“You’ve got three fleeces there, young man?”
Notwithstanding the fact that I had just slipped a light ragged fleece into the belly-wool and “bits” basket, I felt deeply injured, and righteously and fiercely indignant at being pulled up. It was a fearfully hot day.
“If I catch you carrying three fleeces again,” said the boss quietly, “I’ll give you the sack.”
“I’ll take it now if you like,” I said.
He nodded. “You can go on picking-up in this man’s place,” he said to the jackeroo, whose reference showed him to be a non-union man—a “free-labourer”, as the pastoralists had it, or, in plain shed terms, “a blanky scab”. He was now in the comfortable position of a non-unionist in a union shed who had jumped into a sacked man’s place.
Somehow the lurid sympathy of the men irritated me worse than the boss-over-the-board had done. It must have been on account of the heat, as Mitchell says. I was sick of the shed and the life. It was within a couple of days of cut-out, so I told Mitchell—who was shearing—that I’d camp up the Billabong and wait for him; got my cheque, rolled up my swag, got three days’ tucker from the cook, said so-long to him, and tramped while the men were in the shed.
I camped at the head of the Billabong where the track branched, one branch running to Bourke, up the river, and the other out towards the Paroo—and hell.
About ten o’clock the third morning Mitchell came along with his cheque and his swag, and a new sheep-pup, and his quiet grin; and I wasn’t too pleased to see that he had a shearer called “the Lachlan” with him.
The Lachlan wasn’t popular at the shed. He was a brooding, unsociable sort of man, and it didn’t make any difference to the chaps whether he had a union ticket or not. It was pretty well known in the shed —there were three or four chaps from the district he was reared in— that he’d done five years hard for burglary. What surprised me was that Jack Mitchell seemed thick with him; often, when the Lachlan was sitting brooding and smoking by himself outside the hut after sunset, Mitchell would perch on his heels alongside him and yarn. But no one else took notice of anything Mitchell did out of the common.
“Better camp with us till the cool of the evening,” said Mitchell to the Lachlan, as they slipped their swags. “Plenty time for you to start after sundown, if you’re going to travel to-night.”
So the Lachlan was going to travel all night and on a different track. I felt more comfortable, and put the billy on. I did not care so much what he’d been or had done, but I was green and soft yet, and his presence embarrassed me.
They talked shearing, sheds, tracks, and a little unionism— the Lachlan speaking in a quiet voice and with a lot of sound, common sense, it seemed to me. He was tall and gaunt, and might have been thirty, or even well on in the forties. His eyes were dark brown and deep set, and had something of the dead-earnest sad expression you saw in the eyes of union leaders and secretaries—the straight men of the strikes of ’90 and ’91. I fancied once or twice I saw in his eyes the sudden furtive look of the “bad egg” when a mounted trooper is spotted near the shed; but perhaps this was prejudice. And with it all there was about the Lachlan something of the man who has lost all he had and the chances of all he was ever likely to have, and is past feeling, or caring, or flaring up—past getting mad about anything—something, all the same, that warned men not to make free with him.
He and Mitchell fished along the Billabong all the afternoon; I fished a little, and lay about the camp and read. I had an instinct that the Lachlan saw I didn’t cotton on to his camping with us, though he wasn’t the sort of man to show what he saw or felt. After tea, and a smoke at sunset, he shouldered his swag, nodded to me as if I was an accidental but respectful stranger at a funeral that belonged to him, and took the outside track. Mitchell walked along the track with him for a mile or so, while I poked round and got some boughs down for a bed, and fed and studied the collie pup that Jack had bought from the shearers’ cook.
I saw them stop and shake hands out on the dusty clearing, and they seemed to take a long time about it; then Mitchell started back, and the other began to dwindle down to a black peg and then to a dot on the sandy plain, that had just a hint of dusk and dreamy far-away gloaming on it between the change from glaring day to hard, bare, broad moonlight.
