. Where were you saying I could get across the river?”
“I thought that would fetch the beggar,” I heard B—— remark to his companion. And he was right. It would fetch the beggar across any river on this continent.
Dick L——, Mrs. B——’s brother, was a mine of rare information and queer experiences. Educated for the law, his innate honesty had shrunk from the practice of his profession, and he had taken to rambling as people take to drink, turning up at irregular intervals to claim whatever might be available of the £l2 10s. per quarter bequeathed to him by his father. His strong point was finding his way into outlandish places, and getting insulted and sat on by the public, and run in by the police. Apart from this speciality, he was one of the most useless beings I ever knew (which is saying a lot). Some men, by their very aspect, seem to invite confidence; others, insult; others, imposition; but Dick seemed only to invite arrest. When well-groomed, he used to be arrested in mistake for some bank defaulter; when ragged, he was sure to be copped for shoplifting, pocket-picking, lack of lawful visible, or for having in his possession property reasonably supposed to have been stolen. Therefore, honest as he was, he had been, like Paul, in prisons frequent. But, thanks to his forensic training, these interviews with the majesty of the law seemed homely and grateful to him. He could converse with a Bench in such terms of respectful camaraderie, yet with such suggestiveness of an Old Guard in reserve, that his innocence became a supererogatory merit. Besides which, he had been, in a general way, a servant of servants in every quarter of the globe, and had been run out of every billet for utter incompetency; often having to content himself with a poor half-pennyworth of bread to this intolerable deal of sack. So he enjoyed (or otherwise) opportunities of seeing things that the literary tourist never sees; and, being a good talker, and, withal, a singularly truthful man, he was excellent and profitable company after having been on the extended wallaby.
“Where were you saying I could get across the river, Mr. B——?”
“You know the old horse-paddock fence? Well, follow that down to the river, and just at the end of it you’ll find a bark canoe tied to the bank. Bark by name, and bark by nature. And you’ll see a fencing wire lying in the river, with the end fastened to a tree. When you haul the wire up out of the water, you’ll find the other end tied to a tree on this bank. Very complete rig. And, I say, Collins; mind you slacken the wire down from this end after you get across, on account of steamers, and snags, and so forth, The canoe’s dead certain to be on your side of the river. It belongs to a couple of splitters, living in the horse-paddock hut; and they only use it to come across for rations, or the like of that. Well, we’ll be off, Mr. G——. I’ll see you again this evening, then, Collins.”
The buggy rattled away through the red-gums. I packed my things in a convenient hollow tree, and started off down the river, followed by the slate-coloured animal that constantly loved me although I was poor. About half-way to the horse-paddock, I was overtaken and passed by Arthur H——, one of the two brothers reported to be starting the sawmill; and I afterward remembered that, though we saluted each other, and exchanged impotent criticisms on the weather, I had by this time obtained such ascendency over the meddlesome and querulous part of my nature that I had never once thought of asking him if he had met Andy.
It must have been near six in the afternoon when I made my way down the steep bank to where the aptly-named bark was tied up. I soon pulled the slack of the wire out of the bed of the river, and made all fast. Then it occurred to me that I might have a smoke whilst pulling across. My next thought was that I could economise time by deferring this duty till I should resume my journey, with both hands at liberty. Forthwith, I squatted in the canoe, and got under way, leaving Pup to follow at his own convenience.
In a former chapter I had occasion to notice a great fact, namely, that the course of each person’s life is directed by his ever-recurring option, or election. Now let me glance at two of my own alternatives, each of which has immediate bearing on the incident I am about to relate:
Three weeks ago (from the present writing) I had open choice of all the dates in twenty-two diaries. I actually dallied with that choice, and inadvertently switched my loco. on to the line I am now faithfully, though reluctantly, following. The doom-laden point of time was that which marked the penning of my determination; for a perfectly-balanced engine is more likely to go wandering off a straight line than I am to fail in fulfilment of a promise.
Another indifferent-looking alternative was accepted when my guardian angel suggested a smoke while crossing the river, and I declined, on the plea of haste. A picaninny alternative, that, you say? I tell you, it proved an old-man alternative before it ran itself out. The filling and lighting of my pipe would have occupied three or four minutes, and I should have seen an impending danger in time to guard against it. But I shunted on to the wrong line, and nothing remained but to follow it out to a finish. You shall judge for yourself whether even your own discretion and address could have carried the allotted trip to a less unhappy issue.
