The Crooked Stick

Chapter VI

Rolf Boldrewood

AFTER this stupendous incident had ruffled the waters of provincial repose, a long untroubled calm succeeded. Little was heard in the article of news except the weekly chronicle of stock movements: who had sold, who had bought, who, having stocked up—that is, filled his run with all the sheep it would carry, and more—had sold to a new arrival, and gone to England ‘for good,’ or at least till the long-dated station bills became due. Among this last-named division was Mr. Jack Charteris, who, having sold one of his far-out runs to a Queenslander, considered this to be a favourable opportunity to take ‘a run home,’ as he expressed it, for a year, for various specified reasons which he displayed before his friends, such as seeing the world and renewing his constitution, lately injured by hard work and anxiety. So he ostentatiously took his passage by a well-known mailsteamer, and made all ready to start in a couple of months. He had, however, two plans in petto, of which he did not advise society generally.

One was, by personal application to English capitalists—being provided with all proper credentials from his bankers and others, with a carefully drawn out schedule of his properties (purchased lands, leasehold, sheep, cattle, horses, outside country), with carefully kept accounts showing the profits upon stations and stock for the last five or ten years, the increasing value of the wool clip, and the annual expenditure upon permanent improvements; the whole with personal valuation (approximate), and references to leading colonists of rank and position—to discover whether he, John Charteris, with an improving property, but constantly in want of cash advances, could not secure a loan for a term of years at English rates of interest, say five or six per cent, instead of at colonial rates, eight, nine, and ten. This would make a considerable difference to Mr. Jack’s annual disbursements, relieve him from anxiety when the money-market hardened, and would, moreover, euchre his friends the bankers in Sydney, with whom he was wont to carry on a half-playful, half-serious war of words whenever they met.

His other coup was to make a farewell visit to Corindah, and at the last moment ‘try his luck,’ as he phrased it, with the daughter of the house. He was not over sanguine, but in reviewing the situation, he decided that with women, as with other ‘enterprises of great pith and moment,’ you never know what you can do till you try. He ran over all the reasons for and against on his fingers—as he was wont to do in a bargain for stock—finally deciding that he would ‘submit an offer.’

Many a time and often had he acted similarly after the same calculation—offered a price far below the owner’s presumable valuation and the market rate of the article. As often, to his great surprise, it had been accepted. He would do so now.

‘Let me see,’ he said to himself. ‘Old MacCallum got the sack, they say. I rather wonder at that—that is, I should have wondered if it had been any other girl. Not another girl in the district but would have accepted him on his knees. Such a house—such horses! Good-looking, pleasant fellow, full-mouthed of course, but sound on his pins, hardly a grey hair—regular short price in the betting. What a sell for him! Well, now about Jack Charteris. How stands he for odds? Nine-and-twenty next birthday; fairly good-looking, so the girls say; plenty of pluck, good nature, and impudence; ride, run, shoot, or fight any man of his weight in the country. Clever? Well, I wish I was a little better up in those confounded books. If I were, I really believe I might go in and win. The only man I’m afraid of is that confounded cousin fellow. He is infernally sly and quiet, and, I expect, is coming up in the inside running. I’d like to punch his head.’

Here Mr. Charteris stood up, squared his shoulders, and delivered an imaginary right and left into an enemy with extraordinary gusto. Then exclaiming, ‘Here goes anyhow! I’ll go in for it on my way to Sydney. I’ll provide a retreat in case of total rout and defeat. It will be half forgotten by the time I return.’

To resolve and to execute were with Mr. Charteris almost simultaneous acts. Working night and day until his preparations were complete, he sent on a note to say when he might be expected, and on the appointed evening drove up, serious and determined, to Corindah gate. He was received with so much cordiality that he half thought his mission was accomplished, and that the princess would accompany him to Europe without notice, which would have been one of the rapid and triumphant coups in which his speculative soul delighted. The real reason was, that both ladies were moved in their feminine hearts by the idea of so old an acquaintance going a journey to a far land, and were sensitively anxious to show him all the honour and attention they could under such exceptional circumstances.

