There was a large muster in the men's kitchen at the Marino Station that evening, but a certain air of anxiety and gloom pervaded the place. The men were not as boisterous as usual; they swore less lustily. One group of rough-looking fellows stood round the fire conversing in subdued tones, and listened with patience to the croakings of a grizzly old man, nick-named "the Doctor," and whose voice seldom commanded much attention except in times of trouble. Ted, the irrepressible, refrained from his usual fling of "double shuffle" to the shrill whistling of Donald the shepherd—the sort of grace with which he generally welcomed in the call to tea.
Billy, the cook, was noiselessly going his rounds, laying the covers for the evening meal, and distributing tin plates and pannikins on either side of page 2a huge deal table, which stretched lengthways across the room, and formed the only substantial piece of furniture in it. Iron knives and forks followed in pairs, but black and dirty, for there was no knife-board in the establishment, and the only mode of polishing up adopted was an occasional dig in the ground, or a prod with the forks through a greasy dish-clout. Billy next distributed his victuals. A number of loaves of bread were rolled along the middle of the table to their respective positions, several large basins of black sugar came in between, and last, but not least, an enormous tin dish, holding the half of a headless sheep boiled in its nakedness. Billy's next operation was to make the tea, which was done by throwing a number of handfuls of that article into a huge tin pot, about the size of a large garden watering-can. Billy had an experienced eye — he glanced knowingly round the room, estimated his requirements, and numbered his handfuls of tea accordingly. These necessary preliminaries over, the cook announced to the assembled company that they might as well set-to; adding, in a deprecatory tone, "You mustn't mind the biled meat this time, mates; I've been so hupset with this 'ere haccident that I have not been hup to baking. Ye'll put up with it for this time, won't ye, lads?" The as-page 3sembled company assented gloomily; these men were rough and hardy, and not particular as to what they ate, or how they ate it, but with one accord they objected to have their mutton boiled. It was a serious infringement of their rights and privileges; the more prized as many of the station hands had only lately arrived from the Old Country, where mutton was not so freely partaken of among the working-classes. Now that they had meat three times a day, they naturally grew particular as to the cooking of it. On a former occasion, when the unfortunate Billy had served up two legs of boiled mutton for dinner, he had provoked a storm of reprobation; his well-cooked viands had been tossed about the room, and finally kicked out of doors, and the indignant men had lodged a formal complaint with the "Boss," and threatened a strike. On the present occasion, however, there was no outcry; the circumstances were evidently of an unusual character, and the men sat down to their meal with hardly a growl.
The cook went round with the tea "watering-can" and filled up each pannikin with a dark-looking and strongly-smelling fluid, which each one had to sweeten for himself—this varied greatly according to taste and habit. Some were clumsy in handling the sugar; others indifferent or wasteful. One bright Paddy, page 4not finding the ladle at hand, tipped over the basin and half-filled his pannikin with sugar. Truly it was vile stuff, and quantity had to make up for quality.
"Long Bill" took the head of the table, and, armed with a butcher's knife, he soon made the slices fly; they were passed along the table as rapidly as buckets at a conflagration. Every man then stuck his knife into the nearest loaf and helped himself to bread, and in a moment every jaw was at work, and nothing was heard but the loud noise of mastication.
While the party were thus steadily engaged, we may take leave of them for a few minutes, and give a glance at the surroundings.
Marino was an "up-country" station, in a mountainous and remote region of the Middle Island of New Zealand. This was many years ago, before the progress of settlement and cultivation had spread far inland; in the "early days," when cattle-tracks were the only roads, and bullock-drays the principal means of conveyance; in the "good old times," when the arrival of a sailing-ship was quite an event; when the Maories were on the war-path, and showed their disinclination to being Christianised by occasionally roasting a missionary; when shepherd-kings ruled the country; when land was cheap, and plenty page 5of it; when ladies rode twenty miles to pay an afternoon call, and were welcomed in the bush like fairy beings from another world; when everybody knew everybody else, and a warm hospitality was extended to all new-comers; when all was young and fresh and promising, and "roughing it" was the order of the day.
Marino Station was situated on high ground, surrounded by bleak and arid hills. The homestead comprised a number of huts and houses, of which the largest was the men's kitchen, a long, low, straggling building, made of sun-burnt bricks, with a shingle roof. It contained one big central hall, very much like a barn, without a ceiling, and about as bare. The men's rooms were mostly "lean-to" sheds, with two tiers of bunks like the berths on board ship, calico windows, and plenty of ventilation. A number of little cabins, like excrescences, had been attached to the main buildings, and the ends of verandahs had been boarded up. The "residence" stood close by, a one-storeyed wooden building, of half a dozen rooms. Here Mr. Dale—"the Boss"—and Mrs. Dale—"the Missus"—lived in such state as they could afford, which was not much, according to our modern notions; but in those days a little luxury went a long way. They possessed glass windows, painted ceilings, page 6papered walls, polished cane furniture, a kerosene lamp, and some crockery-ware—a degree of civilisation which had gained for the Marino head-station a widespread fame.
