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Authors: Henry Lawson

Tags: #Fiction, #General

Selected Stories (35 page)

BOOK: Selected Stories
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“Good God!” I shouted, “this is more than any man can stand. I’ll chuck it all up! I’m damned well sick and tired of the whole thing.”

“So am I, Joe,” said Mary wearily.

We quarrelled badly then—that first hour in our new home. I know now whose fault it was.

I got my hat and went out and started to walk down the creek. I didn’t feel bitter against Mary—I had spoken too cruelly to her to feel that way. Looking back, I could see plainly that if I had taken her advice all through, instead of now and again, things would have been all right with me. I had come away and left her crying in the hut, and James telling her, in a brotherly way, that it was all her fault. The trouble was that I never liked to “give in” or go half-way to make it up—not half-way—it was all the way or nothing with our natures.

“If I don’t make a stand now,” I’d say, “I’ll never be master. I gave up the reins when I got married, and I’ll have to get them back again.”

What women some men are! But the time came, and not many years after, when I stood by the bed where Mary lay, white and still; and, amongst other things, I kept saying, “I’ll give in, Mary—I’ll give in,” and then I’d laugh. They thought that I was raving mad, and took me from the room. But that time was to come.

As I walked down the creek track in the moonlight the question rang in my ears again, as it had done when I first caught sight of the house that evening:

“Why did I bring her here?”

I was not fit to “go on the land”. The place was only fit for some stolid German, or Scotsman, or even Englishman and his wife, who had no ambition but to bullock and make a farm of the place. I had only drifted here through carelessness, brooding, and discontent.

I walked on and on till I was more than half-way to the only neighbours—a wretched selector’s family, about four miles down the creek—and I thought I’d go on to the house and see if they had any fresh meat.

A mile or two farther on I saw the loom of the bark hut they lived in, on a patchy clearing in the scrub, and heard the voice of the selector’s wife—I had seen her several times: she was a
gaunt, haggard Bushwoman, and, I supposed, the reason why she hadn’t gone mad through hardship and loneliness was that she hadn’t either the brains or the memory to go farther than she could see through the trunks of the “apple-trees”.

“You, An-nay!” (Annie.)

“Ye-es” (from somewhere in the gloom).

“Didn’t I tell yer to water them geraniums!”

“Well, didn’t I?”

“Don’t tell lies or I’ll break yer young back!”

“I did, I tell yer—the water won’t soak inter the ashes.”

Geraniums were the only flowers I saw grow in the drought out there. I remembered this woman had a few dirty grey-green leaves behind some sticks against the bark wall near the door; and in spite of the sticks the fowls used to get in and scratch beds under the geraniums, and scratch dust over them, and ashes were thrown there—with an idea of helping them flower, I suppose; and greasy dish-water, when fresh water was scarce—till you might as well try to water a dish of fat.

Then the woman’s voice again: “You, Tom-may!” (Tommy.)

Silence, save for an echo on the ridge. “Y-o-u, T-o-m-
may
!”

“Ye-e-s!” shrill shriek from across the creek.

“Didn’t I tell you to ride up to them new people and see if they want any meat or anythink?” in one long screech.

“Well—I karnt find the horse.”

“Well-find-it-first-think-in-the-morning-and. And-don’t-forgit-to-tell-Mrs-Wi’son-that-mother’ll-be-up-as-soon-as-she-can.”

I didn’t feel like going to the woman’s house that night. I felt—and the thought came like a whip-stroke on my heart—that this was what Mary would come to if I left her here.

I turned and started to walk home, fast. I’d made up my mind. I’d take Mary straight back to Gulgong in the morning—I forgot about the load I had to take to the sheep station. I’d say, “Look here, Girlie” (that’s what I used to call her), “we’ll leave this wretched life; we’ll leave the Bush for ever! We’ll go to Sydney,
and I’ll be a man! and work my way up.” And I’d sell waggon, horses, and all, and go.

When I got to the hut it was lighted up. Mary had the only kerosene lamp, a slush lamp, and two tallow candles going. She had got both rooms washed out—to James’s disgust, for he had to move the furniture and boxes about. She had a lot of things unpacked on the table; she had laid clean newspapers on the mantelshelf—a slab on two pegs over the fireplace—and put the little wooden clock in the centre and some of the ornaments on each side, and was tacking a strip of vandyked American oilcloth round the rough edge of the slab.