I thought Mitchell was sulky, or had got the blues, when he came back; he lay on his elbow smoking, with his face turned from the camp towards the plain. After a bit I got wild—if Mitchell was going to go on like that he might as well have taken his swag and gone with the Lachlan. I don’t know exactly what was the matter with me that day, and at last I made up my mind to bring the thing to a head.
“You seem mighty thick with the Lachlan,” I said.
“Well, what’s the matter with that?” asked Mitchell. “It ain’t the first felon I’ve been on speaking terms with. I borrowed half-a-caser off a murderer once, when I was in a hole and had no one else to go to; and the murderer hadn’t served his time, neither. I’ve got nothing against the Lachlan, except that he’s a white man and bears a faint family resemblance to a certain branch of my tribe.”
I rolled out my swag on the boughs, got my pipe, tobacco, and matches handy in the crown of a spare hat, and lay down.
Mitchell got up, re-lit his pipe at the fire, and mooned round for a while, with his hands behind him, kicking sticks out of the road, looking out over the plain, down along the Billabong, and up through the mulga branches at the stars; then he comforted the pup a bit, shoved the fire together with his toe, stood the tea-billy on the coals, and came and squatted on the sand by my head.
“Joe! I’ll tell you a yarn.”
“All right; fire away! Has it got anything to do with the Lachlan?”
“No. It’s got nothing to do with the Lachlan now; but it’s about a chap he knew. Don’t you ever breathe a word of this to the Lachlan or anyone, or he’ll get on to me.”
“All right. Go ahead.”
“You know I’ve been a good many things in my time. I did a deal of house-painting at one time; I was a pretty smart brush hand, and made money at it. Well, I had a run of work at a place called Redclay, on the Lachlan side. You know the sort of town—two pubs, a general store, a post office, a blacksmith’s shop, a police station, a branch bank, and a dozen private weatherboard boxes on piles, with galvanized-iron tops, besides the humpies. There was a paper there, too, called the Redclay Advertiser (with which was incorporated the Geebung Chronicle), and a Roman Catholic church, a Church of England, and a Wesleyan chapel. Now you see more of private life in the house-painting line than in any other—bar plumbing and gasfitting; but I’ll tell you about my house-painting experiences some other time.
“There was a young chap named Jack Drew editing the Advertiser then. He belonged to the district, but had been sent to Sydney to a grammar school when he was a boy. He was between twenty-five and thirty; had knocked round a good deal, and gone the pace in Sydney. He got on as a boy reporter on one of the big dailies; he had brains and could write rings round a good many, but he got in with a crowd that called themselves ‘Bohemians’, and the drink got a hold on him. The paper stuck to him as long as it could (for the sake of his brains), but they had to sack him at last.
“He went out back, as most of them do, to try and work out their salvation, and knocked round amongst the sheds. He ‘picked up’ in one shed where I was shearing, and we carried swags together for a couple of months. Then he went back to the Lachlan side, and prospected amongst the old fields round there with his elder brother Tom, who was all there was left of his family. Tom, by the way, broke his heart digging Jack out of a cave in a drive they were working, and died a few minutes after the rescue. But that’s another yarn. Jack Drew had a bad spree after that; then he went to Sydney again, got on his old paper, went to the dogs, and a Parliamentary push that owned some city fly-blisters and country papers sent him up to edit the Advertiser at two quid a week. He drank again, and no wonder—you don’t know what it is to run a Geebung Advocate or Mudgee Budgee Chronicle, and live there. He was about the same build as the Lachlan, but stouter, and had something the same kind of eyes; but he was ordinarily as careless and devil-may-care as the Lachlan is grumpy and quiet.
