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A Child of Nature

Edward Dyson

A FEW YEARS ago the peaceful solitude of a sequestered locality near the north coast of Tasmania was abruptly violated by the sudden eruption of a small but extremely lively mining township. A couple of enterprising youths pottering about the surface a few months earlier in pursuit of nothing more valuable than wallabies or “devils ” became deeply interested in the unexpected discovery of a very promising-looking outcrop of quartz. The direct result of this interesting circumstance was an immediate and enthusiastic trend of public feeling towards that retired locality, and a speedy pressure of population along the line of reef. A startling transformation ensued; with wonderful alacrity “pubs.” and poppet-legs sprang upon the scene, the forest trees fell back, and huts, and tents, and paling stores took their places; the rattle of trucks, the clang of knockers, the heavy beat of batteries, and the united clamour of a dozen whistles buried their echoes in the surrounding bush; and beer, and rum, and politics, and policemen abounded, in conjunction with other enervating evidences of civilization.

Among the early arrivals on Lefroy was a long, bony, weather-beaten man with a large and varied experience of goldfields, culled in his wanderings hither and thither across Australia from one diggings to another. Mr. Barney Brown, in common with most nomads of his class, was extremely resentful of authority, and much disliked managers and captains of shifts, preferring the freedom of action and liberty of speech that are the privileges of the man who is his own boss. These independent sentiments led him to turn his attention to the shallow alluvial along the creek, which hitherto had been little heeded. Having procured a miner’s right, and chummed in with a congenial soul, Barney marked out a claim in a promising locality, and before sundown had the pleasure of bottoming on wash 18 inches thick and giving pennyweight prospects. The panning-off of the first dish was eagerly supervised by several unattached diggers, and the immediate result was a rush on the postmaster for “rights,” and a pro-miscuous pegging-out of claims. With a soft, pipe-clay “bottom,” a foot and a half of rich stuff, easily shifted, and an unlimited supply of Cascade beer in an adjacent “pub.,” the mates took things extremely easy, and cheerfully surveyed the certainty of a little pile when their holding should peg out.

Mr. Brown was thirty-eight years of age, and, as previously intimated, long and loose; he had pale ginger hair and whiskers, and a mild air of self-deprecation and pensive bashfulness, which, however, was very delusive, and tended to decoy facetious strangers to their own undoing, as he was prepared to maintain his standing against “anything that walked on end,” and to resent an infringement of his rights by the prompt and judicious application of a pair of fists of enormous size and fortified with horny encrustations like horse-warts; and the placid urbanity with which he undertook to knock the incautious party out of his boots, and fulfilled the obligation, was a matter of the deepest interest to the men of Lefroy. But Mr. Brown’s most pronounced feature was his implacable distrust of unmarried women. A spiteful treatise on the girl of the period, written by some acrimonious philosopher, combined with an extremely unpleasant legal experience with a red-haired young female who had become convinced that he ought to marry, despite his belief to the contrary, and who established her opinion in a court of law, obtaining considerable of his savings as a recompense for the loss of his name, had served to inspire him with a wholesome dread of the sex early in his career, and observation and deduction only intensified his sense of the malignity of Woman. He entertained a hazy notion that every single girl with whom he came in contact had intentions the reverse of honourable, that she harboured a deep-laid scheme either to inveigle him into a state of bondage or rob him by legal process, so he regarded the sex with an eye of doubt, and held himself severely aloof.

Mr. Brown’s hut-mates did not share his unseemly prejudice; they appreciated the young woman as an admirable institution, and beheld her with adoration, and gave way to such weaknesses as white shirts and hair-oil in pursuit of her. Barney strove eloquently to convert them, and feelingly indicated the error of their ways, and foretold breach of promise cases and conjugal infelicity; but they heeded him not, and he held his way alone. He felt that in Lefroy he had reasons to be especially watchful of the common enemy, his bright prospects and the abounding zeal of the local damsels necessitating every precaution in protection of the rights of man. Divers susceptible young females cast large languishing eyes upon the unprepossessing Brown, and, remembering the rapidity with which his capital in the little wooden bank attached to a local grocery was swelling, strove, by dint of gorgeous raiment and captivating smiles, to overcome his stoical reserve; but Barney gave them every discouragement, and always forsook them for the society of the bar or the billiard-room at the earliest opportunity.