In front of the house some sort of an attempt at a garden had been made; a small piece of land on the slope of the hill had been fenced in and partially cultivated; while clumps of young Australian gum-trees were shooting up in all their freshness and early vigour. At the back, all was dirt, disorder, and muddle; stables, stock-yards, and sheep-pens being spotted about. The post and rail fences were hung with reeking sheepskins, and the slaughter-yard, with its blood-stained scaffold, stood close by.
To return to the men's kitchen, where the numerous party had just finished their tea. They formed a motley group, in which the unshaven and unwashed element largely predominated. A rough lot, with some of all sorts. There were two Scotch shepherds, both Donalds, both canny, both freckled, both of the national colour.
There was another shepherd of a very different type; he came under the category known as "broken-down swells"—a numerous class in the country at that time. His name was Rainon, and he claimed to be a gentleman, and to have served in the Royal page 7Navy, but he was certainly a most degraded drunkard, and one of the dirtiest of the dirty. There were two (so-called) cadets, who were supposed to be permitted to learn the highly profitable art of sheep-farming in return for their valuable services as knock-about hands. The eldest of the two was named Jim Flash, and he answered well to the name. He was a broad-shouldered, red-faced, and dissipated-looking young man, with a loud voice, a vicious eye, and a habit of showing his white teeth when he smiled. By his own account, he had been very badly brought up, and he was rather proud of it. He had been expelled from a public school, had been called upon to retire very early from the navy, and had taken his passage to New Zealand concealed in an empty water-butt. His forte was horse-racing; it was also his weakness; but he diligently read Bell's Life, and was supposed to be an authority on the turf. He also claimed great intimacy with several of the heroes of the ring, and he had many interesting anecdotes to tell concerning his friend Tom Sayers of glorious memory. Mr. J. Flash was supposed himself to be rather a bit of a bruiser, and he was by no means deficient in pluck; consequently he commanded respect, if he did not merit esteem. He was not a quarrelsome young man. On one occasion only, on being page 8rudely contradicted by a sturdy bully, a noted pugilist, Mr. Flash, with rather more than his usual suavity of manner and fascinating grin—for he was a very polite gentleman—requested his opponent to "step outside." The invitation was not accepted, but the bully subsided, and from that day Jim Flash's fame spread far and wide—his reputation was made.
The other cadet, Harry Norman, was very different—a tall, good-looking, round-faced, curly-headed youth. He was quite harmless, but being equally good-tempered, he was rather a pet among this rough crowd. He was supposed to have expectations, and it must be surmised that he lived upon them, for he never got anything else. His official position on the station was that of "a parlour swell," and he had to take his meals at the Master's table, but he much preferred the kitchen, where he was always welcome, and used to amuse the men by telling tales about "the Missus." Norman had indeed a morbid horror of Mrs. Dale, who patronised and persecuted him at the same time as only a domineering and spiteful woman could do. The poor lad was always being called upon to make himself "generally useful," and to do something for his board, such as soft-soaping my lady's saddle, polishing up her bridle, cleaning the parlour lamp, chopping wood for the parlour fire, and page 9—worst of all miseries—weeding the garden. Norman winced under these petty tasks, but he did not so much mind hard work; and it was almost a relief to him when shearing or mustering times gave him a good outing.
There was a whole gang of bullock-drivers. Among these, "Long Bill" was king of the road. He was a terror. The poor, dumb, stupid, heavy brutes that toiled wearily and drearily under his bloodshot eye and merciless arm feared him. They quaked at his awful voice, and cringed and winced at the lightning-flash of his terrible whip. He was the most consummate flogger on the road, and could wield his flagellator in the most artistic style—playfully, so as just to tickle the ear of the leader, or to flip a fly from off the rump of a poler; or loudly, with the report of a pistol-shot, re-echoing through the distant gullies; or savagely, so as to draw blood at every stroke. His swearing capabilities were unsurpassed. His oaths were adapted to circumstances; they were modulated to meet requirements. He did not indulge in angry outbursts, or adopt common phraseology; but when he swore hard, it was in long-sustained volleys, rising crescendo to the most awful blasphemy. But it was not only in these parts, so essential to a bullock-driver, that Long Bill excelled. It must be page 10admitted that he knew his business; he was bold, cautious, and patient. He always thoroughly understood the capabilities of his team; he studied the temperament of each beast, easing the willing puller, stimulating the lagger, and nursing the energies and carefully attending to the well-being of his charge.
