I’d decided to let James take the team for a trip or two. He could drive alright; he was a better business man, and no doubt would manage better than me—as long as the novelty lasted; and I’d stay at home for a week or so, till Mary got used to the place, or I could get a girl from somewhere to come and stay with her. The first weeks or few months of loneliness are the worst, as a rule, I believe, as they say the first weeks in jail are—I was never there. I know it’s so with tramping or hard graft: the first day or two are twice as hard as any of the rest. But, for my part, I could never get used to loneliness and dulness; the last days used to be the worst with me: then I’d have to make a move, or drink. When you’ve been too much and too long alone in a lonely place, you begin to do queer things and think queer thoughts—provided you have any imagination at all. You’ll sometimes sit of an evening and watch the lonely track, by the hour, for a horseman or a cart or some one that’s never likely to come that way—some one, or a stranger, that you can’t and don’t really expect to see. I think that most men who have been alone in the Bush for any length of time—and married couples too—are more or less mad. With married couples it is generally the husband who is painfully shy and awkward when strangers come. The woman seems to stand the loneliness better, and can hold her own with strangers, as a rule. It’s only afterwards, and looking back, that you see how queer you got. Shepherds and boundary-riders, who are alone for months, MUST have their periodical spree, at the nearest shanty, else they’d go raving mad. Drink is the only break in the awful monotony, and the yearly or half-yearly spree is the only thing they’ve got to look forward to: it keeps their minds fixed on something definite ahead.
But Mary kept her head pretty well through the first months of loneliness. Weeks, rather, I should say, for it wasn’t as bad as it might have been farther up-country: there was generally some one came of a Sunday afternoon —a spring-cart with a couple of women, or maybe a family,—or a lanky shy Bush native or two on lanky shy horses. On a quiet Sunday, after I’d brought Jim home, Mary would dress him and herself—just the same as if we were in town—and make me get up on one end and put on a collar and take her and Jim for a walk along the creek. She said she wanted to keep me civilised. She tried to make a gentleman of me for years, but gave it up gradually.
Well. It was the first morning on the creek: I was greasing the waggon-wheels, and James out after the horse, and Mary hanging out clothes, in an old print dress and a big ugly white hood, when I heard her being hailed as ‘Hi, missus!’ from the front slip-rails.
It was a boy on horseback. He was a light-haired, very much freckled boy of fourteen or fifteen, with a small head, but with limbs, especially his bare sun-blotched shanks, that might have belonged to a grown man. He had a good face and frank grey eyes. An old, nearly black cabbage-tree hat rested on the butts of his ears, turning them out at right angles from his head, and rather dirty sprouts they were. He wore a dirty torn Crimean shirt; and a pair of man’s moleskin trousers rolled up above the knees, with the wide waistband gathered under a greenhide belt. I noticed, later on, that, even when he wore trousers short enough for him, he always rolled ’em up above the knees when on horseback, for some reason of his own: to suggest leggings, perhaps, for he had them rolled up in all weathers, and he wouldn’t have bothered to save them from the sweat of the horse, even if that horse ever sweated.
He was seated astride a three-bushel bag thrown across the ridge-pole of a big grey horse, with a coffin-shaped head, and built astern something after the style of a roughly put up hip-roofed box-bark humpy. His colour was like old box-bark, too, a dirty bluish-grey; and, one time, when I saw his rump looming out of the scrub, I really thought it was some old shepherd’s hut that I hadn’t noticed there before. When he cantered it was like the humpy starting off on its corner-posts.
‘Are you Mrs Wilson?’ asked the boy.
‘Yes,’ said Mary.
‘Well, mother told me to ride acrost and see if you wanted anythink. We killed lars’ night, and I’ve fetched a piece er cow.’
‘Piece of what?’ asked Mary.
He grinned, and handed a sugar-bag across the rail with something heavy in the bottom of it, that nearly jerked Mary’s arm out when she took it. It was a piece of beef, that looked as if it had been cut off with a wood-axe, but it was fresh and clean.
‘Oh, I’m so glad!’ cried Mary. She was always impulsive, save to me sometimes. ‘I was just wondering where we were going to get any fresh meat. How kind of your mother! Tell her I’m very much obliged to her indeed.’ And she felt behind her for a poor little purse she had. ‘And now—how much did your mother say it would be?’
The boy blinked at her, and scratched his head.
