Tall and freckled and sandy,|
Face of a country lout;
That was the picture of Andy—
On Middleton's wide dominions
Plied the stock-whip and shears;
Hadn’t any opinions————
AND he hadn’t any “ideers”—at least, he said so himself— except as regarded anything that looked to him like what he called “funny business”, under which heading he catalogued tyranny, treachery, interference with the liberty of the subject by the subject, “blanky” lies, or swindles—all things, in short, that seemed to his slow understanding dishonest, mean or paltry; most especially, and above all, treachery to a mate. That he could never forget. Andy was uncomfortably “straight”. His mind worked slowly and his decisions were, as a rule, right and just; and when he once came to a conclusion concerning any man or matter, or decided upon a course of action, nothing short of an earthquake or a Nevertire cyclone could move him back an inch—unless a conviction were severely shaken, and then he would require as much time to “back” to his starting point as he did to come to the decision.
Andy had come to a conclusion with regard to a selector’s daughter—name, Lizzie Porter—who lived (and slaved) on her father’s selection, near the township corner of the run on which Andy was a general “hand”. He had been in the habit for several years of calling casually at the selector’s house, as he rode to and fro between the station and the town, to get a drink of water and exchange the time of day with old Porter and his “missus”. The conversation concerned the drought, and the likelihood or otherwise of their ever going to get a little rain; or about Porter’s cattle, with an occasional enquiry concerning, or reference to, a stray cow belonging to the selection, but preferring the run; a little, plump, saucy, white cow, by-the-way, practically pure white, but referred to by Andy—who had eyes like a blackfellow—as “old Speckledy”. No one else could detect a spot or speckle on her at a casual glance. Then after a long bovine silence, which would have been painfully embarrassing in any other society, and a tilting of his cabbage-tree hat forward, which came of tickling and scratching the sun-blotched nape of his neck with his little finger, Andy would slowly say: “Ah, well. I must be gettin’. So-long, Mr. Porter. So-long, Mrs. Porter.” And, if she were in evidence —as she generally was on such occasions—“So-long, Lizzie.” And they’d shout: “So-long, Andy,” as he galloped off from the jump. Strange that those shy, quiet, gentle-voiced bushmen seem the hardest and most reckless riders.
But of late his horse had been seen hanging up outside Porter’s for an hour or so after sunset. He smoked, talked over the results of the last drought (if it happened to rain), and the possibilities of the next one, and played cards with old Porter; who took to winking, automatically, at his “old woman”, and nudging, and jerking his thumb in the direction of Lizzie when her back was turned, and Andy was scratching the nape of his neck and staring at the cards.
Lizzie told a lady friend of mine, years afterwards, how Andy popped the question; told it in her quiet way—you know Lizzie’s quiet way (something of the old, privileged house-cat about her); never a sign in expression or tone to show whether she herself saw or appreciated the humour of anything she was telling, no matter how comical it might be. She had witnessed two tragedies, and had found a dead man in the bush, and related the incidents as though they were common-place.
It happened one day—after Andy had been coming two or three times a week for about a year—that she found herself sitting with him on a log of the woodheap, in the cool of the evening, enjoying the sunset breeze. Andy’s arm had got round her— just as it might have gone round a post he happened to be leaning against. They hadn’t been talking about anything in particular. Andy said he wouldn’t be surprised if they had a thunderstorm before mornin’— it had been so smotherin’ hot all day.
Lizzie said, “Very likely.”
Andy smoked a good while, then he said: “Ah, well! It’s a weary world.”
Lizzie didn’t say anything.
By-and-bye Andy said: “Ah, well; it’s a lonely world, Lizzie.”
“Do you feel lonely, Andy?” asked Lizzie, after a while.
“Yes, Lizzie; I do.”
Lizzie let herself settle, a little, against him, without either seeming to notice it, and after another while she said, softly: “So do I, Andy.”
Andy knocked the ashes from his pipe very slowly and deliberately, and put it away; then he seemed to brighten suddenly, and said briskly: “Well, Lizzie! Are you satisfied!”
“Yes, Andy; I’m satisfied.”
“Quite sure, now?”
“Yes; I’m quite sure, Andy. I’m perfectly satisfied.”
“Well, then, Lizzie—it’s settled!”
