Mary and I had been married about two years when Jim came—— His name wasn’t ‘Jim’, by the way, it was ‘John Henry’, after an uncle godfather; but we called him Jim from the first— (and before it)—because Jim was a popular Bush name, and most of my old mates were Jims. The Bush is full of good-hearted scamps called Jim.
We lived in an old weather-board shanty that had been a sly-grog-shop, and the Lord knows what else! in the palmy days of Gulgong; and I did a bit of digging (‘fossicking’, rather), a bit of shearing, a bit of fencing, a bit of Bush-carpentering, tank-sinking,—anything, just to keep the billy boiling.
We had a lot of trouble with Jim with his teeth. He was bad with every one of them, and we had most of them lanced— couldn’t pull him through without. I remember we got one lanced and the gum healed over before the tooth came through, and we had to get it cut again. He was a plucky little chap, and after the first time he never whimpered when the doctor was lancing his gum: he used to say ‘tar’ afterwards, and want to bring the lance home with him.
The first turn we got with Jim was the worst. I had had the wife and Jim out camping with me in a tent at a dam I was making at Cattle Creek; I had two men working for me, and a boy to drive one of the tip-drays, and I took Mary out to cook for us. And it was lucky for us that the contract was finished and we got back to Gulgong, and within reach of a doctor, the day we did. We were just camping in the house, with our goods and chattels anyhow, for the night; and we were hardly back home an hour when Jim took convulsions for the first time.
Did you ever see a child in convulsions? You wouldn’t want to see it again: it plays the devil with a man’s nerves. I’d got the beds fixed up on the floor, and the billies on the fire—I was going to make some tea, and put a piece of corned beef on to boil over night—when Jim (he’d been queer all day, and his mother was trying to hush him to sleep)— Jim, he screamed out twice. He’d been crying a good deal, and I was dog-tired and worried (over some money a man owed me) or I’d have noticed at once that there was something unusual in the way the child cried out: as it was I didn’t turn round till Mary screamed ‘Joe! Joe!’ You know how a woman cries out when her child is in danger or dying—short, and sharp, and terrible. ‘Joe! Look! look! Oh, my God! our child! Get the bath, quick! quick! it’s convulsions!’
Jim was bent back like a bow, stiff as a bullock-yoke, in his mother’s arms, and his eyeballs were turned up and fixed—a thing I saw twice afterwards, and don’t want ever to see again.
I was falling over things getting the tub and the hot water, when the woman who lived next door rushed in. She called to her husband to run for the doctor, and before the doctor came she and Mary had got Jim into a hot bath and pulled him through.
The neighbour woman made me up a shake-down in another room, and stayed with Mary that night; but it was a long while before I got Jim and Mary’s screams out of my head and fell asleep.
You may depend I kept the fire in, and a bucket of water hot over it, for a good many nights after that; but (it always happens like this) there came a night, when the fright had worn off, when I was too tired to bother about the fire, and that night Jim took us by surprise. Our wood-heap was done, and I broke up a new chair to get a fire, and had to run a quarter of a mile for water; but this turn wasn’t so bad as the first, and we pulled him through.
You never saw a child in convulsions? Well, you don’t want to. It must be only a matter of seconds, but it seems long minutes; and half an hour afterwards the child might be laughing and playing with you, or stretched out dead. It shook me up a lot. I was always pretty high-strung and sensitive. After Jim took the first fit, every time he cried, or turned over, or stretched out in the night, I’d jump: I was always feeling his forehead in the dark to see if he was feverish, or feeling his limbs to see if he was ‘limp’ yet. Mary and I often laughed about it—afterwards. I tried sleeping in another room, but for nights after Jim’s first attack I’d be just dozing off into a sound sleep, when I’d hear him scream, as plain as could be, and I’d hear Mary cry, ‘Joe!—Joe!’—short, sharp, and terrible— and I’d be up and into their room like a shot, only to find them sleeping peacefully. Then I’d feel Jim’s head and his breathing for signs of convulsions, see to the fire and water, and go back to bed and try to sleep. For the first few nights I was like that all night, and I’d feel relieved when daylight came. I’d be in first thing to see if they were all right; then I’d sleep till dinner-time if it was Sunday or I had no work. But then I was run down about that time: I was worried about some money for a wool-shed I put up and never got paid for; and, besides, I’d been pretty wild before I met Mary.
I was fighting hard then—struggling for something better. Both Mary and I were born to better things, and that’s what made the life so hard for us.
Jim got on all right for a while: we used to watch him well, and have his teeth lanced in time.
It used to hurt and worry me to see how—just as he was getting fat and rosy and like a natural happy child, and I’d feel proud to take him out— a tooth would come along, and he’d get thin and white and pale and bigger-eyed and old-fashioned. We’d say, ‘He’ll be safe when he gets his eye-teeth’: but he didn’t get them till he was two; then, ‘He’ll be safe when he gets his two-year-old teeth’: they didn’t come till he was going on for three.
