In the Roaring Fifties


Edward Dyson

THE CHRISTMAS of 1854 was the gayest ever known at Boobyalla; never had Mrs. Donald Macdougal been so prodigal, never had such lavish hospitality been dispensed under Macdougal’s roof-tree, and the squatter wore a dour and anxious look as he saw the liquor flowing, and heard the music, and the laughter, and the clatter of dishes, and found himself in collision with his wife’s guests in all the passages and windings of his large, wandering homestead. Macdougal, who, in addition to his sobriquet of Monkey Mack, was known as Old Dint-the-Tin by the sundowners, shearers, and miscellaneous swagmen to whom he sold pints of flour out of a pannikin dinted in to shorten the measure, was not miserly in his dealings with his wife and his children. He was reputed to be mean enough to steal the buttons off a shepherd’s shirt for his own use, and yet permitted his wife to indulge in all the extravagances of purple and fine linen, and paid, if not cheerfully—for it was not in his nature to be cheerful over anything—at least without open complaint, for social indulgences that ate up a large part of the results of his miraculous economies in station management, and a sedulous penuriousness in everything beyond his wife, his children, and his few favourite horses.

But on this occasion Mrs. Macdougal had outdone herself, and had exceeded all her previous efforts to shine as a generous hostess. Her aim had been to make Boobyalla the centre of attraction for thirty miles round throughout the merry Yuletide, and for nearly two weeks Donald had gone about with an air of lively trepidation, due to an idea that he was being brought precipitately to ruin by all this wasteful and ridiculous excess. When Mrs. Macdougal’s guests came upon her lord and master laboriously casting up sums with a stab of carpenter’s pencil on bits of waste-paper, or smooth chips, or even on the walls, they understood perfectly that he was satisfying himself, with accurate calculations, that the shameful increase in the household expenses their presence entailed had not dragged him over the jealously guarded margin between income and expenditure.

Mrs. Macdougal’s guests did not mind Macdougal in the least, however; the eccentricities of Old Dint-the-Tin were well known to the neighbouring squatters, and from their point of view, as visitors at Boobyalla on pleasure bent, he did not count. They bumped against him in the dark passages of his absurdly disjointed house, and found him on occasions in the drawing-room and the dining-room, but nothing was done or left undone out of consideration for his feelings. If they were content to talk about sheep and cattle, he would converse with them, and he was even capable of enthusiasm on the subject of horses, but evidently had no interests apart from these matters. Nobody outside the family circle had known him to address more than half a dozen words to his wife at one time, and his average remark contained one monosyllable. He behaved a good deal like a stranger towards his own children. Occasionally he went so far as to place a hand on a curly head, with an uncouth show of interest, or to say a few words of kindness; but it was done diffidently, and a close observer might have detected in the man a sensitive shrinking from the idea of bringing his misshapen figure and weird ugliness into contrast with the peculiar beauty of the youngsters. The only human creature about Boobyalla in whose company he seemed to be quite at home was Yarra, the half-caste aboriginal boy, scandalously reputed in the neighbourhood—not without excellent reason, it must be admitted—to be his own son.

We have seen Donald Macdougal, J.P., as he appeared in Melbourne, but that was on one of the few very special occasions when he condescended to ‘dress up.’ At home on Boobyalla his usual attire comprised a heavy pair of water-tights, old trousers, much the worse for wear more senses than one, hanging in great folds, a dark gray jumper tucked into the trousers, and a battered felt hat, pulled, after long service, into the shape of a limp cone. The only concession to ‘company manners’ Mack would make was in drawing on a despised black coat over his collarless jumper.

In addition to the peculiarities already mentioned, Donald Macdougal had an extraordinary trick of chewing his tongue, and a most disconcerting habit of allowing his trousers to drift down, wrinkle after wrinkle, till chance strangers fell into an agony of apprehension, and then suddenly recovering them with a with a convulsion of his body that was entirely instinctive.

And yet nobody with a pinch of brains ever made the mistake of supposing Donald Macdougal to be a fool. Old Dint-the-Tin was a wealthy man, and had made his fortune out of the land by exercising a shrewdness that was the envy of half the squatters in the colony, and had no apparent desire in life but to go on increasing that fortune in the same way, although there were some who credited him with a great if secret satisfaction in seeing his wife outdo the wives of his neighbours in the social graces, a satisfaction superior to the gratification he derived from adding to his great accumulation in the Bank of New South Wales.

