I got home about sunset next day, and, after tea, when I’d finished telling Mary all the news, and a few lies as to why I didn’t bring the cart back, and one or two other things, I sat with James, out on a log of the wood-heap, where we generally had our smokes and interviews, and told him all about the buggy. He whistled, then he said—
‘But what do you want to make it such a Bushranging business for? Why can’t you tell Mary now? It will cheer her up. She’s been pretty miserable since you’ve been away this trip.’
‘I want it to be a surprise,’ I said.
‘Well, I’ve got nothing to say against a surprise, out in a hole like this; but it ’ud take a lot to surprise me. What am I to say to Mary about taking the two horses in? I’ll only want one to bring the cart out, and she’s sure to ask.’
‘Tell her you’re going to get yours shod.’
‘But he had a set of slippers only the other day. She knows as much about horses as we do. I don’t mind telling a lie so long as a chap has only got to tell a straight lie and be done with it. But Mary asks so many questions.’
‘Well, drive the other horse up the creek early, and pick him up as you go.’
‘Yes. And she’ll want to know what I want with two bridles. But I’ll fix her—you needn’t worry.’
‘And, James,’ I said, ‘get a chamois leather and sponge— we’ll want ’em anyway—and you might give the buggy a wash down in the creek, coming home. It’s sure to be covered with dust.’
‘And if you can, time yourself to get here in the cool of the evening, or just about sunset.’
I’d thought it would be better to have the buggy there in the cool of the evening, when Mary would have time to get excited and get over it—better than in the blazing hot morning, when the sun rose as hot as at noon, and we’d have the long broiling day before us.
‘What do you want me to come at sunset for?’ asked James. ‘Do you want me to camp out in the scrub and turn up like a blooming sundowner?’
‘Oh well,’ I said, ‘get here at midnight if you like.’
We didn’t say anything for a while—just sat and puffed at our pipes. Then I said,—
‘Well, what are you thinking about?’
I’m thinking it’s time you got a new hat, the sun seems to get in through your old one too much,’ and he got out of my reach and went to see about penning the calves. Before we turned in he said,—
‘Well, what am I to get out of the job, Joe?’
He had his eye on a double-barrel gun that Franca the gunsmith in Cudgeegong had—one barrel shot, and the other rifle; so I said,—
‘How much does Franca want for that gun?’
‘Five-ten; but I think he’d take my single barrel off it. Anyway, I can squeeze a couple of quid out of Phil Lambert for the single barrel.’ (Phil was his bosom chum.)
‘All right,’ I said. ‘Make the best bargain you can.’
He got his own breakfast and made an early start next morning, to get clear of any instructions or messages that Mary might have forgotten to give him overnight. He took his gun with him.
I’d always thought that a man was a fool who couldn’t keep a secret from his wife—that there was something womanish about him. I found out. Those three days waiting for the buggy were about the longest I ever spent in my life. It made me scotty with every one and everything; and poor Mary had to suffer for it. I put in the time patching up the harness and mending the stockyard and the roof, and, the third morning, I rode up the ridges to look for trees for fencing-timber. I remember I hurried home that afternoon because I thought the buggy might get there before me.
At tea-time I got Mary on to the buggy business.
‘What’s the good of a single buggy to you, Mary?’ I asked. ‘There’s only room for two, and what are you going to do with the children when we go out together?’
‘We can put them on the floor at our feet, like other people do. I can always fold up a blanket or ‘possum rug for them to sit on.’
But she didn’t take half so much interest in buggy talk as she would have taken at any other time, when I didn’t want her to. Women are aggravating that way. But the poor girl was tired and not very well, and both the children were cross. She did look knocked up.
‘We’ll give the buggy a rest, Joe,’ she said. (I thought I heard it coming then.) ‘It seems as far off as ever. I don’t know why you want to harp on it to-day. Now, don’t look so cross, Joe— I didn’t mean to hurt you. We’ll wait until we can get a double buggy, since you’re so set on it. There’ll be plenty of time when we’re better off.’
After tea, when the youngsters were in bed, and she’d washed up, we sat outside on the edge of the verandah floor, Mary sewing, and I smoking and watching the track up the creek.
‘Why don’t you talk, Joe?’ asked Mary. ‘You scarcely ever speak to me now: it’s like drawing blood out of a stone to get a word from you. What makes you so cross, Joe?’
‘Well, I’ve got nothing to say.’
‘But you should find something. Think of me—it’s very miserable for me. Have you anything on your mind? Is there any new trouble? Better tell me, no matter what it is, and not go worrying and brooding and making both our lives miserable. If you never tell one anything, how can you expect me to understand?’
I said there was nothing the matter.
‘But there must be, to make you so unbearable. Have you been drinking, Joe— or gambling?’
I asked her what she’d accuse me of next.
‘And another thing I want to speak to you about,’ she went on. ‘Now, don’t knit up your forehead like that, Joe, and get impatient——’
‘Well, what is it?’
‘I wish you wouldn’t swear in the hearing of the children. Now, little Jim to-day, he was trying to fix his little go-cart and it wouldn’t run right, and—and——’
‘Well, what did he say?’