He was a wonderful little chap—Yes, I know all about parents thinking that their child is the best in the world. If your boy is small for his age, friends will say that small children make big men; that he’s a very bright, intelligent child, and that it’s better to have a bright, intelligent child than a big, sleepy lump of fat. And if your boy is dull and sleepy, they say that the dullest boys make the cleverest men— and all the rest of it. I never took any notice of that sort of clatter— took it for what it was worth; but, all the same, I don’t think I ever saw such a child as Jim was when he turned two. He was everybody’s favourite. They spoilt him rather. I had my own ideas about bringing up a child. I reckoned Mary was too soft with Jim. She’d say, ‘Put that’ (whatever it was) ’out of Jim’s reach, will you, Joe?’ and I’d say, ‘No! leave it there, and make him understand he’s not to have it. Make him have his meals without any nonsense, and go to bed at a regular hour,’ I’d say. Mary and I had many a breeze over Jim. She’d say that I forgot he was only a baby: but I held that a baby could be trained from the first week; and I believe I was right.
But, after all, what are you to do? You’ll see a boy that was brought up strict turn out a scamp; and another that was dragged up anyhow (by the hair of the head, as the saying is) turn out well. Then, again, when a child is delicate—and you might lose him any day— you don’t like to spank him, though he might be turning out a little fiend, as delicate children often do. Suppose you gave a child a hammering, and the same night he took convulsions, or something, and died— how’d you feel about it? You never know what a child is going to take, any more than you can tell what some women are going to say or do.
I was very fond of Jim, and we were great chums. Sometimes I’d sit and wonder what the deuce he was thinking about, and often, the way he talked, he’d make me uneasy. When he was two he wanted a pipe above all things, and I’d get him a clean new clay and he’d sit by my side, on the edge of the verandah, or on a log of the wood-heap, in the cool of the evening, and suck away at his pipe, and try to spit when he saw me do it. He seemed to understand that a cold empty pipe wasn’t quite the thing, yet to have the sense to know that he couldn’t smoke tobacco yet: he made the best he could of things. And if he broke a clay pipe he wouldn’t have a new one, and there’d be a row; the old one had to be mended up, somehow, with string or wire. If I got my hair cut, he’d want his cut too; and it always troubled him to see me shave—as if he thought there must be something wrong somewhere, else he ought to have to be shaved too. I lathered him one day, and pretended to shave him: he sat through it as solemn as an owl, but didn’t seem to appreciate it—perhaps he had sense enough to know that it couldn’t possibly be the real thing. He felt his face, looked very hard at the lather I scraped off, and whimpered, ‘No blood, daddy!’
I used to cut myself a good deal: I was always impatient over shaving.
Then he went in to interview his mother about it. She understood his lingo better than I did.
But I wasn’t always at ease with him. Sometimes he’d sit looking into the fire, with his head on one side, and I’d watch him and wonder what he was thinking about (I might as well have wondered what a Chinaman was thinking about) till he seemed at least twenty years older than me: sometimes, when I moved or spoke, he’d glance round just as if to see what that old fool of a dadda of his was doing now.
I used to have a fancy that there was something Eastern, or Asiatic— something older than our civilisation or religion— about old-fashioned children. Once I started to explain my idea to a woman I thought would understand—and as it happened she had an old-fashioned child, with very slant eyes— a little tartar he was too. I suppose it was the sight of him that unconsciously reminded me of my infernal theory, and set me off on it, without warning me. Anyhow, it got me mixed up in an awful row with the woman and her husband—and all their tribe. It wasn’t an easy thing to explain myself out of it, and the row hasn’t been fixed up yet. There were some Chinamen in the district.
I took a good-size fencing contract, the frontage of a ten-mile paddock, near Gulgong, and did well out of it. The railway had got as far as the Cudgeegong river—some twenty miles from Gulgong and two hundred from the coast—and ‘carrying’ was good then. I had a couple of draught-horses, that I worked in the tip-drays when I was tank-sinking, and one or two others running in the Bush. I bought a broken-down waggon cheap, tinkered it up myself— christened it ‘The Same Old Thing’—and started carrying from the railway terminus through Gulgong and along the bush roads and tracks that branch out fanlike through the scrubs to the one-pub towns and sheep and cattle stations out there in the howling wilderness. It wasn’t much of a team. There were the two heavy horses for ‘shafters’; a stunted colt, that I’d bought out of the pound for thirty shillings; a light, spring-cart horse; an old grey mare, with points like a big red-and-white Australian store bullock, and with the grit of an old washerwoman to work; and a horse that had spanked along in Cob & Co.’s mail-coach in his time. I had a couple there that didn’t belong to me: I worked them for the feeding of them in the dry weather. And I had all sorts of harness, that I mended and fixed up myself. It was a mixed team, but I took light stuff, got through pretty quick, and freight rates were high. So I got along.
Before this, whenever I made a few pounds I’d sink a shaft somewhere, prospecting for gold; but Mary never let me rest till she talked me out of that.