“There was a doctor there, called Dr. Lebinski. They said he was a Polish exile. He was fifty or sixty, a tall man, with the set of an old soldier when he stood straight; but he mostly walked with his hands behind him, studying the ground. Jack Drew caught that trick off him towards the end. They were chums in a gloomy way, and kept to themselves—they were the only two men with brains in that town. They drank and fought the drink together. The Doctor was too gloomy and impatient over little things to be popular. Jack Drew talked too straight in the paper, and in spite of his proprietors —about pub spieling and such things—and was too sarcastic in his progress committee, town council, and toady reception reports. The Doctor had a hawk’s nose, pointed grizzled beard and moustache, and steely-grey eyes with a haunted look in them sometimes (especially when he glanced at you sideways), as if he loathed his fellow men, and couldn’t always hide it; or as if you were the spirit of morphia or opium, or a dead girl he’d wronged in his youth—or whatever his devil was, beside drink. He was clever, and drink had brought him down to Redclay.
“The bank manager was a heavy snob named Browne. He complained of being a bit dull of hearing in one ear—after you’d yelled at him three or four times; sometimes I’ve thought he was as deaf as a book-keeper in both. He had a wife and youngsters, but they were away on a visit while I was working in Redclay. His niece—or, rather, his wife’s niece—a girl named Ruth Wilson, did the housekeeping. She was an orphan, adopted by her aunt, and was general slavey and scape-goat to the family—especially to the brats, as is often the case. She was rather pretty, and lady-like, and kept to herself. The women and girls called her Miss Wilson, and didn’t like her. Most of the single men—and some of the married ones, perhaps—were gone on her, but hadn’t the brains or the pluck to bear up and try their luck. I was gone worse than any, I think, but had too much experience or common sense. She was very good to me— used to hand me out cups of tea and plates of sandwiches, or bread and butter, or cake, mornings and afternoons the whole time I was painting the bank. The Doctor had known her people and was very kind to her. She was about the only woman—for she was more woman than girl— that he’d brighten up and talk for. Neither he nor Jack Drew were particularly friendly with Browne or his push.
“The banker, the storekeeper, one of the publicans, the butcher (a popular man with his hands in his pockets, his hat on the back of his head, and nothing in it), the postmaster, and his toady, the lightning squirter, were the scrub-aristocracy. The rest were crawlers, mostly pub spielers and bush larrikins, and the women were hags and larrikinesses. The town lived on cheque-men from the surrounding bush. It was a nice little place, taking it all round.
“I remember a ball at the local town hall, where the scrub aristocrats took one end of the room to dance in and the ordinary scum the other. It was a saving in music. Some day an Australian writer will come along who’ll remind the critics and readers of Dickens, Carlyle, and Thackeray mixed, and he’ll do justice to these little customs of ours in the little settled-district towns of Democratic Australia. This sort of thing came to a head one New Year’s Night at Redclay, when there was a ‘public’ ball and peace on earth and good will towards all men—mostly on account of a railway to Redclay being surveyed. We were all there. They’d got the Doc. out of his shell to act as M.C.
“One of the aristocrats was the daughter of the local storekeeper; she belonged to the lawn-tennis clique, and they WERE select. For some reason or other—because she looked upon Miss Wilson as a slavey, or on account of a fancied slight, or the heat working on ignorance, or on account of something that comes over girls and women that no son of sin can account for—this Miss Tea-’n’-sugar tossed her head and refused Miss Wilson’s hand in the first set and so broke the ladies’ chain and the dance. Then there was a to-do. The Doctor held up his hand to stop the music, and said, very quietly, that he must call upon Miss So-and-so to apologise to Miss Wilson— or resign the chair. After a lot of fuss the girl did apologise in a snappy way that was another insult. Jack Drew gave Miss Wilson his arm and marched her off without a word—I saw she was almost crying. Some one said, ‘Oh, let’s go on with the dance.’ The Doctor flashed round on them, but they were too paltry for him, so he turned on his heel and went out without a word. But I was beneath them again in social standing, so there was nothing to prevent me from making a few well-chosen remarks on things in general— which I did; and broke up that ball, and broke some heads afterwards, and got myself a good deal of hatred and respect, and two sweethearts; and lost all the jobs I was likely to get, except at the bank, the Doctor’s, and the Royal.
