It was shearing time—a time, in nautical phrase, of "all hands about ship." A stirring time—a time of clatter and bustle, of incessant fagging, of hurrying to and fro, from the first glimmer of dawn, all through the dreary dusty day, and far into the cold misty evening. A time of tramping and shouting, of bleating and barking—a time of profuse perspiration and draughty chills—a time of dirt and bad smells.
Sheep were everywhere. They monopolised the fair face of nature—they encompassed you about—they covered all. The sound of their bleating filled the air; they cried to you from the hill tops, they wailed at you in the gullies. The piteous call of the lamb was blended with the deep bellow of the motherly response into a melancholy concert that never varied and never paused.
Sheep everywhere. Streaming slowly down the mountain spurs in endless files; spotted over the yellow plains in creeping myriads, as far as the eye could reach; congregated in dense mobs in the tus-page 321socky hollows, the ewes crouching down and chewing the cud in stolid vacancy, while their youthful offspring would disport themselves in the warm sunshine, or stand alone with their little spindly legs spread out, making most heartrending appeals for motherly attention.
The males would club together, and round every scraggy cabbage-tree you would perceive a small group gathered, grave and silent, their heads bowed down and in close contact, while their hind-quarters radiated out to all the points of the compass.
They seemed trying to participate equally and amicably in the tiny patch of shade provided for their comfort, and each animal, if it could only get its nose into it, would rest and be thankful.
The wool-shed when viewed from a distance looked like a big ant-hill, a centre of activity teeming with life and resounding with a ceaseless clamour. It was a long outspreading building, supported on wooden pillars, roofed over with iron, and partially open at the sides; inside, a network of passages and divisions, and rows of small compartments; a huge shell, covering a labyrinth, wherein sheep were crammed to suffocation, thence to be dragged forth to a quick and rough process of clipping, accompanied with many strange oaths and some pommelling, and with occa-page 322sional broad snips of skin as well as wool. Poor dull, meek, helpless creatures, how they limped and scuttled away when shorn of their warm covering and roughly turned adrift—so white and pinched and lanky, fleeing before the rude blast, and crouching to hide their nakedness in the rugged shelter of their mountain haunts.
At shearing time everybody was supposed to be busily engaged. An appearance of activity was de rigueur, even, as it sometimes happened, when work was slack; but, as a rule, there was plenty to do, many to provide for, and much discomfort to endure. Old Mr. Dale, who was great on the force of example, made a point of conveying his portly presence on the field of action, encumbered with a big opossum rug, which was supposed to be his only bed and covering in this pinch of toil and hardship. He was fain to believe that such an exhibition of energy and self-denial, coming from such a distinguished quarter, could not be without a marked influence on the morale of the party, to cheer their spirits and stimulate the men to bear without murmuring the unusual amount of "roughing it" which the occasion demanded.
How far the laudable purpose may have been effected in this instance it is not necessary to inquire, but it was evident that whatever alleviation may have page 323been brought to the hearts of the men, no appreciable change was observable in the outward expression of their feelings.
To grumble was considered the birthright of an Englishman; to swear was a recognised colonial custom; and the ragged, rowdy, and reeking crew that sweated and drudged, from daylight to dark, in all the dirt and din of that ill-smelling shed, were in no humour to forego these cherished privileges.
Mr. Dale's visits were not, as a rule, of very long duration; having set an example worthy of all praise, and shared for a few nights in some of the discomfort of the camp, he felt that he had performed a duty which he owed to himself, to society, and to his creditors; after which he could return to his more luxurious home with honour. His departure from the shed, while it was a circumstance of unmixed satisfaction to himself, was also a matter of relief to everybody else—to none, perhaps, more so than to Mr. Stead, the manager, upon whom all the worry and responsibility of the business really devolved.
As for Raleigh, he always contrived, as far as possible, to keep aloof from the noisy bustling scene. In the shearing shed he was altogether out of his element, and he knew it. It was the only place which he positively shrank from, and the only place page 324where he was not popular. The clamour deafened him; the whirl and scurry turned his head, as the tainted atmosphere turned his stomach.
He was able and willing to work, but he could not bear to be hurried and bustled about; he was not fastidious as to the company he kept, but he did not relish being jostled by the unsavoury specimens of humanity that peopled this pandemonium.
On the other hand, he was not appreciated in the locality; although his moral perceptions were ever so keen, he was not considered "sharp," and while he was not wanting in animation, yet he was constantly being called upon to "look alive."
The philosopher hated sheep—both in the abstract and in the concrete—but his heart was full of tenderness, and he did not like to see them ill-treated. The brutal manner in which the poor animals were frequently used, the kicks and thumps and the bleeding gashes that were inflicted upon them, would rouse his indignation and call forth remarks that were often resented by the callous holders of the shears.