Hand over hand along the wire, I had wobbled the bark to the middle of the stream, when I noticed, not fifty yards away, a dead tree of twelve or fifteen tons displacement, en route for South Australia. Being about nineteen-twentieths submerged, and having no branches on the upper side, it would have passed under the wire but for a stump of a root, as thick as your body, standing about five feet above the surface of the water, on its forward end. In remarking that the tree was ong root, I merely mean to imply such importance in that portion of its substance that it might rather be viewed as a root with a tree attached than as a tree with a root attached. This is the aspect it still retains in my mind.
There was not half enough time to pull the bark ashore and sink the wire, so I did the next best thing I could. As the log approached, I carefully rose to my feet, and held the wire high enough to clear the root. Nearer it came; it would pass the bark nicely within three or four feet; a few seconds more, and the root would glide underneath the wire ——
Pup had remained yelping and dancing on the bank for a few minutes after my embarkation — the kangaroo dog having a charcoal burner’s antipathy to the bath — but at last becoming desperate, he had plunged in, and was rapidly approaching whilst I judiciously gauged the height of the root, and meanwhile balanced the unsteady bark under my feet. When the root was within six inches of the wire, Pup’s chin and forepaws were on the gunwale; in three seconds more, I was clinging with one hand to the root, the other still mechanically holding the tightening wire; Pup was making for the log; and the splitters’ bark had gone to Davy Jones’s locker. In another half-minute, the wire parted, and Pup and I were deck passengers, ong root for the land of the Crow-eaters.
I was no more disconcerted than I am at the present moment. I would go on to B——’s as if nothing had happened; and put up with the inconvenience of swimming the river in the morning. In the meantime, though I was well splashed, all the things in my pockets were dry. I particularly congratulated myself on the good fortune of having been so close to the root at the Royal Georgeing of my bark. My bark — well, strictly speaking, it was the splitters’ bark; but accidents will happen; and I was certain that not a soul had seen me turn off the main road toward the river.
My clothes were of the lightest. I took them off, and tied them in my handkerchief. I pounded a depression in the package to fit the top of my head, and bound it there with my elastic belt, holding the latter in my teeth. You must often have noticed that the chief difficulty of swimming with your clothes on your head arises from the fore-and-aft surging of the package with each stroke. But nothing could have been more complete than my arrangements as I slid gently into the water, and paddled for the Cabbage Garden shore.
When I had gone a few yards, my faithful companion, now left alone on the log, raised his voice in lamentation, after the manner of his subspecies.
“Come on, Pup!” I shouted, without looking round; and the next moment I felt as if a big kangaroo dog had catapulted himself through twenty feet of space, and lit on my package.
After returning to the surface and coughing about a pint of water out of my nose and ears, I looked uneasily round for my cargo. It was nowhere to be seen. I swam back to the log, and stood on it to get a better view. Good! there was the white, rounded top, an inch above the water, ten yards away. As I swam toward it, a whirlpool took it under. I dived after it, struck it smartly with the crown of my head; and eventually returned to the log, whence I watched for its re-appearance above the slowly-swirling water. It never re-appeared.
Following the sinuosities of the river, this must have been a mile and a half below the splitters’ crossing-place; and time had been passing, for there was the setting sun, blazing through a gap in the timber, and its mirrored reflection stretching half a mile of dazzling radiance along a straight reach of the river.
Now, though the Murray is the most crooked river on earth, its general tendency is directly from east to west. Would n’t you, therefore — if you were on a floating log, remote, unfriended, melancholy, slow; standing, like the Apollo Sauroctones, with your hand on the adjacent stump, and, to enhance your resemblance to that fine antique, clad in simplicity of mien and nothing else — if you were sadly realising the loss of your best clothes, with all the things in the pockets, including a fairly trustworthy watch — if, in addition to this, the patient face of the spratless swagman was rising before you till you involuntarily muttered “O Julius Caesar! thou art mighty yet!” and the nasty part of your moral nature was reminding you that you might have had anything up to four-pounds-odd worth of heavenly debentures; whereas, having failed to put your mammon of unrighteousness into celestial scrip, to await you at the end of your pilgrimage, you were now doubly debarred from retaining it in your pilgrim’s scrip, by reason of having neither scrip nor mammon — under such circumstances, I say, would n’t you be very likely to take the sunset on your left, and swim for the north bank, without doing an equation in algebra to find out which way the river ought to run? That is what I did. It never occurred to my mind that Victoria could be on the north side of New South Wales.