“One day it was raining—general rain for a week. Rain, rain, rain, over ridge and scrub and galvanised iron and into the dismal creeks. I’d done all my inside work, except a bit under the Doctor’s verandah, where he’d been having some patching and altering done round the glass doors of his surgery, where he consulted his patients. I didn’t want to lose time. It was a Monday and no day for the Royal, and there was no dust, so it was a good day for varnishing. I took a pot and brush and went along to give the Doctor’s doors a coat of varnish. The Doctor and Drew were inside with a fire, drinking whisky and smoking, but I didn’t know that when I started work. The rain roared on the iron roof like the sea. All of a sudden it held up for a minute, and I heard their voices. The doctor had been shouting on account of the rain, and forgot to lower his voice. ‘Look here, Jack Drew,’ he said, ‘there are only two things for you to do if you have any regard for that girl; one is to stop this’ (the liquor I suppose he meant) ’and pull yourself together; and I don’t think you’ll do that—I know men. The other is to throw up the Advertiser—it’s doing you no good—and clear out.’ ‘I won’t do that,’ says Drew. ‘Then shoot yourself,’ said the Doctor. ‘(There’s another flask in the cupboard). You know what this hole is like. . . . She’s a good true girl—a girl as God made her. I knew her father and mother, and I tell you, Jack, I’d sooner see her dead than. . . .’ The roof roared again. I felt a bit delicate about the business and didn’t like to disturb them, so I knocked off for the day.
“About a week before that I was down in the bed of the Redclay Creek fishing for ‘tailers’. I’d been getting on all right with the housemaid at the ‘Royal’—she used to have plates of pudding and hot pie for me on the big gridiron arrangement over the kitchen range; and after the third tuck-out I thought it was good enough to do a bit of a bear-up in that direction. She mentioned one day, yarning, that she liked a stroll by the creek sometimes in the cool of the evening. I thought she’d be off that day, so I said I’d go for a fish after I’d knocked off. I thought I might get a bite. Anyway, I didn’t catch Lizzie—tell you about that some other time.
“It was Sunday. I’d been fishing for Lizzie about an hour when I saw a skirt on the bank out of the tail of my eye— and thought I’d got a bite, sure. But I was had. It was Miss Wilson strolling along the bank in the sunset, all by her pretty self. She was a slight girl, not very tall, with reddish frizzled hair, grey eyes, and small, pretty features. She spoke as if she had more brains than the average, and had been better educated. Jack Drew was the only young man in Redclay she could talk to, or who could talk to a girl like her; and that was the whole trouble in a nutshell. The newspaper office was next to the bank, and I’d seen her hand cups of tea and cocoa over the fence to his office window more than once, and sometimes they yarned for a while.
“She said, ‘Good morning, Mr. Mitchell.’
“I said, ‘Good morning, Miss.’
“There’s some girls I can’t talk to like I’d talk to other girls. She asked me if I’d caught any fish, and I said, ‘No, Miss.’ She asked me if it wasn’t me down there fishing with Mr. Drew the other evening, and I said, ‘Yes—it was me.’ Then presently she asked me straight if he was fishing down the creek that afternoon? I guessed they’d been down fishing for each other before. I said, ‘No, I thought he was out of town.’ I knew he was pretty bad at the Royal. I asked her if she’d like to have a try with my line, but she said No, thanks, she must be going; and she went off up the creek. I reckoned Jack Drew had got a bite and landed her. I felt a bit sorry for her, too.