Consequently, he had earned the reputation of being able to take the heaviest load, to travel the worst roads, and to get over the most ground of any bullocky in the neighbourhood.
There were also several artizans present on the scene, and employed about the place. There was a plasterer, a big, gaunt, square-built old man, with a visage that might have been hacked out of a block of wood; and his mate, a bricklayer, young, fat, and rosy—quite a ladies' man among bricklayers. Then there was a saddler, who was neat and dapper, a musical blacksmith, and a jolly carpenter who danced the hornpipe. Several nationalities were represented: Aleck, the German, who spoke guttural gibberish, but sang in sweet accents; Jansen, the Swede, a sort of playful, soft-hearted Hercules, whose feats of strength were the talk of the country—a man who could take up a bag of flour under each arm and trudge placidly up a hill while smoking his pipe.
There were Pats and Micks galore, who talked page 11as pure Irish as they used to do in the "ould counthry."
There was one black man, whose name was White, and who affected great contempt for the dark-coloured natives, called them "niggers," and treated them as such.
There was one walking skeleton, who was yclept "Fat Jack." He had the biggest appetite and the lightest weight of any man in the colony.
Tea was over, or the hardest part of it, and conversation became more animated. It all turned on a sad accident that had happened during the morning, and by which the jolliest lad on the station had been suddenly struck down. Poor Dan Tucker! It occurred at the stock-yard, where a mob of rather wild cattle had been driven in. Dan was standing by the entrance, when one of the bullocks charged furiously against the rails, bursting out a slip-panel, that struck the unfortunate young man on the head and felled him to the ground. He was picked up insensible and conveyed to the homestead, where he had been laid on a bed like one dead.
Medical attendance was rarely obtainable in these outlandish places, but on the present occasion it was known that Doctor Valentine was on a visit at Flax-hill Station, some twenty miles off, and Dick Raleigh page 12had volunteered to go for him, heedless of the risk of crossing the river in a flood.
"If Raleigh is not back soon," growled Rainon, "I shall begin to think he is after coming to grief on the road. He's not much good across country."
"He got over the river all right," replied Jim Flash, "for Donald watched him from Stony Ridge, and saw him part company with his horse in mid-stream. I say, Pat, how could you start him off on such a moke? You ought to have known better."
"Hwat! Caul Bobby a moke! Shure, the likes of him isn't in it. A steady baste! Ould Darkey 'ud 'ive stuck 'im up sthraight. As to the filly, me swateheart, she'd be clane scared at the wather."
"Oh! didn't I warn him then," put in Rainon. "I told him to take the track and leave it on the right; but he went to the right, which of course was wrong."
"But came out right," added Ted. "But talk of the devil—so help me, here they are!"
A tremendous row of barking and baying, the tramp of horses' feet, the sharp crack of a stock-whip, and a stampede among the canine pack announced the new arrivals. A moment later, Mr. Stead, the manager, Dick Raleigh, and Doctor Valentine entered page 13the hall among the eager crowd, which had stood up to receive them.
Stead was a man of about thirty, fair-complexioned, full-bearded, thin and wiry. He was dressed in a tweed jumper, cord breeches, and leather leggings. "This is a bad business," he said, as he advanced to the fire. "How is the poor fellow?"
"Not come round yet, sir," replied the old man in the corner.
"Nor likely to," muttered Rainon.
"Fear it is a case," sighed Norman.
The Doctor came forward, with a quick, impatient step. He looked for all the world like a little black bear, all fur and bristles. He was muffled up to the chin in a thick heavy ulster with a fur collar; his head was buried in a fur cap, and through this mass of hair peered two piercing black eyes. In manner abrupt—"Let's see him," he said. The cook presented two tallow-candles; the old man led the way out through a draughty passage, round the main buildings, to a low-roofed shanty. The Doctor and Mr. Stead followed. In the open the sky was clear, and the stars twinkled brightly above; the night breeze rustled through the trees and moaned softly in the gullies; and the loud cry of the wood-hens from a neighbouring thicket pierced the still cold air.page 14
They stepped into a little low room, with bare brick walls and a calico ceiling, that was nearly black with fly-marks. There was no furniture besides two narrow trestle-beds; on the one sat a ragged, shivering Irish boy, with a pitiful countenance of drowsiness and woe. A feeble yellowish light flickered from a bush lamp.
On the bed nearest the wall lay stretched out the body of a young man. He had been partially undressed, and a blanket had been thrown over him. He lay like one dead; his face was ashy pale, yet fair and placid, but one side of his forehead was wrapped in blood-stained rags.
