I had luck, and did well for three or four seasons running. I was always going to build a new brick-and-shingle house for Mary—bricks and shingles are cooler than slabs and iron—but that was one of the houses I never built—except in the air. I’ve lived on the bank of the creek, and the place looked about the same as ever—and about as dreary and lonely and God-forsaken. I didn’t even get any more furniture, in a good many of ’em.
So we still lived in the old slab-and-bark house and Mary got tired of bothering me about it. I’d always say, “Wait till the new house is built.” It was no home for a woman. I can see that now.
You remember how I was always talking about making a nice home for Mary, and giving her more of my time, and trying to make her life a little brighter when things brightened up. I tried to do it by taking her trips to Sydney whenever I could get her to go, leaving her brother James to look after the station. At first I’d send the black boy ahead with fresh horses, and we’d flash down in the buggy the hundred miles or so of glorious mountain and valley road to Wallerawang, leave the buggy and two horses there, and take the train over the Blue Mountains to the Big Smoke. Then again, when wool was up, I’d take berths in a sleeping carriage from Dubbo, and put up at the Royal in Sydney, and do the thing in great style. But Mary thought the sleeping carriage was unnecessary expense, and she didn’t like stopping at an hotel. She was always anxious about me and the drink. She preferred some “cheap, quiet place.” “A run of bad seasons might come along at any time, Joe,” she said, “and then you’ll be sorry for the money you throw away now.”
I thought it was very unjust of her to talk of throwing away money when I was only trying to give her pleasure—but then women were always unjust and unreasonable.
“If we don’t enjoy ourselves when we’ve got the chance, we never will,” I said.
“We could do that just as well at home, Joe,” said Mary, “if you only knew—if you’d listen to me, and go the right way to work about it. Why can’t you settle down in your own home, and make it bright, and be contented?”
“Well, what’s the use of furniture, or a new house for that matter, when there’s no one but Bushies to look at it?” I said. “We might just as well live in a tent. What’s the use of burying ourselves in the blasted Bush altogether? We’ve got two pretty children, and you’re good-looking yet, Mary, and it isn’t as if we were an old man and woman.”
“I’m nearly twenty-seven,” said Mary. “I only thought of it to-day, and it came like a shock to me. I feel like an old woman.”
I’d learned enough of women not to argue with Mary while she was in that mood. The fact of the matter was that after the first trip or two she didn’t seem to enjoy herself in the city. You see, she always insisted on taking the children with her. She couldn’t bring herself to trust them at home with the girl, and I knew that if she did, she’d be worrying all the time, and spoil her pleasure and mine, and so we always took them with us. But they were an awful drag in the city. Mary wouldn’t trust ’em with a strange woman or girl, except perhaps for a few hours when they were in bed, and we went to one of the theatres. So we always carted them round the town with us. I soon got tired of humping one or the other of ’em. But crossing the streets was the worst. It was bad enough with Mary when we were out alone. She would hang back when the crossing was clear, and suddenly make a start when there was a rush of traffic, and baulk as often as not, and sometimes turn and run back to the kerb from the middle of the street—me trying to hang on to her all the time—till I’d get rippin’ wild, and go for her.
“Damn it all!” I said, “why can’t you trust to me and come when I tell you? One would think I came out with the fixed intention of getting you run over, and getting rid of you.” And Mary would lose her temper, and say, “Ah, well, Joe, I sometimes think you do want to get rid of me, the way you go on,” or something like that, and our pleasure would be spoilt for the day. But with the children! What with one or the other of them always whimpering or crying, and Jim always yelling when we got into a tram, or ’bus, or boat, or into some place that he didn’t trust, or when we reckoned we were lost, which was about every twenty minutes—and, what with Mary losing her temper every time I lost mine, there were times when I really wished in my heart I was on my own. . . . Ah, well, there came a day when I had my wish.
I forgot about the hard life in huts and camps in the Bush, and the bitter, heart-breaking struggle she’d shared with me since we were married, and how she’d slaved and fought through the blazing drought on that wretched, lonely selection, in the first year, while I was away with the team most of the time—how she’d stuck to me through thick and thin. I only thought she was very irritable and selfish and unreasonable, and that she ought to be able to keep the children in better order. I believed that she had spoilt them. And I was wild to think how our holiday was being wasted.
After the first time or two, Mary didn’t seem to enjoy the theatre. She told me one night, when we got a bit confidential, that the play had depressed her, and made her sad.
“How’s that?” I asked.
“Well, Joe,” she said, “I don’t want to hurt you, Joe, but, if you must know, I was thinking all the time of the past—of our own lives.”