Mrs. Macdougal spent a merry Christmas, if not a New Year. She was extremely fond of company, particularly the company of young people, and that amiable trait was indulged to the utmost. She had drawn her guests from far and wide, and the most superior people amongst the ‘squatocracy’ had not hesitated to accept her invitations, although there were a few who in her absence occasionally referred to her as the cow-girl, to show they had no intention of forgetting the fact that she was once dairymaid to Mrs. Martin Cargill at Longabeena. But society at this stage could not very well afford to be punctilious in the matter of parentage and pedigree, and Mrs. Mack derived no little satisfaction from the mystery surrounding her birth. Her father had carried her to Longabeena, a child just able to toddle; he described himself as a widower, and asked for work, and it was given him, but a week later he disappeared, leaving little Marcia, and the Cargills never heard of him again.

This Mrs. Macdougal found ever so much nicer than having prosaic parents who could be produced at any moment; it left a wide field for the imagination, and Marcia was free to think herself a misplaced princess, or, at the very least, the daughter of a distressed earl. Naturally, being a sentimental soul, she provided herself with a sufficiently romantic history up to the moment of the disappearance of her nondescript papa; and if she could not substantiate it, there was much satisfaction in knowing that no body could disprove it. That she had been christened with an aristocratic and poetical name like Marcia she held to be convincing testimony of her inherent gentility.

Not a little of the extra merriment of Mrs. Macdougal’s Christmas and the happiness of her New Year was due to the fortunate circumstance that she had a lion to present to her guests in the person of the Honourable Walter Ryder. It was Marcia herself who insisted upon giving Mr. Walter Ryder the title of quality; he merely implied that at the most he was a man of good family, eccentric enough to prefer the rough-and-ready Australian life to the methodical weariness of the social order ‘at home’; and when his hostess laughingly insisted on not being deceived by his plebeian pretensions, he gallantly submitted.

‘Give me what title you please, Mrs. Macdougal,’ he said; ‘you are my queen.’

Mr. Ryder had done Macdougal of Boobyalla a great service in rescuing him and his sovereigns from the revolver and the predatory fingers of Dan Coleman and one of his gang, and was always welcome to Boobyalla. To be sure, Macdougal was not to be expected to know how much Coleman had been paid for providing Walter Ryder with this opportunity of ingratiating himself with a prominent squatter, the proprietor of a large sheep-run. The Honourable Walter arrived at the station a week before Christmas, riding a fine gray horse, and carrying with him the paraphernalia of a gentleman. His clothing was cut in the latest possible London style, and he was splendidly equipped. He lamented the one thing Australia could not produce, a satisfactory valet.

‘My profound objection to democracy as a principle arises from the fact that the levelling process destroys our perfect valets,’ he told Mrs. Macdougal.

‘Oh yes, it does, does it not?’ she answered brightly. Possibly it was to provide for his deficiency in this respect that after a few days’ residence on Boobyalla Mr. Ryder was at no little expense and trouble to win the good graces of Yarra, the half-caste. Yarra was a remarkably clever tracker, and uncommonly cute for his years; but within a fortnight the new comer had secured so powerful an influence over him that the boy had confided to one of the gins:

‘That plurry pfeller good man him. Mine die alonga that pfeller!’ meaning that he would cheer fully have given his life for Ryder, which was a great deal, coming from the child of an undemonstrative race.

Yarra had been ordered by Mrs. Macdougal to consider himself Mr. Ryder’s servant during the latter’s stay at Boobyalla, and as there was always a danger of a man of the Honourable Walter’s inexperience being bushed if he rode alone, Yarra followed him on many of his long rides into the ranges, and helped him to explore the gorges and secret recesses of the heavily-timbered hills; but as a rule Mrs. Macdougal accompanied the Englishman, and then Yarra’s services were not required. On occasions Miss Lucy Woodrow made a third, riding a hardy little chestnut mare her mistress had placed at her disposal.

These parties were usually very merry, for Lucy had been transformed into quite a daring Bush-rider, and Mrs. Macdougal, accustomed to the use of many horses since her babyhood, could sit anything in reason with the ease with which she reclined in her invalid chair when her languishing mood was upon her; while Ryder, to repeat Monkey Mack’s compliment, rode ‘like a cattle thief.’

Ryder’s horsemanship and his interest in horses formed something like a bond of sympathy between him and his host, too. Macdougal never walked a hundred yards from his own door; he rode every where, and rode hard always. Mike Burton’s description of him was quite accurate in this respect. He no sooner got across a good horse, or behind one, than he seemed to become possessed with a sort of frenzy of speed, and rode and drove like a madman. He had killed many horses, and once a fine animal died under him, leaving him about fifty miles from home, with one pint in his water-bag and he was nearly dead himself when at length he succeeded in dragging his misshapen limbs to one of the huts on the run. When Ryder first saw Mack on a galloping horse he was reminded of a goat-riding monkey he had seen at a fair in his youth, and had a convulsive disposition to laughter; but he learned to respect the horseman who pushed a spirited animal through timber at a speed that an ordinary rider rarely indulged in on an open road.