The Doctor threw off his ulster, approached the bed, removed the bandages, and gazed intently at the wound on one temple. He pressed it with his thumb, and a few big drops of purple blood rolled on to the pillow. He felt the fractured skull, and then kneeling down, placed his head on the patient's breast and listened. The Manager looked anxiously on; the old man bent down, holding the light; the poor Irish boy sat still like one dazed. A small group had gathered near the door, in mournful silence.
Then the Doctor rose to his feet; he washed the wound, applied some fresh bandages, had the body laid in a suitable position, and addressing himself to page 15the old man, gave a few brief directions for the night.
"If he regains consciousness, call me at once; I don't think he will for the next twelve hours. If at all," he added, in an undertone, to Stead, as they were leaving the room.
"Is it hopeless, then?" replied the latter.
"Well, not quite; you never can tell. I shall probably know in the morning."
"It was a pity to drag you such a long way for a hopeless case."
"Not at all; it is precisely in such cases that prompt medical attention may sometimes save a life—glad I came. He might come round; expect to see him conscious again, if only for a few moments. A fine-looking young fellow."
"Yes; and such a nice fellow, too! Quite a new chum, you know. Arrived here hardly a year ago, full of good spirits and eager to work. The most useful, active, and willing lad in the station; up early and late, and always jolly—a regular Mark Tapley. I took quite a fancy to him from the first, and latterly I have had him with me frequently, when he told me all his history. An only son; mother and sister at home, in poor circumstances, but expected out next Christmas. Dan was great on the subject; he was page 16going to make a home for them, and to see his delight when he talked about the expected meeting and explained all his little plans! He had already secured an allotment of land down the flat and obtained my leave to run a cow in the paddock. A sad case! It does seem hard that Providence should not spare him, and I do hope he may recover. Don't you think there is a chance for him yet, Doctor?"
"Candidly, my boy, I don't. If there is, believe me, we will make the most of it. But what's the use of talking about Providence? I should like to know where these blessed dispensations come it. I have never been able to find out. Do you suppose that the risk and insurance on a shipload of missionaries would be any less than for a gang of convicts? If you split a man's cranium, it don't matter much whether it be the skull of a saint or that of a sinner, so far as our treatment goes. Shining virtues will not save him. I am always vexed at these cases, because I feel so utterly powerless to do anything; but trusting to Providence is a last resource, indeed. Where is Raleigh? We want him. Now, there's a brave fellow, if you like. That was a plucky ride across that torrent; and I don't think that I should have ventured here had it not been for him."
"Yes, Raleigh is a right good fellow," replied Mr. page 17Stead, "and I like him in many respects, but he is too cynical, and he is quite lost here. Absurd! a man of his parts and accomplishments fooling away his life tailing sheep. He gets into a morbid state, too, and becomes very unsociable. I have no patience with such foolishness. I don't believe he has one idea about bettering his condition. Come along, Doctor, I will show you your room, and we will have some tea. You must excuse rough quarters."
Richard Raleigh had returned to the men's kitchen, and had been eagerly questioned about his daring ride across country.
"We are all heartily glad to see you safe back again. Mister Raleigh," exclaimed in pompous tones the portly Brown, the boss of the shearer's party, a personage of considerable importance and still greater corpulence. "You young men are very rash; very rash indeed! Youth, they say, will not be controlled, but the elements, young man, are not to be trifled with. Look at poor Reid, the best roughrider in the country, and the champion swimmer south of the Line. See how he found a watery grave, in a much smaller river, mind you, than the Stony Creek. These torrents are most dangerous. If once you lose your footing you are done."page 18
"You never tried yourself, did you?" interrupted Ted, "else you would have been done brown."
"No; I have gained my experience by observation. You know the proverb, 'Fools rush in where wise men fear to tread.'"
"'Angels,' Boss; and they fly, you know. A pretty angel you would make"——
"The Boss could never fly," put in Norman, "but he might float.'
"Shut up!" replied the dignified Brown; "we want to hear how Mr. Raleigh got on."
"Well," said Raleigh, "I had rather a squeak of it. I missed the track to start with, or rather I followed the wrong one, for the flat is all tracks."
"And you made tracks," put in the irrepressible Ted again.
