Now this is the creed from the Book of the Bush—|
Should be simple and plain to a dunce:
“If a man’s in a hole you must pass round the hat—
Were he jail-bird or gentleman once.”
It was about nine o’clock in the morning, and, though it was Sunday morning, it was no harm to wake me; but the shearer had mistaken me for a deaf jackeroo, who was staying at the shanty and was something like me, and had good-naturedly shouted almost at the top of his voice, and he woke the whole shanty. Anyway he woke three or four others who were sleeping on beds and stretchers, and one on a shake-down on the floor, in the same room. It had been a wet night, and the shanty was full of shearers from Big Billabong Shed which had cut out the day before. My room mates had been drinking and gambling overnight, and they swore luridly at the intruder for disturbing them.
He was six-foot-three or thereabout. He was loosely built, bony, sandy-complexioned and grey eyed. He wore a goodhumoured grin at most times, as I noticed later on; he was of a type of bushman that I always liked—the sort that seem to get more good-natured the longer they grow, yet are hardknuckled and would accommodate a man who wanted to fight, or thrash a bully in a good-natured way. The sort that like to carry somebody’s baby round, and cut wood, carry water and do little things for overworked married bushwomen. He wore a saddle-tweed sac suit two sizes too small for him, and his face, neck, great hands and bony wrists were covered with sunblotches and freckles.
“I hope I ain’t disturbin’ yer,” he shouted, as he bent over my bunk, “but there’s a cove——”
“You needn’t shout!” I interrupted, “I’m not deaf.”
“Oh—I beg your pardon!” he shouted. “I didn’t know I was yellin’. I thought you was the deaf feller.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” I said. “What’s the trouble?”
“Wait till them other chaps is done swearin’ and I’ll tell yer,” he said. He spoke with a quiet, good-natured drawl, with something of the nasal twang, but tone and drawl distinctly Australian—altogether apart from that of the Americans.
“Oh, spit it out for Christ’s sake, Long’un!” yelled One-eyed Bogan, who had been the worst swearer in a rough shed, and he fell back on his bunk as if his previous remarks had exhausted him.
“It’s that there sick jackeroo that was pickin’-up at Big Billabong,” said the Giraffe. “He had to knock off the first week, an’ he’s been here ever since. They’re sendin’ him away to the hospital in Sydney by the speeshall train. They’re just goin’ to take him up in the wagonette to the railway station, an’ I thought I might as well go round with the hat an’ get him a few bob. He’s got a missus and kids in Sydney.”
“Yer always goin’ round with yer gory hat!” growled Bogan. “Yer’d blanky well take it round in hell!”
“That’s what he’s doing, Bogan,” muttered Gentleman Once, on the shake-down, with his face to the wall.
The hat was a genuine “cabbage-tree,” one of the sort that “last a lifetime.” It was well coloured, almost black in fact with weather and age, and it had a new strap round the base of the crown. I looked into it and saw a dirty pound note and some silver. I dropped in half a crown, which was more than I could spare, for I had only been a green-hand at Big Billabong.
“Thank yer!” he said. “Now then, you fellers!”
“I wish you’d keep your hat on your head, and your money in your pockets and your sympathy somewhere else,” growled Jack Moonlight as he raised himself painfully on his elbow and felt under his pillow for two half-crowns. “Here,” he said, “here’s two half-carers. Chuck ’em in and let me sleep for God’s sake!”
Gentleman Once, the gambler, rolled round on his shakedown, bringing his good-looking, dissipated face from the wall. He had turned in in his clothes and, with considerable exertion he shoved his hand down into the pocket of his trousers, which were a tight fit. He brought up a roll of pound notes and could find no silver.
“Here,” he said to the Giraffe, “I might as well lay a quid. I’ll chance it anyhow. Chuck it in.”
“You’ve got rats this mornin’, Gentleman Once,” growled the Bogan. “It ain’t a blanky horse race.”
“P’r’aps I have,” said Gentleman Once, and he turned to the wall again with his head on his arm.
“Now, Bogan., yer might as well chuck in somethin’,” said the Giraffe.
“What’s the matter with the jackeroo?” asked the Bogan, tugging his trousers from under the mattress.
Moonlight said something in a low tone.