After shouting myself hoarse, and whistling on my fingers till my lips were paralysed, I brought Pup into view on the south, and supposedly Victorian, bank, opposite where I had landed. By the time I had induced him to take the water and rejoin me, the short twilight was gone, and night had set in, dark, starless, hot, and full of electricity.
And the mosquitos. Well, those who have been much in the open air, in Godiva costume, during opaque, perspiring, November nights, about Lake Cooper, or the Lower Goulburn, or the Murray frontage, require no reminder; and to those who have not had such experience, no illustration could convey any adequate notion. Hyperbolically, however: In the localities I have mentioned, the severity of the periodical plague goads the instinct of animals almost to the standard of reason. Not only will horses gather round a fire to avail themselves of the smoke, but it is quite a usual thing to see some experienced old stager sitting on his haunches and dexterously filliping his front shoes over a little heap of dry leaves and bark.
To return. The recollection of much worse predicaments in the past, and the reasonable anticipation of still worse in the future, restored that equilibrium of temper which is the aim of my life; and I felt cheerful enough as I welcomed my dripping companion, and, taking a leafy twig in each hand to switch myself withal, started northward for the river road, which I purposed following eastward to where the pad branched off, and then running the latter to my camp. Once clear of the river timber, and with the road for a base, the darkness, I thought, would make little difference to me.
After half an hour’s gliding through heavy forest, and cleaving my way through spongy reed-beds, and circling round black lagoons, alive with the “plump, plump” of bullfrogs, and the interminable “r-r-r-r-r” of yabbies, I found the river on my right, with a well-beaten cattle-track along the bank. Here was something definite to go upon. By keeping straight on, I must soon strike the old horse-paddock fence, where the splitters used to keep their bark; and in an hour and a-half more, I would be at my camp.
But the discerning reader will perceive, from hints already given, that, by following the cattle track, with the river on my right, I was unconsciously travelling westward on the Victorian side, instead of eastward on the New South Wales side. If the sky had cleared for a single instant, a glance at the familiar constellations would have set me right.
After half a mile, the cattle-track intersected a beaten road, with the black masses of river timber still on the right, and a wire fence on the left — as I found by running into it. Everything seemed unfamiliar and puzzling; but I followed the road, looking out for landmarks, and zealously switching myself as I went along.
Soon I heard in front the trampling of horses, and men’s voices in jolly conversation. I aimed for the sounds, and, after running against a loose horse, feeding leisurely on the grass, I distinguished through the hot, stagnant darkness the approaching forms of three men riding abreast.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” said I politely, switching myself as I spoke. “Could you give me some idea of the geography” —— I got no farther, for a colt that one of the fellows was riding suddenly shied at me and followed up the action by bucking his best. Upon this, the loose horse presented himself, cavorting round in senseless emulation, while the other two horses swerved and tried to bolt. All this took place in half a minute.
The rider of the colt was taken by surprise, but he was plucky. Though losing not only his stirrups but his saddle with the first buck, he spent the next couple of minutes riding all over that colt, sometimes on his ears, and sometimes on his tail. But this sort of thing could n’t last — it never does last — so, after hanging on for about twenty seconds by one heel the fellow dismounted like a barrow-load of sludge. During this time, I saw nothing of the two other men, but I could hear them trying to force their excited horses toward the spot where I was skipping round, ready to catch the colt on the moment of his discharging cargo.
On making the attempt, I missed the bridle in the dark; and away shot the colt in one direction, and the loose horse in another.
“I bet a note Jack’s off,” said a voice from the distance.
“Gosh, you’d win it if it was twenty,” responded another voice from the ground close by.
“There goes his moke!” said the first voice. “Come and jam the beggar against the fence, or he’ll be off to glory.” And away clattered the two horsemen after the wrong horse; Jack following on foot.
Noticing their mistake, I cantered hopefully after the colt, thinking to obtain a favourable introduction to Jack by restoring the animal; but in a few minutes I lost the sounds, and abandoned the pursuit. Then, after supplying myself with fresh switches, I resumed my fatal westward course.
