Authors: Henry Lawson
Tags: #Fiction, #General
THE Blenheim coach was descending into the valley of the Avetere River—pronounced Aveterry—from the saddle of Taylor’s Pass. Across the river to the right, the grey slopes and flats stretched away to the distant sea from a range of tussock hills. There was no native bush there; but there were several groves of imported timber standing wide apart—sentinel-like—seeming lonely and striking in their isolation.
“Grand country, New Zealand, eh?” said a stout man with a brown face, grey beard, and grey eyes, who sat between the driver and another passenger on the box.
“You don’t call this grand country!” exclaimed the other passenger, who claimed to be, and looked like, a commercial traveller, and might have been a professional spieler—quite possibly both. “Why, it’s about the poorest country in New Zealand! You ought to see some of the country in the North Island—Wairarapa and Napier districts, round about Pahiatua. I call this damn poor country.”
“Well, I reckon you wouldn’t, if you’d ever been in Australia—back in New South Wales. The people here don’t seem to know what a grand country they’ve got. You say this is the worst, eh? Well, this would make an Australian cockatoo’s mouth water—the worst of New Zealand would.”
“I always thought Australia was all good country,” mused the driver—a flax-stick. “I always thought—”
“Good country!” exclaimed the man with the grey beard, in a tone of disgust. “Why, it’s only a mongrel desert, except some bits round the coast. The worst dried-up and God-forsaken country I was ever in.”
There was a silence, thoughtful on the driver’s part, and aggressive on that of the stranger.
“I always thought,” said the driver, reflectively, after the pause—“I always thought Australia was a good country,” and he placed his foot on the brake.
They let him think. The coach descended the natural terraces above the river bank, and pulled up at the pub.
“So you’re a native of Australia?” said the bagman to the greybeard, as the coach went on again.
“Well, I suppose I am. Anyway, I was born there. That’s the main thing I’ve got against the darned country.”
“How long did you stay there?”
“Till I got away,” said the stranger. Then, after a think, he added, “I went away first when I was thirty-five—went to the islands. I swore I’d never go back to Australia again; but I did. I thought I had a kind of affection for old Sydney. I knocked about the blasted country for five or six years, and then I cleared out to ’Frisco. I swore I’d never go back again, and I never will.”
“But surely you’ll take a run over and have a look at old Sydney and those places, before you go back to America, after getting so near?”
“What the blazes do I want to have a look at the blamed country for?” snapped the stranger, who had refreshed considerably. “I’ve got nothing to thank Australia for—except getting out of it. It’s the best country to get out of that I was ever in.”
“Oh, well, I only thought you might have had some friends over there,” interposed the traveller in an injured tone.
“Friends! That’s another reason. I wouldn’t go back there for all the friends and relations since Adam. I had more than quite enough of it while I was there. The worst and hardest years of my life were spent in Australia. I might have starved there, and did do it half my time. I worked harder and got less in my own country in five years than I ever did in any other in fifteen”—he was getting mixed—“and I’ve been in a few since then. No, Australia is the worst country that ever the Lord had the sense to forget. I mean to stick to the country that stuck to me, when I was starved out of my own dear native land—and that country is the United States of America. What’s Australia? A big, thirsty,
hungry wilderness, with one or two cities for the convenience of foreign speculators, and a few collections of humpies, called towns—also for the convenience of foreign speculators; and populated mostly by mongrel sheep, and partly by fools, who live like European slaves in the towns, and like dingoes in the bush—who drivel about ‘democracy’, and yet haven’t any more spunk than to graft for a few cockney dudes that razzle-dazzle most of the time in Paris. Why, the Australians haven’t even got the grit to claim enough of their own money to throw a few dams across their watercourses, and so make some of the interior fit to live in. America’s bad enough, but it was never so small as that…Bah! The curse of Australia is sheep, and the Australian war-cry is Baa!”
“Well, you’re the first man I ever heard talk as you’ve been doing about his own country,” said the bagman, getting tired and impatient of being sat on all the time. “ ‘Lives there a man with a soul so dead, who never said—to—to himself’…I forget the darned thing.”
He tried to remember it. The man whose soul was dead cleared his throat for action, and the driver—for whom the bagman had shouted twice as against the stranger’s once—took the opportunity to observe that he always thought a man ought to stick up for his own country.
The stranger ignored him, and opened fire on the bagman. He proceeded to prove that that was all rot—that patriotism was the greatest curse on earth; that it had been the cause of all war; that it was the false, ignorant sentiment which moved men to slave, starve, and fight for the comfort of their sluggish masters; that it was the enemy of universal brotherhood, the mother of hatred, murder, and slavery, and that the world would never be any better until the deadly poison, called the sentiment of patriotism, had been “educated” out of the stomachs of the people. “Patriotism!” he exclaimed scornfully. “My country! The darned fools; the country never belonged to them, but to the speculators, the absentees, land-boomers, swindlers, gangs of thieves—the men the patriotic fools starve and fight for—their masters. Ba-a !”
