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In the Shadow of the Bush

Chapter XVII

page 101

Chapter XVII.

It has been said that Old Dan rarely visited the township. At long or irregular intervals he did, but it was always some object out of the common that took him there. Though he could take his whisky regularly and freely, and did so, he had, nevertheless, his periodically recurring seasons when he would get on "the burst," and soak himself in it, but he never lost his senses, or the suspicious wariness of his natural disposition, even at these times. The only change, if it could be called such, visible in him during these bouts was an increase of gloomy viciousness and a freer use of foul and blasphemous language on his part. He seemed to make it a rule, however, to keep at home on these occasions and confine himself to the wharé or the cave where the still was. O'Byrne took little notice of him at such times; and Davie, since he had become a partner in the business, had thought it best on the one occasion in which Dan had "broken out," to give him a wide berth.

"The d——d auld rascal's bad enoo' at ordinar' times, but juist noo he's as spitefu' as a mountain cat, an' as dangerous as the deil himsel'."

If Old Dan preferred to stay at home when in his cups, O'Byrne on the other hand liked to go abroad for his spree, and have it out at the Cosmopolitan, where, if he met with a few congenial spirits, things went fast and furious for a day or two. He was not a heavy drinker, though, and indulged more from a love of company and good fellowship than from a craving for page 102strong drink; and, whether it was making love to the girls or carousing with his boon companions of the hour, he did all with light-hearted carelessness and rollicking good humour; and if he joined in a row, and had to use his fists and give or take punishment, he bore no malice, but was always ready to shake hands over a friendly glass afterwards.

O'Byrne and Davie had gone down to the Cosmopolitan, taking the pack horse with them and the usual load—"mate an' moisture," as Dennis confidentially called it, leaving Old Dan at home. The next day passed, and the following one wore on till evening, and still they did not return, and Dan was getting angrily anxious.

"That b——fool, Dinnis," he muttered to himself—" Omadhun that he is at toimes—is on the spree ag'in, an' 'e'll be afther lettin' somebody ilse into the saycret av the still, an', mebbe, bring the police down on us. It was himsilf that brought the snakin' Scotchman here, bad luck to his ugly face—he'll be close enough now, I'll be bound: but I'll be d——d if I'll trust Dinnis down there any longer! It's some girl, faith, mebbe, that he's coortin'. an' if it's in tow av wan av thim he is, the divil a thing he'll hide from thim if they ax him. The saycret av his mother's shame wouldn't be safe wid him;" and with another oath, Dan avowed his intention of proceeding to the township that night and "rootin' Dinnis out," or, at least, of keeping a strict watch over him.

Accordingly, just as the day was closing in, he started to walk there, his grim, hard face looking darker and more evil-disposed even than usual, as he stepped out stoutly in the dim and fading light, till he was swallowed up, as it were, in the gloomy shadows of the bush, which bordered and overhung the track for some distance from O'Byrne's clearing.

He reached the Cosmopolitan about nine o'clock, and as he entered the bar he could hear the not unmusical voice of Dennis singing "The Cruiskeen Lan" in the room across the passage. This apartment was designated, on door and page 103window-pane as the "Commercial Room," though what transactions in the way of commerce took place within it, other than in connection with the retail liquor trade, it might, perhaps, be difficult to discover. The room itself was furnished with a number of strong chairs, and with a couple of hard couches, greasy at the higher end of each from contact with the many heads that had reclined there. Oilcloth—a good deal the worse for wear—that covered the floor, a few prints on the walls, a table on which were a few papers of not very recent date, a spittoon or two which were not often made use of, and on the mantel-piece a couple of packs of well-fingered cards, completed the equipment of the room. Some strong wooden battens had been fastened across the lower sashes of the windows on the inside to protect the glass from injury through a helpless lurch or rough shove on the part of any of the occupants.

On this night O'Byrne and Davie were seated on either side of a log fire which blazed on the hearth, for the nights were still chilly, and in front of it and elsewhere about the room were five or six others. Westall was there, and so were two or three men who had been lately paid off from a road contract, and had been melting down their earnings here for the last day or two. The air was thick with tobacco smoke.

Davie, under the influence of a good many glasses, had become voluble, and had been regaling the company with some stories of the road, and had even treated it to a taste of his musical powers by singing the sundowner's song. Dennis had followed with "The Cruiskeen Lan."

"An' now, me boys," he said, as he finished the chorus, "we'll have another cruiskeen lawn. Call in me bould Jacob, an' name yer dhrinks, an', be the powers," he added, catching sight of Old Dan in the doorway, "if here isn't me respictable ould uncle—just in toime to join us. Come in, ye sintimintal ould saint, come in an' make a night av it. The divil a bit page 104I'll stir from here this night, if that's what yer afther. The ould wharé must take care av itself, an' there's wan comfort, nobody's likely to stale much out av it, for, be the powers, there isn't much worth stalin' in it. That's wan av the blissin's av poverty, boys, ye can lave home wid a light heart whin ye lave no treasures behint ye. Isn't that true, Dan?"

"Faith an' it is," acquiesced Dan, "an', troth, it's little anybody would foind over beyant. To be sure," he added, "there's a pig or two runnin' on the grass, forbye a few ould ewes. Not but I'm thinkin' it's toime ye wor makin' a move from here. There's work to be done on the section this sayson yet, ye'll moind, or the Government 'll be afther takin' it back from ye."

"Niver moind," replied Dennis, "it's married I'll be gettin' some av these days, an' thin I won't lave home wanst in a blue moon. Och, Molly, make haste to me heart. Toss aff yer dhrinks, boys, an' now I'm in the humour I'll sing yez another song. It's in praise av whisky that the last was, but this'll be in the praise av what's fifty toimes betther—that's wimmen." And Dennis proceeded forthwith to sing:

There are lots of fine girls in New Zealand—
My blessin's on one and on all—
Who will reach you a purty and free hand
And say, "How do you do?" when you call. There are eyes that are brown as the berry,
And more that are blue as the sky, And some that are shy and some merry,
But, Molly, it's yours that supply
The light I must live in or die—O, Molly, make haste to my heart.

And wealth brings its burden of trouble,
And sorrow will sit by us all, And they tell me that fame is a bubble
Will break with the slightest downfall. Then let others court favours from Fortune.
I still the old jade can defy,
page 105 For when I've a mind to go courtin',
O, Molly, it's to you that I fly,
Content in your favours to lie—
O, Molly, make haste to my heart.

Old Dan saw that there was no chance of Dennis leaving before morning, and concluded to make the best of the occasion in his own way. He was, therefore, before long ensconced near the fire with his pipe in full blast; and though he rarely joined in the conversation except when he thought O'Byrne or Davie was touching on dangerous ground, he yet did not fail to take a moderate whisky with the others when any of the company "shouted."

Dennis, however, was not likely to divulge the secret which Old Dan was so careful to guard, or say anything to arouse suspicion, for though on the spree he never on such occasions got helplessly drunk, or failed to have his wits about him; while Davie at all times, when it suited his purpose, was as close as an oyster.