More voices, a short distance away, and straight in front. Judging them to come from some vehicle travelling at a slow walk along the edge of the timber, I posted myself behind a tree, and waited as patiently as the mosquitos permitted.
“Now you need n’t scandalise one another,” said a pleasant masculine voice. “You’re like the pot and the kettle. You’re both as full of sin and hypocrisy as you can stick. Six of one, and half-a-dozen of the other. I would n’t have believed it if I had n’t seen it with my own eyes. You’ve disgraced yourselves for ever. Who the dickens do you think would be fool enough to marry either of you after the way you’ve behaved yourselves to-day?”
“Well, I’m sure we’re not asking you to marry us,” piped a feminine voice.
“Keep yourselves in that mind, for goodness’ sake. I’m disgusted with you. Why, only last Sunday, I heard your two mothers flattering themselves about the C—— girls knowing too much; and I’ll swear you’ve both forgot more than the C—— girls ever knew. You’re as common as dish-water.”
“O, you’re mighty modest, your own self,” retorted a second feminine voice.
“It’s my place to be a bit rowdy,” replied the superior sex. “It’s part of a man’s education. And I don’t try to look as if butter would n’t melt in my mouth. You’re just the reverse; you’re hypocrites. ‘Woe unto you hypocrites!’ the Bible says. But it’s troubling me a good deal to think what your mothers’ll feel, now that you’ve come out in your true colours.”
“But you wouldn’t be mean enough to tell?” interrupted one of the sweet voices.
“I always thought you were too honourable to do such a thing, Harry,” remarked the other.
“Well, now you find your mistake. But this is not a question of honour; it’s a question of duty.”
“O, you’re mighty fine with your duty! You’re a mean wretch. There!”
“I’ll be a meaner wretch before another hour’s over. Go on, Jerry; let’s get it past and done with.”
“But, Harry — I say, Harry — don’t tell. I’ll never forgive you if you do.”
“Duty, Mabel, duty.”
“What good will it do you to tell?” pleaded the other voice.
“Duty, Annie, duty. On you go, Jerry, and let’s get home. This is painful to a cove of my temperament.”
During this conversation, I had become conscious of standing on a populous ant-bed; and, not wishing to lose the chance of an interview with Harry, I had retreated in front of the buggy till a second tree offered its friendly cover. Jerry’s head was now within two yards of my ambush, and, peeping round, I could make out the vague outline of the figures in the buggy.
“Well, I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” said Harry, stopping the horse: “If each of you gives me a kiss, of her own good will, I’ll promise not to tell. Are you on? Say the word, for I’ll only give you one minute to decide.”
“What do you think, Mabel?” murmured one of the voices.
“Well, I’ve got no —— But what do you think?”
“I think it’s about the only thing we can do. We would never be let come out again.”
There was perfect silence for a minute. My tree was n’t a large one, and the near front wheel of the buggy was almost against it. Not daring to move hand or foot, I could only wish myself a rhinoceros.
“Come on,” said one of the voices, at last.
“Come on how?” asked Harry innocently. “Look here: the agreement is that each of you is to give me a kiss, of her own good will. I’m not going to move.”
“O, you horrid wretch! Do you think we’re going to demean ourselves?
You’re mighty mistaken if you do.”
“Go on, Jerry.” And the buggy started.
“We’re not frightened of you now,” remarked one of the voices complacently, whilst I threw myself on the ground, and rolled like a liberated horse. “If you dare to say one single word, we’ll just expose your shameful proposal. You mean wretch! you make people think it’s safe to send their girls with you, to be insulted like this. O, we’ll expose you!”
“Expose away. And don’t forget to mention that you both agreed to the shameful proposal. I’ll tell your mothers that I made that proposal just to try you, and you consented on condition of me keeping quiet. You’re both up a tree. ‘Weighed in the balances, and found wanting. Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin.’ Go on, Jerry, and let’s have it over.”
“What do you think, Annie?” asked one of the voices, whilst I made for my third tree.
“He’s the meanest wretch that ever breathed,” replied the other vehemently.
“And I always thought men was so honourable!”
“Live and learn,” rejoined the escort pithily.
“O, Harry!” panted one voice, “I seen a white thing darting across there!”
“Quite likely,” replied Harry. “When a girl’s gone cronk, like you, she must expect to see white things darting about. But I’ll give you one more chance.”
“I think we better,” suggested one of the voices.
“There’s nothing else for it,” assented the other.