Thus there was a mutual lack of sympathy all round which rendered the position still more unpleasant.
Fortunately, on the present occasion, he was page 325spared much of suffering the and humiliation of this detested ordeal, as his duties were mostly outside, and his principal employment consisted in looking after or "tailing" the flocks as they were brought down from the hills. It was a tedious occupation, involving long hours of dreary watching and rough exposure in all weather and often through the night, but it afforded him what he prized most—quiet and fresh air.
The unusual press of work during the shearing season necessitated the employment of many additional hands, and nearly every man who could show any capabilities whatever for making himself generally useful, and who was desirous of work, would be readily engaged. On such occasions all was fish that came into the squatter's net. It was the heyday for raw "new chums," a blessed opportunity for all tramps, a refuge for the destitute. The "broken-down swell," at his wit's end for a meal; the dissipated idler from the billiard-table and the drinking saloon; the town loafer, and the habitual "unemployed," all flocked up-country, and dispersing among the numerous stations, would find work of some description, good pay, and plenty of rough fare.
Many others, of more respectable position in life, and unaccustomed to manual labour, would yet gladly page 326avail themselves of so favourable a chance to earn a few pounds in the springtime of the year, and enjoy a change in the country districts.
On the wide sheep-runs the event was equally welcome; it was a break on the dull monotony of station life, a temporary influx from populated districts into remote regions, where new faces were so rarely seen; a momentary stir of the human brotherhood in the abodes of solitude. Fresh acquaintances were made, friendly greetings exchanged, and a little sociability instilled into an otherwise unsociable existence. To Raleigh, however, the change was less acceptable. He, who had fled from the great centres of civilisation to the contemplation of nature in her wildest solitude, was not particularly desirous of renewing intercourse with society, especially of such a very commonplace description. Yet he was ever pleased to welcome worth or originality, in whatever form it might appear, and it sometimes occurred that in the motley crowd passing by he had met with and gladly greeted a congenial spirit.
One day during this season, as he was going his rounds in the vicinity of the homestead, and gathering in some stragglers from his flock, he was startled by an unusual sight. He perceived, about half-a-mile off, a small mob of wethers that were running page 327up the slope of the downs, pursued with great ardour and many shouts by an elderly man, who was a stranger to the place, and apparently a stranger to his work also. The sheep scampered friskily onwards, evidently delighted at the liberty afforded them, while the old man made frantic exertions to overtake them. It was a very unequal race—two against four—and although the shepherd showed remarkable agility, his charges were much too quick and too many for him. Sometimes they would stay their antics for a while and begin browsing the green blades on the hillside, and the old man would gain upon them; but at his near approach off they would start again, snorting and gambolling, and shaking their heads to the fresh morning breeze. Then they would split up into numerous files, go curveting round until they reached an eminence, when they would once more congregate together and indulge in a good stare at their discomfited keeper. It was great fun for the sheep, a hard pull for the unfortunate man. Surprised and amused at this novel exhibition in the art of shepherding, Raleigh stood still and watched all the fluctuations of the chase. "In the long run," he said to himself, "the race may not always be to the fleetest, but then—it requires a long run."
Finding himself beaten on the straight, the old man page 328paused a while on his upward course, and determined to attempt strategy. For a moment he considered the position, dropped backwards, and having got out of sight of his charge, he effected a circuitous movement and gained the higher ground by a wide détour; then he bore down suddenly upon them, with rapid evolutions, terrifying shouts, and well-directed missiles, surprised the position, disorganised all their previous tactics, and succeeded in driving them pell-mell down the hill. For the moment the success of the manœuver was complete, and the flock, frightened into subjection, was kept well together and led back towards the yards from which it had issued.
But the triumph of generalship was, alas! but short-lived. Hardly had the troop reached the base of the downs than renewed signs of insubordination began to be manifested. There was a strong tendency shown to depart from the straight and narrow path; the sight of the bare and dismal sheep-yards had a repulsive effect, while the many devious roads that led into flowery meads began to exercise a correspondingly increased attraction. The unfortunate driver was kept constantly on the qui-vive; he ran himself breathless, he shouted himself hoarse, and the violence of his gesticulations was alarming to behold. But all to no avail.page 329
At one of those critical moments which decide the course of events both great and small, and which are as applicable to a flock of sheep as to the fate of a mighty army, the signal of revolt was given. As is usually the case, it sprang from a direction where least expected. A plump and frolicsome little two-year-old, that had been trotting demurely in the rear of the flock, suddenly took it into his empty little head to cut a caper before high heaven and lead on to glory.