That hurt me and made me wild. I’d been thinking, too, all the time I was watching the play, of life as it was, and my own dull, sordid, hopeless, monotonous life in particular. But I hadn’t been thinking of hers. The truth seemed that we were getting on each other’s nerves—we’d been too long together alone in the Bush; and it isn’t good for a man and his wife to be too much alone. I at least had come to think that when Mary said unpleasant things she only did it to irritate me.
“What are you always raking up the past for?” I said. “Can’t you have done with it? Ain’t I doing my best to make you happy? What more do you want?”
“I want a good many little things, Joe,” said Mary.
We quarrelled then, but in the hard, cold, quiet, sarcastic way we’d got into lately—not the old short, fierce quarrel of other days, when we’d make it up, and love each other all the more afterwards. I don’t know how much I hurt her, but I know she cut me to the heart sometimes, as a woman can cut a man. Next evening I went out alone, and didn’t get back to the hotel till after twelve. Mary was up, waiting; but she didn’t say much, only that she had been afraid to go to bed. Next morning she asked me to stay in and watch the children while she went shopping, and bought the things she wanted to take home, and I did, and we made it up, and got along smoothly until after tea; then I wanted to go out, and Mary didn’t want me to—she wanted me to sit on the balcony with her.
I remember she was very earnest about me staying in with her that evening, and if I hadn’t been drinking the night before I would have stayed. I waited awhile, and then I got restless, and found I was out of tobacco.
“I will send out for it, Joe,” said Mary.
“What nonsense,” I said. “I’ll run out and get it myself. I’m all right. I’ll get some fruit, too, and chocolates, for the children. I’ll only be a few minutes.”
“Well, if you must go, you must,” she said, in the hard tone again.
“I’ll only be a few minutes, I tell you,” I said. “Don’t start the thing again, for God’s sake.”
“Well, promise me you won’t be more than a quarter of an hour,” said Mary, “and I’ll wait here for you. I don’t like being left alone in a place full of strange men.”
“That’s all right, Mary,” I said, and I stepped out for half an hour. I was restless as a hen that didn’t know where to lay. I wanted to walk, and was fond of the noise and bustle of the streets. They fascinated me, and dragged me out.
I didn’t get back to the hotel till daylight.
I hoped to find Mary asleep, and I went into the bedroom very softly. She was in bed, but she was awake. She took the thing so quietly that it made me uneasy. When an impulsive, determined little woman begins to take things very quietly, it’s time for the man to straighten up and look out. She didn’t even ask me where I’d been, and that made me more uneasy (I had a good yarn readied up), and when she spoke of a murder case in the Herald and asked me if I’d read the divorce case, where a wife sued her husband for drunkenness and adultery, I began to get scared. I wished she’d go for me, and have done with it, but she didn’t. At last, at breakfast, she said—
“I think we’ll go home to-day, Joe; we’ll take the evening train from Redfern. You can get any business done that you want to do by that time.”
And I thought so, too.
It was a miserable journey—one of the most dreary and miserable I ever made in my life. Both the children were peevish all the way. While there were other passengers in the carriage I couldn’t talk to Mary, and when we were alone she wouldn’t talk to me—except to answer yes and no.
The worst of it was that I didn’t know what she thought, or how much she suspected. I wondered whether she believed that I had deceived her, and that worried me a lot. I hadn’t been drinking much, and I came home sober that morning, so drink was no excuse for me being out all night. I thought once or twice that it would have been much better if I’d come home drunk, with a muddled yarn about meeting an old chum and having a glorious “auld-lang-syne” night at some club.
I was very attentive all the way. I got tea and cake and sandwiches at every refreshment room, and whatever fruit I could lay hands on, and nursed the children to sleep by turns; but it didn’t soften Mary. She wasn’t a child any longer. She only said, “Thank you, Joe,” and as I watched her face it seemed to grow harder and more set and obstinate.
“Mary,” I said at last, when we were going down the Great Zig-zag, “suppose we get out at Wallerawang, and go up through Cudgegong? We can rest there for a day, and then go on to Gulgong, and see your sister and Dick, and stay there for a night perhaps.”
“If you like, Joe,” said Mary.
“You’ll like to see Hilda, Mary, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes, Joe,” she said, in the same cold, disinterested tone, “I would like to see her.”
The case seemed hopeless. I had first-class tickets through to Dubbo, and would have to get others for the Cudgegong (Mudgee) line; besides, the coach fares would be extra, and I thought Mary would rouse herself, and buck at the waste of money, but she didn’t seem to mind that a bit. But Haviland cattle station was on the Cudgegong line, and it was at Haviland where I first met Mary. She was brought up there from a child, and I thought that the sight of the place would break her down, if anything would.