But to-day—a couple of months after the proposal described above— Andy had trouble on his mind, and the trouble was connected with Lizzie Porter. He was putting up a two-rail fence along the old log-paddock on the frontage, and working like a man in trouble, trying to work it off his mind; and evidently not succeeding— for the last two panels were out of line. He was ramming a post— Andy rammed honestly, from the bottom of the hole, not the last few shovelfuls below the surface, as some do. He was ramming the last layer of clay when a cloud of white dust came along the road, paused, and drifted or poured off into the scrub, leaving long Dave Bentley, the horse-breaker, on his last victim.
“’Ello, Andy! Graftin’?”
“I want to speak to you, Dave,” said Andy, in a strange voice.
“All—all right!” said Dave, rather puzzled. He got down, wondering what was up, and hung his horse to the last post but one.
Dave was Andy’s opposite in one respect: he jumped to conclusions, as women do; but, unlike women, he was mostly wrong. He was an old chum and mate of Andy’s who had always liked, admired, and trusted him. But now, to his helpless surprise, Andy went on scraping the earth from the surface with his long-handled shovel, and heaping it conscientiously round the butt of the post, his face like a block of wood, and his lips set grimly. Dave broke out first (with bush oaths):
“What’s the matter with you? Spit it out! What have I been doin’ to you? What’s yer got yer rag out about, anyway?”
Andy faced him suddenly, with hatred for “funny business” flashing in his eyes.
“What did you say to my sister Mary about Lizzie Porter?”
Dave started; then he whistled long and low. “Spit it all out, Andy!” he advised.
“You said she was travellin’ with a feller!”
“Well, what’s the harm in that? Everybody knows that—”
“If any crawler says a word about Lizzie Porter—look here, me and you’s got to fight, Dave Bentley!” Then, with still greater vehemence, as though he had a share in the garment: “Take off that coat!”
“Not if I know it!” said Dave, with the sudden quietness that comes to brave but headstrong and impulsive men at a critical moment: “Me and you ain’t goin’ to fight, Andy; and” (with sudden energy) “if you try it on I’ll knock you into jim-rags!”
Then, stepping close to Andy and taking him by the arm: “Andy, this thing will have to be fixed up. Come here; I want to talk to you.” And he led him some paces aside, inside the boundary line, which seemed a ludicrously unnecessary precaution, seeing that there was no one within sight or hearing save Dave’s horse.
“Now, look here, Andy; let’s have it over. What’s the matter with you and Lizzie Porter?”
“I’M travellin’ with her, that’s all; and we’re going to get married in two years!”
Dave gave vent to another long, low whistle. He seemed to think and make up his mind.
“Now, look here, Andy: we’re old mates, ain’t we?”
“Yes; I know that.”
“And do you think I’d tell you a blanky lie, or crawl behind your back? Do you? Spit it out!”
“N—no, I don’t!”
“I’ve always stuck up for you, Andy, and—why, I’ve fought for you behind your back!”
“I know that, Dave.”
“There’s my hand on it!”
Andy took his friend’s hand mechanically, but gripped it hard.
“Now, Andy, I’ll tell you straight: It’s Gorstruth about Lizzie Porter!”
They stood as they were for a full minute, hands clasped; Andy with his jaw dropped and staring in a dazed sort of way at Dave. He raised his disengaged hand helplessly to his thatch, gulped suspiciously, and asked in a broken voice:
“How—how do you know it, Dave?”
“Know it? Andy, I seen ’em meself!”
“You did, Dave?” in a tone that suggested sorrow more than anger at Dave’s part in the seeing of them.
“Tell me, Dave, who was the feller? That’s all I want to know.”
“I can’t tell you that. I only seen them when I was canterin’ past in the dusk.”
“Then how’d you know it was a man at all?”
“It wore trousers, anyway, and was as big as you; so it couldn’t have been a girl. I’m pretty safe to swear it was Mick Kelly. I saw his horse hangin’ up at Porter’s once or twice. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do: I’ll find out for you, Andy. And, what’s more, I’ll job him for you if I catch him!”
Andy said nothing; his hands clenched and his chest heaved. Dave laid a friendly hand on his shoulder.
“It’s red hot, Andy, I know. Anybody else but you and I wouldn’t have cared. But don’t be a fool; there’s any Gorsquantity of girls knockin’ round. You just give it to her straight and chuck her, and have done with it. You must be bad off to bother about her. Gorstruth! she ain’t much to look at anyway! I’ve got to ride like blazes to catch the coach. Don’t knock off till I come back; I won’t be above an hour. I’m goin’ to give you some points in case you’ve got to fight Mick; and I’ll have to be there to back you!” And, thus taking the right moment instinctively, he jumped on his horse and galloped on towards the town.