By this time, the buggy had disappeared in the darkness. I heard it stop; then followed, with slight intervals, two unsyllabled sounds.
“Over again,” said Harry calmly. “You both cheated.”
The sounds were repeated.
“Over again. You’ll have to alter your hand a bit — both of you — or we’ll be here all night. Slower, this time.”
Once more the sounds were repeated; then the buggy started, and Harry’s voice died away in the distance to an indistinct murmur, as he reviled the girls for this new exhibition of their shamelessness.
Whilst undecided whether to follow the buggy any further, I saw a light on the other side of the road. Making my way toward it, I crossed a log-and-chock fence, bounding a roughly ploughed fallow paddock, and then a two-rail fence; wondering all the while that I had never noticed the place when passing it in daylight. At last, a quarter of a mile from the road, a white house loomed before me, with the light in a front window. I opened the gate of the flower garden, and was soon crouched under the window, taking stock of the interior.
A middle-aged woman was sitting by the table, darning socks; and at the opposite side of the lamp sat a full-grown girl, in holiday attire, with her elbows on the table and her fingers in her hair, reading some illustrated journal; while a little boy, squatted behind the girl’s chair, was attaching a possum’s tail to her improver.
Like Enoch Arden (in my own little tin-pot way) I turned silently and sadly from the window, for I was n’t wanted in that company. I thought of going round to the back premises in search of a men’s hut; but before regaining the gate, I trod on a porcupine cactus, and forgot everything else for the time. Then, as I lay on the ground outside the gate, caressing the sole of my foot, and comforting myself with the thought that a brave man battling with the storms of fate is a sight worthy the admiration of the gods, a white dog came tearing round from the back yard, and rushed at me like a coming event casting its shadow before.
“Soolim, Pup!” I hissed. That was enough. Pup’s colour rendered him invisible in the dark, and his stag-hound strain made him formidable when he was on the job. The office of a chucker-out has its duties, as well as its rights; and in half a minute that farm dog found that one of these duties demanded a many-sided efficiency with which Nature had omitted to endow him. He found that, though the stereotyped tactics of worrying, and freezing, and chawing, were good enough as opposed to similar procedure, they became mere bookish theories when confronted with the snapping system. Eviction becomes tedious when the intruder’s teeth are always meeting in the hind quarters of the ejecting party; and the latter can neither get his antagonist in front of him, nor haul off to investigate damage.
Of course, I fanned the flame of discord as well as I could, hoping that some one of my own denomination would come out to see what was the matter. But no: the parlour door opened, Mam came out to the gate, and, in the broad bar of light extending from the door, I saw her pick up a clod, and aim it at the war-clouds, rolling dun. I was crouching some yards away to one side, but the clod crumbled against my ear. Then the storm of one-sided battle went raging round the back premises, as the farm dog returned to tell Egypt the story. Mam retreated from the gate in haste, and for a minute or two there was a confused clatter of voices in the house, and some opening and shutting of doors. Then all was silent again. Presently Pup returned, and accompanied me back to the road, carrying something which I ascertained to be a large fowl, plucked and dressed in readiness for cooking.
Musing on the difficulties of this Wonderland into which, according to immemorial usage, I had been born without a rag of clothes, I waited for Pup whilst he ate his fowl, and then again pressed forward, alert and vigilant, as beseemed a man scudding under bare poles through an apparently populous country, which by right ought to have been a sheeprun, with about one selection every five miles.
I had managed to put another mile between myself and my camp, when two horsemen met and passed me at a canter, singing one of Sankey’s Melodies. I made a modest appeal, but they didn’t hear me, and so passed on, unconscious of their lost opportunity.
Then I saw, a long way ahead, the lamps of an approaching vehicle, and at the same time, I heard, close in front, the trampling of horses, and voices raised in careless glee. I headed straight for the horses. As I neared them, the laughing and chatting ceased, and I was about to open negotiations when a woman’s awe-stricken voice asked,
“Wha-what’s that white thing there in front?”
Before the last syllable had left her lips, that white thing was receding into the darkness, like a comet into space. The party stopped for a minute, and then went on, conversing in a lower tone.