We changed trains at Wallerawang Junction at midnight, and passed the great Capertee Valley and Macdonald’s Hole in the moonlight—a great basin in the mountains, where “Starlight” and the Marsdens used to ride, and hide sometimes for months together, in Robbery Under Arms, and where thousands of tourists will go some day. All along the Western line I saw old roads and tracks where I came droving as a boy, and old camps where I camped; and the ruins of one old Halfway House, dismal and haunted, in the heavy scrub, where my old chum Jack Barnes and I had a glorious spree one time; and Gerty—but never mind that; and lonely, deserted old roads, where I carried when I grew up, and often tramped beside the bullocks or horses, and spouted Gordon’s poetry till it lifted me, and wished to God that I could write like that, or do something, or break away from the life that was driving me mad. And it all made me feel very dismal now and hopeless, and I hated the Bush worse than ever, and made up my mind to take Mary and the children out of it, just as soon as I could get rid of the station. I’d take the first reasonable offer that came.
Mary slept, or pretended to sleep, most of the time. and I kept the children quiet. I watched her face a good deal, and tried to persuade myself that she hadn’t changed much since the days when I had courted her at Haviland; but somehow, Mary and the girl I got to love me years ago seemed very different. It seemed to me as if—well, as if I’d courted a girl and married a woman. But perhaps it was time and distance—or I might have changed most. I began to feel myself getting old (forty was very near), but it had never struck me that Mary would feel that way too.
We had breakfast at Rylstone. After that Mary talked a little, but still in a hard, cold way. She wondered how things were at home, and hoped it would rain soon. She said the weather looked and smelt like the beginning of a drought. Hanging out blue lights, I thought. Then she’d be silent for miles, except to speak to the children; and then I got a suspicion that she was talking at me through them, and it made me wild, and I had a job to keep from breaking out. It was during that journey that I first began to wonder what my wife was thinking about, and to worry over it—to distrust her silence. I wished she’d cry, and then it struck me that I hadn’t seen tears in Mary’s eyes for God knows how long—and the thought of it hurt me a lot.
We had the carriage to ourselves after Dungaree, and Haviland was the next station. I wished we could have passed Haviland by moonlight, or in the evening, instead of the garish morning. I thought it would have been more likely to soften Mary. I’d rehearsed the business, half unconsciously, humbugging myself, as men will. I was going to be very silent, and look extra sad, and keep gazing out of the window, and never look at Mary, and try, if possible, to squeeze some suspicious moisture into my eyes, as we passed the place. But I felt by instinct that my barneying and pleading and bluffing and acting and humbugging days were past—also my bullying days. I couldn’t work on Mary’s feelings now like I used to. I knew, or thought I knew, that she saw through me, and felt that she knew I knew it. Most men’s wives see through their husband’s sooner or later, and when a wife does, it’s time for a husband to drop his nonsense, and go straight. She’ll know when he’s sincere and when he’s not—he needn’t be afraid of that.
And so, the nearer we got to Haviland, the more helpless and unprepared I felt. But when the train swung round the horn of the crescent of hills in which Haviland lay there wasn’t any need for acting. There was the old homestead, little changed, and as fair as it seemed in those far-away days, nearly eight years ago, when that lanky scamp, Joe Wilson, came hanging round after “Little ’Possum,” who was far too good for the likes of him. There was the stable and buggy house that Jack Barnes and I built between shearings. There was the wide, brick-floored, vine-covered verandah where I first saw Mary; and there was the little green flat by the river where I stood up, that moonlight night, like a man, and thrashed big “Romany,” the station hand, because he’d said something nasty about little Mary Brand—all the time she was sitting singing with the other girls under the verandah to amuse a new chum Jackeroo. And there, near the willows by the river, was the same old white, hardwood log where Mary and I sat in the moonlight next night, while all the rest were dancing in the big woolshed— when I made her understand how awfully fond of her I was. And there——
There was no need for humbugging now. The trouble was to swallow the lumps in my throat, and keep back the warm gush of suspicious moisture that came to my eyes. Mary sat opposite, and I stole a glance at her. She was staring out with wide-opened eyes, and there were tears in them—and a scared look, I fancied for the moment. Then suddenly she turned from the window and looked at me, her eyes wide and brimming, and—well, it was the same little Mary, my sweetheart, after our first quarrel years ago.
I jumped up and sat down by her side, and put my arm round her; and she just put her arms round my neck and her head down on my chest, and cried till the children cried too, and little Jim interfered—he thought I was hurting his mother. Then Mary looked up and smiled. She comforted the children, and told them to kiss their father, and for the rest of the journey we talked of those old days, and at last Mary put her arms round my neck, and said—
“You never did deceive me, Joe, did you? I want you to swear that to me.”
“No, Mary,” I said, “I never did. I swear to God I never did!”
And God knew whether I had done so or not.