“The —— he has!” said Bogan. “Well, I pity the ——! Here, I’ll chuck in half a —— quid!” and he dropped half a sovereign into the hat.
The fourth man, who was known to his face as “BarcooRot,” and behind his back as “The Mean Man,” had been drinking all night, and not even Bogan’s stump-splitting adjectives could rouse him. So Bogan got out of bed, and calling on us (as blanky female cattle) to witness what he was about to do, he rolled the drunkard over, prospected his pockets till he made up five shillings (or a “caser” in bush language), and “chucked” them into the hat.
And Barcoo-Rot is probably unconscious to this day that he was ever connected with an act of charity.
The Giraffe struck the deaf jackeroo in the next room. I heard the chaps cursing “Long-’un” for waking them, and “Deaf-’un” for being, as they thought at first, the indirect cause of the disturbance. I heard the Giraffe and his hat being condemned in other rooms and cursed along the veranda where more shearers were sleeping; and after a while I turned out.
The Giraffe was carefully fixing a mattress and pillows on the floor of a wagonette, and presently a man, who looked like a corpse, was carried out and lifted into the trap.
As the wagonette started, the shanty-keeper—a fat, soulless-looking man—put his hand in his pocket and dropped a quid into the hat which was still going round, in the hands of the Giraffe’s mate, little Teddy Thompson, who was as far below medium height as the Giraffe was above it.
The Giraffe took the horse’s head and led him along on the most level parts of the road towards the railway station, and two or three chaps went along to help get the sick man into the train.
The shearing-season was over in that district, but I got a job of house-painting, which was my trade, at the Great Western Hotel (a two-story brick place), and I stayed in Bourke for a couple of months.
The Giraffe was a Victorian native from Bendigo. He was well known in Bourke and to many shearers who came through the great dry scrubs from hundreds of miles round. He was stakeholder, drunkard’s banker, peacemaker where possible, referee or second to oblige the chaps when a fight was on, big brother or uncle to most of the children in town, final court of appeal when the youngsters had a dispute over a foot-race at the school picnic, referee at their fights, and he was the stranger’s friend.
“The feller as knows can battle around for himself,” he’d say. “But I always like to do what I can for a hard-up stranger cove. I was a green-hand jackeroo once meself, and I know what it is.”
“You’re always bothering about other people, Giraffe,” said Tom Hall, the shearers’ union secretary, who was only a couple of inches shorter than the Giraffe. “There’s nothing in it, you can take it from me—I ought to know.”
“Well, what’s a feller to do?” said the Giraffe. “I’m only hangin’ round here till shearin’ starts agen, an’ a cove might as well be doin’ something. Besides, it ain’t as if I was like a cove that had old people or a wife an’ kids to look after. I ain’t got no responsibilities. A feller can’t be doin’ nothin’. Besides, I like to lend a helpin’ hand when I can.”
“Well, all I’ve got to say,” said Tom, most of whose screw went in borrowed quids, etc. “All I’ve got to say is that you’ll get no thanks, and you might blanky well starve in the end.”
“There ain’t no fear of me starvin’ so long as I’ve got me hands about me; an’ I ain’t a cove as wants thanks, “ said the Giraffe.
He was always helping some-one or something. Now it was a bit of a “darnce” that we was gettin’ up for the girls; again it was Mrs Smith, the woman whose husban’ was drowned in the flood in the Bogan River lars’ Crismas, or that there poor woman down by the Billabong—her husband cleared out and left her with a lot o’ kids. Or Bill Something, the bullocky, who was run over by his own wagon, while he was drunk, and got his leg broke.
Toward the end of his spree One-eyed Bogan broke loose and smashed nearly all the windows of the Carriers’ Arms, and next morning he was fined heavily at the police court. About dinner-time I encountered the Giraffe and his hat, with two half-crowns in it for a start.
“I’m sorry to trouble yer,” he said, “but One-eyed Bogan carn’t pay his fine, an’ I thought we might fix it up for him. He ain’t half a bad sort of feller when he ain’t drinkin’. It’s only when he gets too much booze in him.”