‘How much will it be,’ he repeated, puzzled. ‘Oh—how much does it weigh I-s’pose-yer-mean. Well, it ain’t been weighed at all—we ain’t got no scales. A butcher does all that sort of think. We just kills it, and cooks it, and eats it—and goes by guess. What won’t keep we salts down in the cask. I reckon it weighs about a ton by the weight of it if yer wanter know. Mother thought that if she sent any more it would go bad before you could scoff it. I can’t see——’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Mary, getting confused. ‘But what I want to know is, how do you manage when you sell it?’
He glared at her, and scratched his head. ‘Sell it? Why, we only goes halves in a steer with some one, or sells steers to the butcher—or maybe some meat to a party of fencers or surveyors, or tank-sinkers, or them sorter people——’
‘Yes, yes; but what I want to know is, how much am I to send your mother for this?’
‘How much what?’
‘Money, of course, you stupid boy,’ said Mary. ‘You seem a very stupid boy.’
Then he saw what she was driving at. He began to fling his heels convulsively against the sides of his horse, jerking his body backward and forward at the same time, as if to wind up and start some clockwork machinery inside the horse, that made it go, and seemed to need repairing or oiling.
‘We ain’t that sorter people, missus,’ he said. ‘We don’t sell meat to new people that come to settle here.’ Then, jerking his thumb contemptuously towards the ridges, ‘Go over ter Wall’s if yer wanter buy meat; they sell meat ter strangers.’ (Wall was the big squatter over the ridges.)
‘Oh!’ said Mary, ‘I’m so sorry. Thank your mother for me. She is kind.’
‘Oh, that’s nothink. She said to tell yer she’ll be up as soon as she can. She’d have come up yisterday evening—she thought yer’d feel lonely comin’ new to a place like this—but she couldn’t git up.’
The machinery inside the old horse showed signs of starting. You almost heard the wooden joints creak as he lurched forward, like an old propped-up humpy when the rotting props give way; but at the sound of Mary’s voice he settled back on his foundations again. It must have been a very poor selection that couldn’t afford a better spare horse than that.
‘Reach me that lump er wood, will yer, missus?’ said the boy, and he pointed to one of my ‘spreads’ (for the team-chains) that lay inside the fence. ‘I’ll fling it back agin over the fence when I git this ole cow started.’
‘But wait a minute—I’ve forgotten your mother’s name,’ said Mary.
He grabbed at his thatch impatiently. ‘Me mother—oh!— the old woman’s name’s Mrs Spicer. (Git up, karnt yer!)’ He twisted himself round, and brought the stretcher down on one of the horse’s ‘points’ (and he had many) with a crack that must have jarred his wrist.
‘Do you go to school?’ asked Mary. There was a three-days-a-week school over the ridges at Wall’s station.
‘No!’ he jerked out, keeping his legs going. ‘Me—why I’m going on fur fifteen. The last teacher at Wall’s finished me. I’m going to Queensland next month drovin’.’ (Queensland border was over three hundred miles away.)
‘Finished you? How?’ asked Mary.
‘Me edgercation, of course! How do yer expect me to start this horse when yer keep talkin’?’
He split the ‘spread’ over the horse’s point, threw the pieces over the fence, and was off, his elbows and legs flinging wildly, and the old saw-stool lumbering along the road like an old working bullock trying a canter. That horse wasn’t a trotter.
And next month he did start for Queensland. He was a younger son and a surplus boy on a wretched, poverty-stricken selection; and as there was ‘northin’ doin’’ in the district, his father (in a burst of fatherly kindness, I suppose) made him a present of the old horse and a new pair of Blucher boots, and I gave him an old saddle and a coat, and he started for the Never-Never Country.
And I’ll bet he got there. But I’m doubtful if the old horse did.
Mary gave the boy five shillings, and I don’t think he had anything more except a clean shirt and an extra pair of white cotton socks.