I made up my mind to take on a small selection farm— that an old mate of mine had fenced in and cleared, and afterwards chucked up—about thirty miles out west of Gulgong, at a place called Lahey’s Creek. (The places were all called Lahey’s Creek, or Spicer’s Flat, or Murphy’s Flat, or Ryan’s Crossing, or some such name— round there.) I reckoned I’d have a run for the horses and be able to grow a bit of feed. I always had a dread of taking Mary and the children too far away from a doctor—or a good woman neighbour; but there were some people came to live on Lahey’s Creek, and besides, there was a young brother of Mary’s—a young scamp (his name was Jim, too, and we called him ‘Jimmy’ at first to make room for our Jim—he hated the name ‘Jimmy’ or James). He came to live with us—without asking—and I thought he’d find enough work at Lahey’s Creek to keep him out of mischief. He wasn’t to be depended on much—he thought nothing of riding off, five hundred miles or so, ‘to have a look at the country’— but he was fond of Mary, and he’d stay by her till I got some one else to keep her company while I was on the road. He would be a protection against ‘sundowners’ or any shearers who happened to wander that way in the ‘D.T.’s’ after a spree. Mary had a married sister come to live at Gulgong just before we left, and nothing would suit her and her husband but we must leave little Jim with them for a month or so— till we got settled down at Lahey’s Creek. They were newly married.
Mary was to have driven into Gulgong, in the spring-cart, at the end of the month, and taken Jim home; but when the time came she wasn’t too well—and, besides, the tyres of the cart were loose, and I hadn’t time to get them cut, so we let Jim’s time run on a week or so longer, till I happened to come out through Gulgong from the river with a small load of flour for Lahey’s Creek way. The roads were good, the weather grand—no chance of it raining, and I had a spare tarpaulin if it did—I would only camp out one night; so I decided to take Jim home with me.
Jim was turning three then, and he was a cure. He was so old-fashioned that he used to frighten me sometimes—I’d almost think that there was something supernatural about him; though, of course, I never took any notice of that rot about some children being too old-fashioned to live. There’s always the ghoulish old hag (and some not so old nor haggish either) who’ll come round and shake up young parents with such croaks as, ‘You’ll never rear that child—he’s too bright for his age.’ To the devil with them! I say.
But I really thought that Jim was too intelligent for his age, and I often told Mary that he ought to be kept back, and not let talk too much to old diggers and long lanky jokers of Bushmen who rode in and hung their horses outside my place on Sunday afternoons.
I don’t believe in parents talking about their own children everlastingly— you get sick of hearing them; and their kids are generally little devils, and turn out larrikins as likely as not.
But, for all that, I really think that Jim, when he was three years old, was the most wonderful little chap, in every way, that I ever saw.
For the first hour or so, along the road, he was telling me all about his adventures at his auntie’s.
‘But they spoilt me too much, dad,’ he said, as solemn as a native bear. ‘An’ besides, a boy ought to stick to his parrans!’
I was taking out a cattle-pup for a drover I knew, and the pup took up a good deal of Jim’s time.
Sometimes he’d jolt me, the way he talked; and other times I’d have to turn away my head and cough, or shout at the horses, to keep from laughing outright. And once, when I was taken that way, he said—
‘What are you jerking your shoulders and coughing, and grunting, and going on that way for, dad? Why don’t you tell me something?’
‘Tell you what, Jim?’
‘Tell me some talk.’
So I told him all the talk I could think of. And I had to brighten up, I can tell you, and not draw too much on my imagination— for Jim was a terror at cross-examination when the fit took him; and he didn’t think twice about telling you when he thought you were talking nonsense. Once he said—
‘I’m glad you took me home with you, dad. You’ll get to know Jim.’
‘What!’ I said.
‘You’ll get to know Jim.’
‘But don’t I know you already?’
‘No, you don’t. You never has time to know Jim at home.’
And, looking back, I saw that it was cruel true. I had known in my heart all along that this was the truth; but it came to me like a blow from Jim. You see, it had been a hard struggle for the last year or so; and when I was home for a day or two I was generally too busy, or too tired and worried, or full of schemes for the future, to take much notice of Jim. Mary used to speak to me about it sometimes. ‘You never take notice of the child,’ she’d say. ‘You could surely find a few minutes of an evening. What’s the use of always worrying and brooding? Your brain will go with a snap some day, and, if you get over it, it will teach you a lesson. You’ll be an old man, and Jim a young one, before you realise that you had a child once. Then it will be too late.’
This sort of talk from Mary always bored me and made me impatient with her, because I knew it all too well. I never worried for myself— only for Mary and the children. And often, as the days went by, I said to myself, ‘I’ll take more notice of Jim and give Mary more of my time, just as soon as I can see things clear ahead a bit.’ And the hard days went on, and the weeks, and the months, and the years—— Ah, well!
Mary used to say, when things would get worse, ‘Why don’t you talk to me, Joe? Why don’t you tell me your thoughts, instead of shutting yourself up in yourself and brooding—eating your heart out? It’s hard for me: I get to think you’re tired of me, and selfish. I might be cross and speak sharp to you when you are in trouble. How am I to know, if you don’t tell me?’