"I reached the brink of the river," continued Raleigh, with a look of commiseration at the wretched punster, "and there I hesitated. It did not look inviting—not a little bit. It is easy enough going in; the bother is getting out again. I consulted Bobby, and gave him his head, for he knows the ford well, and every track on the run. Bobby snorted, smelt the air, turned tail, and went straight for the swamp, where he began tearing up mouthfuls of tussocks. I larruped him; tried him again— page 19always the same game, straight for the first bit of green feed. I got wild at last; put him to the water, and spurred him on. 'Here goes,' I thought to myself; 'one place is as bad as another.' Bobby snorted, pawed the water, and made several attempts to turn back; went down on his nose over a boulder, and at last came to a standstill about mid-stream. The water was up to the saddle-girths, dashing under us, foaming and roaring. I turned quite giddy, and nearly lost my head. D—— me if I knew which way I was going, and I thought Bobby was forging ahead, while really he was standing stock-still. Everything was in a whirl, and I do believe I should have returned here—for, although I was bewildered, Bobby wasn't, and he made several attempts to turn back—when suddenly I lifted my eyes from off the rushing waters, and caught sight of the One-Tree Hill on the opposite side. I steered straight for that, and spurred Bobby on. Then there was a plunge, right to my neck, and the brute seemed to disappear from under me. I don't know how I managed. I had been told to stick to my horse at all hazards, and I stuck to something; first, it was his mane, but he nearly rolled over me; then I caught hold of his tail. Bobby snorted and plunged, and let off steam, but I held on—held on like grim death. The next page 20thing I saw was Bobby rearing right up above me, straight on end, and some bushes struck me in the face. I seized hold of them, and clambered up the bank somehow, and lay there for a few moments, quite dazed and gasping; then it seemed to dawn upon me that I had crossed the river. Bobby had disappeared. I found him close by, with the saddle under his belly, the reins under his feet, and feeding away quite unconcerned. The darned old reprobate! he eyed me coming, and just managed to keep out of reach, while munching away all the time. When I walked he walked, when I ran he ran, when I stopped he stopped, and went on feeding voraciously. I was getting full of it and beginning to feel like swearing, when all of a sudden such a jump, and he shied right up against me! The old brute had nearly stumbled over the prostrate form of our noble Harry the Snob, who was sprawling full-length under a flax-bush, smoking his pipe and watching the clouds. Harry nearly jumped out of his skin, and bounded to his feet with a yell—Bobby stared at him with his ears up, snorting furiously. I darted forward and caught hold of the bridle, for he was much too intent on Harry to notice me.
"There they stood, gazing at one another, terror-struck; Harry with his mouth wide open and his page 21knees shaking under him—it was enough to make a cat laugh. 'Hullo! man,' says I, 'what's up?' 'O Lord!' says he, 'you have given me a start. Where the d——I have you sprung from?' 'Across the river,' says I. 'Where else could I come from? Did you think I had dropped from the clouds?'
"Then we had a guffaw, but it took some time to calm Bobby, whose nerves had been severely shaken, and who has been shying desperately at every flax-bush on the road since. Well, I accompanied the Snob to his new hut, got a dry saddle from him, also a change of clothes—these are his Sunday togs I have on now—and then I started on my way rejoicing.
"Took it out of Bobby, I can tell you; made him gallop all the way, for I wanted warming up. Arrived at Flaxhill just in the nick of time. The trap was at the door, Doctor Val snugly seated at the back, and Mrs. Wylde, all smiles and satisfaction, just taking her place by the side of him. The Commodore had tossed off his last stirrup-cup, and was just clearing for action, when I dropped down upon them like a hundred of bricks. Quite a sensation, I can assure you. Mrs. Wylde took it all in at a glance—she looked daggers at me. 'Some accident happened, I suppose? Well, Doctor Valentine can't go; of course he can't—he mustn't—he shan't! The idea! Why, page 22the river is not crossable—it would be madness to try.
"I told my story; how I had missed the ford, and had to swim the stream. I said I thought we would get back all right. The Doctor said he would come. Mrs. Wylde got quite angry with him; she stormed, she implored;—it was no go! Then she got me apart, and gave me a good talking to; warned me to take care of the dear little man; told me about his delicate health, all of which I knew before, and ended by giving me a nobbler and her blessing; while the Commodore was getting impatient outside, and fuming and blowing like a steam-engine. We saw them off; then Doctor Val and myself, with old Sam to pilot the way, we started back. The river had fallen two feet since this morning, and by taking the lower ford we got over without wetting our boots. Picked up Mr. Stead at the wool-shed, and here we are."
"Very heroic," growled Rainon, "but a wild-goose chase after all. It was very good of the Doctor to return with you, for I don't suppose he will ever get paid for the trip; but he can do no good now he is here."
"What does the Doctor say?" asked Mr. Brown. "Says nothink," replied the old man. "Devil a word."page 23
"Dat ist bad," ejaculated Aleck, the German, through a cloud of smoke.
"Ay, mon! Ye wouldna ha'e 'em clack like an auld wife. It mun be wur," remarked Donald M'Pherson, who naturally associated silence with wisdom and caution.
"Och! the sad day 'fill be when his mother and sister gets the word, and they marring to jine him out here," blubbered forth soft-hearted Pat. "Shure the crature will break her heart entirely."