‘Spicer’s farm’ was a big bark humpy on a patchy clearing in the native apple-tree scrub. The clearing was fenced in by a light ‘dog-legged’ fence (a fence of sapling poles resting on forks and X-shaped uprights), and the dusty ground round the house was almost entirely covered with cattle-dung. There was no attempt at cultivation when I came to live on the creek; but there were old furrow-marks amongst the stumps of another shapeless patch in the scrub near the hut. There was a wretched sapling cow-yard and calf-pen, and a cow-bail with one sheet of bark over it for shelter. There was no dairy to be seen, and I suppose the milk was set in one of the two skillion rooms, or lean-to’s behind the hut,—the other was ‘the boys’ bedroom’. The Spicers kept a few cows and steers, and had thirty or forty sheep. Mrs Spicer used to drive down the creek once a-week, in her rickety old spring-cart, to Cobborah, with butter and eggs. The hut was nearly as bare inside as it was out—just a frame of ‘round-timber’ (sapling poles) covered with bark. The furniture was permanent (unless you rooted it up), like in our kitchen: a rough slab table on stakes driven into the ground, and seats made the same way. Mary told me afterwards that the beds in the bag-and-bark partitioned-off room (‘mother’s bedroom’) were simply poles laid side by side on cross-pieces supported by stakes driven into the ground, with straw mattresses and some worn-out bed-clothes. Mrs Spicer had an old patchwork quilt, in rags, and the remains of a white one, and Mary said it was pitiful to see how these things would be spread over the beds— to hide them as much as possible—when she went down there. A packing-case, with something like an old print skirt draped round it, and a cracked looking-glass (without a frame) on top, was the dressing-table. There were a couple of gin-cases for a wardrobe. The boys’ beds were three-bushel bags stretched between poles fastened to uprights. The floor was the original surface, tramped hard, worn uneven with much sweeping, and with puddles in rainy weather where the roof leaked. Mrs Spicer used to stand old tins, dishes, and buckets under as many of the leaks as she could. The saucepans, kettles, and boilers were old kerosene-tins and billies. They used kerosene-tins, too, cut longways in halves, for setting the milk in. The plates and cups were of tin; there were two or three cups without saucers, and a crockery plate or two—also two mugs, cracked and without handles, one with ‘For a Good Boy’ and the other with ‘For a Good Girl’ on it; but all these were kept on the mantel-shelf for ornament and for company. They were the only ornaments in the house, save a little wooden clock that hadn’t gone for years. Mrs Spicer had a superstition that she had ‘some things packed away from the children.’
The pictures were cut from old copies of the Illustrated Sydney News and pasted on to the bark. I remember this, because I remembered, long ago, the Spencers, who were our neighbours when I was a boy, had the walls of their bedroom covered with illustrations of the American Civil War, cut from illustrated London papers, and I used to ‘sneak’ into ‘mother’s bedroom’ with Fred Spencer whenever we got the chance, and gloat over the prints. I gave him a blade of a pocket-knife once, for taking me in there.
I saw very little of Spicer. He was a big, dark, dark-haired and whiskered man. I had an idea that he wasn’t a selector at all, only a ‘dummy’ for the squatter of the Cobborah run. You see, selectors were allowed to take up land on runs, or pastoral leases. The squatters kept them off as much as possible, by all manner of dodges and paltry persecution. The squatter would get as much freehold as he could afford, ‘select’ as much land as the law allowed one man to take up, and then employ dummies (dummy selectors) to take up bits of land that he fancied about his run, and hold them for him.
Spicer seemed gloomy and unsociable. He was seldom at home. He was generally supposed to be away shearin’, or fencin’, or workin’ on somebody’s station. It turned out that the last six months he was away it was on the evidence of a cask of beef and a hide with the brand cut out, found in his camp on a fencing contract up-country, and which he and his mates couldn’t account for satisfactorily, while the squatter could. Then the family lived mostly on bread and honey, or bread and treacle, or bread and dripping, and tea. Every ounce of butter and every egg was needed for the market, to keep them in flour, tea, and sugar. Mary found that out, but couldn’t help them much—except by ‘stuffing’ the children with bread and meat or bread and jam whenever they came up to our place—for Mrs Spicer was proud with the pride that lies down in the end and turns its face to the wall and dies.
Once, when Mary asked Annie, the eldest girl at home, if she was hungry, she denied it—but she looked it. A ragged mite she had with her explained things. The little fellow said—
‘Mother told Annie not to say we was hungry if yer asked; but if yer give us anythink to eat, we was to take it an’ say thenk yer, Mrs Wilson.’
‘I wouldn’t ’a’ told yer a lie; but I thought Jimmy would split on me, Mrs Wilson,’ said Annie. ‘Thenk yer, Mrs Wilson.’
She was not a big woman. She was gaunt and flat-chested, and her face was ‘burnt to a brick’, as they say out there. She had brown eyes, nearly red, and a little wild-looking at times, and a sharp face—ground sharp by hardship—the cheeks drawn in. She had an expression like—well, like a woman who had been very curious and suspicious at one time, and wanted to know everybody’s business and hear everything, and had lost all her curiosity, without losing the expression or the quick suspicious movements of the head. I don’t suppose you understand. I can’t explain it any other way. She was not more than forty.