But I didn’t think she’d understand.
And so, getting acquainted, and chumming and dozing, with the gums closing over our heads here and there, and the ragged patches of sunlight and shade passing up, over the horses, over us, on the front of the load, over the load, and down on to the white, dusty road again— Jim and I got along the lonely Bush road and over the ridges, some fifteen miles before sunset, and camped at Ryan’s Crossing on Sandy Creek for the night. I got the horses out and took the harness off. Jim wanted badly to help me, but I made him stay on the load; for one of the horses—a vicious, red-eyed chestnut—was a kicker: he’d broken a man’s leg. I got the feed-bags stretched across the shafts, and the chaff-and-corn into them; and there stood the horses all round with their rumps north, south, and west, and their heads between the shafts, munching and switching their tails. We use double shafts, you know, for horse-teams—two pairs side by side,—and prop them up, and stretch bags between them, letting the bags sag to serve as feed-boxes. I threw the spare tarpaulin over the wheels on one side, letting about half of it lie on the ground in case of damp, and so making a floor and a break-wind. I threw down bags and the blankets and ‘possum rug against the wheel to make a camp for Jim and the cattle-pup, and got a gin-case we used for a tucker-box, the frying-pan and billy down, and made a good fire at a log close handy, and soon everything was comfortable. Ryan’s Crossing was a grand camp. I stood with my pipe in my mouth, my hands behind my back, and my back to the fire, and took the country in.
Reedy Creek came down along a western spur of the range: the banks here were deep and green, and the water ran clear over the granite bars, boulders, and gravel. Behind us was a dreary flat covered with those gnarled, grey-barked, dry-rotted ‘native apple-trees’ (about as much like apple-trees as the native bear is like any other), and a nasty bit of sand-dusty road that I was always glad to get over in wet weather. To the left on our side of the creek were reedy marshes, with frogs croaking, and across the creek the dark box-scrub-covered ridges ended in steep ‘sidings’ coming down to the creek-bank, and to the main road that skirted them, running on west up over a ‘saddle’ in the ridges and on towards Dubbo. The road by Lahey’s Creek to a place called Cobborah branched off, through dreary apple-tree and stringy-bark flats, to the left, just beyond the crossing: all these fanlike branch tracks from the Cudgeegong were inside a big horse-shoe in the Great Western Line, and so they gave small carriers a chance, now that Cob & Co.’s coaches and the big teams and vans had shifted out of the main western terminus. There were tall she-oaks all along the creek, and a clump of big ones over a deep water-hole just above the crossing. The creek oaks have rough barked trunks, like English elms, but are much taller, and higher to the branches—and the leaves are reedy; Kendel, the Australian poet, calls them the ‘she-oak harps Aeolian’. Those trees are always sigh-sigh-sighing—more of a sigh than a sough or the ‘whoosh’ of gum-trees in the wind. You always hear them sighing, even when you can’t feel any wind. It’s the same with telegraph wires: put your head against a telegraph-post on a dead, still day, and you’ll hear and feel the far-away roar of the wires. But then the oaks are not connected with the distance, where there might be wind; and they don’t ROAR in a gale, only sigh louder and softer according to the wind, and never seem to go above or below a certain pitch,—like a big harp with all the strings the same. I used to have a theory that those creek oaks got the wind’s voice telephoned to them, so to speak, through the ground.
I happened to look down, and there was Jim (I thought he was on the tarpaulin, playing with the pup): he was standing close beside me with his legs wide apart, his hands behind his back, and his back to the fire.
He held his head a little on one side, and there was such an old, old, wise expression in his big brown eyes—just as if he’d been a child for a hundred years or so, or as though he were listening to those oaks and understanding them in a fatherly sort of way.
‘Dad!’ he said presently—‘Dad! do you think I’ll ever grow up to be a man?’
‘Wh—why, Jim?’ I gasped.
‘Because I don’t want to.’
I couldn’t think of anything against this. It made me uneasy. But I remembered I used to have a childish dread of growing up to be a man.
‘Jim,’ I said, to break the silence, ‘do you hear what the she-oaks say?’
‘No, I don’t. Is they talking?’
‘Yes,’ I said, without thinking.
‘What is they saying?’ he asked.
I took the bucket and went down to the creek for some water for tea. I thought Jim would follow with a little tin billy he had, but he didn’t: when I got back to the fire he was again on the ‘possum rug, comforting the pup. I fried some bacon and eggs that I’d brought out with me. Jim sang out from the waggon—
‘Don’t cook too much, dad—I mightn’t be hungry.’
I got the tin plates and pint-pots and things out on a clean new flour-bag, in honour of Jim, and dished up. He was leaning back on the rug looking at the pup in a listless sort of way. I reckoned he was tired out, and pulled the gin-case up close to him for a table and put his plate on it. But he only tried a mouthful or two, and then he said—
‘I ain’t hungry, dad! You’ll have to eat it all.’