After shearing, the hat usually started round with the Giraffe’s own dirty crumpled pound note in the bottom of it as a send-off, later on it was half a sovereign, and so on down to half a crown and a shilling, as he got short of stuff; till in the end he would borrow a “few bob”—which he always repaid after next shearing—“just to start the thing goin’.”
There were several yarns about him and his hat. ’Twas said that the hat had belonged to his father, whom he resembled in every respect, and it had been going round for so many years that the crown was worn as thin as paper by the quids, halfquids, casers, half-casers, bobs and tanners or sprats—to say nothing of the scrums—that had been chucked into it in its time and shaken up.
They say that when a new governor visited Bourke the Giraffe happened to be standing on the platform close to the exit, grinning good-humouredly, and the local toady nudged him urgently and said in an awful whisper, “Take off your hat! Why don’t you take off your hat?”
“Why?” drawled the Giraffe, “he ain’t hard up, is he?”
And they fondly cherish an anecdote to the effect that, when the One-Man-One-Vote Bill was passed (or Payment of Members, or when the first Labour Party went in—I forget on which occasion they said it was) the Giraffe was carried away by the general enthusiasm, got a few beers in him, “chucked” a quid into his hat, and sent it round. The boys contributed by force of habit, and contributed largely, because of the victory and the beer. And when the hat came back to the Giraffe, he stood holding it in front of him with both hands and stared blankly into it for a while. Then it dawned on him.
“Blowed if I haven’t bin an’ gone an’ took up a bloomin’ collection for meself!” he said.
He was almost a teetotaller, but he stood his shout in reason. He mostly drank ginger beer.
“I ain’t a feller that boozes, but I ain’t got nothin’ agen chaps enjoyin’ themselves, so long as they don’t go too far.”
It was common for a man on the spree to say to him:
“Here! here’s five quid. Look after it for me, Giraffe, will yer, till I git off the booze.”
His real name was Bob Brothers, and his bush names, “Long-’un,” “The Giraffe,” “Send-round-the-hat,” “Chuck-in-a-bob,” and “Ginger-ale.”
Some years before, camels and Afghan drivers had been imported to the Bourke district; the camels did very well in the dry country, they went right across country and carried everythink from sardines to flooring-boards. And the teamsters loved the Afghans nearly as much as Sydney furniture makers love the cheap Chinese in the same line. They love ’em even as union shearers on strike love blacklegs brought up-country to take their places.
Now the Giraffe was a good, straight unionist, but in cases of sickness or trouble he was as apt to forget his unionism, as all bushmen are, at all times (and for all time), to forget their creed. So, one evening, the Giraffe blundered into the Carriers’ Arms—of all places in the world—when it was full of teamsters; he had his hat in his hand and some small silver and coppers in it.
“I say, you fellers, there’s a poor, sick Afghan in the camp down there along the——”
A big, brawny bullock-driver took him firmly by the shoulders, or, rather by the elbows, and ran him out before any damage was done. The Giraffe took it as he took most things, good-humouredly; but, about dusk, he was seen slipping down towards the Afghan camp with a billy of soup.
“I believe,” remarked Tom Hall, “that when the Giraffe goes to heaven—and he’s the only one of us, as far as I can see, that has a ghost of a show—I believe that when he goes to heaven, the first thing he’ll do will be to take his infernal hat round amongst the angels—getting up a collection for this damned world that he left behind.”
“Well, I don’t think there’s so much to his credit, after all,” said Jack Mitchell, shearer. “You see, the Giraffe is ambitious; he likes public life, and that accounts for him shoving himself forward with his collections. As for bothering about people in trouble, that’s only common curiosity; he’s one of those chaps that are always shoving their noses into other people’s troubles. And, as for looking after sick men—why! there’s nothing the Giraffe likes better than pottering round a sick man, and watching him and studying him. He’s awfully interested in sick men, and they’re pretty scarce out here. I tell you there’s nothing he likes better—except, maybe, it’s pottering round a corpse. I believe he’d ride forty miles to help and sympathize and potter round a funeral. The fact of the matter is that the Giraffe is only enjoying himself with other people’s troubles—that’s all it is. It’s only vulgar curiosity and selfishness. I set it down to his ignorance; the way he was brought up.”