I remember the first morning I saw her. I was going up the creek to look at the selection for the first time, and called at the hut to see if she had a bit of fresh mutton, as I had none and was sick of ‘corned beef’.
‘Yes—of—course,’ she said, in a sharp nasty tone, as if to say, ‘Is there anything more you want while the shop’s open?’ I’d met just the same sort of woman years before while I was carrying swag between the shearing-sheds in the awful scrubs out west of the Darling river, so I didn’t turn on my heels and walk away. I waited for her to speak again.
‘Come—inside,’ she said, ’and sit down. I see you’ve got the waggon outside. I s’pose your name’s Wilson, ain’t it? You’re thinkin’ about takin’ on Harry Marshfield’s selection up the creek, so I heard. Wait till I fry you a chop and boil the billy.’
Her voice sounded, more than anything else, like a voice coming out of a phonograph—I heard one in Sydney the other day— and not like a voice coming out of her. But sometimes when she got outside her everyday life on this selection she spoke in a sort of— in a sort of lost groping-in-the-dark kind of voice.
She didn’t talk much this time—just spoke in a mechanical way of the drought, and the hard times, ’an’ butter ‘n’ eggs bein’ down, an’ her husban’ an’ eldest son bein’ away, an’ that makin’ it so hard for her.’
I don’t know how many children she had. I never got a chance to count them, for they were nearly all small, and shy as piccaninnies, and used to run and hide when anybody came. They were mostly nearly as black as piccaninnies too. She must have averaged a baby a-year for years— and God only knows how she got over her confinements! Once, they said, she only had a black gin with her. She had an elder boy and girl, but she seldom spoke of them. The girl, ‘Liza’, was ‘in service in Sydney.’ I’m afraid I knew what that meant. The elder son was ’away’. He had been a bit of a favourite round there, it seemed.
Some one might ask her, ‘How’s your son Jack, Mrs Spicer?’ or, ‘Heard of Jack lately? and where is he now?’
‘Oh, he’s somewheres up country,’ she’d say in the ‘groping’ voice, or ‘He’s drovin’ in Queenslan’,’ or ‘Shearin’ on the Darlin’ the last time I heerd from him.’ ‘We ain’t had a line from him since—les’ see— since Chris’mas ‘fore last.’
And she’d turn her haggard eyes in a helpless, hopeless sort of way towards the west—towards ’up-country’ and ‘Out-Back’.
The eldest girl at home was nine or ten, with a little old face and lines across her forehead: she had an older expression than her mother. Tommy went to Queensland, as I told you. The eldest son at home, Bill (older than Tommy), was ’a bit wild.’
I’ve passed the place in smothering hot mornings in December, when the droppings about the cow-yard had crumpled to dust that rose in the warm, sickly, sunrise wind, and seen that woman at work in the cow-yard, ‘bailing up’ and leg-roping cows, milking, or hauling at a rope round the neck of a half-grown calf that was too strong for her (and she was tough as fencing-wire), or humping great buckets of sour milk to the pigs or the ‘poddies’ (hand-fed calves) in the pen. I’d get off the horse and give her a hand sometimes with a young steer, or a cranky old cow that wouldn’t ‘bail-up’ and threatened her with her horns. She’d say—
‘Thenk yer, Mr Wilson. Do yer think we’re ever goin’ to have any rain?’
I’ve ridden past the place on bitter black rainy mornings in June or July, and seen her trudging about the yard—that was ankle-deep in black liquid filth—with an old pair of Blucher boots on, and an old coat of her husband’s, or maybe a three-bushel bag over her shoulders. I’ve seen her climbing on the roof by means of the water-cask at the corner, and trying to stop a leak by shoving a piece of tin in under the bark. And when I’d fixed the leak—
‘Thenk yer, Mr Wilson. This drop of rain’s a blessin’! Come in and have a dry at the fire and I’ll make yer a cup of tea.’ And, if I was in a hurry, ‘Come in, man alive! Come in! and dry yerself a bit till the rain holds up. Yer can’t go home like this! Yer’ll git yer death o’ cold.’
I’ve even seen her, in the terrible drought, climbing she-oaks and apple-trees by a makeshift ladder, and awkwardly lopping off boughs to feed the starving cattle.
‘Jist tryin’ ter keep the milkers alive till the rain comes.’
