It was the end of the shearing season. Mitchell and his mate had been lucky enough to get two good sheds in succession, and were going to take the coach from Hungerford to Bourke on their way to Sydney. The morning stars were bright yet, and they sat down to a final billy of tea, two dusty Johnny-cakes, and a scrag of salt mutton.
“Yes,” said Mitchell’s mate, “and I’ll be glad to see her too.”
“I suppose you will,” said Mitchell. He placed his pint-pot between his feet, rested his arm against his knee, and stirred the tea meditatively with the handle of his pocket-knife. It was vaguely understood that Mitchell had been married at one period of his chequered career.
“I don’t think we ever understood women properly,” he said, as he took a cautious sip to see if his tea was cool and sweet enough, for his lips were sore; “I don’t think we ever will—we never took the trouble to try, and if we did it would be only wasted brain power that might just as well be spent on the blackfellow’s lingo; because by the time you’ve learnt it they’ll be extinct, and woman ‘ll be extinct before you’ve learnt her. . . . The morning star looks bright, doesn’t it?”
“Ah, well,” said Mitchell after a while, “there’s many little things we might try to understand women in. I read in a piece of newspaper the other day about how a man changes after he’s married; how he gets short, and impatient, and bored (which is only natural), and sticks up a wall of newspaper between himself and his wife when he’s at home; and how it comes like a cold shock to her, and all her air-castles vanish, and in the end she often thinks about taking the baby and the clothes she stands in, and going home for sympathy and comfort to mother.
“Perhaps she never got a word of sympathy from her mother in her life, nor a day’s comfort at home before she was married; but that doesn’t make the slightest difference. It doesn’t make any difference in your case either, if you haven’t been acting like a dutiful son-in-law.
“Somebody wrote that a woman’s love is her whole existence, while a man’s love is only part of his—which is true, and only natural and reasonable, all things considered. But women never consider as a rule. A man can’t go on talking lovey-dovey talk for ever, and listening to his young wife’s prattle when he’s got to think about making a living, and nursing her and answering her childish questions and telling her he loves his little ownest every minute in the day, while the bills are running up, and rent mornings begin to fly round and hustle and crowd him.
“He’s got her and he’s satisfied; and if the truth is known he loves her really more than he did when they were engaged, only she won’t be satisfied about it unless he tells her so every hour in the day. At least that’s how it is for the first few months.
“But a woman doesn’t understand these things—she never will, she can’t— and it would be just as well for us to try and understand that she doesn’t and can’t understand them.”
Mitchell knocked the tea-leaves out of his pannikin against his boot, and reached for the billy.
“There’s many little things we might do that seem mere trifles and nonsense to us, but mean a lot to her; that wouldn’t be any trouble or sacrifice to us, but might help to make her life happy. It’s just because we never think about these little things—don’t think them worth thinking about, in fact— they never enter our intellectual foreheads.
“For instance, when you’re going out in the morning you might put your arms round her and give her a hug and a kiss, without her having to remind you. You may forget about it and never think any more of it— but she will.
“It wouldn’t be any trouble to you, and would only take a couple of seconds, and would give her something to be happy about when you’re gone, and make her sing to herself for hours while she bustles about her work and thinks up what she’ll get you for dinner.”
Mitchell’s mate sighed, and shifted the sugar-bag over towards Mitchell. He seemed touched and bothered over something.
“Then again,” said Mitchell, “it mightn’t be convenient for you to go home to dinner—something might turn up during the morning— you might have some important business to do, or meet some chaps and get invited to lunch and not be very well able to refuse, when it’s too late, or you haven’t a chance to send a message to your wife. But then again, chaps and business seem very big things to you, and only little things to the wife; just as lovey-dovey talk is important to her and nonsense to you. And when you come to analyse it, one is not so big, nor the other so small, after all; especially when you come to think that chaps can always wait, and business is only an inspiration in your mind, nine cases out of ten.
“Think of the trouble she takes to get you a good dinner, and how she keeps it hot between two plates in the oven, and waits hour after hour till the dinner gets dried up, and all her morning’s work is wasted. Think how it hurts her, and how anxious she’ll be (especially if you’re inclined to booze) for fear that something has happened to you. You can’t get it out of the heads of some young wives that you’re liable to get run over, or knocked down, or assaulted, or robbed, or get into one of the fixes that a woman is likely to get into. But about the dinner waiting. Try and put yourself in her place. Wouldn’t you get mad under the same circumstances? I know I would.
“I remember once, only just after I was married, I was invited unexpectedly to a kidney pudding and beans—which was my favourite grub at the time— and I didn’t resist, especially as it was washing day and I told the wife not to bother about anything for dinner. I got home an hour or so late, and had a good explanation thought out, when the wife met me with a smile as if we had just been left a thousand pounds. She’d got her washing finished without assistance, though I’d told her to get somebody to help her, and she had a kidney pudding and beans, with a lot of extras thrown in, as a pleasant surprise for me.
“Well, I kissed her, and sat down, and stuffed till I thought every mouthful would choke me. I got through with it somehow, but I’ve never cared for kidney pudding or beans since.”
Mitchell felt for his pipe with a fatherly smile in his eyes.
“And then again,” he continued, as he cut up his tobacco, “your wife might put on a new dress and fix herself up and look well, and you might think so and be satisfied with her appearance and be proud to take her out; but you want to tell her so, and tell her so as often as you think about it—and try to think a little oftener than men usually do, too.”
“You should have made a good husband, Jack,” said his mate, in a softened tone.
“Ah, well, perhaps I should,” said Mitchell, rubbing up his tobacco; then he asked abstractedly: “What sort of a husband did you make, Joe?”
“I might have made a better one than I did,” said Joe seriously, and rather bitterly, “but I know one thing, I’m going to try and make up for it when I go back this time.”
“We all say that,” said Mitchell reflectively, filling his pipe. “She loves you, Joe.”
“I know she does,” said Joe.
Mitchell lit up.
“And so would any man who knew her or had seen her letters to you,” he said between the puffs. “She’s happy and contented enough, I believe?”
“Yes,” said Joe, “at least while I was there. She’s never easy when I’m away. I might have made her a good deal more happy and contented without hurting myself much.”
Mitchell smoked long, soft, measured puffs.
His mate shifted uneasily and glanced at him a couple of times, and seemed to become impatient, and to make up his mind about something; or perhaps he got an idea that Mitchell had been “having” him, and felt angry over being betrayed into maudlin confidences; for he asked abruptly:
“How is your wife now, Mitchell?”
“I don’t know,” said Mitchell calmly.
“Don’t know?” echoed the mate. “Didn’t you treat her well?”
Mitchell removed his pipe and drew a long breath.
“Ah, well, I tried to,” he said wearily.
“Well, did you put your theory into practice?”
“I did,” said Mitchell very deliberately.
Joe waited, but nothing came.
“Well?” he asked impatiently, “How did it act? Did it work well?”
“I don’t know,” said Mitchell (puff); “she left me.”
Mitchell jerked the half-smoked pipe from his mouth, and rapped the burning tobacco out against the toe of his boot.
“She left me,” he said, standing up and stretching himself. Then, with a vicious jerk of his arm, “She left me for—another kind of a fellow!”
He looked east towards the public-house, where they were taking the coach-horses from the stable.
“Why don’t you finish your tea, Joe? The billy’s getting cold.”