A few days after the Afghan incident the Giraffe and his hat had a run of luck. A German, one of a party who were building a new wooden bridge over the Big Billabong, was helping unload some girders from a truck at the railway station, when a big log slipped on the skids and his leg was smashed badly. They carried him to the Carriers’ Arms, which was the nearest hotel, and into a bedroom behind the bar, and sent for the doctor. The Giraffe was in evidence as usual.
“It vas not that at all,” said German Charlie, when they asked him if he was in much pain. “It vas not that at all. I don’t cares a damn for der bain; but dis is der tird year—und I vas going home dis year—after der gontract—und der gontract yoost commence!”
That was the burden of his song all through, between his groans.
There were a good few chaps sitting quietly about the bar and veranda when the doctor arrived. The Giraffe was sitting at the end of the counter, on which he had laid his hat while he wiped his face, neck, and forehead with a big speckled “sweatrag.” It was a very hot day.
The doctor, a good-hearted young Australian, was heard saying something. Then German Charlie, in a voice that rung with pain:
“Make that leg right, doctor—quick! Dis is der tird pluddy year—und I must go home!”
The doctor asked him if he was in great pain.
“Neffer mind der pluddy bain, doctor! Neffer mind der pluddy bain! Dot vas nossing. Make dat leg well quick, doctor. Dis vas der last gontract, and I vas going home dis year.” Then the words jerked out of him by physical agony: “Der girl vas vaiting dree year, und—by Got! I must go home.”
The publican—Watty Braithwaite, known as “Watty Broadweight,” or, more familiarly, “Watty Bothways”—turned over the Giraffe’s hat in a tired, bored sort of way, dropped a quid into it, and nodded resignedly at the Giraffe.
The Giraffe caught up the hint and the hat with alacrity. The hat went all round town, so to speak; and, as soon as his leg was firm enough not to come loose on the road German Charlie went home.
It was well known that I contributed to the Sydney Bulletin and several other papers. The Giraffe’s bump of reverence was very large, and swelled especially for sick men and poets. He treated me with much more respect than is due from a bushman to a man, and with an odd sort of extra gentleness I sometimes fancied. But one day he rather surprised me.
“I’m sorry to trouble yer,” he said in a shamefaced way. “I don’t know as you go in for sportin’, but One-eyed Bogan an’ Barcoo-Rot is goin’ to have a bit of a scrap down the Billybong this evenin’, an’——”
“A bit of a what?” I asked.
“A bit of fight to a finish,” he said apologetically. “An’ the chaps is tryin’ to fix up a fiver to put some life into the thing. There’s bad blood between One-eyed Bogan and BarcooRot, an’ it won’t do them any harm to have it out.”
It was a great fight, I remember. There must have been a couple of score blood-soaked handkerchiefs (or “sweat-rags”) buried in a hole on the field of battle, and the Giraffe was busy the rest of the evening helping to patch up the principals. Later on he took up a small collection for the loser, who happened to be Barcoo-Rot in spite of the advantage of an eye.
The Salvation Army lassie, who went round with the War Cry, nearly always sold the Giraffe three copies.
A new-chum parson, who wanted a subscription to build or enlarge a chapel, or something, sought the assistance of the Giraffe’s influence with his mates.
“Well,” said the Giraffe, “I ain’t a churchgoer meself. I ain’t what you might call a religious cove, but I’ll be glad to do what I can to help yer. I don’t suppose I can do much. I ain’t been to church since I was a kiddy.”
The parson was shocked, but later on he learned to appreciate the Giraffe and his mates, and to love Australia for the bushman’s sake, and it was he who told me the above anecdote.
The Giraffe helped fix some stalls for a Catholic Church bazaar, and some of the chaps chaffed him about it in the union office.
“You’ll be taking up a collection for a joss-house down in the Chinamen’s camp next,” said Tom Hall in conclusion.
“Well, I ain’t got nothin’ agen the Roming Carflics,” said the Giraffe. “An’ Father O’Donovan’s a very decent sort of cove. He stuck up for the unions all right in the strike anyway.” (“He wouldn’t be Irish if he wasn’t,” someone commented.) “I carried swags once for six months with a feller that was a Carflick, an’ he was a very straight feller. And a girl I knowed turned Carflick to marry a chap that had got her into trouble, an’ she was always jes’ the same to me after as she was before. Besides, I like to help everything that’s goin’ on.”