“How does that look, Joe? We’ll soon get things ship-shape.”

I kissed her, but she had her mouth full of tacks. I went out in the kitchen, drank a pint of cold tea, and sat down.

Somehow I didn’t feel satisfied with the way things had gone.

II
“PAST CARIN’”

NEXT morning things looked a lot brighter. Things always look brighter in the morning—more so in the Australian Bush, I should think, than in most other places. It is when the sun goes down on the dark bed of the lonely Bush, and the sunset flashes like a sea of fire and then fades, and then glows out again, like a bank of coals, and then burns away to ashes—it is then that old things come home to one. And strange, new-old things too, that haunt and depress you terribly, and that you can’t understand. I often think how, at sunset, the past must come home to new-chum black sheep, sent out to Australia and drifted into the Bush. I used to think that they couldn’t have much brains, or the loneliness would drive them mad.

I’d decided to let James take the team for a trip or two. He could drive all right; he was a better business man, and no doubt would manage better than me—as long as the novelty lasted; and I’d stay at home for a week or so, till Mary got used to the place, or I could get a girl from somewhere to come and stay with her. The first weeks or few months of loneliness are the
worst, as a rule, I believe, as they say the first weeks in jail are—I was never there. I know it’s so with tramping or hard graft
1
; the first day or two are twice as hard as any of the rest. But, for my part, I could never get used to loneliness and dullness; the last days used to be the worst with me: then I’d have to make a move, or drink. When you’ve been too much and too long alone in a lonely place, you begin to do queer things and think queer thoughts—provided you have any imagination at all. You’ll sometimes sit of an evening and watch the lonely track, by the hour, for a horseman or a cart or someone that’s never likely to come that way—someone, or a stranger, that you can’t and don’t really expect to see. I think that most men who have been alone in the Bush for any length of time—and married couples too—are more or less mad. With married couples it is generally the husband who is painfully shy and awkward when strangers come. The woman seems to stand the loneliness better, and can hold her own with strangers, as a rule. It’s only afterwards, and looking back, that you see how queer you got. Shepherds and boundary-riders, who are alone for months,
must
have their periodical spree at the nearest shanty, else they’d go raving mad. Drink is the only break in the awful monotony, and the yearly or half-yearly spree is the only thing they’ve got to look forward to: it keeps their mind s fixed on something definite ahead.

But Mary kept her head pretty well through the first months of loneliness.
Weeks
, rather, I should say, for it wasn’t as bad as it might have been farther up-country: there was generally someone came of a Sunday afternoon—a spring-cart with a couple of women, or maybe a family—or a lanky shy Bush native or two on lanky shy horses. On a quiet Sunday, after I’d brought Jim home, Mary would dress him and herself—just the same as if we were in town—and make me get up on one end and put on a collar and take her and Jim for a walk along the creek. She said she wanted to keep me civilised. She tried to make a gentleman of me for years, but gave it up gradually.

Well. It was the first morning on the creek: I was greasing the waggon-wheels, and James out after the horse, and Mary hanging out clothes, in an old print dress and a big ugly white hood, when I heard her being hailed as “Hi, missus!” from the front slip-rails.

It was a boy on horseback. He was a light-haired, very much freckled boy of fourteen or fifteen, with a small head, but with limbs, especially his bare sun-blotched shanks, that might have belonged to a grown man. He had a good face and frank grey eyes. An old, nearly black cabbage-tree hat rested on the butts of his ears, turning them out at right angles from his head, and rather dirty sprouts they were. He wore a dirty torn Crimean shirt; and a pair of man’s moleskin trousers rolled up above the knees, with the wide waistband gathered under a greenhide belt. I noticed, later on, that, even when he wore trousers short enough for him, he always rolled ’em up above the knees when on horseback, for some reason of his own: to suggest leggings, perhaps, for he had them rolled up in all weathers, and he wouldn’t have bothered to save them from the sweat of the horse, even if that horse ever sweated.

He was seated astride a three-bushel bag thrown across the ridge-pole of a big grey horse, with a coffin-shaped head, and built astern something after the style of a roughly put up hip-roofed box-bark humpy.
2
His colour was like old box-bark, too, a dirty bluish-grey; and, one time, when I saw his rump looming out of the scrub, I really thought it was some old shepherd’s hut that I hadn’t noticed there before. When he cantered it was like the humpy starting off on its corner-posts.

“Are you Mrs Wilson?” asked the boy.