So the best of us are deceived occasionally. Who has not seen the unwonted sparkle in a woman’s eyes and as often as not—if the truth be told—put a totally wrong interpretation upon the signal?

Thus Mr. Charteris fared, much encouraged, and greatly heightened in determination. He was at his best and brightest all the evening, and when he said pressing Pollie’s hand as they parted—that he wanted to say a last word to her about his voyage if she would be in the orangery before breakfast, that young woman assented in the most unsuspicious manner, believing it to be something about Maltese lace, as to which she had given him a most unmerciful commission. So, shaking his hand with renewed fervour, she went off to bed, leaving Mr. Charteris in the seventh heaven, and almost unable to sleep for the tumultuous nature of his emotions.

The sun was closely inspected by John Charteris next morning, from its earliest appearance until after about an hour’s radiance had been shed upon the vast ocean of verdure, from which its heat extracted a silvery mist. How different from the outlook one little year ago! His eye roamed over the vast expanse meditatively, as if calculating the number of sheep to the acre such a grass crop would sustain, if one could only have it for five years all the season through. Suddenly he became aware of a light form flitting through the dark-green foliage and gold-globed greenery of the orangery.

In a moment he was by her side. His face lit up with innocent pleasure as she greeted him with childish joy. In her heart she thought she had never known him so pleasant in his manner, so nice and friendly, and yet reticent, before. If so improved now, what would he be when he returned from Europe? She had no more idea of any arrière pensée in meeting him by appointment in the garden than if he had been the Bishop of Riverina.

When Mr. Charteris, after a few unconnected remarks about the beauty of the weather, the prospects of the season, his sorrow for leaving all his old friends, thought it time to come to the point, especially as Pollie in the goodness of her heart replied to the last statement with ‘Not more sorry than they are to lose you, Mr. Charteris,’ he certainly produced an effect.

‘Oh, Miss Devereux, oh, my dearest Pollie, if you will let me call you so, why should we part at all? Surely you must see the affection I’ve cherished, the feelings I’ve had for you ever since we first met. Years and years I’ve stood by and said nothing, because—because I was doubtful of your affection, but now, now!’

Here he took her hand and began gently to draw her towards him, putting an imploring expression into his eyes, which was so utterly foreign to their usual merry and audacious expression, that Pollie, after one wild, fixed gaze of horrified anxiety, as if to see whether he had not become suddenly insane, burst into a fit of uncontrollable laughter.

‘Miss Devereux, surely,’ began he, with a hurt and surprised look, ‘this is not exactly fair or kind under the circumstances. What I have said may or may not be ridiculous, but it is generally looked upon as a compliment paid to a young lady and not as a matter, pardon me, for ridicule and contempt.’

The girl’s face changed suddenly. She made a strong effort and prevented herself from lapsing into what might have been an hysterical outbreak of mirth.

‘Mr. Charteris,’ she said gravely, ‘I am the last person, as you ought to know, likely to hurt your feelings consciously; but I might ask you whether you think it right or fair to entice me here, with my mind running on Maltese lace and Cingalese ornaments, which were the last things we spoke about last night, and suddenly fire off a proposal in form at me. I declare I was never more astonished in my life. Whatever could you be thinking of?’

‘What every one who sees you is thinking of,’ answered Jack, humbly and regretfully—‘love and admiration for your sweet self. Oh! Miss Devereux, I worship the very ground you stand upon.’

‘I will never be decently civil to any one again,’ declared Pollie. ‘I suppose you saw mother and I were glad to see you, and so thought—Heaven forgive you!—that I had fallen in love with you. Don’t you know that girls never show their feelings that way? It will be a lesson to you another time. Don’t say another word. We shall always be good friends, I hope. When you come out with a wife—you’ll find lots of nicer girls than me in England, so everybody says—we shall laugh over this. Mother and I will hold our tongues; nobody need know. I shall not show at breakfast. You had better tell her, and she will comfort you. Goodbye.’