Tom Hall and one or two others went out hurriedly to have a drink. But we all loved the Giraffe.
He was very innocent and very humorous, especially when he meant to be most serious and philosophical.
“Some of them bush girls is regular tomboys,” he said to me solemnly one day. “Some of them is too cheeky altogether. I remember once I was stoppin’ at a place—they was sort of relations o’ mine—an’ they put me to sleep in a room off the verander, where there was a glass door an’ no blinds. An’ the first mornin’ the girls—they was sort o’ cousins o’ mine—they come gigglin’ and foolin’ round outside the door on the verander, an’ kep’ me in bed till nearly ten o’clock. I had to put me trowsis on under the bed-clothes in the end. But I got back on ’em the next night,” he reflected.
“How did you do that, Bob?” I asked.
“Why, I went to bed in me trowsis!”
One day I was on a plank, painting the ceiling of the bar of the Great Western Hotel. I was anxious to get the job finished. The work had been kept back most of the day by chaps handing up long beers to me, and drawing my attention to the alleged fact that I was putting on the paint wrong side out. I was slapping it on over the last few boards when:
“ I’m very sorry to trouble yer; I always seem to be troublin’ yer; but there’s that there woman and them girls——”
I looked down—about the first time I had looked down on him—and there was the Giraffe, with his hat brim up on the plank and two half-crowns in it.
“Oh, that’s all right, Bob,” I said, and I dropped in half a crown.
There were shearers in the bar, and presently there was some barracking. It appeared that that there woman and them girls were strange women, in the local as well as the Biblical sense of the word, who had come from Sydney at the end of the shearing-season, and had taken a cottage on the edge of the scrub on the outskirts of the town. There had been trouble this week in connection with a row at their establishment, and they had been fined, warned off by the police, and turned out by their landlord.
“This is a bit too red-hot, Giraffe,” said one of the shearers. “Them ——s has made enough out of us coves. They’ve got plenty of stuff, don’t you fret. Let ’em go to ——! I’m blanked if I give a sprat.”
“They ain’t got their fares to Sydney,” said the Giraffe. “An’, what’s more, the little ’un is sick, an’ two of them has kids in Sydney.”
“How the —— do you know?”
“Why, one of ’em come to me an’ told me all about it.”
There was an involuntary guffaw.
“Look here, Bob,” said Billy Woods, the rouseabouts’ secretary, kindly. “Don’t you make a fool of yourself. You’ll have all the chaps laughing at you. Those girls are only working you for all you’re worth. I suppose one of ’em came crying and whining to you. Don’t you bother about ’em. You don’t know ’em; they can pump water at a moment’s notice. You haven’t had any experience with women yet, Bob.”
“She didn’t come whinin’ and cryin’ to me,” said the Giraffe, dropping his twanging drawl a little. “She looked me straight in the face an’ told me all about it.”
“I say, Giraffe,” said Box-o’-Tricks, “what have you been doin’? You’ve bin down there on the nod. I’m surprised at yer, Giraffe.”
“An’ he pretends to be so gory soft an’ innocent, too,” growled the Bogan. “We know all about you, Giraffe.”
“Look here, Giraffe,” said Mitchell the shearer. “I’d never have thought it of you. We all thought you were the only virgin youth west the river; I always thought you were a moral young man. You mustn’t think that because your conscience is pricking you everyone else’s is.”
“I ain’t had anythin’ to do with them,” said the Giraffe, drawling again. “I ain’t a cove that goes in for that sort of thing. But other chaps has, and I think they might as well help ’em out of their fix.”
“They’re a rotten crowd,” said Billy Woods. “You don’t know them, Bob. Don’t bother about them—they’re not worth it. Put your money in your pocket. You’ll find a better use for it before next shearing.”
“Better shout, Giraffe,” said Box-o’-Tricks.
Now in spite of the Giraffe’s softness he was the hardest man in Bourke to move when he’d decided on what he thought was “the fair thing to do.” Another peculiarity of his was that on occasion, such for instance as “sayin’ a few words” at a strike meeting, he would straighten himself, drop the twang, and rope in his drawl., so to speak.