One Saturday afternoon, Barney and two chums, armed to the teeth with supplies, ammunition, and guns, departed into the bush, intending to travel a few miles back and spend the Sunday in kangaroo and duck shooting. They had excellent sport, and were homeward bound, well laden with the spoil of the chase, late on the Sunday afternoon, when Barney, who was in the lead, had his attention attracted by a moving body that disappeared behind a tree immediately after catching his eye. Supposing it to be a wallaby, and intent on having another shot, Mr. Brown dropped his load and advanced warily to the encounter. When well within distance, he took advantage of the first glimpse of the animal to shoot. Horror! a human being rolled into view, and immediately sprang to its feet. Barney was almost paralyzed with terror. The figure was that of a girl of about nineteen—the wildest-looking girl and the tallest he had seen. She was bare-headed and bare-footed, and clad in a rag of a jacket and an abbreviated skirt that was rapidly yielding to the ravages of time. For a few moments the uncanny creature, wild-eyed and trembling, surveyed her assailant, then turned and fled with the speed of a deer. About a hundred yards off she stopped again and looked back like a curious animal, but, when Barney moved to advance, she turned and rushed away, regardless of his cries. To follow would have been useless—she was soon lost to view amongst the saplings. On the tree and on the grass where the girl had stood there were traces of blood.

“I reckon I’ll be jugged for this lot!” groaned Barney.

His mates had no opinion to offer, they had only capacity for intense amazement. They were eight miles from the township and had never heard of a dweller in those wilds. The only feasible solution of the phenomenon that presented itself was embodied in the supposition that the bush was haunted by a stray female who had escaped in her early childhood and been missing ever since.

The story was received with derisive incredulity at Lefroy, but on the Monday afternoon following the strict veracity of Mr. Brown and his chums was established to the satisfaction of the inhabitants, and at the same time the mystery of their adventure was much abated. Twice a week a large, hairy savage used to come crawling out of the leafy solitudes, laboriously hauling on a rope to which was attached a screwed and bony quadruped which had the consummate audacity to pretend to be a horse, and to which in turn was attached an antiquated shay. This bucolic curiosity used to tow his out-of-date animal round the town, peddling butter, eggs, and vegetables. He was big-boned, skinny, and of uncertain age, having apparently been sun-dried at a late stage of his existence, or preserved for immortality by the action of smoke or some other curative process; he was solemnly taciturn and uninviting, and nobody troubled him with questions. Nobody seemed to know anything about him; when he had completed his circuit, he shuffled off amongst the trees and darkness enveloped him.

On the afternoon mentioned Mr. Brown was greatly concerned on observing this strange specimen desert his conveyance on the track and bear down upon him with every demonstration of excitement; he roared with bovine ferocity, and brandished a whip, which our hero was distressed to observe was loaded. He and the astonished digger clashed and clinched at the mouth of the shaft, there was a brief struggle, a wild upheaval of pipeclay, a dull thud, and when the dust rolled by, Mr. Brown was revealed astride his fallen foe, who still foamed and roared in inarticulate rage.

Barney’s first thought was to send for whisky, and when the potent drug arrived, he, with the assistance of a couple of friends, administered a large dose to the intemperate hawker by force of arms. This treatment was repeated several times, the patient taking to his medicine very kindly when he caught its flavour, and when it had calmed his angry passions he graciously explained that he had heard Barney was the man who shot his daughter, and he had intended, in the heat of his feelings, to exact summary vengeance, but now he was prepared to accept explanations. Satisfactory explanations were forthcoming, and the pedlar, who introduced himself as Abram Tooey, under the exhilarating influence of the grateful liquor, developed a spirit of festive geniality little to be expected in one so ancient, and departed, after inviting the boys out to his farm, leading his beast of burden in a reckless and erratic manner, and enthusiastically carolling a bacchanalian ditty long out of favour.

Mr. Brown and his friends were filled with an exceeding great curiosity regarding the agricultural recluse and his wild, untutored daughter. A man from George Town was found who knew that old Tooey had been settled on a few hundred acres somewhere down near the sea for over fifteen years, and that before the outbreak of the diggings he used to journey into George Town at stated intervals for supplies; but as to his family, he knew nothing about any daughter—never heard or supposed he had any. This only further excited Barney’s inquisitiveness, and he determined to visit the eccentric Tooey and have another interview with the wild woman. A desire to ascertain if the girl had been much hurt, Abram’s invitation, and a bottle of whisky, he thought, would be excuses enough. He had no apprehensions about visiting an unconventional young lady who ran bare-footed in such a skirt, showed manifest dread of his sex, and had been reared beyond the degrading influence of fashion-plates and the ways and wiles of civilized woman.