She looked him frankly in the face and held out her hand, which poor Jack took ruefully, and raising it to his lips, turned away. When he looked round, she had disappeared. The glory of the morning had passed away with her. He made a melancholy attempt to whistle, and slowly betook himself to the stables, where he arranged that his luggage should be stowed in his phaeton and all things made ready for a start at a moment’s notice after breakfast.

This done, he sauntered into the house, and, intercepting Mrs. Devereux before she reached the breakfast-room, told her of the melancholy occurrence with a countenance to match, and begged her pardon and her daughter’s for making so great a mistake.

Mrs. Devereux was a tender-hearted woman, and, as are most of her age, inclined to condone all offences of this nature, though, like her daughter, as Mr. Charteris resentfully felt, she expressed extreme astonishment at the idea of his having come with malice prepense to make so serious a proposition. She was sure that Pollie had not given him reason to think that she had any other feeling for him but that of sincere, unalloyed friendship, which they had always felt, and, she trusted, always would.

But Mr. Charteris’ humility broke down and changed at this point into something very like a strong sense of unfair treatment. ‘Confound it!’ he broke out. ‘That is, I beg a thousand pardons; but it appears to me the first time in my life that you are not quite just, Mrs. Devereux. How in the world is a man to find out if a girl likes him, if he doesn’t ask her? Is he to wait years and years until they both grow old, or until he worries her into making some sign that she cares for him more than other fellows? I call that rather a mean way. I must say I thought Miss Devereux liked me, and that’s enough in my mind for a man to begin on. I’ve had my shot, and missed. But for the life of me, I can’t see where I’ve acted either unlike a man or a gentleman.’

As Jack stood straight up and delivered himself of this explanation of his views and principles, with a heightened colour and a kindling eye, Mrs. Devereux could not help thinking that he would have advanced his views very much with her daughter if he had spoken to her in the same decided tone and manner. ‘He really is a fine young man,’ she thought to herself, ‘and very good-looking too. But there’s no persuading a wilful girl. I hope she may never do worse.’

Then she took Jack’s hand herself in her’s, and said, ‘My dear John, neither I nor Polly would hurt your feelings for the world. It did take us by surprise; but perhaps I ought to have noticed that your admiration for her was genuine. I quite agree with you that it is more manly and straightforward for a man to declare himself positively. I am sure we shall always look upon you as one of our best and dearest friends.’

‘I hope Miss Pollie may do better,’ said Jack gloomily, as he pressed the hand of the kind matron. ‘She may or she may not. A girl doesn’t always judge men rightly until it is too late—too late—but whether or no, God bless her and you in that and everything else! Don’t forget poor Jack Charteris.’

And he was gone.

Mr. Charteris, with habitual forethought, had left nothing till the last moment. As he came into the yard, he had but to take the reins and gain the box-seat. His horses plunged at their collars, and swept out of the yard across the plain at a rate which showed that they were instinctively aware that a rapid start was intended. Half-way across the first plain he encountered Harold Atherstone on horseback, looking like a man who had already had a long ride.

‘Hallo! Jack, whither away? You look as if you were driving against time. What’s up?’

‘Well, I’m off by next week’s mail-steamer, as I told you before. I’ve been at Corindah since yesterday, where I’ve been fool enough to run my head against a post. I needn’t explain.’ Harold nodded sympathetically. ‘We’re in the same boat, I expect. I wouldn’t care if you were the fortunate man, old fellow; though every one has a right to try his own luck. But I expect we shall both be euchred by that infernal, smooth-faced, mild-voiced, new-chum cousin. I can’t see what there is to attract the women about him; but they are all in the same line. I heard Bella Pemberton praising him up hill and down dale. I suppose there is a fate in these things. Where is he now?’

‘I am not prepared to agree with all you say,’ answered Harold calmly. ‘The end will show. I don’t trust him too much myself, though I should be puzzled upon what to ground my “Doctor Fell” feeling. He is away on some back country that Mrs. Devereux has rented, and won’t be back for a month.’