“Well, look here, you chaps,” he said now. “I don’t know anything about them women. I s’pose they’re bad, but I don’t suppose they’re worse than men has made them. All I know is that there’s four women turned out, without any stuff, and every woman in Bourke, an’ the police, an’ the law agen ’em. An’ the fact that they is women is agenst ’em most of all. You don’t expect ’em to hump their swags to Sydney! Why, only I ain’t got the stuff I wouldn’t trouble yer. I’d pay their fares meself. Look,” he said, lowering his voice, “there they are now, an’ one of the girls is cryin’. Don’t let ’em see yer lookin’.”
I dropped softly from the plank and peeped out with the rest.
They stood by the fence on the opposite side of the street, a bit up towards the railway station, with their portmanteaux and bundles at their feet. One girl leant with her arms on the fence rail and her face buried in them, another was trying to comfort her. The third girl and the woman stood facing our way. The woman was good-looking; she had a hard face, but it might have been made hard. The third girl seemed half defiant, half inclined to cry. Presently she went to the other side of the girl who was crying on the fence and put her arm round her shoulder. The woman suddenly turned her back on us and stood looking away over the paddocks.
The hat went round. Billy Woods was first, then Box-o’Tricks, and then Mitchell.
Billy contributed with eloquent silence. “I was only jokin’, Giraffe,” said Box-o’-Tricks, dredging his pockets for a couple of shillings. It was some time after the shearing, and most of the chaps were hard up.
“Ah, well,” sighed Mitchell. “There’s no help for it. If the Giraffe would take up a collection to import some decent girls to this God-forgotten hole there might be some sense in it. . . . It’s bad enough for the Giraffe to undermine our religious prejudices, and tempt us to take a morbid interest in sick Chows and Afghans, and blacklegs and widows; but when he starts mixing us up with strange women it’s time to buck.” And he prospected his pockets and contributed two shillings, some odd pennies, and a pinch of tobacco dust.
“I don’t mind helping the girls, but I’m damned if I’ll give a penny to help the old——,” said Tom Hall.
“Well, she was a girl once herself,” drawled the Giraffe.
The Giraffe went round to the other pubs and to the union offices, and when he returned he seemed satisfied with the plate, but troubled about something else.
“I don’t know what to do for them for to-night,” he said. “None of the pubs or boardin’-houses will hear of them, an’ there ain’t no empty houses, an’ the women is all agen ’em.”
“Not all,” said Alice, the big, handsome barmaid from Sydney. “Come here, Bob.” She gave the Giraffe half a sovereign and a look for which some of us would have paid him ten pounds—had we had the money, and had the look been transferable.
“Wait a minute, Bob,” she said, and she went in to speak to the landlord.
“There’s an empty bedroom at the end of the store in the yard,” she said when she came back. “They can camp there for to-night if they behave themselves. You’d better tell ’em, Bob.”
“Thank yer, Alice,” said the Giraffe.
Next day, after work, the Giraffe and I drifted together and down by the river in the cool of the evening, and sat on the edge of the steep, drought-parched bank.
“I heard you saw your lady friends off this morning, Bob,” I said, and was sorry I said it, even before he answered.
“Oh, they ain’t no friends of mine,” he said. “Only four poor devils of women. I thought they mightn’t like to stand waitin’ with the crowd on the platform, so I jest offered to get their tickets an’ told ’em to wait round at the back of the station till the bell rung. . . . An’ what do yer think they did, Harry?” he went on, with an exasperatingly unintelligent grin. “Why, they wanted to kiss me.”
“Yes. An’ they would have done it, too, if I hadn’t been so long. . . . Why, I’m blessed if they didn’t kiss me hands.”
“You don’t say so.”
“God’s truth. Somehow I didn’t like to go on the platform with them after that; besides, they was cryin’, and I can’t stand women cryin’. But some of the chaps put them into an empty carriage.” He thought a moment. Then:
“There’s some terrible good-hearted fellers in the world,” he reflected.
I thought so too.
“Bob,” I said, “you’re a single man. Why don’t you get married and settle down?”
“Well,” he said, “I ain’t got no wife an’ kids, that’s a fact. But it ain’t my fault.”