More pilgrims of the night. This time, the slow footfalls of horses, and a low, inarticulate murmur of voices, out in front and a little to the left, gave me fresh hope. Warned by past failures, I thought best to forego the erect posture to which our species owes so much of its majesty. I therefore dropped on all-fours and went like a tarantula till I distinguished two horses walking slowly abreast, jammed together; the riders presenting an indistinct outline of two individuals rolled into one; and it was from this amalgamation that the low, pigeon-like murmurs proceeded. An instinct of delicacy prompted me to pause, and let the Siamese twins pass in peace; but, unfortunately, I happened to be straight in the way, and just as I started to creep aside, one of the horses extended his neck, and, with a low, protracted snore, touched me on the back with the coarse velvet of his nose. Then followed two quick snorts of alarm; the horses shied simultaneously outward, while down on the ground between them came two souls with but a single thud, two hearts that squelched as one. In spite of the compunction and sympathy I felt, modesty compelled me to glide unobstrusively away, leaving the souls to disentangle themselves and catch their horses the best way they could.
By this time, the buggy lamps had approached within fifty yards. Knowing how dense the outside darkness would appear to anyone in the vehicle, I made a circuit, and got round to the rear. It was a single-seated buggy, with a white horse, travelling at a walk; and, in the darkness behind the lamps, two figures were discernible. I followed a little, to hear them introduce themselves. They did so as follows: —
“Now, Archie; I’ll scream.”
“My own sweetest” ——
Why, the district was fairly bristling with this class of people! I had never seen anything like it, except in the Flagstaff Gardens, when I was in Melbourne.
“My precious darling! My sweetest” ——
“My sweetest, my beautiful” ——
“O! Idon’tloveyoudear! Idon’tloveyounow! Andyouwon’tletmego!”
“There, then, sweetest. Kiss me now.”
“Yes, Archie, my precious love.”
There was more of it, but it fell unheeded on my ears. I paused, and thought vehemently. The white horse in the buggy, and Archie M——, Superintendent of the E—— Sunday School, with his girl! No wonder I had met so many people, and all going in the same direction. They were the sediment of the pic-nic party, returning from their orgy. Here was the lost chord. The whole truth flashed upon me. Now, the solid earth wheeled right-about face; east became west, and west, east. I recognised the Victorian river road, because I saw things as they were, not as I had imagined them — though, to be sure, I still saw them as through a glass, darkly.
My worldly-wise friend, let us draw a lesson from this. If you have never been bushed, your immunity is by no means an evidence of your cleverness, but rather a proof that your experience of the wilderness is small. If you have been bushed, you will remember how, as you struck a place you knew, error was suddenly superseded by a flash of truth; this without volition of judgment on your part, and entirely by force of a presentation of fact which your own personal error — however sincere and stubborn — had never affected, and which you were no longer in a position to repudiate. It has always been my strong impression that this is very much like the revelation which follows death — that is, if conscious individuality be preserved; a thing by no means certain, and, to my mind, not manifestly desirable.
But if, after closing our eyes in death, we open them on an appreciable hereafter — whether one imperceptible fraction of a second, or a million centuries, may intervene — it is as certain as anything can be, that, to most of us, the true east will prove to be our former south-west, and the true west, our former north-east. How many so-called virtues will vanish then; and how many objectionable fads will shine as with the glory of God? This much is certain: that all private wealth, beyond simplest maintenance, will seem as the spoils of the street gutter; that fashion will be as the gilded fly which infests carrion; that “sport” will seem folly that would disgrace an idiot; that military force, embattled on behalf of Royalty, or Aristocracy, or Capital, will seem like —— Well, what will it seem like? Already, looking, or rather, squinting, back along our rugged and random track, we perceive that the bloodiest battle ever fought by our badly-bushed forefathers on British soil — and that only one of a series of twelve, in which fathers, sons, brothers, kinsmen, and fellow-slaves exterminated each other — was fought to decide whether a drivelling imbecile or a shameless lecher should bring our said forefathers under the operation of I Samuel, viii. (Read the chapter for yourself, my friend, if you know where you can borrow a Bible; then turn back these pages, and take a second glance at the paragraphs you skimmed over in that unteachable spirit which is the primary element of ignorance — namely, those reflections on the unfettered alternative, followed by rigorous destiny.)