‘He—he’ (she seemed a little hysterical, trying not to laugh)— ‘he said “damn it!”’
I had to laugh. Mary tried to keep serious, but it was no use.
‘Never mind, old woman,’ I said, putting an arm round her, for her mouth was trembling, and she was crying more than laughing. ‘It won’t be always like this. Just wait till we’re a bit better off.’
Just then a black boy we had (I must tell you about him some other time) came sidling along by the wall, as if he were afraid somebody was going to hit him—poor little devil! I never did.
‘What is it, Harry?’ said Mary.
‘Buggy comin’, I bin thinkit.’
He pointed up the creek.
‘Sure it’s a buggy?’
‘How many horses?’
We knew that he could hear and see things long before we could. Mary went and perched on the wood-heap, and shaded her eyes— though the sun had gone—and peered through between the eternal grey trunks of the stunted trees on the flat across the creek. Presently she jumped down and came running in.
‘There’s some one coming in a buggy, Joe!’ she cried, excitedly. ‘And both my white table-cloths are rough dry. Harry! put two flat-irons down to the fire, quick, and put on some more wood. It’s lucky I kept those new sheets packed away. Get up out of that, Joe! What are you sitting grinning like that for? Go and get on another shirt. Hurry—Why! It’s only James—by himself.’
She stared at me, and I sat there, grinning like a fool.
‘Joe!’ she said, ‘whose buggy is that?’
‘Well, I suppose it’s yours,’ I said.
She caught her breath, and stared at the buggy and then at me again. James drove down out of sight into the crossing, and came up close to the house.
‘Oh, Joe! what have you done?’ cried Mary. ‘Why, it’s a new double buggy!’ Then she rushed at me and hugged my head. ‘Why didn’t you tell me, Joe? You poor old boy!—and I’ve been nagging at you all day!’ and she hugged me again.
James got down and started taking the horses out—as if it was an everyday occurrence. I saw the double-barrel gun sticking out from under the seat. He’d stopped to wash the buggy, and I suppose that’s what made him grumpy. Mary stood on the verandah, with her eyes twice as big as usual, and breathing hard— taking the buggy in.
James skimmed the harness off, and the horses shook themselves and went down to the dam for a drink. ‘You’d better look under the seats,’ growled James, as he took his gun out with great care.
Mary dived for the buggy. There was a dozen of lemonade and ginger-beer in a candle-box from Galletly—James said that Galletly’s men had a gallon of beer, and they cheered him, James (I suppose he meant they cheered the buggy), as he drove off; there was a ‘little bit of a ham’ from Pat Murphy, the storekeeper at Home Rule, that he’d ’cured himself’— it was the biggest I ever saw; there were three loaves of baker’s bread, a cake, and a dozen yards of something ‘to make up for the children’, from Aunt Gertrude at Gulgong; there was a fresh-water cod, that long Dave Regan had caught the night before in the Macquarie river, and sent out packed in salt in a box; there was a holland suit for the black boy, with red braid to trim it; and there was a jar of preserved ginger, and some lollies (sweets) (‘for the lil’ boy’), and a rum-looking Chinese doll and a rattle (‘for lil’ girl’) from Sun Tong Lee, our storekeeper at Gulgong—James was chummy with Sun Tong Lee, and got his powder and shot and caps there on tick when he was short of money. And James said that the people would have loaded the buggy with ‘rubbish’ if he’d waited. They all seemed glad to see Joe Wilson getting on—and these things did me good.
We got the things inside, and I don’t think either of us knew what we were saying or doing for the next half-hour. Then James put his head in and said, in a very injured tone,—
‘What about my tea? I ain’t had anything to speak of since I left Cudgeegong. I want some grub.’
Then Mary pulled herself together.
‘You’ll have your tea directly,’ she said. ‘Pick up that harness at once, and hang it on the pegs in the skillion; and you, Joe, back that buggy under the end of the verandah, the dew will be on it presently— and we’ll put wet bags up in front of it to-morrow, to keep the sun off. And James will have to go back to Cudgeegong for the cart,— we can’t have that buggy to knock about in.’
‘All right,’ said James—’anything! Only get me some grub.’
Mary fried the fish, in case it wouldn’t keep till the morning, and rubbed over the tablecloths, now the irons were hot—James growling all the time—and got out some crockery she had packed away that had belonged to her mother, and set the table in a style that made James uncomfortable.
‘I want some grub—not a blooming banquet!’ he said. And he growled a lot because Mary wanted him to eat his fish without a knife, ‘and that sort of Tommy-rot.’ When he’d finished he took his gun, and the black boy, and the dogs, and went out ‘possum-shooting.
When we were alone Mary climbed into the buggy to try the seat, and made me get up alongside her. We hadn’t had such a comfortable seat for years; but we soon got down, in case any one came by, for we began to feel like a pair of fools up there.
Then we sat, side by side, on the edge of the verandah, and talked more than we’d done for years—and there was a good deal of ‘Do you remember?’ in it—and I think we got to understand each other better that night.
And at last Mary said, ‘Do you know, Joe, why, I feel to-night just— just like I did the day we were married.’
And somehow I had that strange, shy sort of feeling too.