He may have been right about the wife. But I thought of the look that Alice had given him, and——
“Girls seem to like me right enough,” he said, “but it don’t go no further than that. The trouble is that I’m so long, and I always seem to get shook after little girls. At least there was one little girl in Bendigo that I was properly gone on.”
“And wouldn’t she have you?”
“Well, it seems not.”
“Did you ask her?”
“Oh, yes, I asked her right enough.”
“Well, and what did she say?”
“She said it would be redicilus for her to be seen trotting alongside of a chimbley like me.”
“Perhaps she didn’t mean that. There are any amount of little women who like tall men.”
“I thought of that too—afterwards. P’r’aps she didn’t mean it that way. I s’pose the fact of the matter was that she didn’t cotton on to me, and wanted to let me down easy. She didn’t want to hurt me feelin’s, if yer understand—she was a very good-hearted little girl. There’s some terrible tall fellers where I come from, and I know two as married little girls.”
He seemed a hopeless case.
“Sometimes,” he said, “sometimes I wish that I wasn’t so blessed long.”
“There’s that there deaf jackeroo,” he reflected presently. “He’s something in the same fix about girls as I am. He’s too deaf and I’m too long.”
“How do you make that out?” I asked. “He’s got three girls, to my knowledge, and, as for being deaf, why, he gasses more than any man in the town, and knows more of what’s going on than old Mother Brindle the washerwoman.”
“Well, look at that now!” said the Giraffe, slowly. “Who’d have thought it? He never told me he had three girls, an’ as for hearin’ news, I always tell him anything that’s goin’ on that I think he doesn’t catch. He told me his trouble was that whenever he went out with a girl people could hear what they was sayin’—at least they could hear what she was sayin’ to him, an’ draw their own conclusions, he said. He said he went out one night with a girl, and some of the chaps foxed ’em an’ heard her sayin’ ‘don’t’ to him, an’ put it all round town.”
“What did she say ‘don’t’ for?” I asked.
“He didn’t tell me that, but I s’pose he was kissin’ her or huggin’ her or something.”
“Bob,” I said presently, “didn’t you try the little girl in Bendigo a second time?”
“No,” he said. “What was the use. She was a good little girl, and I wasn’t goin’ to go botherin’ her. I ain’t the sort of cove that goes hangin’ round where he isn’t wanted. But somehow I couldn’t stay about Bendigo after she gave me the hint, so I thought I’d come over an’ have a knock round on this side for a year or two.”
“And you never wrote to her?”
“No. What was the use of goin’ pesterin’ her with letters? I know what trouble letters give me when I have to answer one. She’d have only had to tell me the straight truth in a letter an’ it wouldn’t have done me any good. But I’ve pretty well got over it by this time.”
A few days later I went to Sydney. The Giraffe was the last I shook hands with from the carriage window, and he slipped something in a piece of newspaper into my hand.
“I hope yer won’t be offended,” he drawled, “but some of the chaps thought you mightn’t be too flush of stuff—you’ve been shoutin’ a good deal; so they put a quid or two together. They thought it might help yer to have a bit of a fly round in Sydney.”
I was back in Bourke before next shearing. On the evening of my arrival I ran against the Giraffe; he seemed strangely shaken over something, but he kept his hat on his head.
“Would yer mind takin’ a stroll as fur as the Billerbong?” he said. “I got something I’d like to tell yer.”
His big, brown, sunburnt hands trembled and shook as he took a letter from his pocket and opened it.
“I’ve just got a letter,” he said. “A letter from that little girl at Bendigo. It seems it was all a mistake. I’d like you to read it. Somehow I feel as if I want to talk to a feller, and I’d rather talk to you than any of them other chaps.”
It was a good letter, from a big-hearted little girl. She had been breaking her heart for the great ass all these months. It seemed that he had left Bendigo without saying good-bye to her. “Somehow I couldn’t bring meself to it,” he said, when I taxed him with it. She had never been able to get his address until last week; then she got it from a Bourke man who had gone south. She called him “an awful long fool,” which he was, without the slightest doubt, and she implored him to write, and come back to her.
“And will you go back, Bob?” I asked.
“My oath! I’d take the train to-morrer only I ain’t got the stuff. But I’ve got a stand in Big Billerbong Shed an’ I’ll soon knock a few quid together. I’ll go back as soon as ever shearin’s over. I’m goin’ to write away to her to-night.”