The opposition collapsed.
The coach had climbed the terraces on the south side of the river, and was bowling along on a level stretch of road across the elevated flat.
“What trees are those?” asked the stranger, breaking the aggressive silence which followed his unpatriotic argument, and pointing to a grove ahead by the roadside. “They look as if they’ve been planted there. There ain’t been a forest here surely?”
“Oh, they’re some trees the Government imported,” said the bagman, whose knowledge on the subject was limited. “Our own bush won’t grow in this soil.”
“But it looks as if anything else would—”
Here the stranger sniffed once by accident, and then several times with interest.
It was a warm morning after rain. He fixed his eyes on those trees.
They didn’t look like Australian gums; they tapered to the tops, the branches were pretty regular, and the boughs hung in ship-shape fashion. There was not the Australian heat to twist the branches and turn the leaves.
“Why!” exclaimed the stranger, still staring and sniffing hard. “Why, dang me if they ain’t (sniff) Australian gums!”
“Yes,” said the driver, flicking his horses, “they are.”
“Blanky (sniff) blanky old Australian gums!” exclaimed the ex-Australian, with strange enthusiasm.
“They’re not old,” said the driver; “they’re only young trees. But they say they don’t grow like that in Australia—’count of the difference in the climate. I always thought—”
But the other did not appear to hear him; he kept staring hard at the trees they were passing. They had been planted in rows and cross-rows, and were coming on grandly.
There was a rabbit-trapper’s camp amongst those trees; he had made a fire to boil his billy with gum leaves and twigs, and it was the scent of that fire which interested the exile’s nose, and brought a wave of memories with it.
“Good day, mate!” he shouted suddenly to the rabbit-trapper, and to the astonishment of his fellow-passengers.
“Good day, mate!” The answer came back like an echo—it seemed to him—from the past.
Presently, he caught sight of a few trees which had evidently been planted before the others—as an experiment, perhaps—and, somehow, one of them had grown after its own erratic native fashion—gnarled and twisted and ragged, and could not be mistaken for anything else but an Australian gum.
“Athunderin’ old blue-gum!” ejaculated the traveller, regarding the tree with great interest.
He screwed his neck to get a last glimpse, and then sat silently smoking and gazing straight ahead, as if the past lay before him—and it
“Ah, well!” he said, in explanation of a long meditative silence on his part; “ah, well—them saplings—the smell of them gum leaves set me thinking.” And he thought some more.
“Well, for my part,” said a tourist in the coach presently, in a condescending tone, “I can’t see much in Australia. The bally colonies are——”
“Oh, that be damned!” snarled the Australian-born—they had finished the second flask of whisky. “What do you Britishers know about Australia? She’s as good as England, anyway.”
“Well, I suppose you’ll go straight back to the States as soon as you’ve done your business in Christchurch,” said the bagman, when near their journey’s end they had become confidential.
“Well, I dunno. I reckon I’ll just take a run over to Australia first. There’s an old mate of mine in business in Sydney, and I’d like to have a yarn with him.”
THE scene is a small New South Wales Western selection, the holder whereof is native-English. His wife is native-Irish. Time, Sunday, about 8 a.m. Aused-up-looking woman comes from the slab-and-bark house, turns her face towards the hillside, and shrieks:
No response; and presently she draws a long breath and screams again:
Afaint echo comes from far up the siding where Tommy’s presence is vaguely indicated by half-a-dozen cows moving slowly—very slowly—down towards the cow-yard.
The woman retires. Ten minutes later she comes out again and screams:
“Y-e-e-a-a-s-s!” very passionately and shrilly.
“Ain’t you goin’ to bring those cows down to-day?”
“Y-e-e-a-a-s-s-s!—carn’t yer see I’m comin’?”
Aboy is seen to run wildly along the siding and hurl a missile at a feeding cow; the cow runs forward a short distance through the trees, and then stops to graze again while the boy stirs up another milker.
An hour goes by.
The rising Australian generation is represented by a thin, lanky youth of about fifteen. He is milking. The cow-yard is next the house, and is mostly ankle-deep in slush. The boy drives a dusty, discouraged-looking cow into the bail, and pins her head there; then he gets tackle on to her right hind-leg, hauls it back, and makes it fast to the fence. There are eleven cows, but not one of them can be milked out of the bail—chiefly because their teats are sore. The selector does not know what makes the teats sore, but he has an unquestioning faith in a certain ointment, recommended to him by a man who knows less about cows than
he does himself, which he causes to be applied at irregular intervals—leaving the mode of application to the discretion of his son. Meanwhile the teats remain sore.