‘I hope his horse will put its foot in a crab-hole and break its neck,’ said Jack viciously. ‘I wouldn’t mind the girl being carried away from us by a man. She has a right to follow her fancy. But a pale-faced, half-baked, sea-sick looking beggar like that—it’s more than a fellow can bear.’

‘Come, Jack, you’re unjust, and not over respectful to Miss Devereux herself. But I make allowances. Good-bye, old man. Bon voyage! Bring out a rosy-cheeked English girl. Hearts are reparable commodities, you know. Yours has been broken before.’

‘Never like this, Harold; give you my word. I could sell the whole place, and cut the colony for ever, I feel so miserable and downhearted. But I’m not one of the lie-down-and-die sort, so I suppose I shall risk another entry. Good-bye, old man. God bless you!’

A silent hand-grasp, and the friends parted. Mr. Charteris’ equipage gradually faded away in the mirage of the far distance, while Harold rode quietly onward towards his own station—much musing and with a heart less calm than his words had indicated.

When he arrived at the spot where the tracks diverged, he was conscious of a strong instinctive inclination—first of his steed, and then of himself—to take the track which led to Corindah. After combating this not wholly logical tendency, and telling himself that it was his first duty to go and see that all things were well in order at home before making his usual call at Corindah, he descried another horseman coming rather fast across the plain, and evidently making for the Corindah track.

Pulling up so as to give the stranger an opportunity for ranging alongside, he presently said to himself involuntarily, ‘Why, it’s the parson; and furthermore, I shall have to go to Corindah now, as the old lady says she finds it hard work entertaining Courtenay all by himself. He’s not a bad hand at talking, but he’s so terrifically serious and matter-of-fact that he’s rather much for a couple of women. When Bertram’s there it’s better, for I notice he generally contrives to get up an argument with him, and bowl him over on some point of church history. That fellow Bertram knows everything, to do him justice.’

As these thoughts passed through his mind the individual referred to cantered up on an active-looking hackney, rather high in bone, and greeted him with pleased recognition.

‘I was debating in my own mind, Mr. Atherstone,’ he said, ‘whether I should hold divine service at your station to-day or at that of Mrs. Devereux.’

‘You are equally welcome at both houses, as you know,’ said the layman; ‘but I think it may be perhaps a more convenient arrangement in all respects to manage it in this way. If you will ride home with me now to Maroobil, I will see that all the men are mustered and the wool-shed got ready tonight. I can send a messenger to Corindah with a note telling Mrs. Devereux that you and I will be there to-morrow night, which will be Saturday. She will then have everything prepared for a regular morning service on Sunday.’

The clergyman bowed assentingly. ‘I think that will suit better than the plan I had proposed to myself of going there to-night. There are a good many people within a few hours’ ride of Corindah, and Mrs. Devereux always kindly sends word to them of my arrival. The Sabbath will be the more appropriate day for divine service at Corindah, where there will probably be a larger gathering.’

‘Then we may as well ride,’ said the other, looking at his watch, ‘and we shall be in time for a late lunch at Maroobil.’

The Rev. Cyril Courtenay was a spare, rather angular young man, about seven-and-twenty, who had a parish about as large as Scotland to supply, as he best might, with religious nourishment and spiritual consolation. He had taken a colonial University degree, and was therefore well instructed in a general way, in addition to which he was a gentleman by birth and early training He was gifted with a commendable amount of zeal for the cause of true religion generally, if more particularly for the Church of England, of which he was an ordained clergyman.

His duties were different from what they would have been in an English parish. The distances were indeed magnificent. His stipend was paid chiefly by the voluntary contributions of the inhabitants of the district of West Logan, and partly from a fund of which the bishop of his diocese had the management, and from which he was able to supplement the incomes of the poorer clergy. This amounted to about two hundred and fifty pounds per annum. The contributories were almost entirely squatters. The other laymen of the denomination—labourers, shepherds, station hands, boundary riders, etc.—though they attended his services cheerfully, did not consider themselves bound to pay anything; holding, apparently, that the Rev. Cyril was included in the category of ‘swells ’—a class radically differing from themselves, whose subsistence was safe and assured, being provided for in some mysterious manner between the squatters and the Government, by whom all the good things of this life, in their opinion, including ‘place and pay,’ were distributed at will.