His dust-cloud had scarcely disappeared round a corner of the paddocks when Andy was aware of another one coming towards him. He had a dazed idea that it was Dave coming back, but went on digging another post-hole, mechanically, until a spring-cart rattled up, and stopped opposite him. Then he lifted his head. It was Lizzie herself, driving home from town. She turned towards him with her usual faint smile. Her small features were “washed out” and rather haggard.
But, at the sight of her, all his hatred of “funny business” —intensified, perhaps, by a sense of personal injury—came to a head, and he exploded:
“Look here, Lizzie Porter! I know all about you. You needn’t think you’re goin’ to cotton on with me any more after this! I wouldn’t be seen in a paddock with yer! I’m satisfied about you! Get on out of this!”
The girl stared at him for a moment thunderstruck; then she lammed into the old horse with a stick she carried in place of a whip.
She cried, and wondered what she’d done, and trembled so that she could scarcely unharness the horse, and wondered if Andy had got a touch of the sun, and went in and sat down and cried again; and pride came to her aid and she hated Andy; thought of her big brother, away droving, and made a cup of tea. She shed tears over the tea, and went through it all again.
Meanwhile Andy was suffering a reaction. He started to fill the hole before he put the post in; then to ram the post before the rails were in position. Dubbing off the ends of the rails, he was in danger of amputating a toe or a foot with every stroke of the adze. And, at last, trying to squint along the little lumps of clay which he had placed in the centre of the top of each post for several panels back—to assist him to take a line— he found that they swam and doubled, and ran off in watery angles, for his eyes were too moist to see straight and single.
Then he threw down the tools hopelessly, and was standing helplessly undecided whether to go home or go down to the creek and drown himself, when Dave turned up again.
“Seen her?” asked Dave.
“Yes,” said Andy.
“Did you chuck her?”
“Look here, Dave; are you sure the feller was Mick Kelly?”
“I never said I was. How was I to know? It was dark. You don’t expect I’d ‘fox’ a feller I see doing a bit of a bear-up to a girl, do you? It might have been you, for all I knowed. I suppose she’s been talking you round?”
“No, she ain’t,” said Andy. “But, look here, Dave; I was properly gone on that girl, I was, and—and I want to be sure I’m right.”
The business was getting altogether too psychological for Dave Bentley. “You might as well,” he rapped out, “call me a liar at once!”
“’Taint that at all, Dave. I want to get at who the feller is; that’s what I want to get at now. Where did you see them, and when?”
“I seen them Anniversary night, along the road, near Ross’ farm; and I seen ’em Sunday night afore that—in the trees near the old culvert— near Porter’s sliprails; and I seen ’em one night outside Porter’s, on a log near the woodheap. They was thick that time, and bearin’ up proper, and no mistake. So I can swear to her. Now, are you satisfied about her?”
But Andy was wildly pitchforking his thatch under his hat with all ten fingers and staring at Dave, who began to regard him uneasily; then there came to Andy’s eyes an awful glare, which caused Dave to step back hastily.
“Good God, Andy! Are yer goin’ ratty?”
“No!” cried Andy, wildly.
“Then what the blazes is the matter with you? You’ll have rats if you don’t look out!”
“Jimminy froth!—It was me all the time!”
“It was me that was with her all them nights. It was me that you seen. Why, I popped on the woodheap!”
Dave was taken too suddenly to whistle this time.
“And you went for her just now?”
“Yes!” yelled Andy.
“Well—you’ve done it!”
“Yes,” said Andy, hopelessly; “I’ve done it!”
Dave whistled now—a very long, low whistle. “Well, you’re a bloomin’ goat, Andy, after this. But this thing’ll have to be fixed up!” and he cantered away. Poor Andy was too badly knocked to notice the abruptness of Dave’s departure, or to see that he turned through the sliprails on to the track that led to Porter’s.
Half an hour later Andy appeared at Porter’s back door, with an expression on his face as though the funeral was to start in ten minutes. In a tone befitting such an occasion, he wanted to see Lizzie.
Dave had been there with the laudable determination of fixing the business up, and had, of course, succeeded in making it much worse than it was before. But Andy made it all right.