With a gay toss of his curly nob, and as much of a whisk as his tiny stump of a tail would admit of, the beardless champion bounded to the fore, then faced suddenly about, and confronted the serried ranks of the approaching mass with triumphant effrontery. Close upon him, trudging drowsily along, followed the hoary patriarchs of the flock, the ancient bell-wethers, to whom the leadership rightfully belonged. But when did rash youth ever curb its ardour at the dictates of sage authority; when did it ever willingly give way to age and experience? The little madcap saw his opportunity; in the absence of their surly guardian, the dog, he might indulge in an escapade with impunity, and the prospect was bright and open before him. With a jump on all fours, and a kick up behind, he made off with a dash, page 330before the astonished gaze of the whole mob, that remained spell-bound at such an exhibition of precocious audacity. The shepherd saw the danger; he hastily picked up a stone and hurled it at the saucy fugitive, but, unfortunately, the missile fell short, and instead of striking the culprit it came down heavily on the broad stern of a venerable wether, the best-conducted animal in the whole flock, and the one whose steadiness of deportment had hitherto controlled the turbulence of the more fiery spirits. This misdirected shot caused confusion in the ranks, and in the tumult that followed the force of example was no longer to be resisted. First one, then another, followed the leader; then they cut off in twos and threes, until the whole flock streamed gaily away in a serpentine file, as fast as their legs could carry them. The old man made a gallant attempt to intercept the flying column, but in vain; the frisky animals, now thoroughly roused to action, dodged past him under his very nose, and made the loose stones rattle as they scampered madly away. He stood for a moment breathless, aghast, with his arms elevated and bent over his head, in the typical attitude of despair; straining his aching vision after his departing charge; then his arms fell heavily, his knees bent, and he suddenly disappeared behind a flax bush.page 331
Raleigh thought it time to come to the rescue. His dogs were wincing and pawing by his side, watching the stampede with sparkling eyes and burning to follow in pursuit. He turned to them, and gave Tiny the wink to start; that was enough, for literally "in the twinkling of an eye" the nimble animal had shot off, like an arrow from the bow, bounding over rocks, flashing in and out of sight across the broken ridges, and seeming to skim the surface. Mop followed more leisurely, taking the lower ground, and intent on bringing up the rear.
Meanwhile the philosopher went leisurely tripping down the hill to where he had last seen the drooping individual. He found him prostrate on the ground, panting very hard, and apparently much discomposed. He greeted him with a good-natured laugh.
"Hullo, mate! have you knocked up already? You'd want the legs of a red-shanks and the wind of a grampus to keep up that little game. Trying to tail sheep without a dog, eh! Who put you up to that?"
"They're gone," gasped the poor old fellow, pressing his hand to his side, in evident pain, "gone clean away this time, and I couldn't stop them—how could I? I told the good lady that I didn't think I could manage them, when she ordered me off."page 332
"Oh, it was the good lady, was it?" said Raleigh, with a frown. "Just like her. It was bound to be either a wag or a woman to send you on such a fool's errand. What were you supposed to be about, if I may take the liberty of asking?"
The old man had to pause a bit to fetch his breath, then he ejaculated forth the story of his wrongs, in jerks, and with gasps between. "I was helping——at the yard—— down yonder—— hard at it since sunrise—— T'other chaps they left me there to keep guard, as it were—— when up comes the good lady and asks, very disdainful like, what I may be doing—— 'On duty, mum,' says I. 'On duty,' says she; 'it's standing at ease you mean, I suppose.' 'I was told, my lady,' says I, 'to look after the sheep.' 'Looking after sheep is not looking at them,' says she; 'it's a shame to keep the poor brutes penned up all day.' I told her that they had only been brought in that morning early, and that the shepherd said as how they wouldn't hurt till night. 'Oh, I see,' she said, 'they can feed on posts and rails!' I told the lady that I didn't know much about it, but that I was afraid if the sheep were let out that they might move off. 'In that case, my man,' says she, 'you would have to move after them; a little exercise wouldn't hurt you either.' And with that she page 333gave me such a setting down, and stormed away like a colonel on parade. 'Why,' she said, 'I could mind them myself;' and with that she marched off, ever so grand, leaving me that mortified and cut-up that I didn't know what to do—— so I just went and let them out, and they've kept me running after them till I dropped—— But once they took it into their heads to bolt, how could I stop them, though I broke my heart at it?—— and you know, sir, I'm not as young as I was."
"You don't look it either," said Raleigh with a smile. "Yet I never saw a man of your years cut about in such a pace before. Why, man, you only want wind to run like a hare. How old might you be, if it's a fair question?"