The horse of the Rev. Cyril had started off when Mr. Atherstone gave the signal to his own hackney, and powdered along the level road as if a hand-gallop was the only pace with which he was acquainted. It is a curious fact that the clergymen of all Protestant denominations ride hard, and are not famous for keeping their horses in good condition. Exceptis excipiendis, of course. There are not many of them, either, to whom the laity are anxious to lend superior hackneys. They are accused, and not without reason, of being hard on their borrowed mounts, and of not being careful of their sustenance. The priest of the Romish communion, on the other hand, invariably has a good horse, in good condition. He treats him well and tenderly withal. Why this difference? Why the balance of care and merciful dealing on the side of our Roman Catholic brethren? For one thing, priests are chiefly Irishmen, who are horsemen and horselovers to a man. Then the celibate Levite, having no human outlet for his affections, pets his steed, as the old maid her cat. With the married clergyman the oats of the roughcoated, though serviceable, steed come often in competition with the butcher’s and baker’s bills or the children’s schooling. The married parson’s horse, like himself, must work hard on the smallest modicum of sustenance, lodging, and support that will keep body and soul together. And very good work the pair often do.

The Rev. Cyril, however, being a bachelor, and living a good deal at free quarters, was not an impecunious individual. He should therefore have had his hackney in better order. But it was more a matter of carelessness with him than lack of purpose. He had not been a horseman in his youth. Australian born as he was, he had studied hard and permitted himself few recreations of a physical kind; so that when, after serving as a catechist, he was appointed to the district of West Logan, where he had two or three hundred miles a week to ride or drive in a general way, he found himself awkwardly deficient in this particular accomplishment.

To take a man-servant with him always would have doubled his expenses, without being of any corresponding benefit. After trying it for a few months he gave it up. He then took to riding and driving himself at first with partial success, inasmuch as he had several falls, and the periodical overthrow of the parson’s buggy became part of the monthly news of the district. Gradually, however, he attained to that measure of proficiency which enables a man to ride a quiet horse along a road or through open country, besides being able to drive a buggy without colliding with obstacles. He certainly drove with painfully loose reins, and rode his horse much after the sailor’s fashion, as if they are warranted to go fifty miles without stopping. However, he got on pretty well on the whole, and Australian horses, like Cossack ponies, being accustomed to stand a good deal of violent exercise with the aid only of occasional feeding and no grooming at all, Mr. Courtenay and his steed got through their work and adventures reasonably well.


Three o’clock saw the two young men at the Maroobil home station, a large, old-fashioned, comfortable congeries of buildings, without attempt at architectural embellishment. The barns, sheds, and stables were massive and commodious, showing signs of having been built in that earlier period of colonial history when less attention was paid to rapidity of construction. The garden was full of fruit-trees of great age and size, which even in the late droughts seemed to have been supplied with adequate moisture. Comfort and massiveness had been the leading characteristics of the establishment since its foundation. Homesteads have a recognisable expression at first sight, even as their proprietors.

A neat brown-faced groom took the horses from the young men as they dismounted, looking critically at the rather ‘tucked up’ condition of the parson’s steed. ‘Take Mr. Courtenay’s horse to a box and feed him till sundown; then put him into the creek paddock. Go round and tell the hands to roll up in the shed at half-past seven tonight. Mr. Courtenay will hold service.’ The groom touched his hat with a gesture of assent, and departed with his charge.

The principal sitting-room at Maroobil was a fairly large apartment, which did not aspire to the dignity of a drawing-room. In the days of his father and mother Harold had always remembered them sitting there in the evenings after the evening meal had been cleared away. There was a large old-fashioned fireplace, where in winter such a fire glowed as effectually prevented those in the room from being cold. A solid mahogany table enabled any one to read or write thereon with comfort. And Harold was one of those persons who was unable to pass his evenings in a general way without doing more or less of both. A well-chosen library, with most of the standard authors and a reasonable infusion of modern light literature, filled up one end of the room. Sofas and lounges helped to redeem the room from stiffness or discomfort. Full-length portraits in oil of Harold’s father and mother, as also of a preceding generation, with an admiral who had fought at Trafalgar, adorned the walls.