The Honourable Walter was at some little trouble to win the good graces of his host; he admired his horses with unaffected enthusiasm, particularly Wallaroo, the beautiful bay entire that had excited Mike’s admiration, reputedly the fastest animal in the colony, and Macdougal’s pride and joy. He even consented to be educated on the points of cattle, and to absorb useful information in homeopathic doses about the various breeds of sheep; but Mack never at any time seemed grateful to Ryder for his kindly condescension, and the affliction under the influence of which Mack indulged in strange and disconcerting gymnastics with his tongue rendered conversation with him something of an ordeal, even to a man of Ryder’s insensitive character. Mack’s tongue seemed to become too large for his mouth at times, and then he obtruded it, rolled it first in one cheek and then in the other, chewed it, and finished with an amazing gulp, implying that the troublesome organ was at length effectually disposed of.

‘He’s been like that as long as I’ve known him, and I met him first on the Liverpool Plains in New South twenty years ago,’ said Martin Cargill of Longabeena to Ryder. ‘He seems exactly the same man now as then.’

‘Yet these little peculiarities did not make him impossible in the eyes of the fair,’ answered Ryder. ‘He has a charming wife.’

‘Oh yes but he had heaps of gold.’

‘Enough to gild that dome on his back!’

‘And a girl had not many opportunities of picking and choosing in the Bush here ten years ago.’

‘Besides, the sex is so compassionate, Mr. Cargill; the ladies love us for our imperfections.’

‘Have you been dearly loved, Mr. Ryder?’ asked an impudent Sydneyside girl of nineteen.

‘No, no!’ laughed Ryder; ‘my opportunities have neglected me terribly!’

Conversation sometimes ran in this vein even at Boobyalla, and when it did Ryder was responsible for much confusion of thought. Conversation in the main dealt with riding-trips, dancing-parties, the stirring incidents of the goldfields, and that prolific subject in all societies and at all times—scandal. Mrs. Macdougal would have been thunderstruck to know that she and her British lion provided the choicest morsels for discussion for some days prior to the breaking up of the party.

The Honourable Walter Ryder had been a great social success; he had introduced an absolutely foreign element into the Bush party. His pose of the cynical, dashing, amiable aristocrat, with a cheerful contempt for all aristocratic pretensions, was admirably sustained. His ready good-fellowship pleased the men; his good looks, his facility in adopting a deep interest in his companion for the moment, and his flow of spirits, delighted the women; and yet it not infrequently happened that his conversation was designed more for his own edification than for the entertainment of his hearers. It seemed to Lucy Woodrow that the man only half concealed a sort of mephistophelian contempt for the people towards whom he still contrived to maintain a semblance of cordiality.

The interesting Englishman was certainly very attentive to Mrs. Macdougal, and Mrs. Macdougal was certainly very much flattered and disturbed by his attentions. The gossip that had sprung up, from which the principals, and Lucy, Mr. and Mrs. Cargill, and Macdougal alone were excluded, was, to some extent, founded on fact, and the guests left the house reluctantly, confident that interesting mischief was brewing at Boobyalla.

For all this, Ryder’s attitude towards Marcia in the presence of her guests had been merely a piquant travesty of that of an adorer. He had offered her gallant homage with a humorous reservation. Perhaps he had reckoned on a keener sense of humour than the guests were possessed of. At any rate, they preferred to put a rather serious construction on all they saw. But Mrs. Macdougal alone had good reason for regarding her lion in a serious light; she alone saw him in his other guise, that of the passionate man whose passions burnt behind a cold face—pale as if with the pallor of a prison that could never leave it, handsome with a quality of suggestive beauty most certain to appeal to a simple, romantic woman. Already Walter Ryder had infused a new strain into Marcia Macdougal’s character—terror, the terror that is akin to love, had endowed her with a womanly gravity. Though the other guests had been gone a fortnight or more, Ryder still remained at Boobyalla.

Lucy Woodrow was deeply interested in Ryder. He treated her as a comrade, an equal, and she could not help noticing the difference in his tone toward her and that he had adopted towards the others, nor could she help being flattered by the implied compliment. She was exempt from his raillery. All along he inferred that she understood him, and accepted his veneer of jocosity and insincerity at its true value.