"While there is life there is hope," sententiously observed Mr. Brown. "These cases of concussion are of great complexity."
"Is it a broken pate ye mane?" inquired Mick O'Flanagan. "I've seen a power of 'em clane split in the Ould Counthry, an' devil a bit the worse after a sticking-plaster and a dhrap of whisky."
"You probably contributed yourself to the little game, Mick," said Norman, "but nature has provided your frisky countrymen with very hard heads"——
"By the powers! a soft one like yee's own wouldn't shtand much show, Misther Norman," answered Mick, with a grin.
"Talk of hard heads. Begad! there's no crown like a nigger's," put in Ted. "When old Black Joe was here, he used to go on all-fours and butt with page 24the rams for a bit of sport. Saw an old ram come at him once full tilt—Joe took him fair on; such a crack, by golly! A water-butt taking a header at an iron tank would have been nothing to it. You'd a heard the report a mile off. The old ram staggered back, shook his horns, licked his gums, and returned quite crest-fallen-like to his flock. That tup never chased a black fellow agin, you bet!"
The company laughed, all in their several ways; all except Rainon, who, squatting by the fire, doubled up, with his dishevelled head in his lean, dirty hands, looked like some old Irish crone.
"They might have blooded him," he croaked out.
"Bosh!" exclaimed Jim Flash. "Blooding, as you call it, has gone out of practice long ago, although, in the case of horses, I believe in the lancet; in fact, I use it freely myself. Saved the life of my friend Lord Meadows' finest hunter on the Brighton Downs like that one day. A splendid animal, a three hundred guinea mare, sure-footed too, but came down somehow. Legs doubled under her; fell on her head against a stone; gave one kick and a quiver in all her limbs, and lay sprawling like dead. I was there in a jiffy; out with my hunting-knife; stuck her in two places. She bled like a pig; was up again in half an hour, and right as a trivet. Lord Meadows page 25always gave me credit for saving that favourite mare; reminded me of it every time I met him. Never had to look about for a mount when I visited Brighton after that, you may be sure."
"Mr. Raleigh, tea; all ready in the parlour," announced Billy, the cook, "and they are waiting for you."
Tea in the parlour was no great improvement on the kitchen fare. There was a torn table-cloth and some cracked crockery; a dish of steaming chops, floating in their own fat, black tea from a tin pot, and sugar a shade lighter in colour than the kitchen stuff, but tasting strongly of molasses. The one luxury was a bottle of Worcestershire sauce. A good appetite, however, makes up for many shortcomings. Stead was easily satisfied; he had thrived for ten years on such fare, and consoled himself with the reflection that it was not costly. "A man don't live to eat, but eats to live," was a sensible remark which he had heard somewhere, and which he was never tired of repeating.
"A working-man," he used to add, "can live well in this country on eight shillings a week, and save three-fourths of his pay, which is more than he can do in any other part of the world."
"I am sorry," he said, addressing himself to Doctor page 26Valentine, "that I cannot offer you any milk or butter. We tried, lately, milking a cow, but it was such a bother getting her in of a morning, and such a waste of valuable time, that as soon as Mrs. Dale left for town I let the cow go. By the bye, there is a very good substitute for milk. If you pour a little cold water on the hot tea it has very much the same effect—takes off the sharpness, you know. We call it 'New Zealand cream'—try it."
"Oh, thanks," replied the Doctor; "I will take your word for it. I don't take much tea; it doesn't agree with me. There's too much tea-drinking going on in this blessed country; it's a species of intemperance which is ruining the constitutions of half the population. It's the main cause of dyspepsia, the prevailing complaint."
The Doctor was not very fastidious, but the fare did not tempt him; and he narrowly inspected the dish of greasy chops before he ventured on a pick. He brightened up a bit, however, when Stead introduced a bottle of real old Jamaica rum. "There can be no harm in that," he said, "taken in moderation."
Raleigh was too much excited over his day's adventures to eat much, and he had to relate his swim across the river once more.
"You must have pulled at Bobby's head, "remarked page 27Stead, "to have made him plunge and roll like that. The best plan is always to let the reins go and hold on to the saddle, with your feet out of the stirrups. Do you know, Doctor, that there have been more deaths from drowning in this country than from all other accidental causes put together. Mr. and Mrs. Dale had a narrow escape the last time they went to town, for one of the axles of the buggy broke in midstream. Mr. Dale showed great presence of mind; he managed to release the horses, rode one of them across the river, obtained the assistance of a bullock-team at Watt's Hut, and brought both Mrs. Dale and the broken buggy safe through."
"And Mrs. Dale, how did she like being left stranded like that in the middle of the torrent?"