A stag’s head and antlers shot in New Zealand, with a brace of stuffed pheasants and the brush of an Australian-bred fox, were fixed over doorways. Guns and rifles of every kind of size, gauge, and construction filled a couple of racks. All things were neat and scrupulously clean, but there was that total absence of ornamentation which characterises a bachelor establishment of a settled and confirmed type.

In the evening, when the master of the establishment and his clerical guest walked across the half-mile which separated the wool-shed from the house another old-world institution absurdly near the homestead, as the overseer, a ‘Riverina man’ of advanced views, declared—a fairly numerous congregation was assembled. The chairs and forms had been conveniently placed for the people. The wool table had been dressed up, so as to be made a serviceable reading-desk. Candles in tin sconces lit up the building—a matter which had been found necessary during theatrical representations in the same building during the shearing season, when travelling troupes of various orders of merit essay to levy toll on the cash earnings so freely disbursed at such times.

It was a representative gathering, in some respects a strange and pathetic assemblage. It was known that Mr. Atherstone particularly wished all his employees to attend these occasional services, and to pay due respect to whatever clergyman, in the exercise of his vocation, might find his way to Maroobil. Harold was unprejudiced as to denominations, although firmly attached to his own, and exacted as far as possible a decent recognition of the trouble and personal expenditure undertaken for the spiritual welfare of the neighbourhood.

On the nearest form might be seen the unmistakable type of the English peasant from Essex. The gardener, John Thrum, and his wife, had emigrated from Bishop-Stortford thirty years ago, and finding a congenial resting-place at Maroobil, had remained there ever since, saving their money, and at the beginning of every year expressing their determination to ‘go home to England.’ A dozen station hands and boundary riders exhibited bronzed and sunburnt features, darkened almost to the complexion of ‘Big Billy,’ the black fellow, who, with a clean shirt and a countenance of edifying solemnity, sat on one of the back benches. A score of young men and lads, long of limb, rather slouching of manner, with regular features and athletic frames, showed a general resemblance in type, such as that towards which the Anglo-Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Australian is gradually merging. A few women and children, a strayhawker, a policeman on the track of horsestealers, resplendent in spotless boots and breeches—voilà tous! There were Roman Catholics among the crowd, but much abiding in the backwoods had rubbed off prejudice. Padres were scarce, anyhow. There was no chapel within fifty miles, and they didn’t think it would be any harm to come.

For the rest, the service of the Church of England, slightly condensed, was gone through; a plain, serviceable sermon, sound in doctrine and not above the heads of the hearers, was administered; the benediction was said; and the little congregation composed of such different elements dispersed some of them certainly soothed and comforted by the familiar words, if by nought else; others, let us hope, induced to consider or amend their course of life, where such was needful.

As the young men strolled home back to the homestead the clergyman, after a pause, said, ‘It often oppresses me with a feeling of sadness, the doubt which I feel whether any appreciable good results from these occasional services, the efforts of myself and other men, who labour under different titles in the Lord’s vineyard. When we reflect on the lives these men, almost without exception, lead—the old gardener, perhaps, the sole exception, and the women and children—a man may well doubt whether he is not wearing out his life for nought.’

‘It’s hard to say,’ answered Harold. ‘If the soldier does not fight, the battle is not won. One does not see much improvement, certainly, from decade to decade. Perhaps there is less of the open, reckless profligacy that we used to hear of in our boyhood. But no doubt most of the men that we saw to-night gamble, drink, and in riotous living of one form or other dispose of their yearly wages; confessedly going to town at Christmas, or some other holiday, to “knock it down.”’

‘All of them?’ said the preacher. ‘Surely there must be some of them who do not?’