True to his determination, Barney, with his mate, Croaker, set out in search of the Tooey homestead on the next Sunday. They followed the track of the old shay, and after a walk of about two hours and a half discerned the slab establishment they were seeking. As they drew near they were attracted by the spectacle of Miss Tooey sitting on a log fence, sunning herself, but that young lady no sooner caught sight of their advancing figures than she rolled promiscuously off her perch, and cut across the paddock, showing wonderful action and phenomenal speed; and they saw her a few minutes later surveying them with great curiosity from fancied security in the fork of a tree. Mr. Tooey did not manifest any great delight at the sight of his visitors, and asked them in with a look of sulky suspicion; but a glimpse of the whisky-bottle improved his temper, and a few nips served to impart a genial conviviality and make him rather communicative.

The residence was a miserable hovel, furnished with a suite hand-made by an amateur and fashioned from saplings principally. A smoked old woman of most uncouth appearance arose in speechless amazement from a three-legged stool as they entered, and drifted furtively from the room. This was Mrs. Tooey, as her lord indicated with a nod and a growl. When the whisky had paved the way, the diggers ventured a few interrogations. They were gratified to hear that “Mur Jane wasn’t hit bad”—merely a trifle of half-a-dozen pellets through the fleshy part of the arm.

“Ain’t she a sort of retirin’ young woman?” ventured Croaker.

“D—d if I’ve noticed much,” replied her interesting parent slowly. Then, with the air of a man imparting an important truth, he added: “She’s a wonder t’ eat.”

“She skipped from us ’s if we was goin’ t’shoot agen ’s we come along,” continued Croaker. “Seems to me she’s bashful.”

“Maybe, p’raps, she is a bit backard,” said Mr. Tooey, rattling his pannikin as a delicate intimation that it was empty. “She hasn’t seen a young fellow since she was five year old, an’ I suppose she’s got a notion they’re given to shootin’ that way.”

Here Abram afforded his guests a sketch of his career, from which they gathered that for 15 years his wife and daughter had been drifting into savagery in that wretched hole, not having seen half-a-dozon strange faces in the whole of the time.

“Towns ain’t no places for girls,” said Mr. Tooey in conclusion, “where they’re allus wantin’ boots an’ dimunds an’ tooth-powders. Girls comes dear in towns.”

This sentiment Barney seemed prepared to endorse, but Croaker denounced it with great vigour, asserting that it was an injustice to keep a girl from communion with her kind, and advising Abram to let his daughter visit Lefroy and obtain some polish.

“I don’t see as Mur Jane wants polish,” observed Mr. Tooey, with some paternal pride; “she’ll cut scrub with the best of ’em, I bet, an’ there ain’t her equal at milkin’.”

These things were all very well, said Croaker, but it was against nature to see a girl running away from a young man as if he was a cannibal with a large appetite. A girl in her natural state should display a proper leaning towards young men, and rejoice in them.

Mr. Tooey was in a pliable frame of mind, and it required little argument to induce him to bring his daughter in—just to convince her that young men were not dangerous, or liable to shoot at any moment, and to break her in to them, like. Abram went out, they heard him calling “Mur Jane!” and presently he returned, dragging his lank, awkward daughter after him, and he placed her, bashful and trembling, before her visitors, her long, unkempt red hair falling about a very uninteresting face, and her large eyes full of guileless shyness. Barney ventured an apology and an inquiry after her wounded arm, but elicited no response, and Mary Jane, as soon as released, darted behind the door, and surveyed the visitors wonderingly through a crack for a short time, after which she watched her opportunity to escape again into the paddock, and when the young men were leaving she followed them for half a mile at a respectful distance, and then watched them out of sight from the boughs of a peppermint tree.