The Giraffe was the “ringer” of Big Billabong Shed that season. His tallies averaged a hundred and twenty a day. He only sent his hat round once during shearing, and it was noticed that he hesitated at first and only contributed half a crown. But then it was a case of a man being taken from the shed by the police for wife desertion.
“It’s always that way,” commented Mitchell. “Those soft, good-hearted fellows always end by getting hard and selfish. The world makes ’em so. It’s the thought of the soft fools they’ve been that finds out sooner or later and makes ’em repent. Like as not the Giraffe will be the meanest man out back before he’s done.”
When Big Billabong cut out, and we got back to Bourke with our dusty swags and dirty cheques, I spoke to Tom Hall:
“Look here, Tom,” I said. “That long fool, the Giraffe, has been breaking his heart for a little girl in Bendigo ever since he’s been out back, and she’s been breaking her heart for him, and the ass didn’t know it till he got a letter from her just before Big Billabong started. He’s going to-morrow morning. “
That evening Tom stole the Giraffe’s hat. “I s’pose it’ll turn up in the mornin’,” said the Giraffe. “I don’t mind a lark,” he added, “but it does seem a bit red hot for the chaps to collar a cove’s hat and a feller goin’ away for good, p’r’aps, in the mornin’.”
Mitchell started the thing going with a quid.
“It’s worth it,” he said, “to get rid of him. We’ll have some peace now. There won’t be so many accidents or women in trouble when the Giraffe and his blessed hat are gone. Anyway, he’s an eyesore in the town, and he’s getting on my nerves for one. . . . Come on, you sinners! Chuck ’em in; we’re only taking quids and half-quids.”
About daylight next morning Tom Hall slipped into the Giraffe’s room at the Carriers’ Arms. The Giraffe was sleeping peacefully. Tom put the hat on a chair by his side. The collection had been a record one, and, besides the packet of money in the crown of the hat, there was a silver-mounted pipe with case—the best that could be bought in Bourke, a gold brooch, and several trifles—besides an ugly valentine of a long man in his shirt walking the room with a twin on each arm.
Tom was about to shake the Giraffe by the shoulder, when he noticed a great foot, with about half a yard of big-boned ankle and shank, sticking out at the bottom of the bed. The temptation was too great. Tom took up the hair-brush, and, with the back of it, he gave a smart rap on the point of an in-growing toe-nail, and slithered.
We heard the Giraffe swearing good-naturedly for a while, and then there was a pregnant silence. He was staring at the hat we supposed.
We were all up at the station to see him off. It was rather a long wait. The Giraffe edged me up to the other end of the platform.
He seemed overcome.
“There’s—there’s some terrible good-hearted fellers in this world,” he said. “You mustn’t forgit ’em, Harry, when you make a big name writin’. I’m—well, I’m blessed if I don’t feel as if I was jist goin’ to blubber!”
I was glad he didn’t. The Giraffe blubberin’ would have been a spectacle. I steered him back to his friends.
“Ain’t you going to kiss me, Bob?” said the Great Western’s big, handsome barmaid, as the bell rang.
“Well, I don’t mind kissin’ you, Alice,” he said, wiping his mouth. “But I’m goin’ to be married, yer know.” And he kissed her fair on the mouth.
“There’s nothin’ like gettin’ into practice,” he said, grinning round.
We thought he was improving wonderfully; but at the last moment something troubled him.
“Look here, you chaps,” he said, hesitatingly, with his hand in his pocket, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with all this stuff. There’s that there poor washerwoman that scalded her legs liftin’ the boiler of clothes off the fire——”
We shoved him into the carriage. He hung—about half of him—out the window, wildly waving his hat, till the train disappeared in the scrub.
And, as I sit here writing by lamplight at midday, in the midst of a great city of shallow social sham, of hopeless, squalid poverty, of ignorant selfishness, cultured or brutish, and of noble and heroic endeavour frowned down or callously neglected, I am almost aware of a burst of sunshine in the room, and a long form leaning over my chair, and:
“Excuse me for troublin’ yer; I’m always troublin’ yer; but there’s that there poor woman. . . .”
And I wish I could immortalize him!