‘Well, not the married men perhaps—those who have farms and who live in the cooler regions, near the foothills, as the Americans say, of the great mountain-chain. They save their money, and take it home to their wives; it helps for harvest and other time of need. But the older men, the regular nomadic hands, who are rarely married, and the boys, save nothing, except for a grand annual carnival, which after a month leaves them penniless for another year.’

‘A practice which must have the most demoralising effect upon these poor victims of drink and debauchery?’

‘I really can’t say that it has,’ replied Harold Atherstone. ‘That is the extraordinary part of it. That grizzled, cleanshaved man with the square shoulders and highly respectable English appearance is a Devonshire man, who came here early in life. He has been employed on Maroobil, off and on, ever since I remember. He never drinks when at work. You might send him into the township with a fivepound note any day and he would return sober. He is as hard as nails. I would take his word as soon as any friend I know. He is brave, honest, hard-working, simple. As a labourer he is without a fault. He is the stuff of which England’s best soldiers and sailors are made. And yet——’

‘And yet what?’

‘He is a hopeless and irreclaimable drunkard. He has collected his knock-about money, his shearing, and his harvest money about the end of January. By the first or second week in March he has not a shilling in the world—starting out “on the wallaby,” as he calls it, sober and penniless, with barely a shirt to his back, trusting to the first job he meets for food and covering. What are you to do with a man like that?’

‘Surely a word in season might influence him?’

‘Not if one rose from the dead.

‘Because, now consider the case carefully, as Mr. Jaggers says. Here is a man who has self-denial enough, with the raging drunkard’s thirst upon him, to suddenly determine to abstain wholly, solely, and absolutely from even a teaspoonful of beer, wine, or alcohol, with gallons of it under his nose at every public-house he passes. When you talk to him he is as sober as I am—more so indeed, for I am going to have a glass of whisky and water to-night, whereas he will touch nothing for nearly a year. He says, “Well, master, I be always main sorry at the time, and I do aim not to touch it no more. But the devil, he be too strong for I, and zumhow or zumhow, the old feeling comes over me arter Christmas time, and I knocks all the cheques down, zame as before. But I’ve neither chick nor child, and I reckon I harm no one but myself.”

‘“But you’ll die in a ditch some day, Ben,” I say to him.

‘“Like as not, master,” he replies, quite good-humouredly; “and no great matter. A man must die when his turn comes. But you’ll have the hay spoiling, master, if you keeps a-talkin’ to your hands ’stead of drivin’ ’em at their work.”

‘How it must ruin their constitution!’ groaned the clergyman. ‘They can’t have a healthy pulse or movement.’

‘Even that is not borne out by fact,’ said the squatter. ‘Have up this old private in the industrial army, and what do you find? His eye is clear, his cheek is healthy and brown. Let either of us, fairly strong—men taller and broader too—stand alongside of him at a hard day’s work, and see where we shall be! Every muscle and sinew, strained and tested since childhood, is like wire compared to cord. The country-bred Englishman is certainly the best working animal in the world, and I cannot conscientiously say that this man’s bodily or mental powers have suffered for the life he has led.’

‘Is there no hope, then?’ said the young preacher despondingly. ‘Must the best and bravest of the race be doomed to this hopeless degradation? The preacher’s warning is useless, the kindly master’s advice, the teaching of experience, the voice of God. What are we to look to in the future?’

‘To the spread of education and the development of intelligence. I see no other safeguard. Ben can neither read nor write. Hundreds like him can do so with difficulty—which amounts to nearly the same thing. A certain reaction sets in after continuous labour. What change or recreation have these barren intelligences so complete, so transforming as the madness of intoxication? With culture—national and universal—will come additional means of recreation a hundredfold multiplied. With the refinement inseparable from education will come the distaste for unbridled debauchery, for the coarse and degrading enjoyments of mere sensuality, for a practice which will have become unfashionable with every grade and every class of society.’

‘Then you trust in the millennium of universal education—secular or otherwise—not fearing the communistic and atheistic principles which may be involved by mere mental culture unregulated by religious teaching.’