‘What a hypocrite you are!’ she said one afternoon, as they rode in the shadow of the range. The children on their ponies were cantering ahead.

‘I a hypocrite!’ he exclaimed. ‘Why, I have not pretended to a single virtue.’

‘No,’ she continued laughingly, ‘you are a hypocrite of the other sort. You pretend to be cruel, and callous, and careless of all that’s good—a cynic and a mocker. But I have found you out: you are really gentle and kind—an amiable hypocrite.’

‘Miss Woodrow, you are taking my character away.’

‘Pish! the disguise was too thin. Why, the children have penetrated it. So has poor Yarra. They love you! You are brave—you rescued Mr. Macdougal from the Bushrangers. You are generous—you do not try to make him appear contemptible because of his afflictions, as some of the others have done. You are gentle—I see it in your bearing towards the little ones. You are kind, and Yarra is devoted to you.’

‘And yet I swear there are no wings under my coat.’

‘Often, when looking at you, I wonder at your resemblance to Mr Done; and I wonder most when I find you expressing a vein of thought I believed to be peculiar to him. It makes me think that there is something in common between you, aside from your physical likeness, if only a common wrong, or a common sorrow, that has coloured your characters.’

‘It is hard to hide anything from those divine eyes,’ he said gravely.

‘I have guessed rightly?’

‘Believe me, if I ever make confession, it shall be to one quick in sympathy and merciful in judgment as you are.’ There was a strain of deep emotion in his voice, and as he reached towards her she gave him her hand, and he pressed her slender fingers gently and gratefully, continuing with feeling, and in the manner of one whose superior years gave him the privilege: ‘Lucy, you are as good as you are beautiful, and in all sincerity I say I have never seen a woman one half as beautiful as you appear in my eyes at this moment.’

He had given the girl an impression that she was helping him, that her sympathy was precious. In her innocence she was deeply stirred, and yet glad at heart. She was silent for some minutes, and then said:

‘Do you know, I think you sometimes underestimate Mrs. Macdougal’s sensibilities.’

‘In what manner?’

‘I think you hurt her without being conscious of it. Her sense of humour is not keen, and I know she is pained when you least suspect it.’

A ghost of a smile stirred about Ryder’s mouth. ‘I would not pain her for the world,’ he said. ‘She is a kindly little woman, and her hospitality is charming; but you must admit she is droll. What are my faults?’

‘Forgive me if I seem to be treating you as a pupil.’

‘There is no one on earth to whom I would rather go to school.’

‘Well, then, you must not laugh at Mrs. Macdougal.’

‘But, really, is one expected to take those extravagantly romantic poses seriously?’

‘They are meant seriously.’

‘The eyes and sighs, the pensive melancholy, the little maladies, the mysterious missing family? You must not tell me this is not burlesque.’

‘I am sure you know it is not. Mrs. Macdougal has dreamed so much rubbish, and read so much more, that all this humbug has become part of her nature, and one has to be a bit of a humbug one’s self and humour her out of kindness In her girlhood there was no escape from the loneliness and stupidity of the Bush but in dreams.

‘My manners have been abominable. I shall mind them now.’

The evening of that day was spent in the garden before the homestead. The day had been hot—there had been Bush-fires. The smoke hung about, and the big moon floated like a great round blood-red kite above the range. Ryder was sitting by Mrs. Macdougal on the garden-seat; Lucy played with the children on the grass till it was their bed time, when the three romped indoors together. Mrs. Macdougal turned her eyes upon Ryder timidly, expecting the usual change in his demeanour. She had used all her little arts on this man—the foolish, simple devices with which she had bewitched the captain of the Francis Cadman, and with no more guile in her soul. Suddenly she discovered the danger, but not before he had turned her comedy into a tragedy. He overawed her, dominated her; she dreaded him, and yet adored him as a splendid hero of romance.

He moved nearer into the shadow of the honey suckle and seized her hand.

‘Marcia,’ he said in a low voice, ‘I can pretend no longer. I am sick of the farce of treating you as a child before these people, while all the time my heart hungers for you. I love you, Marcia!’

‘For pity’s sake—for pity’s sake!’ she said, struggling weakly.

‘You know I love you. You have known it all along. Oh, my queen, how could I help loving you—a rose in this wilderness? Marcia, Marcia, love me! By God, you shall!’ He kissed her again and again.

She ceased struggling. ‘I do love you,’ she said. ‘I don’t care—I don’t care; I love you! Oh, how can I help myself? I have been mad, but I love you! I don’t care; I love you!’

In the Roaring Fifties - Contents    |     XXI

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