“The next Saturday evening after the rainy Monday at the Doctor’s, I went down to fish for tailers—and Lizzie. I went down under the banks to where there was a big she-oak stump half in the water, going quietly, with an idea of not frightening the fish. I was just unwinding the line from my rod, when I noticed the end of another rod sticking out from the other side of the stump; and while I watched it was dropped into the water. Then I heard a murmur, and craned my neck round the back of the stump to see who it was. I saw the back view of Jack Drew and Miss Wilson; he had his arm round her waist, and her head was on his shoulder. She said, ‘I will trust you, Jack—I know you’ll give up the drink for my sake. And I’ll help you, and we’ll be so happy!’ or words in that direction. A thunderstorm was coming on. The sky had darkened up with a great blue-black storm-cloud rushing over, and they hadn’t noticed it. I didn’t mind, and the fish bit best in a storm. But just as she said ‘happy’ came a blinding flash and a crash that shook the ridges, and the first drops came peltering down. They jumped up and climbed the bank, while I perched on the she-oak roots over the water to be out of sight as they passed. Half way to the town I saw them standing in the shelter of an old stone chimney that stood alone. He had his overcoat round her and was sheltering her from the wind. . . .”
“Smoke-oh, Joe. The tea’s stewing.”
Mitchell got up, stretched himself, and brought the billy and pint-pots to the head of my camp. The moon had grown misty. The plain horizon had closed in. A couple of boughs, hanging from the gnarled and blasted timber over the billabong, were the perfect shapes of two men hanging side by side. Mitchell scratched the back of his neck and looked down at the pup curled like a glob of mud on the sand in the moonlight, and an idea struck him. He got a big old felt hat he had, lifted his pup, nose to tail, fitted it in the hat, shook it down, holding the hat by the brim, and stood the hat near the head of his doss, out of the moonlight. “He might get moonstruck,” said Mitchell, “and I don’t want that pup to be a genius.” The pup seemed perfectly satisfied with this new arrangement.
“Have a smoke,” said Mitchell. “You see,” he added, with a sly grin, “I’ve got to make up the yarn as I go along, and it’s hard work. It seems to begin to remind me of yarns your grandmother or aunt tells of things that happened when she was a girl—but those yarns are true. You won’t have to listen long now; I’m well on into the second volume.
“After the storm I hurried home to the tent—I was batching with a carpenter. I changed my clothes, made a fire in the fire-bucket with shavings and ends of soft wood, boiled the billy, and had a cup of coffee. It was Saturday night. My mate was at the Royal; it was cold and dismal in the tent, and there was nothing to read, so I reckoned I might as well go up to the Royal, too, and put in the time.
“I had to pass the Bank on the way. It was the usual weatherboard box with a galvanised iron top—four rooms and a passage, and a detached kitchen and wash-house at the back; the front room to the right (behind the office) was the family bedroom, and the one opposite it was the living room. The Advertiser office was next door. Jack Drew camped in a skillion room behind his printing office, and had his meals at the Royal. I noticed the storm had taken a sheet of iron off the skillion, and supposed he’d sleep at the Royal that night. Next to the Advertiser office was the police station (still called the Police Camp) and the Courthouse. Next was the Imperial Hotel, where the scrub aristocrats went. There was a vacant allotment on the other side of the Bank, and I took a short cut across this to the Royal.
“They’d forgotten to pull down the blind of the dining-room window, and I happened to glance through and saw she had Jack Drew in there and was giving him a cup of tea. He had a bad cold, I remember, and I suppose his health had got precious to her, poor girl. As I glanced she stepped to the window and pulled down the blind, which put me out of face a bit—though, of course, she hadn’t seen me. I was rather surprised at her having Jack in there, till I heard that the banker, the postmaster, the constable, and some others were making a night of it at the Imperial, as they’d been doing pretty often lately—and went on doing till there was a blow-up about it, and the constable got transferred Out Back. I used to drink my share then. We smoked and played cards and yarned and filled ’em up again at the Royal till after one in the morning. Then I started home.