They said that when the pleuro-pneumonia was in the district and amongst her cattle she bled and physicked them herself, and fed those that were down with slices of half-ripe pumpkins (from a crop that had failed).
‘An’, one day,’ she told Mary, ‘there was a big barren heifer (that we called Queen Elizabeth) that was down with the ploorer. She’d been down for four days and hadn’t moved, when one mornin’ I dumped some wheaten chaff—we had a few bags that Spicer brought home— I dumped it in front of her nose, an’—would yer b’lieve me, Mrs Wilson?— she stumbled onter her feet an’ chased me all the way to the house! I had to pick up me skirts an’ run! Wasn’t it redic’lus?’
They had a sense of the ridiculous, most of those poor sun-dried Bushwomen. I fancy that that helped save them from madness.
‘We lost nearly all our milkers,’ she told Mary. ‘I remember one day Tommy came running to the house and screamed: ‘Marther! [mother] there’s another milker down with the ploorer!’ Jist as if it was great news. Well, Mrs Wilson, I was dead-beat, an’ I giv’ in. I jist sat down to have a good cry, and felt for my han’kerchief—it was a rag of a han’kerchief, full of holes (all me others was in the wash). Without seein’ what I was doin’ I put me finger through one hole in the han’kerchief an’ me thumb through the other, and poked me fingers into me eyes, instead of wipin’ them. Then I had to laugh.’
There’s a story that once, when the Bush, or rather grass, fires were out all along the creek on Spicer’s side, Wall’s station hands were up above our place, trying to keep the fire back from the boundary, and towards evening one of the men happened to think of the Spicers: they saw smoke down that way. Spicer was away from home, and they had a small crop of wheat, nearly ripe, on the selection.
‘My God! that poor devil of a woman will be burnt out, if she ain’t already!’ shouted young Billy Wall. ‘Come along, three or four of you chaps’— (it was shearing-time, and there were plenty of men on the station).
They raced down the creek to Spicer’s, and were just in time to save the wheat. She had her sleeves tucked up, and was beating out the burning grass with a bough. She’d been at it for an hour, and was as black as a gin, they said. She only said when they’d turned the fire: ‘Thenk yer! Wait an’ I’ll make some tea.’
After tea the first Sunday she came to see us, Mary asked:
‘Don’t you feel lonely, Mrs Spicer, when your husband goes away?’
‘Well—no, Mrs Wilson,’ she said in the groping sort of voice. ‘I uster, once. I remember, when we lived on the Cudgeegong river— we lived in a brick house then—the first time Spicer had to go away from home I nearly fretted my eyes out. And he was only goin’ shearin’ for a month. I muster bin a fool; but then we were only jist married a little while. He’s been away drovin’ in Queenslan’ as long as eighteen months at a time since then. But’ (her voice seemed to grope in the dark more than ever) ‘I don’t mind,— I somehow seem to have got past carin’. Besides—besides, Spicer was a very different man then to what he is now. He’s got so moody and gloomy at home, he hardly ever speaks.’
Mary sat silent for a minute thinking. Then Mrs Spicer roused herself—
‘Oh, I don’t know what I’m talkin’ about! You mustn’t take any notice of me, Mrs Wilson,—I don’t often go on like this. I do believe I’m gittin’ a bit ratty at times. It must be the heat and the dulness.’
But once or twice afterwards she referred to a time ‘when Spicer was a different man to what he was now.’
I walked home with her a piece along the creek. She said nothing for a long time, and seemed to be thinking in a puzzled way. Then she said suddenly—
‘What-did-you-bring-her-here-for? She’s only a girl.’
‘I beg pardon, Mrs Spicer.’
‘Oh, I don’t know what I’m talkin’ about! I b’lieve I’m gittin’ ratty. You mustn’t take any notice of me, Mr Wilson.’
She wasn’t much company for Mary; and often, when she had a child with her, she’d start taking notice of the baby while Mary was talking, which used to exasperate Mary. But poor Mrs Spicer couldn’t help it, and she seemed to hear all the same.
Her great trouble was that she ‘couldn’t git no reg’lar schoolin’ for the children.’
‘I learns ’em at home as much as I can. But I don’t git a minute to call me own; an’ I’m ginerally that dead-beat at night that I’m fit for nothink.’