It made me uneasy—I never liked to see a child of mine turn from his food. They had given him some tinned salmon in Gulgong, and I was afraid that that was upsetting him. I was always against tinned muck.
‘Sick, Jim?’ I asked.
‘No, dad, I ain’t sick; I don’t know what’s the matter with me.’
‘Have some tea, sonny?’
I gave him some tea, with some milk in it that I’d brought in a bottle from his aunt’s for him. He took a sip or two and then put the pint-pot on the gin-case.
‘Jim’s tired, dad,’ he said.
I made him lie down while I fixed up a camp for the night. It had turned a bit chilly, so I let the big tarpaulin down all round— it was made to cover a high load, the flour in the waggon didn’t come above the rail, so the tarpaulin came down well on to the ground. I fixed Jim up a comfortable bed under the tail-end of the waggon: when I went to lift him in he was lying back, looking up at the stars in a half-dreamy, half-fascinated way that I didn’t like. Whenever Jim was extra old-fashioned, or affectionate, there was danger.
‘How do you feel now, sonny?’
It seemed a minute before he heard me and turned from the stars.
‘Jim’s better, dad.’ Then he said something like, ‘The stars are looking at me.’ I thought he was half asleep. I took off his jacket and boots, and carried him in under the waggon and made him comfortable for the night.
‘Kiss me ’night-night, daddy,’ he said.
I’d rather he hadn’t asked me—it was a bad sign. As I was going to the fire he called me back.
‘What is it, Jim?’
‘Get me my things and the cattle-pup, please, daddy.’
I was scared now. His things were some toys and rubbish he’d brought from Gulgong, and I remembered, the last time he had convulsions, he took all his toys and a kitten to bed with him. And ‘’night-night’ and ‘daddy’ were two-year-old language to Jim. I’d thought he’d forgotten those words— he seemed to be going back.
‘Are you quite warm enough, Jim?’
I started to walk up and down—I always did this when I was extra worried.
I was frightened now about Jim, though I tried to hide the fact from myself. Presently he called me again.
‘What is it, Jim?’
‘Take the blankets off me, fahver—Jim’s sick!’ (They’d been teaching him to say father.)
I was scared now. I remembered a neighbour of ours had a little girl die (she swallowed a pin), and when she was going she said—
‘Take the blankets off me, muvver—I’m dying.’
And I couldn’t get that out of my head.
I threw back a fold of the ‘possum rug, and felt Jim’s head— he seemed cool enough.
‘Where do you feel bad, sonny?’
No answer for a while; then he said suddenly, but in a voice as if he were talking in his sleep—
‘Put my boots on, please, daddy. I want to go home to muvver!’
I held his hand, and comforted him for a while; then he slept— in a restless, feverish sort of way.
I got the bucket I used for water for the horses and stood it over the fire; I ran to the creek with the big kerosene-tin bucket and got it full of cold water and stood it handy. I got the spade (we always carried one to dig wheels out of bogs in wet weather) and turned a corner of the tarpaulin back, dug a hole, and trod the tarpaulin down into the hole, to serve for a bath, in case of the worst. I had a tin of mustard, and meant to fight a good round for Jim, if death came along.
I stooped in under the tail-board of the waggon and felt Jim. His head was burning hot, and his skin parched and dry as a bone.
Then I lost nerve and started blundering backward and forward between the waggon and the fire, and repeating what I’d heard Mary say the last time we fought for Jim: ‘God! don’t take my child! God! don’t take my boy!’ I’d never had much faith in doctors, but, my God! I wanted one then. The nearest was fifteen miles away.
I threw back my head and stared up at the branches, in desperation; and—Well, I don’t ask you to take much stock in this, though most old Bushmen will believe anything of the Bush by night; and—Now, it might have been that I was all unstrung, or it might have been a patch of sky outlined in the gently moving branches, or the blue smoke rising up. But I saw the figure of a woman, all white, come down, down, nearly to the limbs of the trees, point on up the main road, and then float up and up and vanish, still pointing. I thought Mary was dead! Then it flashed on me——
Four or five miles up the road, over the ‘saddle’, was an old shanty that had been a half-way inn before the Great Western Line got round as far as Dubbo and took the coach traffic off those old Bush roads. A man named Brighten lived there. He was a selector; did a little farming, and as much sly-grog selling as he could. He was married— but it wasn’t that: I’d thought of them, but she was a childish, worn-out, spiritless woman, and both were pretty ‘ratty’ from hardship and loneliness— they weren’t likely to be of any use to me. But it was this: I’d heard talk, among some women in Gulgong, of a sister of Brighten’s wife who’d gone out to live with them lately: she’d been a hospital matron in the city, they said; and there were yarns about her. Some said she got the sack for exposing the doctors—or carrying on with them— I didn’t remember which. The fact of a city woman going out to live in such a place, with such people, was enough to make talk among women in a town twenty miles away, but then there must have been something extra about her, else Bushmen wouldn’t have talked and carried her name so far; and I wanted a woman out of the ordinary now. I even reasoned this way, thinking like lightning, as I knelt over Jim between the big back wheels of the waggon.