“I’d finished giving the Bank a couple of coats of stone-colour that week, and was cutting in in dark colour round the spouting, doors, and window-frames that Saturday. My head was pretty clear going home, and as I passed the place it struck me that I’d left out the only varnish brush I had. I’d been using it to give the sashes a coat of varnish colour, and remembered that I’d left it on one of the window-sills—the sill of her bedroom window, as it happened. I knew I’d sleep in next day, Sunday, and guessed it would be hot, and I didn’t want the varnish tool to get spoiled; so I reckoned I’d slip in through the side gate, get it, and take it home to camp and put it in oil. The window sash was jammed, I remember, and I hadn’t been able to get it up more than a couple of inches to paint the runs of the sash. The grass grew up close under the window, and I slipped in quietly. I noticed the sash was still up a couple of inches. Just as I grabbed the brush I heard low voices inside—Ruth Wilson’s and Jack Drew’s—in her room.
“The surprise sent about a pint of beer up into my throat in a lump. I tip-toed away out of there. Just as I got clear of the gate I saw the banker being helped home by a couple of cronies.
“I went home to the camp and turned in, but I couldn’t sleep. I lay think—think—thinking, till I thought all the drink out of my head. I’d brought a bottle of ale home to last over Sunday, and I drank that. It only made matters worse. I didn’t know how I felt—I—well, I felt as if I was as good a man as Jack Drew—I— you see I’ve—you might think it soft—but I loved that girl, not as I’ve been gone on other girls, but in the old-fashioned, soft, honest, hopeless, far-away sort of way; and now, to tell the straight truth, I thought I might have had her. You lose a thing through being too straight or sentimental, or not having enough cheek; and another man comes along with more brass in his blood and less sentimental rot and takes it up—and the world respects him; and you feel in your heart that you’re a weaker man than he is. Why, part of the time I must have felt like a man does when a better man runs away with his wife. But I’d drunk a lot, and was upset and lonely-feeling that night.
“Oh, but Redclay had a tremendous sensation next day! Jack Drew, of all the men in the world, had been caught in the act of robbing the bank. According to Browne’s account in court and in the newspapers, he returned home that night at about twelve o’clock (which I knew was a lie, for I saw him being helped home nearer two) and immediately retired to rest (on top of the quilt, boots and all, I suppose). Some time before daybreak he was roused by a fancied noise (I suppose it was his head swelling); he rose, turned up a night lamp (he hadn’t lit it, I’ll swear), and went through the dining-room passage and office to investigate (for whisky and water). He saw that the doors and windows were secure, returned to bed, and fell asleep again.
“There is something in a deaf person’s being roused easily. I know the case of a deaf chap who’d start up at a step or movement in the house when no one else could hear or feel it; keen sense of vibration, I reckon. Well, just at daybreak (to shorten the yarn) the banker woke suddenly, he said, and heard a crack like a shot in the house. There was a loose flooring-board in the passage that went off like a pistol-shot sometimes when you trod on it; and I guess Jack Drew trod on it, sneaking out, and he weighed nearly twelve stone. If the truth were known, he probably heard Browne poking round, tried the window, found the sash jammed, and was slipping through the passage to the back door. Browne got his revolver, opened his door suddenly, and caught Drew standing between the girl’s door (which was shut) and the office door, with his coat on his arm and his boots in his hands. Browne covered him with his revolver, swore he’d shoot if he moved, and yelled for help. Drew stood a moment like a man stunned; then he rushed Browne, and in the struggle the revolver went off, and Drew got hit in the arm. Two of the mounted troopers—who’d been up looking to the horses for an early start somewhere—rushed in then, and took Drew. He had nothing to say. What could he say? He couldn’t say he was a blackguard who’d taken advantage of a poor unprotected girl because she loved him. They found the back door unlocked, by the way, which was put down to the burglar; of course Browne couldn’t explain that he came home too muddled to lock doors after him.
“And the girl? She shrieked and fell when the row started, and they found her like a log on the floor of her room after it was over.
“They found in Jack’s overcoat pocket a parcel containing a cold chisel, small screw-wrench, file, and one or two other things that he’d bought that evening to tinker up the old printing press. I knew that, because I’d lent him a hand a few nights before, and he told me he’d have to get the tools. They found some scratches round the key-hole and knob of the office door that I’d made myself, scraping old splashes of paint off the brass and hand-plate so as to make a clean finish. Oh, it taught me the value of circumstantial evidence! If I was judge I wouldn’t give a man till the ‘risin’ av the coort’ on it, any more than I would on the bare word of the noblest woman breathing.