‘So long as the race preserves the attributes which have always distinguished it, so long as the passions disturb the reasoning powers, so long as the body preserves its present relation to the spirit, men will drink to heighten pleasure or to dull pain. But in proportion as the mental powers are developed and refined by culture, so will the vice which we call drunkenness diminish, perhaps disappear. With other results of the tillage of that rich and boundless estate, the nation’s mind, so long fallow, so negligently worked, I shall not at present concern myself. I have my own opinion.’

‘You will not take anything?’ said Atherstone, lighting his pipe as the two men sat over the wide fireplace upon their return from the wool-shed. ‘Light wine or spirits you will find on the tray; the aerated water is yonder.’

‘I think it better for me to practise what I preach in the matter of intoxicating liquors,’ said Mr. Courtenay, filling a large tumbler with the aerated water. ‘This is very refreshing though I do not feel called upon to denounce the moderate use of what was doubtless ordained for wise purposes.’

.     .     .     .     .

‘I can put your horse in the paddock, and let me drive you over to Corindah,’ said the host after breakfast next morning, ‘He will be all the better for it, and on return you can make across to Yandah just as well from here. I’ll send Jack with you across the bush, and he’ll put you on to the main Wannonbah road.’

‘Thank you very much, Mr. Atherstone; you are always considerate. I began to think Rover was failing a little; yet I had only ridden him forty miles when I met you.’

‘Before lunch-time?’ said the other, smiling. ‘Well, he is a good horse, and carries you well; only, when you come back from Yandah, I’d put the other nag into commission. Leave Rover here till autumn, and he’ll be fat and strong to carry you all the winter. And now, if you have any writing to do before lunch, I must leave you in possession. We’ll start at half-past three sharp. There’s the library, the writing-table, the house generally, to do as you like with till I come back to lunch.’

Punctually at the appointed hour after lunch the pair of fast-trotting, well-bred buggy horses whirled the two young men away on the track to Corindah, a pathway which, already well-beaten, did not appear to be in danger of becoming faint from disuse.

Arriving before sundown, they were received with unmistakable cordiality by the lady of the house, who explained that Pollie had gone out for a ride with her cousin, but would be home by tea-time. This trifling piece of intelligence did not, strange to relate, appear to add to the satisfaction of either guest. Nor even when the missing damsel came riding in, looking deliciously fresh and exhilarated by the healthful exercise, talking in an animated way to Mr. Bertram Devereux, who, attired with great neatness and mounted upon the handsomest horse that Corindah ‘had to its name,’ looked like an equestrian lounger from Rotten Row, was their equanimity altogether restored. Harold was reserved and imperturbable as usual—even more so. Mr. Courtenay discoursed gloomily about the low state of morality everywhere apparent in the bush. The rather carefully prepared tea entertainment, to which poor Mrs. Devereux had looked forward with a certain pleasurable anticipation, proved flat and uninteresting.

The attendance was comparatively large in the dining-room of the bachelor’s quarters, which Mrs. Devereux had caused to be rigorously cleaned out for the occasion. But it was agreed that the sermon of Mr. Courtenay was not so good as usual; that he had ‘gone off’ in his preaching, and had not been so pleasant-mannered as was his wont. Mrs. Devereux was lost in astonishment at the variation in his performance and demeanour, and concluded by remarking to Pollie privately that clergymen were uncertain in their ways, and that Mr. Courtenay in particular, must have been overworking himself lately, which accounted for his altered form.

Mrs. Devereux was anxious to confide in Harold about Mr. Charteris’ unlucky declaration before his departure, and to assure herself of his approval of her conduct. She knew that the young men were as brothers, and that Mr. Charteris would by no means object to such a proceeding. But Harold said rather sternly that he and Mr. Courtenay must drive home that afternoon: he had work to do, etc.; and in spite of an appealing and surprised glance from Miss Pollie, he adhered to his resolution, and after saying farewell formally, was seen no more.

The Crooked Stick - Contents    |     Chapter VII

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