I had an old racing mare that I used as a riding hack, following the team. In a minute I had her saddled and bridled; I tied the end of a half-full chaff-bag, shook the chaff into each end and dumped it on to the pommel as a cushion or buffer for Jim; I wrapped him in a blanket, and scrambled into the saddle with him.
The next minute we were stumbling down the steep bank, clattering and splashing over the crossing, and struggling up the opposite bank to the level. The mare, as I told you, was an old racer, but broken-winded—she must have run without wind after the first half mile. She had the old racing instinct in her strong, and whenever I rode in company I’d have to pull her hard else she’d race the other horse or burst. She ran low fore and aft, and was the easiest horse I ever rode. She ran like wheels on rails, with a bit of a tremble now and then —like a railway carriage—when she settled down to it.
The chaff-bag had slipped off, in the creek I suppose, and I let the bridle-rein go and held Jim up to me like a baby the whole way. Let the strongest man, who isn’t used to it, hold a baby in one position for five minutes—and Jim was fairly heavy. But I never felt the ache in my arms that night—it must have gone before I was in a fit state of mind to feel it. And at home I’d often growled about being asked to hold the baby for a few minutes. I could never brood comfortably and nurse a baby at the same time. It was a ghostly moonlight night. There’s no timber in the world so ghostly as the Australian Bush in moonlight—or just about daybreak. The all-shaped patches of moonlight falling between ragged, twisted boughs; the ghostly blue-white bark of the ‘white-box’ trees; a dead naked white ring-barked tree, or dead white stump starting out here and there, and the ragged patches of shade and light on the road that made anything, from the shape of a spotted bullock to a naked corpse laid out stark. Roads and tracks through the Bush made by moonlight— every one seeming straighter and clearer than the real one: you have to trust to your horse then. Sometimes the naked white trunk of a red stringy-bark tree, where a sheet of bark had been taken off, would start out like a ghost from the dark Bush. And dew or frost glistening on these things, according to the season. Now and again a great grey kangaroo, that had been feeding on a green patch down by the road, would start with a ‘thump-thump’, and away up the siding.
The Bush seemed full of ghosts that night—all going my way— and being left behind by the mare. Once I stopped to look at Jim: I just sat back and the mare ‘propped’—she’d been a stock-horse, and was used to ‘cutting-out’. I felt Jim’s hands and forehead; he was in a burning fever. I bent forward, and the old mare settled down to it again. I kept saying out loud—and Mary and me often laughed about it (afterwards): ‘He’s limp yet!—Jim’s limp yet!’ (the words seemed jerked out of me by sheer fright)—‘He’s limp yet!’ till the mare’s feet took it up. Then, just when I thought she was doing her best and racing her hardest, she suddenly started forward, like a cable tram gliding along on its own and the grip put on suddenly. It was just what she’d do when I’d be riding alone and a strange horse drew up from behind—the old racing instinct. I felt the thing too! I felt as if a strange horse was there! And then— the words just jerked out of me by sheer funk—I started saying, ‘Death is riding to-night! . . . Death is racing to-night! . . . Death is riding to-night!’ till the hoofs took that up. And I believe the old mare felt the black horse at her side and was going to beat him or break her heart.
I was mad with anxiety and fright: I remember I kept saying, ‘I’ll be kinder to Mary after this! I’ll take more notice of Jim!’ and the rest of it.
I don’t know how the old mare got up the last ‘pinch’. She must have slackened pace, but I never noticed it: I just held Jim up to me and gripped the saddle with my knees— I remember the saddle jerked from the desperate jumps of her till I thought the girth would go. We topped the gap and were going down into a gully they called Dead Man’s Hollow, and there, at the back of a ghostly clearing that opened from the road where there were some black-soil springs, was a long, low, oblong weatherboard-and-shingle building, with blind, broken windows in the gable-ends, and a wide steep verandah roof slanting down almost to the level of the window-sills—there was something sinister about it, I thought—like the hat of a jail-bird slouched over his eyes. The place looked both deserted and haunted. I saw no light, but that was because of the moonlight outside. The mare turned in at the corner of the clearing to take a short cut to the shanty, and, as she struggled across some marshy ground, my heart kept jerking out the words, ‘It’s deserted! They’ve gone away! It’s deserted!’ The mare went round to the back and pulled up between the back door and a big bark-and-slab kitchen. Some one shouted from inside—
‘It’s me. Joe Wilson. I want your sister-in-law—I’ve got the boy— he’s sick and dying!’
Brighten came out, pulling up his moleskins. ‘What boy?’ he asked.
‘Here, take him,’ I shouted, ’and let me get down.’
‘What’s the matter with him?’ asked Brighten, and he seemed to hang back. And just as I made to get my leg over the saddle, Jim’s head went back over my arm, he stiffened, and I saw his eyeballs turned up and glistening in the moonlight.
I felt cold all over then and sick in the stomach—but clear-headed in a way: strange, wasn’t it? I don’t know why I didn’t get down and rush into the kitchen to get a bath ready. I only felt as if the worst had come, and I wished it were over and gone. I even thought of Mary and the funeral.