"Stood it splendidly! remained quite cool and collected. A wonderful woman—a really wonderful woman! Splendid horsewoman too! Would you believe that on their wedding-day she rode from Mount Pleasance to this station—fifty miles by the road? What do you think of that?"
"Yes; and had a nasty spill too on the way," added Raleigh, who hated the woman. "A regular cropper! She must have been somewhat shaken on her arrival, I should think, and more anxious for a soft resting-place and complete repose than for anything else."page 28
The Manager looked grave. Mrs. Dale was his tutelary saint. He praised her in everything. He contemplated her fat, buxom figure with respectful admiration; her bouncing manner awed him; her managing capabilities excited his wonder. She used to patronise him, to bully him; she even condescended to pet him at times. She had got him his place, and he knew that he could only hold it at her good pleasure. He was a willing horse, but he must have felt that, should he flag for a moment, his imperious mistress, with whip and spur, would soon keep him up to the mark.
That any one should dare to make a disparaging remark about this exalted lady made him bridle up. "Our philosophical friend here," he remarked gruffly, turning to the Doctor, "has the name of being a woman-hater; he has always a sneer ready where the fair sex is concerned."
"Happy man! Wish I could say the same. I fear that I have loved them too well—the angelic creatures! They've caused me many a pang in my day, I assure you."
"Ha! ha! and may cause many more, Doctor, if you are so sentimentally inclined. As for me, I have been in love—desperately in love—ever since I was a boy. Ha! ha! In fact, I cannot remember ever page 29being out of love. Oh dear! no sooner off with one love than on with another, and always, 'head over ears.' But I suppose that sort of thing will have to come to an end shortly."
"I believe you, my boy," exclaimed Raleigh; "nothing like matrimony to put an extinguisher on love. As Byron said when he was asked the riddle, 'Why is love like a potato?' 'Because it is all the less for paring.'"
"I didn't mean it in that sense, you know. I believe it is just the other way. Real love only comes with marriage; but there must be an end to roving fancies. Ah! many a heartache I have endured."
"Is that all? "said the Doctor." You have been let off very easy, my dear Mr. Stead; I have suffered many aches besides mental ones. Perhaps you never allowed your soft passions to carry you beyond—what shall I say?—mere sentiment."
"Carry me beyond my moral sense, I suppose you mean."
"Your what?" shouted Raleigh. "Your moral sense! What the deuce is that? We know of five senses already, but this must be something new."
"Oh, you are a cynic. It is no use trying to explain to you what a moral sense is. I hope I shall never have to part with mine."page 30
"Yes you will, and shortly too, dear boy. It is a pleasure to come," laughed Raleigh.
"I think I shall say good-night, Doctor. You know your room. If you haven't blankets enough, take some off the next bed. Sorry I can't provide you with sheets; that's a luxury we don't often possess in the Bush. Our nearest washerwoman lives some fifteen miles off. I have arranged with two of the hands to take it turn about to watch the patient, and should he come round to call you at once. I must now leave you to the rum, and to the corrupting influence of Raleigh. Beware of him. His conversation is very bad, savours of infidelity, immorality, misanthropy, and all sorts of wickedness,—there is only one redeeming part, he doesn't believe in one half what he says. Good-night."
Left to themselves, the two companions drew their chairs closer to the fire, replenished their glasses, refilled their pipes, and indulged in a long familiar chat.
Dick Raleigh and Doctor Valentine had not very often met before; their acquaintance was of short date, but already it had ripened into a warm friendship; for, although differing widely in their habits and characters, the two men felt drawn together by a strong affinity.page 31
"An innocent sort of fellow, that Stead. Is it put on or quite natural to him?" asked the Doctor.
"Oh, got it with his mother's milk. He is the typical good young man,—as bashful as a girl, as canny as an old Scotchman, and as straight as a die. He is precise in all he does, and correct in all he says. As regular as clockwork—up every morning at five, to bed at eight sharp. Says his prayers first thing and last thing; his orisons last exactly six minutes by the watch—I've timed him. He is always usefully employed; he saves all his money; he reads goody-goody books, and commits edifying passages to memory. He is for ever 'improving' both his mental and his worldly condition. He has no vices, and neither drinks, smokes, nor swears. A most proper young man."
"Ay, that's the word, 'a proper young man.' He ought to be chairman of the Young Men's Christian Association. Can't you get up something of the sort here?"
"Hardly; most of our young men don't take on that way. They are moral enough when out of temptation, but see them in town. A hell on earth! Stead is really a very decent fellow, but dull as ditch-water. He has no conversation outside of the ordinary commonplaces of everyday life. He is engaged page 32to a plain, dull girl, who is under the patronage of Mrs. Dale. They are to be married next month, and the Boss is having a little house built for them—close to the station, so as to be well under the eye of the Missus. And they call this happiness!"