Mary had some of the children up now and then later on, and taught them a little. When she first offered to do so, Mrs Spicer laid hold of the handiest youngster and said—
‘There—do you hear that? Mrs Wilson is goin’ to teach yer, an’ it’s more than yer deserve!’ (the youngster had been ‘cryin’’ over something). ‘Now, go up an’ say “Thenk yer, Mrs Wilson.” And if yer ain’t good, and don’t do as she tells yer, I’ll break every bone in yer young body!’
The poor little devil stammered something, and escaped.
The children were sent by turns over to Wall’s to Sunday-school. When Tommy was at home he had a new pair of elastic-side boots, and there was no end of rows about them in the family— for the mother made him lend them to his sister Annie, to go to Sunday-school in, in her turn. There were only about three pairs of anyway decent boots in the family, and these were saved for great occasions. The children were always as clean and tidy as possible when they came to our place.
And I think the saddest and most pathetic sight on the face of God’s earth is the children of very poor people made to appear well: the broken worn-out boots polished or greased, the blackened (inked) pieces of string for laces; the clean patched pinafores over the wretched threadbare frocks. Behind the little row of children hand-in-hand—and no matter where they are—I always see the worn face of the mother.
Towards the end of the first year on the selection our little girl came. I’d sent Mary to Gulgong for four months that time, and when she came back with the baby Mrs Spicer used to come up pretty often. She came up several times when Mary was ill, to lend a hand. She wouldn’t sit down and condole with Mary, or waste her time asking questions, or talking about the time when she was ill herself. She’d take off her hat—a shapeless little lump of black straw she wore for visiting—give her hair a quick brush back with the palms of her hands, roll up her sleeves, and set to work to ‘tidy up’. She seemed to take most pleasure in sorting out our children’s clothes, and dressing them. Perhaps she used to dress her own like that in the days when Spicer was a different man from what he was now. She seemed interested in the fashion-plates of some women’s journals we had, and used to study them with an interest that puzzled me, for she was not likely to go in for fashion. She never talked of her early girlhood; but Mary, from some things she noticed, was inclined to think that Mrs Spicer had been fairly well brought up. For instance, Dr Balanfantie, from Cudgeegong, came out to see Wall’s wife, and drove up the creek to our place on his way back to see how Mary and the baby were getting on. Mary got out some crockery and some table-napkins that she had packed away for occasions like this; and she said that the way Mrs Spicer handled the things, and helped set the table (though she did it in a mechanical sort of way), convinced her that she had been used to table-napkins at one time in her life.
Sometimes, after a long pause in the conversation, Mrs Spicer would say suddenly—
‘Oh, I don’t think I’ll come up next week, Mrs Wilson.’
‘Why, Mrs Spicer?’
‘Because the visits doesn’t do me any good. I git the dismals afterwards.’
‘Why, Mrs Spicer? What on earth do you mean?’
‘Oh,-I-don’t-know-what-I’m-talkin’-about. You mustn’t take any notice of me.’ And she’d put on her hat, kiss the children—and Mary too, sometimes, as if she mistook her for a child—and go.
Mary thought her a little mad at times. But I seemed to understand.
Once, when Mrs Spicer was sick, Mary went down to her, and down again next day. As she was coming away the second time, Mrs Spicer said—
‘I wish you wouldn’t come down any more till I’m on me feet, Mrs Wilson. The children can do for me.’
‘Why, Mrs Spicer?’
‘Well, the place is in such a muck, and it hurts me.’
We were the aristocrats of Lahey’s Creek. Whenever we drove down on Sunday afternoon to see Mrs Spicer, and as soon as we got near enough for them to hear the rattle of the cart, we’d see the children running to the house as fast as they could split, and hear them screaming—
‘Oh, marther! Here comes Mr and Mrs Wilson in their spring-cart.’
And we’d see her bustle round, and two or three fowls fly out the front door, and she’d lay hold of a broom (made of a bound bunch of ‘broom-stuff’ —coarse reedy grass or bush from the ridges—with a stick stuck in it) and flick out the floor, with a flick or two round in front of the door perhaps. The floor nearly always needed at least one flick of the broom on account of the fowls. Or she’d catch a youngster and scrub his face with a wet end of a cloudy towel, or twist the towel round her finger and dig out his ears—as if she was anxious to have him hear every word that was going to be said.
No matter what state the house would be in she’d always say, ‘I was jist expectin’ yer, Mrs Wilson.’ And she was original in that, anyway.
She had an old patched and darned white table-cloth that she used to spread on the table when we were there, as a matter of course (‘The others is in the wash, so you must excuse this, Mrs Wilson’), but I saw by the eyes of the children that the cloth was rather a wonderful thing to them. ‘I must really git some more knives an’ forks next time I’m in Cobborah,’ she’d say. ‘The children break an’ lose ’em till I’m ashamed to ask Christians ter sit down ter the table.’