Having made the cow fast, the youngster cautiously takes hold of the least sore teat, yanks it suddenly, and dodges the cow’s hock. When he gets enough milk to dip his dirty hands in, he moistens the teats, and things go on more smoothly.
Now and then he relieves the monotony of his occupation by squirting at the eye of a calf which is dozing in the adjacent pen. Other times, he milks into his mouth. Every time the cow kicks, a burr or a grass-seed or a bit of something else falls into the milk, and the boy drowns these things with a well-directed stream—on the principle that what’s out of sight is out of mind.
Sometimes the boy sticks his head into the cow’s side, hangs on by a teat, and dozes, while the bucket, mechanically gripped between his knees, sinks lower and lower till it rests on the ground. Likely as not he’ll doze on until his mother’s shrill voice startles him with an enquiry as to whether he intends to get that milking done to-day; other times he is roused by the plunging of the cow, or knocked over by a calf which has broken through a defective panel in the pen. In the latter case the youth gets tackle on to the calf, detaches its head from the teat with the heel of his boot, and makes it fast somewhere. Sometimes the cow breaks or loosens the leg-rope and gets her leg into the bucket and then the youth clings desperately to the pail and hopes she’ll get her hoof out again without spilling the milk. Sometimes she does, more often she doesn’t—it depends on the strength of the boy and the pail and on the strategy of the former. Anyway, the boy will lamb the cow down with a jagged yard shovel, let her out, and bail up another.
When he considers that he has finished milking he lets the cows out with their calves and carries the milk down to the dairy, where he has a heated argument with his mother, who—judging from the quantity of milk—has reason to believe that he has slummed some of the milkers. This he indignantly denies, and he tells her she knows very well the cows are going dry.
The dairy is built of rotten box bark—though there is plenty of good stringybark within easy distance—and the structure
looks as if it wants to lie down, and is only prevented by three crooked props on the leaning side; more props will soon be needed in the rear, for the dairy shows signs of going in that direction. The milk is set in dishes made of kerosene tins, cut in halves, which are placed on bark shelves fitted round against the walls. The shelves are not level, and the dishes are brought to a comparatively horizontal position by means of chips and bits of bark, etc., inserted under the lower sides. The milk is covered by soiled sheets of old newspapers supported on sticks laid across the dishes. This protection is necessary, because the box bark in the roof has crumbled away and left fringed holes—also because the fowls roost up there. Sometimes the paper sags, and the cream may have to be scraped off an article on Dairy Farming.
The selector’s wife removes the newspapers, and reveals a thick, yellow layer of rich cream, plentifully peppered with dust which has drifted in somehow. She runs a forefinger round the edges of the cream to detach it from the tin, wipes her fingers in her mouth, and skims. If the milk and cream are very thick she rolls the cream over like a pancake with her fingers, and lifts it out in sections. The thick milk is poured into a slop-bucket, for the pigs and calves, the dishes are “cleaned”—by the aid of a dipper full of warm water and a rag—and the wife proceeds to set the morning’s milk. Tom holds up the doubtful-looking rag that serves as a strainer while his mother pours in the milk. Sometimes the boy’s hand gets tired and he lets some of the milk run over, and gets into trouble; but it doesn’t matter much, for the straining-cloth has several sizeable holes in the middle.
The door of the dairy faces the dusty road and is off its hinges and has to be propped up. The prop is missing this morning, and Tommy is accused of having been seen chasing old Poley with it at an earlier hour. He never see’d the damn prop, never chased no cow with it, and wants to know what’s the use of always accusing him. He further complains that he’s always blamed for everything. The pole is not forthcoming, and so an old dray is backed against the door to keep it in position. There’s more trouble about a cow that is lost, and hasn’t been milked for two days. The boy takes the cows up to the paddock slip-rails and lets
the top rail down: the lower rail fits rather tightly and some exertion is required to free it, so he makes the animals jump that one. Then he “poddies”—hand-feeds—the calves which have been weaned too early. He carries the skim-milk to the yard in a bucket made out of an oil-drum—sometimes a kerosene tin—seizes a calf by the nape of the neck with his left hand, inserts the dirty forefinger of his right into its mouth, and shoves its head down into the milk. The calf sucks, thinking it has a teat, and pretty soon it butts violently—as calves do to remind their mothers to let down the milk—and the boy’s wrist gets barked against the jagged edge of the bucket. He welts that calf in the jaw, kicks it in the stomach, tries to smother it with its nose in the milk, and finally dismisses it with the assistance of the calf rope and a shovel, and gets another. His hand feels sticky and the cleaned finger makes it look as it he wore a filthy, greasy glove with the forefinger torn off.