“At the preliminary examination Jack Drew said he was guilty. But it seemed that, according to law, he couldn’t be guilty until after he was committed. So he was committed for trial at the next Quarter Sessions. The excitement and gabble were worse than the Dean case, or Federation, and sickened me, for they were all on the wrong track. You lose a lot of life through being behind the scenes. But they cooled down presently to wait for the trial.
“They thought it best to take the girl away from the place where she’d got the shock; so the Doctor took her to his house, where he had an old housekeeper who was as deaf as a post— a first class recommendation for a housekeeper anywhere. He got a nurse from Sydney to attend on Ruth Wilson, and no one except he and the nurse were allowed to go near her. She lay like dead, they said, except when she had to be held down raving; brain fever, they said, brought on by the shock of the attempted burglary and pistol shot. Dr. Lebinski had another doctor up from Sydney at his own expense, but nothing could save her—and perhaps it was as well. She might have finished her life in a lunatic asylum. They were going to send her to Sydney, to a brain hospital; but she died a week before the Sessions. She was right-headed for an hour, they said, and asking all the time for Jack. The Doctor told her he was all right and was coming—and, waiting and listening for him, she died.
“The case was black enough against Drew now. I knew he wouldn’t have the pluck to tell the truth now, even if he was that sort of a man. I didn’t know what to do, so I spoke to the Doctor straight. I caught him coming out of the Royal, and walked along the road with him a bit. I suppose he thought I was going to show cause why his doors ought to have another coat of varnish.
“‘Hallo, Mitchell!’ he said, ‘how’s painting?’
“‘Doctor!’ I said, ‘what am I going to do about this business?’
“He looked at me sideways—the swift haunted look. Then he walked on without a word, for half a dozen yards, hands behind, and studying the dust. Then he asked, quite quietly:
“‘Do you know the truth?’
“About a dozen yards this time; then he said:
“‘I’ll see him in the morning, and see you afterwards,’ and he shook hands and went on home.
“Next day he came to me where I was doing a job on a step ladder. He leaned his elbow against the steps for a moment, and rubbed his hand over his forehead, as if it ached and he was tired.
“‘I’ve seen him, Mitchell,’ he said.
“‘You were mates with him, once, Out Back?’
“‘You know Drew’s hand-writing?’
“‘I should think so.’
“He laid a leaf from a pocketbook on top of the steps. I read the message written in pencil:
|“‘To Jack Mitchell.—We were mates on the track. If you know anything of my affair, don’t give it away.—J. D.’|
“I tore the leaf and dropped the bits into the paint-pot.
“‘That’s all right, Doctor,’ I said; ‘but is there no way?’
“He turned away, wearily. He’d knocked about so much over the world that he was past bothering about explaining things or being surprised at anything. But he seemed to get a new idea about me; he came back to the steps again, and watched my brush for a while, as if he was thinking, in a broody sort of way, of throwing up his practice and going in for house-painting. Then he said, slowly and deliberately:
“‘If she—the girl—had lived, we might have tried to fix it up quietly. That’s what I was hoping for. I don’t see how we can help him now, even if he’d let us. He would never have spoken, anyway. We must let it go on, and after the trial I’ll go to Sydney and see what I can do at headquarters. It’s too late now. You understand, Mitchell?’
“‘Yes. I’ve thought it out.’
“Then he went away towards the Royal.
“And what could Jack Drew or we do? Study it out whatever way you like. There was only one possible chance to help him, and that was to go to the judge; and the judge that happened to be on that circuit was a man who—even if he did listen to the story and believe it— would have felt inclined to give Jack all the more for what he was charged with. Browne was out of the question. The day before the trial I went for a long walk in the bush, but couldn’t hit on anything that the Doctor might have missed.