Much more prosaic were my cogitations as I followed the buggy, keeping both switches at work. According to the best calculation I could make, I had ten or twelve miles of country to re-cross, besides the river; and, having no base on the Victorian side, it was a thousand to one against striking my camp on such a night. Of course, I might have groped my way to B——’s place; but if you knew Mrs. B——’s fatuous appreciation of dilemmas like mine, you would understand that such a thing was not to be thought of. I preferred dealing with strangers alone, and preserving a strict incognito. However, a pair of —— I must have, if nothing else — and that immediately. The buggy was fifteen or twenty yards ahead.
“Archie M——!” said I, in a firm, penetrating tone.
The buggy stopped. I repeated my salute.
“All right,” replied Archie. “What’s the matter?”
“Come here; I want you.”
The quadrant of light swept round as the young fellow turned his buggy.
“Leave your buggy, and come alone!” I shouted, careering in a circular orbit, with the light at my very heels.
“Well, I must say you’re hard to please, whoever you are,” remarked Archie, stopping the horse. “Hold the reins, sweetest.”
“Who is it?” asked the damsel, with apprehension in her tone.
“Don’t know, sweetest. Sounds like the voice of one crying in the wilderness.”
And the light flashed on him as he felt downward for the step.
“Don’t go!” she exclaimed.
“Never mind her, Archie!” I called out. “She’s a fool. Come on!”
“What on earth’s the matter with you?” asked Archie, addressing the darkness in my direction.
“I’m clothed in tribulation. Can’t explain further. Come on! O, come on!”
“Don’t go, I tell you, Archie!” And in the bright light of the off lamp,
I saw her clutch the after part of his coat as he stood on the foot-board.
“I must go, sweetest” ——
“Good lad!” I exclaimed.
“I’ll be back in a minute. Let go, sweetest.”
“Don’t leave me, Archie. I’m frightened. Just a few minutes ago, I saw a white thing gliding past.”
“Spectral illusion, most likely. There was a hut-keeper murdered here by the blacks, thirty years ago, and they say he walks occasionally. But he can’t hurt you, even if he tried. Now let go, sweetest, and I’ll say you’re a good girl.”
“Archie, you’re cruel; and I love you. Don’t leave me. Fn-n-n, ehn-n-n, ehn-n-n!” Sweetest was in tears.
“This is ridiculous!” I exclaimed. “Come on, Archie; I won’t keep you a minute. The mountain can’t go to Mahomet; and to state the alternative would be an insult to your erudition. Come on!”
“O, Archie, let’s get away out of this fearful place,” sobbed the wretched obstruction. “Do what I ask you this once, and I’ll be like a slave the rest of my life.”
“Well, mind you don’t forget when the fright’s over,” replied Archie, resuming his seat. “That poor beggar has something on his mind, whoever he is; but he’ll have to pay the penalty of his dignity.”
“Too true,” said I to myself, as Archie started off at a trot; “for the dignity is like that of Pompey’s statue, ‘th’ austerest form of naked majesty’ — a dignity I would gladly exchange for what Goldsmith thoughtlessly calls ‘the glaring impotence of dress’.”
I followed the buggy at a Chinaman’s trot, thinking the thing over, and switching myself desperately, for the night was getting hotter and darker, and mosquitos livelier. You will bear in mind that I was now retracing my way.
Keeping on the track which skirted the river timber — the cool, impalpable dust being grateful to my bare feet — I heard some people on horseback pass along the parallel track which ran by the fence. Demoralised by the conditions of my unhappy state, I again paused to eavesdrop. Good! One fellow was relating an anecdote suited to gentlemen only. Thanking Providence for the tendency of the yarn, I darted diagonally across the clearing to intercept these brethren, and was rapidly nearing the party, when Pup, thinking I was after something, crossed my course in the dark. I tripped over him, and landed some yards ahead, in one of the five patches of nettles in the county of Moira. By the time I had cleared myself and recovered my equanimity, the horsemen had improved their pace, and were out of reach.
A few minutes afterward, I became aware of the footfalls of a single horse, coming along behind me at a slow trot. I paused to make one more solicitation. When the horseman was within twenty yards of where I stood, he pulled up and dismounted. Then he struck a match, and began looking on the ground for something he had dropped. The horse shied at the light, and refused to lead; whereupon, after giving the animal a few kicks, he threw the reins over a post of the fence close by, and continued his search, lighting fresh matches. Assuming an air of unconcern, so as to avoid taking him by surprise, I drew nearer, and noted him as a large, fair young man, fashionably dressed.
“Good evening, sir,” said I urbanely.
With that peculiar form of rudeness which provokes me most, he flashed a match on me, instead of replying to my salutation.