Mr. Brown was peculiarly interested in “Mur Jane.” It was a fascinating experience to him, this contact with a young woman who beheld him with awe and fled from him in fear and trembling. He visited the Tooey homestead again. He went often, and in time the timorous daughter of the house became somewhat reconciled to the innovation, and no longer fled at his approach, but would sit in the room, looking extremely ungainly on the low bush stool, surveying the visitor with steadfast attention, and giving way to giggling paroxysms of bashful confusion whenever he caught her eye or addressed towards her the most trivial remark. The spectacle of the child of nature posed there in various acute angles, breathlessly regarding him as if he were something out of a menagerie, was a novel one, and the situation was extremely gratifying to his feelings as a man and a lord of creation. Hitherto he had found the female element demonstrative and inclined to “boss the job;” pert little misses in short frocks always overawed him with their aggressive conceit and airy nonchalance; in the presence of “young ladies,” despite his six feet of muscular manhood, he dwindled into insignificance, and felt meek and constrained, whilst they prattled cheerfully and maintained a superior mental calm. With “Mur Jane” the position was reversed; she plainly acknowledged him a greater being, and did humble homage to his majesty. Thus his dignity as a man was restored, and he fully appreciated the sense of authority he enjoyed in her company. Besides, Miss Tooey, being untutored in the deep deceits that communion with her kind alone could engender, was not likely to attach undue importance to his visits or concoct matrimonial schemes or deep designs for damages for breach of promise. Truth to tell, Barney—despite his innate bashfulness—harboured more than an average fondness for the other sex in the secret recesses of his being, and his dread of connubial bondage was only apparently implacable. Meanwhile, his comparative ease in the presence of Miss Tooey rested partly on his inability to accept that large, uncouth young lady, with her native timorousness, tanned face, wild hair, and palpable muscles, as of the same order as those dainty, designing, self-sufficient damsels who flourish in towns and hamlets.

A friendship cemented by whisky grew up between Messrs. Tooey and Brown. Abram’s gloomy taciturnity almost faded away before the warmth and congeniality of Barney’s “Old Scotch,” and Mr. Brown’s Sunday afternoon visits came to be regarded as a welcome break in the dull monotony of “tending” cows and going to bed, then getting up and “tending” cows again. Very soon “Mur Jane” displayed a burning desire to appear to better advantage before the visitor. This intuitive weakness first took form in the shape of a large, battered brass locket which the unsophisticated creature hung about her neck on a piece of braid; subsequently a monstrosity of millinery, a bonnet of fearful ugliness and great of antiquity, was unearthed from the dust of ages; a moth-eaten skirt, which was a relic of Mr. Tooey’s late lamented maternal grandparent, and might have had some pretension to style a century ago, was next turned to account; a faded ribbon, a large artificial flower of an unknown species, and a lot of other ancient finery followed, all of which grandeur Miss Tooey paraded with undisguised rapture and innocent artlessness, to the great distress of her parent, who upbraided her extravagance and warned her to be careful of “that ’ere hat,” which, he averred, her mother was married in, and cost four and eightpence—“besides the linin’.” Barney beheld Mary Jane’s assumption of style with an unfavourable eye; he regarded the outrageous bonnet particularly as a wicked frivolity, and as an evidence that Miss Tooey was animated by vanities entirely unaccountable in a young lady reared in the wilderness beyond the insidious influence of her sex. At about this time, too, Mary Jane, without abating her giggling and wriggling, and her timorous diffidence, began to assume an air of having a vested interest in the visitor, which assumption of proprietorship gave rise to painful conjecture in the mind of Mr. Brown, and caused him to have serious doubts and misgivings about the advisability of continuing his visits to the Tooey homestead. Whilst yet doubting he was one Sunday morning assisted to a decision by the conduct of his hut-mates. These facetious gentlemen had long amused themselves with ironical conjectures regarding Brown’s intentions in pursuing the rude, untutored Tooey, and remarks more or less sarcastic anent his pronounced antipathy to matrimony. On the Sunday morning in question, assuming unconsciousness of the subject of their observations, they indulged in sotto voce soliloquies and interesting speculations regarding hypothetical nuptials in which Mr. Brown and Miss Mary Jane Tooey, eldest and only daughter of Abram Tooey, Esq., of Piper, Tasmania, figured conspicuously in conjunction with an imaginary parson. The bride’s trousseau was minutely if inelegantly described, and Home and Victorian papers were earnestly requested to “please copy.” Croaker, in a deep mental abstraction, was heard to observe that it was understood the happy man intended augmenting his collection with a three-legged duck and a two-headed wombat and opening a menagerie of living curiosities. Barney could not stand much of this badinage; he uplifted himself in his bunk, swore at his mates collectively and in turn and visited Tooey’s no more.