“I was in the court—I couldn’t keep away. The Doctor was there too. There wasn’t so much of a change in Jack as I expected, only he had the gaol white in his face already. He stood fingering the rail, as if it was the edge of a table on a platform and he was a tired and bored and sleepy chairman waiting to propose a vote of thanks.”
The only well-known man in Australia who reminds me of Mitchell is Bland Holt, the comedian. Mitchell was about as good hearted as Bland Holt, too, under it all; but he was bigger and roughened by the bush. But he seemed to be taking a heavy part to-night, for, towards the end of his yarn, he got up and walked up and down the length of my bed, dropping the sentences as he turned towards me. He’d folded his arms high and tight, and his face in the moonlight was—well, it was very different from his careless tone of voice. He was like—like an actor acting tragedy and talking comedy. Mitchell went on, speaking quickly— his voice seeming to harden:
“The charge was read out—I forget how it went—it sounded like a long hymn being given out. Jack pleaded guilty. Then he straightened up for the first time and looked round the court, with a calm, disinterested look—as if we were all strangers and he was noting the size of the meeting. And—it’s a funny world, ain’t it?—everyone of us shifted or dropped his eyes, just as if we were the felons and Jack the judge. Everyone except the Doctor; he looked at Jack and Jack looked at him. Then the Doctor smiled —I can’t describe it—and Drew smiled back. It struck me afterwards that I should have been in that smile. Then the Doctor did what looked like a strange thing—stood like a soldier with his hands to Attention. I’d noticed that, whenever he’d made up his mind to do a thing, he dropped his hands to his sides: it was a sign that he couldn’t be moved. Now he slowly lifted his hand to his forehead, palm out, saluted the prisoner, turned on his heel, and marched from the court-room. ‘He’s boozin’ again,’ someone whispered. ‘He’s got a touch of ’em.’ ‘My oath, he’s ratty!’ said someone else. One of the traps said:
“‘Arder in the car-rt!’
“The judge gave it to Drew red-hot on account of the burglary being the cause of the girl’s death and the sorrow in a respectable family; then he gave him five years’ hard.
“It gave me a lot of confidence in myself to see the law of the land barking up the wrong tree, while only I and the Doctor and the prisoner knew it. But I’ve found out since then that the law is often the only one that knows it’s barking up the wrong tree.”
Mitchell prepared to turn in.
“And what about Drew,” I asked.
“Oh, he did his time, or most of it. The Doctor went to headquarters, but either a drunken doctor from a geebung town wasn’t of much account, or they weren’t taking any romance just then at headquarters. So the Doctor came back, drank heavily, and one frosty morning they found him on his back on the bank of the creek, with his face like note-paper where the blood hadn’t dried on it, and an old pistol in his hand— that he’d used, they said, to shoot Cossacks from horseback when he was a young dude fighting in the bush in Poland.”
Mitchell lay silent a good while; then he yawned.
“Ah, well! It’s a lonely track the Lachlan’s tramping to-night; but I s’pose he’s got his ghosts with him.”
I’d been puzzling for the last half-hour to think where I’d met or heard of Jack Drew; now it flashed on me that I’d been told that Jack Drew was the Lachlan’s real name.
I lay awake thinking a long time, and wished Mitchell had kept his yarn for daytime. I felt—well, I felt as if the Lachlan’s story should have been played in the biggest theatre in the world, by the greatest actors, with music for the intervals and situations— deep, strong music, such as thrills and lifts a man from his boot soles. And when I got to sleep I hadn’t slept a moment, it seemed to me, when I started wide awake to see those infernal hanging boughs with a sort of nightmare idea that the Lachlan hadn’t gone, or had come back, and he and Mitchell had hanged themselves sociably— Mitchell for sympathy and the sake of mateship.
But Mitchell was sleeping peacefully, in spite of a path of moonlight across his face—and so was the pup.