She had many Bush yarns, some of them very funny, some of them rather ghastly, but all interesting, and with a grim sort of humour about them. But the effect was often spoilt by her screaming at the children to ‘Drive out them fowls, karnt yer,’ or ‘Take yer maulies [hands] outer the sugar,’ or ‘Don’t touch Mrs Wilson’s baby with them dirty maulies,’ or ‘Don’t stand starin’ at Mrs Wilson with yer mouth an’ ears in that vulgar way.’
Poor woman! she seemed everlastingly nagging at the children. It was a habit, but they didn’t seem to mind. Most Bushwomen get the nagging habit. I remember one, who had the prettiest, dearest, sweetest, most willing, and affectionate little girl I think I ever saw, and she nagged that child from daylight till dark—and after it. Taking it all round, I think that the nagging habit in a mother is often worse on ordinary children, and more deadly on sensitive youngsters, than the drinking habit in a father.
One of the yarns Mrs Spicer told us was about a squatter she knew who used to go wrong in his head every now and again, and try to commit suicide. Once, when the station-hand, who was watching him, had his eye off him for a minute, he hanged himself to a beam in the stable. The men ran in and found him hanging and kicking. ‘They let him hang for a while,’ said Mrs Spicer, ‘till he went black in the face and stopped kicking. Then they cut him down and threw a bucket of water over him.’
‘Why! what on earth did they let the man hang for?’ asked Mary.
‘To give him a good bellyful of it: they thought it would cure him of tryin’ to hang himself again.’
‘Well, that’s the coolest thing I ever heard of,’ said Mary.
‘That’s jist what the magistrate said, Mrs Wilson,’ said Mrs Spicer.
‘One morning,’ said Mrs Spicer, ‘Spicer had gone off on his horse somewhere, and I was alone with the children, when a man came to the door and said—
‘“For God’s sake, woman, give me a drink!”
‘Lord only knows where he came from! He was dressed like a new chum— his clothes was good, but he looked as if he’d been sleepin’ in them in the Bush for a month. He was very shaky. I had some coffee that mornin’, so I gave him some in a pint pot; he drank it, and then he stood on his head till he tumbled over, and then he stood up on his feet and said, “Thenk yer, mum.”
‘I was so surprised that I didn’t know what to say, so I jist said, “Would you like some more coffee?”
‘“Yes, thenk yer,” he said—“about two quarts.”
‘I nearly filled the pint pot, and he drank it and stood on his head as long as he could, and when he got right end up he said, “Thenk yer, mum—it’s a fine day,” and then he walked off. He had two saddle-straps in his hands.’
‘Why, what did he stand on his head for?’ asked Mary.
‘To wash it up and down, I suppose, to get twice as much taste of the coffee. He had no hat. I sent Tommy across to Wall’s to tell them that there was a man wanderin’ about the Bush in the horrors of drink, and to get some one to ride for the police. But they was too late, for he hanged himself that night.’
‘O Lord!’ cried Mary.
‘Yes, right close to here, jist down the creek where the track to Wall’s branches off. Tommy found him while he was out after the cows. Hangin’ to the branch of a tree with the two saddle-straps.’
Mary stared at her, speechless.
‘Tommy came home yellin’ with fright. I sent him over to Wall’s at once. After breakfast, the minute my eyes was off them, the children slipped away and went down there. They came back screamin’ at the tops of their voices. I did give it to them. I reckon they won’t want ter see a dead body again in a hurry. Every time I’d mention it they’d huddle together, or ketch hold of me skirts and howl.
‘“Yer’ll go agen when I tell yer not to,” I’d say.
‘“Oh no, mother,” they’d howl.
‘“Yer wanted ter see a man hangin’,” I said.
‘“Oh, don’t, mother! Don’t talk about it.”
‘“Yer wouldn’t be satisfied till yer see it,” I’d say; “yer had to see it or burst. Yer satisfied now, ain’t yer?”
‘“Oh, don’t, mother!”
‘“Yer run all the way there, I s’pose?”
‘“But yer run faster back, didn’t yer?”
‘“Oh, don’t, mother.”
‘But,’ said Mrs Spicer, in conclusion, ‘I’d been down to see it myself before they was up.’
‘And ain’t you afraid to live alone here, after all these horrible things?’ asked Mary.