"Why not?" said the Doctor. "We are not all constituted alike. I wish them domestic felicity—plenty of it—and a numerous progeny. Now, what about yourself, my child? You are not going to rust away your existence in this infernal place, are you? It is not only a miserable life that you are leading—lonely, desolate, deteriorating—but it is absolutely aimless; it is merely vegetating. But, as Stead remarked to me, you have no idea of bettering your condition."
"'Bettering one's condition.' That's his gospel,—his life-motto. Strange to say, it is an idea that rarely occupies my mind. No! I have followed the bent of my own restless, wayward, and morbid temperament. Do you know, Val, I don't repine, I don't fret, nor do I even realise my miserable condition, so long as I am alone—quite alone. It is when I leave my solitude to rub up against this ragged crew that life becomes hateful to me. A week at the station gives me a fit of hypochondria."
"No wonder—a bad case! Now listen to me. I page 33have been thinking a lot about you, also about my own wretched case. You know I have arranged to take Dr. Black's practice—to pay him a trifle to clear out. The Wyldes are going to settle in that neighbourhood, that's something; the population of the district is increasing rapidly. Sunnydowns will soon be quite a township. Well, I am to take possession next month, and I am really beginning to feel quite hopeful as to the future. My health has improved, and I have nearly stopped coughing of late. There is only one thing that frightens me, it haunts me like a nightmare—it is the loneliness of my home life. You say you love solitude; believe me, my child, it doesn't love you; it is bad for you. To me it is utterly hateful; to sit down to a meal in solitude, to eat by oneself, is misery. I feel as if I should choke. The long dreary evenings by myself oppress me to such an extent that I fly to the bottle or to morphia. Is it to be wondered at that so many of these up-country practitioners are confirmed drunkards? Consider the life they lead. Now, I have been thinking what a priceless boon it would be to me if you would only come and share my cottage with me. Mind you, the proposition is a selfish one, so far as I am concerned. Yet I don't think it would be to your disadvantage. Consider your own case.page 34
Here, in this God-forsaken hole, you are lost—utterly thrown away. You are intellectual, with cultivated tastes; you are fond of art, and you paint well; with me you might find some field, you might make a little studio, and find a sale for your pictures. You could write for the press, and obtain all sorts of congenial employment. I am quite sure that you could scratch out a pleasant living, and we might enjoy a little of the sunshine of existence together. Now say, is it a bargain? Will you come and lodge with me?"
"My dear Val, my dear friend—I might say, my only friend—you have quite cheered me with this hopeful vista. Yes, I will come; but remember, only on a visit. We must see how it works. Not that I doubt for a moment but that we shall pull well together, but I must be able to do something for a living—I can't loaf upon you. Oh, how I wish I had a profession. I have studied and read a great deal, but all to no practical purpose. Well educated, if you like, but to what use? I have missed my way in life; I have no beaten track to follow. I told you that I had a rich old aunt at home. Well, she had one idea, and if I had but indulged her in that, I do believe the old lady, stingy as she was, would have helped me to a good position and left me page 35well off. She had set her mind on my entering the Church. Anything else, I believe, I would have done for her, but that went too much against the grain. I refused point-blank. I lost my only chance—I lost my aunt!"
Doctor Valentine laughed. "With me," he said, "it was just the opposite. My people scouted the idea of the Church as a profession, and I had set my heart on becoming a parson. Not a respectable dignitary of the Church of England, but a howling Methodist preacher. I was mad on the subject, possessed with a pious mania. The most interesting part of the business was that a comely female cousin, much older than myself, and who resided with us, was equally affected. A common purpose brought us much together; we spent long hours at our devotions. We prayed together, we read together, we wept together. We passed whole nights in psalm-singing and ecstasy. It ended badly, as you may imagine. There was a great row in the house over the event, a family scandal that was, of course, hushed up, but which wreaked vengeance on my devoted head. I was ignominiously kicked out of the paternal residence; but my pious ardour remained unabated for a long time, and quite obscured my moral vision. In the transports of our devotion we page 36never realised the heinousness of our backsliding. I confessed the sin, but I can honestly swear that, at the time, I was no hypocrite."
There was a pause. The old rickety wooden clock on the mantelpiece struck twelve.
"Let's go and have a look at the patient," said the Doctor.
There was no change. A couple of men keeping watch were standing by the door, smoking their pipes and conversing in low tones about everyday matters; the ragged Irish boy had fallen fast asleep on the bed; the bush-lamp had burned low, and was only shedding a dismal glimmer; and the injured man lay pale, placid, motionless as before.