“Yes,” said Mary.

“Well, mother told me to ride acrost and see if you wanted anythink. We killed lars’ night, and I’ve fetched a piece er cow.”

“Piece of
what
?” asked Mary.

He grinned and handed a sugar-bag across the rail with something heavy in the bottom of it that nearly jerked Mary’s
arm out when she took it. It was a piece of beef, that looked as if it had been cut off with a wood-axe, but it was fresh and clean.

“Oh, I’m so glad!” cried Mary. She was always impulsive, save to me sometimes. “I was just wondering where we were going to get any fresh meat. How kind of your mother! Tell her I’m very much obliged to her indeed.” And she felt behind her for a poor little purse she had. “And now—how much did your mother say it would be?”

The boy blinked at her, and scratched his head.

“How much will it be?” he repeated, puzzled. “Oh—how much does it weigh I-s’pose-yer-mean. Well, it ain’t been weighed at all—we ain’t got no scales. Abutcher does all that sort of think. We just kills it, and cooks it, and eats it—and goes by guess. What won’t keep we salts down in the cask. I reckon it weighs about a ton by the weight of it if yer wanter know. Mother thought that if she sent any more it would go bad before you could scoff it. I can’t see——”

“Yes, yes,” said Mary, getting confused. “But what I want to know is, how do you manage when you sell it?”

He glared at her, and scratched his head. “Sell it? Why, we only goes halves in a steer with someone, or sells steers to the butcher—or maybe some meat to a party of fencers or surveyors, or tank-sinkers, or them sorter people——”

“Yes, yes; but, what I want to know is, how much am I to send your mother for this?”

“How much what?”

“Money, of course, you stupid boy,” said Mary. “You seem a very stupid boy.”

Then he saw what she was driving at. He began to fling his heels convulsively against the sides of his horse, jerking his body backward and forward at the same time, as if to wind up and start some clockwork machinery inside the horse, that made it go, and seemed to need repairing or oiling.

“We ain’t that sorter people, missus,” he said. “We don’t sell meat to new people that come to settle here.” Then, jerking his thumb contemptuously towards the ridges: “Go over ter Wall’s if
yer wanter buy meat; they sell meat ter strangers.” (Wall was the big squatter over the ridges.)

“Oh!” said Mary, “I’m
so
sorry. Thank your mother for me. She
is
kind.”

“Oh, that’s nothink. She said to tell yer she’ll be up as soon as she can. She’d have come up yisterday evening—she thought yer’d feel lonely, comin’ new to a place like this—but she couldn’t git up.”

The machinery inside the old horse showed signs of starting. You almost heard the wooden joints
creak
as he lurched forward, like an old propped-up humpy when the rotting props give way; but at the sound of Mary’s voice he settled back on his foundations again. It must have been a very poor selection that couldn’t afford a better spare horse than that.

“Reach me that lump er wood, will yer, missus?” said the boy, and he pointed to one of my “spreads” (for the team-chains) that lay inside the fence. “I’ll fling it back agin over the fence when I git this ole cow started.”

“But wait a minute—I’ve forgotten your mother’s name,” said Mary.

He grabbed at his thatch impatiently. “Me mother—Oh!—the old woman’s name’s Mrs Spicer. (Git up, karnt yer!)” He twisted himself round, and brought the stretcher down on one of the horse’s “points” (and he had many) with a crack that must have jarred his wrist.

“Do you go to school?” asked Mary. There was a three-days-a-week school over the ridges at Wall’s station.

“No!” he jerked out, keeping his legs going. “Me—why, I’m going on fur fifteen. The last teacher at Wall’s finished me. I’m going to Queensland next month drovin’.” (Queensland border was over three hundred miles away.)

“Finished you? How?” asked Mary.

“Me edgercation, of course! How do yer expect me to start this horse when yer keep talkin’?”

He split the “spread” over the horse’s point, threw the pieces over the fence, and was off, his elbows and legs flinging wildly,
and the old saw-stool lumbering along the road like an old working bullock trying a canter. That horse wasn’t a trotter.

And next month he
did
start for Queensland. He was a younger son and a surplus boy on a wretched, poverty-stricken selection; and as there was “northin’ doin’” in the district, his father (in a burst of fatherly kindness, I suppose) made him a present of the old horse and a new pair of Blucher boots, and I gave him an old saddle and a coat, and he started for the Never-Never Country.

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