The selector himself is standing against a fence talking to a neighbour. His arms rest on the top rail of the fence, his chin rests on his hands, his pipe rests between his fingers, and his eyes rest on a white cow that is chewing her cud on the opposite side of the fence. The neighbour’s arms rest on the top rail also, his chin rests on his hands, his pipe rests between his fingers, and his eyes rest on the cow. They are talking about that cow. They have been talking about her for three hours. She is chewing her cud. Her nose is well up and forward, and her eyes are shut. She lets her lower jaw fall a little, moves it to one side, lifts it again, and brings it back into position with a springing kind of jerk that has almost a visible recoil. Then her jaws stay perfectly still for a moment, and you would think she had stopped chewing. But she hasn’t. Now and again a soft, easy, smooth-going swallow passes visibly along her clean, white throat anal disappears. She chews again, and by-and-by she loses consciousness and forgets to chew. She never opens her eyes. She is young and in good condition; she has had enough to eat, the sun is just properly warm for her, and—well, if an animal can be really happy, she ought to be.
Presently the two men drag themselves away from the fence, fill their pipes, and go to have a look at some rows of forked
sticks, apparently stuck in the ground for some purpose. The selector calls these sticks fruit-trees, and he calls the place “the orchard”. They fool round these wretched sticks until dinner-time, when the neighbour says he must be getting home. “Stay and have some dinner! Man alive! Stay and have some dinner!” says the selector; and so the friend stays.
It is a broiling hot day in summer, and the dinner consists of hot roast meat, hot baked potatoes, hot cabbage, hot pumpkin, hot peas, and burning-hot plum-pudding. The family drinks on an average four cups of tea each per meal. The wife takes her place at the head of the table with a broom to keep the fowls out, and at short intervals she interrupts the conversation with such exclamations as “Shoo! shoo!” “Tommy, can’t you see that fowl? Drive it out!” The fowls evidently pass a lot of their time in the house. They mark the circle described by the broom, and take care to keep two or three inches beyond it. Every now and then you see a fowl on the dresser amongst the crockery, and there is great concern to get it out before it breaks something. While dinner is in progress two steers get into the wheat through a broken rail which has been spliced with stringy-bark, and a calf or two break into the vineyard. And yet this careless Australian selector, who is too shiftless to put up a decent fence, or build a decent house and who knows little or nothing about farming, would seem by his conversation to have read up all the great social and political questions of the day. Here are some fragments of conversation caught at the dinner-table. Present—the Selector, the Missus, the neighbour, Corny George—nicknamed “Henry George”—Tommy, Jacky, and the younger children. The spaces represent interruptions by the fowls and children:—
Corny George (continuing conversation): “But Henry George says, in ‘Progress and Poverty,’ he says——”
Missus (to the fowls): “Shoo! Shoo!”
Corny: “He says——”
Tom: “Marther, jist speak to this Jack.”
Missus (to Jack): “If you can’t behave yourself, leave the table.”
Tom: “He says in ‘Progress and——’”
Neighbour: “I think ‘Lookin Backwards’ is more——”
Missus: “Shoo! Shoo! Tom, carn’t you see that fowl?”
Selector: “Now I think ‘Caesar’s Column’ is more likely——.
Just look at——”
Missus: “Shoo! Shoo!”
Selector: “Just look at the French Revolution.”
Corny: “Now, Henry George——”
Tom: “Marther! I seen a old-man kangaroo up on——”
Missus: “Shut up! Eat your dinner an’ hold your tongue.
Carn’t you see someone’s speakin’?”
Selector: “Just look at the French——”
Missus (to the fowls): “Shoo! Shoo!” (turning suddenly and unexpectedly on Jacky): “Take your fingers out of the sugar!—Blarst yer! that I should say such a thing.”
Neighbour: “But ‘Lookin’ Back’ards’——”
Missus: “There you go, Tom! Didn’t I say you’d spill that tea? Go away from the table!”
Selector: “I think ‘Caesar’s Column’ is the only natural—”
Missus: “Shoo! Shoo!” She loses patience, gets up and fetches a young rooster with the flat of the broom, sending him flying into the yard; he falls with his head towards the door and starts in again.
Later on the conversation is about Deeming.
Selector: “There’s no doubt the man’s mad——”
Missus: “Deeming! That Windsor wretch! Why, if I was in the law I’d have him boiled alive! Don’t tell me he didn’t know what he was doing! Why, I’d have him——”
Corny: “But, Missus, you——”
Missus (to the fowls): “Shoo! Shoo!”