Then a woman ran out of the house—a big, hard-looking woman. She had on a wrapper of some sort, and her feet were bare. She laid her hand on Jim, looked at his face, and then snatched him from me and ran into the kitchen—and me down and after her. As great good luck would have it, they had some dirty clothes on to boil in a kerosene tin—dish-cloths or something.
Brighten’s sister-in-law dragged a tub out from under the table, wrenched the bucket off the hook, and dumped in the water, dish-cloths and all, snatched a can of cold water from a corner, dashed that in, and felt the water with her hand—holding Jim up to her hip all the time—and I won’t say how he looked. She stood him in the tub and started dashing water over him, tearing off his clothes between the splashes.
‘Here, that tin of mustard—there on the shelf!’ she shouted to me.
She knocked the lid off the tin on the edge of the tub, and went on splashing and spanking Jim.
It seemed an eternity. And I? Why, I never thought clearer in my life. I felt cold-blooded—I felt as if I’d like an excuse to go outside till it was all over. I thought of Mary and the funeral— and wished that that was past. All this in a flash, as it were. I felt that it would be a great relief, and only wished the funeral was months past. I felt—well, altogether selfish. I only thought for myself.
Brighten’s sister-in-law splashed and spanked him hard—hard enough to break his back I thought, and—after about half an hour it seemed— the end came: Jim’s limbs relaxed, he slipped down into the tub, and the pupils of his eyes came down. They seemed dull and expressionless, like the eyes of a new baby, but he was back for the world again.
I dropped on the stool by the table.
‘It’s all right,’ she said. ‘It’s all over now. I wasn’t going to let him die.’ I was only thinking, ‘Well it’s over now, but it will come on again. I wish it was over for good. I’m tired of it.’
She called to her sister, Mrs Brighten, a washed-out, helpless little fool of a woman, who’d been running in and out and whimpering all the time—
‘Here, Jessie! bring the new white blanket off my bed. And you, Brighten, take some of that wood off the fire, and stuff something in that hole there to stop the draught.’
Brighten—he was a nuggety little hairy man with no expression to be seen for whiskers—had been running in with sticks and back logs from the wood-heap. He took the wood out, stuffed up the crack, and went inside and brought out a black bottle—got a cup from the shelf, and put both down near my elbow.
Mrs Brighten started to get some supper or breakfast, or whatever it was, ready. She had a clean cloth, and set the table tidily. I noticed that all the tins were polished bright (old coffee- and mustard-tins and the like, that they used instead of sugar-basins and tea-caddies and salt-cellars), and the kitchen was kept as clean as possible. She was all right at little things. I knew a haggard, worked-out Bushwoman who put her whole soul—or all she’d got left—into polishing old tins till they dazzled your eyes.
I didn’t feel inclined for corned beef and damper, and post-and-rail tea. So I sat and squinted, when I thought she wasn’t looking, at Brighten’s sister-in-law. She was a big woman, her hands and feet were big, but well-shaped and all in proportion—they fitted her. She was a handsome woman—about forty I should think. She had a square chin, and a straight thin-lipped mouth— straight save for a hint of a turn down at the corners, which I fancied (and I have strange fancies) had been a sign of weakness in the days before she grew hard. There was no sign of weakness now. She had hard grey eyes and blue-black hair. She hadn’t spoken yet. She didn’t ask me how the boy took ill or I got there, or who or what I was— at least not until the next evening at tea-time.
She sat upright with Jim wrapped in the blanket and laid across her knees, with one hand under his neck and the other laid lightly on him, and she just rocked him gently.
She sat looking hard and straight before her, just as I’ve seen a tired needlewoman sit with her work in her lap, and look away back into the past. And Jim might have been the work in her lap, for all she seemed to think of him. Now and then she knitted her forehead and blinked.
Suddenly she glanced round and said—in a tone as if I was her husband and she didn’t think much of me—
‘Why don’t you eat something?’
I drank some tea, and sneaked another look at her. I was beginning to feel more natural, and wanted Jim again, now that the colour was coming back into his face, and he didn’t look like an unnaturally stiff and staring corpse. I felt a lump rising, and wanted to thank her. I sneaked another look at her.
She was staring straight before her,—I never saw a woman’s face change so suddenly—I never saw a woman’s eyes so haggard and hopeless. Then her great chest heaved twice, I heard her draw a long shuddering breath, like a knocked-out horse, and two great tears dropped from her wide open eyes down her cheeks like rain-drops on a face of stone. And in the firelight they seemed tinged with blood.
I looked away quick, feeling full up myself. And presently (I hadn’t seen her look round) she said—
‘Go to bed.’
‘Beg pardon?’ (Her face was the same as before the tears.)
‘Go to bed. There’s a bed made for you inside on the sofa.’
‘But—the team—I must——’
‘The team. I left it at the camp. I must look to it.’