“Are you satisfied?” I asked sardonically, switching myself the while, and still capering from the effect of the nettles.
He darted towards his horse, but before he reached the bridle my hand was on his shoulder.
“What do you want?” he gasped.
“I want your ——,” I replied sternly. “I’m getting full up of the admiration of the gods; I want the admiration of my fellow-men. In other words, I’m replete with the leading trait of Adamic innocence; I want the sartorial concomitants of Adamic guilt. Come! off with them!” and with that I snapped the laces of his balmorals; for he had sunk to the ground, and was lying on his back. “And seeing that I may as well be hanged for a whole suit as for a pair of ——, I’ll just take the complete outer ply while my hand’s in; leaving you whatever may be underneath. Let me impress upon you that I don’t attempt to defend this action on strictly moral grounds,” I continued, peeling off his coat and waistcoat with the celerity of a skilful butcher skinning a sheep for a bet. “I think we may regard the transaction as a pertinent illustration of Pandulph’s aphorism — to wit, that ‘He who stands upon a slippery place, makes nice of no vile hold to stay him up.’ When the hurly-burly’s done, I must get you to favour me with your address, so that” —— Here my antagonist suddenly gave tongue.
During an eventful life, I have frequently had occasion to observe that when woman finds herself in a tight place, her first impulse is to set the wild echoes flying; whereas, man resists or submits in silence, except, perhaps, for a few bad words ground out between his teeth. Therefore, when the legal owner of the —— which I was in the act of unfastening, suddenly splintered the firmament with a double-barrelled screech, the thought flashed on my mind that he was one of those De Lacy Evanses we often read of in novels; and in two seconds I was fifty yards away, trying to choose between the opposing anomalies of the case. A little reflection showed the balance of probability strongly against a disguise which I have never met with in actual life; but by this time I heard the clatter of horses’ feet approaching rapidly from both sides. The prospective violation of my incognito by a hap-hazard audience made my position more and more admirable from a mythological point of view, so I straightway vaulted over the fence, and lay down among some cockspurs.
Within the next few minutes, several people on horseback came up to the scene of the late attempted outrage. I can’t give the exact number, of course, as I could only judge by sound, but there might have been half a dozen. A good deal of animated conversation followed — some of it, I thought, in a feminine voice — then the whole party went trampling along the fence, close to my ambush, and away out of hearing.
The mosquitos were worse than ever. I pulled two handfuls of crop to replace the switches I had thrown away on attempting to cajole the Chevalier d’Eon out of his ——. My mind was made up. I would solicit this impracticable generation no longer. I would follow the river road for eight or ten miles, and then wait in some secluded spot for the first peep of daylight. I began to blame myself for not having gone straight on when Archie unconsciously gave me my longitude. To get home in the dark was, of course, entirely out of the question; all that I could do was to aim approximately in the right direction.
I was pacing along at the double, when a lighted window, a couple of hundred yards from the road, attracted my attention. Like Frankenstein’s unhappy Monster, I had a hankering, just then, for human vicinity; though, like It, I met with nothing but horrified repulse. You will notice that Mrs. Shelley, with true womanly delicacy, avoids saying, in so many words, that the student omitted to equip his abnormal creation with a pair of ——. But Frankenstein’s oversight in this matter will, I think, sufficiently account for that furtive besiegement of human homes, that pathetic fascination for the neighbourhood of man, which so long refused to accept rebuff. With ——, man is whole as the marble, founded as the rock, as broad and general as the casing air. Without ——, unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. The —— standard is the Labarum of modern civilisation. By this sign shall we conquer. Since that night by the Murray, methinks each pair of —— I see hanging in front of a draper’s shop seems to bear aright, IN HOC SIGNO VINCES! scrolled in haughty blazonry across its widest part. And since that time, I note and condemn the unworthy satire which makes the somnambulistic Knight of La Mancha slash the wine skins in nothing but an under garment, “reaching,” says one of our translations, “only down to the small of his back behind, and shorter still in front; exposing a pair of legs, very long, and very thin, and very hairy, and very dirty.” Strange! to think that man, noble in reason, infinite in faculty, and so forth, should depend so entirely for his dignity upon a pair of ——. But such is life.
Tom Collins [Joseph Furphy]. Such is Life, The Bulletin Newspaper Company, Sydney, 1903