A few weeks went by and Abram passed no remarks; he made his usually bi-weekly visits, dragging after him his bow-legged and cross-eyed horse and back-dated shay, remained as saturnine as of yore, and gave no indications of having noticed Barney’s neglect. One fine morning, however, the people of Lefroy were astonished to see Mr. Tooey emerging from the trees hauling his horse more desperately than was his wont, whilst the shay swayed dangerously under the additional burden of a long, fantastically-dressed female disguised in a scoop-shaped bonnet. Near Brown’s claim the apparition dismounted, and Barney, who was on top pulling wash, was distressed on recognising “Mur Jane” in the awful tile her mother had handed down to posterity and the worm-eaten skirt that had been in the family nearly a century, and displaying the battered brass locket and the artificial flower to the best advantage. He was much more concerned to see her advance hesitatingly towards him, coyly chewing the faded ribbon and grinning her old grin of shy distress. She mounted the tip and stood there, looking supremely absurd, and giggling vacantly in response to his salutations, whilst he felt that a sudden attack of something fatal would be a relief from the strain he was undergoing. Old Tooey had gone on his round and left “Mur Jane” to keep Barney company, and all the men “on top” had taken up commanding positions to enjoy the interview, and the men from below were swarming to the surface like startled ants, in evident anticipation of entertainment. Barney maintained his stand for five minutes, then Miss Tooey’s painful diffidence in a public place, her bonnet, and those dumb but appreciative spectators, became too many for him, and he deserted the windlass and fled ignominiously off the field.

After that Miss Tooey often visited the township with her parched sire, and, while he pushed his business, she sought out Mr. Brown, and blighted him with her bonnet and her abashed giggle. She descended on him at unexpected moments, and stared aimlessly at him, and followed him purposelessly, till he was laughed and chaffed to the verge of insanity, and fought two men every day in desperate endeavours to relieve his feelings. Mary Jane looked him up two or three times during the week, and visited the hut on Sundays. She would seek him in the bars and billiard-rooms and other public places, and afflict him with her pensive baby stare and her maidenly confusion, till the homage that had once been a source of gratification to him became the bane of his existence.

At length an expedient occurred to Mr. Brown. He decided to remain below, and would have slept below had “Mur Jane” rendered that course necessary. On Sunday the sight of Miss Tooey’s aggravating smile was the signal for him to bolt for the claim, and he would sit away in a drive till sundown, playing Yankee-grab with himself, or earnestly speculating on the outrageousness of women in every walk of life. Of course this brought more ridicule on his devoted head, but it secured his object, and very soon after Miss Tooey’s visits ceased.

A short time later Barney was looking quite cheerful once more, and resting placidly under the assurance that he had seen the last of Mary Jane, and was not likely to be again haunted by her ungainly person or troubled by obtrusive attentions, when one day, as he and his mates were sitting at dinner, a digger who had been up to Launceston bounced in with an air of great importance and a mission that would admit of no delay.

“Say, Brown,” gasped the intruder, “hev you seen Tooey’s girl lately?”

Barney arose, sadly, slowly, but with a determined purpose; be crossed over the hut, and running the knuckle end of his large fist along the digger’s jaw with a suggestive gesture he said:

“Now, Spooner, that game’s stale—it’s worked out and hung up, an’ if there’s anythin’ more said I’m goin’ to start a fight.”

“No larks, Barney; ’pon me soul I was jest askin’ you. Ain’t ye, though?” continued the excited Spooner in apologetic tones.

“Naw. Don’t want to.”

“I have.”

“Don’t care a hang.”

“By thunder, you do though. She’s up town—I saw her. Up town in a big bustle and a fashionable hat that high, takin’ out proceedin’s fer a breach of promise.”

Barney’s fork stopped half-way to his lips (he had resumed his seat), his mouth remained open for a moment, then he made a desperate gulp at the atmosphere, swallowed nothing with great difficulty, and whispered earnestly:

“Against who did you say, Spooner?”

“Agin you.”

That was enough. Barney wanted no more dinner; he laid down his knife and fork, took up his hat, and went out. Presently he returned, and thrust his pale face in at the door.

“You’re sure it’s a breach of promise and agin me, Spooner, are ye?” he queried.

Spooner was sure, and Barney retreated again. He went to the local bank and drew his money, then he sought the hut again and rolled up his swag without a word. That done, he remarked tersely:

“I’m off, boys, tip us yer fist.”

“What! goin’ right away?” gasped Croaker.

“My eye. Goin’ to catch the boat at the Heads and get right out of this. So long!”

They tried to persuade him there was stuff enough in his claim to see him through the suit, and that “Mur Jane” had no case, but he was determined.

“I tried it once before,” he said. “Breaches of promise is h——.”

And he went.

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