‘Well, no; I don’t mind. I seem to have got past carin’ for anythink now. I felt it a little when Tommy went away—the first time I felt anythink for years. But I’m over that now.’
‘Haven’t you got any friends in the district, Mrs Spicer?’
‘Oh yes. There’s me married sister near Cobborah, and a married brother near Dubbo; he’s got a station. They wanted to take me an’ the children between them, or take some of the younger children. But I couldn’t bring my mind to break up the home. I want to keep the children together as much as possible. There’s enough of them gone, God knows. But it’s a comfort to know that there’s some one to see to them if anythink happens to me.’
One day—I was on my way home with the team that day— Annie Spicer came running up the creek in terrible trouble.
‘Oh, Mrs Wilson! something terribl’s happened at home! A trooper’ (mounted policeman—they called them ‘mounted troopers’ out there), ‘a trooper’s come and took Billy!’ Billy was the eldest son at home.
‘It’s true, Mrs Wilson.’
‘What for? What did the policeman say?’
‘He—he—he said, “I—I’m very sorry, Mrs Spicer; but—I—I want William.”’
It turned out that William was wanted on account of a horse missed from Wall’s station and sold down-country.
‘An’ mother took on awful,’ sobbed Annie; ’an’ now she’ll only sit stock-still an’ stare in front of her, and won’t take no notice of any of us. Oh! it’s awful, Mrs Wilson. The policeman said he’d tell Aunt Emma’ (Mrs Spicer’s sister at Cobborah), ’and send her out. But I had to come to you, an’ I’ve run all the way.’
James put the horse to the cart and drove Mary down.
Mary told me all about it when I came home.
‘I found her just as Annie said; but she broke down and cried in my arms. Oh, Joe! it was awful! She didn’t cry like a woman. I heard a man at Haviland cry at his brother’s funeral, and it was just like that. She came round a bit after a while. Her sister’s with her now. . . . Oh, Joe! you must take me away from the Bush.’
Later on Mary said—
‘How the oaks are sighing to-night, Joe!’
Next morning I rode across to Wall’s station and tackled the old man; but he was a hard man, and wouldn’t listen to me—in fact, he ordered me off the station. I was a selector, and that was enough for him. But young Billy Wall rode after me.
‘Look here, Joe!’ he said, ‘it’s a blanky shame. All for the sake of a horse! And as if that poor devil of a woman hasn’t got enough to put up with already! I wouldn’t do it for twenty horses. I’ll tackle the boss, and if he won’t listen to me, I’ll walk off the run for the last time, if I have to carry my swag.’
Billy Wall managed it. The charge was withdrawn, and we got young Billy Spicer off up-country.
But poor Mrs Spicer was never the same after that. She seldom came up to our place unless Mary dragged her, so to speak; and then she would talk of nothing but her last trouble, till her visits were painful to look forward to.
‘If it only could have been kep’ quiet—for the sake of the other children; they are all I think of now. I tried to bring ’em all up decent, but I s’pose it was my fault, somehow. It’s the disgrace that’s killin’ me— I can’t bear it.’
I was at home one Sunday with Mary and a jolly Bush-girl named Maggie Charlsworth, who rode over sometimes from Wall’s station (I must tell you about her some other time; James was ‘shook after her’), and we got talkin’ about Mrs Spicer. Maggie was very warm about old Wall.
‘I expected Mrs Spicer up to-day,’ said Mary. ‘She seems better lately.’
‘Why!’ cried Maggie Charlsworth, ‘if that ain’t Annie coming running up along the creek. Something’s the matter!’
We all jumped up and ran out.
‘What is it, Annie?’ cried Mary.
‘Oh, Mrs Wilson! Mother’s asleep, and we can’t wake her!’
‘It’s—it’s the truth, Mrs Wilson.’
‘How long has she been asleep?’
‘Since lars’ night.’
‘My God!’ cried Mary, ‘since last night?’
‘No, Mrs Wilson, not all the time; she woke wonst, about daylight this mornin’. She called me and said she didn’t feel well, and I’d have to manage the milkin’.’
‘Was that all she said?’
‘No. She said not to go for you; and she said to feed the pigs and calves; and she said to be sure and water them geraniums.’
Mary wanted to go, but I wouldn’t let her. James and I saddled our horses and rode down the creek.
Mrs Spicer looked very little different from what she did when I last saw her alive. It was some time before we could believe that she was dead. But she was ‘past carin’’ right enough.