‘Oh! Well, Brighten will ride down and bring it up in the morning— or send the half-caste. Now you go to bed, and get a good rest. The boy will be all right. I’ll see to that.’
I went out—it was a relief to get out—and looked to the mare. Brighten had got her some corn and chaff in a candle-box, but she couldn’t eat yet. She just stood or hung resting one hind-leg and then the other, with her nose over the box—and she sobbed. I put my arms round her neck and my face down on her ragged mane, and cried for the second time since I was a boy.
As I started to go in I heard Brighten’s sister-in-law say, suddenly and sharply—
‘Take that away, Jessie.’
And presently I saw Mrs Brighten go into the house with the black bottle.
The moon had gone behind the range. I stood for a minute between the house and the kitchen and peeped in through the kitchen window.
She had moved away from the fire and sat near the table. She bent over Jim and held him up close to her and rocked herself to and fro.
I went to bed and slept till the next afternoon. I woke just in time to hear the tail-end of a conversation between Jim and Brighten’s sister-in-law. He was asking her out to our place and she promising to come.
‘And now,’ says Jim, ‘I want to go home to “muffer” in “The Same Ol’ Fling”.’
‘Oh! “The Same Old Thing”,—the waggon.’
The rest of the afternoon I poked round the gullies with old Brighten, looking at some ‘indications’ (of the existence of gold) he had found. It was no use trying to ‘pump’ him concerning his sister-in-law; Brighten was an ’old hand’, and had learned in the old Bush-ranging and cattle-stealing days to know nothing about other people’s business. And, by the way, I noticed then that the more you talk and listen to a bad character, the more you lose your dislike for him.
I never saw such a change in a woman as in Brighten’s sister-in-law that evening. She was bright and jolly, and seemed at least ten years younger. She bustled round and helped her sister to get tea ready. She rooted out some old china that Mrs Brighten had stowed away somewhere, and set the table as I seldom saw it set out there. She propped Jim up with pillows, and laughed and played with him like a great girl. She described Sydney and Sydney life as I’d never heard it described before; and she knew as much about the Bush and old digging days as I did. She kept old Brighten and me listening and laughing till nearly midnight. And she seemed quick to understand everything when I talked. If she wanted to explain anything that we hadn’t seen, she wouldn’t say that it was ‘like a—like a’—and hesitate (you know what I mean); she’d hit the right thing on the head at once. A squatter with a very round, flaming red face and a white cork hat had gone by in the afternoon: she said it was ‘like a mushroom on the rising moon.’ She gave me a lot of good hints about children.
But she was quiet again next morning. I harnessed up, and she dressed Jim and gave him his breakfast, and made a comfortable place for him on the load with the ‘possum rug and a spare pillow. She got up on the wheel to do it herself. Then was the awkward time. I’d half start to speak to her, and then turn away and go fixing up round the horses, and then make another false start to say good-bye. At last she took Jim up in her arms and kissed him, and lifted him on the wheel; but he put his arms tight round her neck, and kissed her—a thing Jim seldom did with anybody, except his mother, for he wasn’t what you’d call an affectionate child,— he’d never more than offer his cheek to me, in his old-fashioned way. I’d got up the other side of the load to take him from her.
‘Here, take him,’ she said.
I saw his mouth twitching as I lifted him. Jim seldom cried nowadays— no matter how much he was hurt. I gained some time fixing Jim comfortable.
‘You’d better make a start,’ she said. ‘You want to get home early with that boy.’
I got down and went round to where she stood. I held out my hand and tried to speak, but my voice went like an ungreased waggon wheel, and I gave it up, and only squeezed her hand.
‘That’s all right,’ she said; then tears came into her eyes, and she suddenly put her hand on my shoulder and kissed me on the cheek. ‘You be off—you’re only a boy yourself. Take care of that boy; be kind to your wife, and take care of yourself.’
‘Will you come to see us?’
‘Some day,’ she said.
I started the horses, and looked round once more. She was looking up at Jim, who was waving his hand to her from the top of the load. And I saw that haggard, hungry, hopeless look come into her eyes in spite of the tears.
I smoothed over that story and shortened it a lot, when I told it to Mary— I didn’t want to upset her. But, some time after I brought Jim home from Gulgong, and while I was at home with the team for a few days, nothing would suit Mary but she must go over to Brighten’s shanty and see Brighten’s sister-in-law. So James drove her over one morning in the spring-cart: it was a long way, and they stayed at Brighten’s overnight and didn’t get back till late the next afternoon. I’d got the place in a pig-muck, as Mary said, ‘doing for’ myself, and I was having a snooze on the sofa when they got back. The first thing I remember was some one stroking my head and kissing me, and I heard Mary saying, ‘My poor boy! My poor old boy!’
I sat up with a jerk. I thought that Jim had gone off again. But it seems that Mary was only referring to me. Then she started to pull grey hairs out of my head and put ’em in an empty match-box— to see how many she’d get. She used to do this when she felt a bit soft. I don’t know what she said to Brighten’s sister-in-law or what Brighten’s sister-in-law said to her, but Mary was extra gentle for the next few days.