"Seventy-two!" replied the other promptly. "And out of that forty years under arms. Sergeant Sims, at your service, sir." As he said it he sprang to his feet again, and stood firm and erect, like a soldier at command. His cap had fallen down, exposing his grey head and weather-beaten features to the full glare of the sun. It was, every inch of it, the face and figure of an active old veteran. Of medium stature, thin, lithe, wiry, he seemed to carry his years very lightly, and to breathe forth a spark of the old fire. His head, partially bald, was fringed round with page 334bristly white hair, cut close, after the military fashion. The forehead and cheeks deeply furrowed and much bronzed; bushy eyebrows overhanging piercing grey eyes; a heavy and prominent nose, and the lower part of the face concealed in a short and neatly trimmed grey beard. The look was that of the eagle.
Raleigh held out his hand. "Glad to make your acquaintance, Sergeant," he said in a bright bluff way. "I honour age; I admire gallantry. My father was a soldier—Major Raleigh; possibly you may have heard of him, for he saw much service; not as much as you, though. Shouldn't wonder, now, but that you are a Waterloo man?"
"That I am, and have the medal," said the old man proudly, and as he spoke he lightly tapped his breast with his right hand as if to point to the mighty decoration. Then his voice fell, and a kindly smile overspread his meagre features as he added, "Aye, but that's a long time ago. I've been an old pensioner now for these fourteen years, and have taken to more peaceable occupations, as you see. But as for this tailing of sheep, as they call it, I can't manage it at all, at all. Indeed I can't, sir. A few more such runs would take away all the breath that's left in me. If that's the sort of thing they are going to put me to I shall shoulder my stick and—march!"page 335
"A cruel shame," ejaculated the other, "Who ever heard of a fellow attempting to tail a lot of wild sheep without a dog?"
"The lady told me I should do better without a dog," continued the old man, in an injured tone. "She does seem a very domineering sort of person—she's as uppish as a drum-major. 'If I had my way,' she said, 'I wouldn't allow a dog to the shepherd or a whip to the bullock-driver. Let the sheep-walkers do what they are paid to do, and walk, instead of squatting about the run and sending their dogs hunting the poor brutes about, or keeping them rounded up half the day. And as for them bullockies,' said she, 'if they only showed as much intelligence as the poor, dumb, willing creatures that they spend all their time in slashing and flogging, we should be more than satisfied with them.' Then turning to me, says she, 'What do you want a dog for? You need not be driving the sheep about; let them feed quietly, and just keep them from straying by walking round them. Work them in circles, my man; work them in circles.' It wasn't like a lady"——
"A what?" cried Raleigh.
"Or a woman either," added the sergeant with emphasis.
"A horse-marine!" muttered the other between his page 336teeth. "Look here, friend! if that personage addresses you in future, give her the royal salute, then turn on your heel and go about your business. That's how we all do. Come," he added, as he sat himself down in a sheltered nook and produced a tobacco pouch, "It's smoke oh! Bring yourself to an anchor and let's have a spell and a pipe."
"Oh, but what about my charge?" exclaimed the old man, as the recollection of his misfortune burst suddenly upon him. "What shall I do? they will be miles away by this time. Are you the overseer, sir?"
"Not I," said Raleigh, with a laugh. "I am a shepherd, pure and simple—a full private in the station ranks. Never mind about your blessed sheep; they will be all right. I sent my dogs after them, and—here they come!"
As he spoke the flock suddenly emerged over the brow of the hill, and came rattling down the slope panting and blowing, and all hustled together.
As they rushed past the two men the dogs shot and rounded them back, and kept them huddled together in a dense crowd.
"That'll do!" cried Raleigh. "Lie down, Tiny; come away ahind, Mop. Good dogs, good dogs!" And as the faithful intelligent animals came up to page 337him, panting loudly and with their tongues hanging right out of their open mouths, he patted them lovingly, and lavished praises on them which they appeared to appreciate with delight.
"I hope you left no stragglers behind, Tiny," he said.
The favourite collie started up, and raising its pretty head, gave a quick searching look round as if to make quite certain of the fact, while Mop gave out a contented yelp that was evidently intended to say that they might rest quite satisfied on that point.
The old sergeant exhibited almost childish glee at the astonishing feat, and he was loud in the expression of his thanks. It was something quite new to him, and he plied Raleigh with questions as to how such a degree of training could be effected.
"They have it in them," said the philosopher. "They take to it of their own accord, and the principal requisite in breaking them in is patience, but it needs a lot of that. A shepherd who loses his temper in training a young dog may spoil him for ever. No doubt the qualifications of a good sheep-dog are in the blood, yet I have known cases of mongrels doing fairly well. I knew an instance of a big Newfoundland dog that shaped first-rate at driving. Certainly the size of the brute had some-page 338thing to do with it, for when his huge form loomed in sight it struck terror among the sheep. No exertion was required; he had only to show himself. The greatest difficulty lies in teaching a dog to work wide, that is, to keep well away from the sheep. Another sticking point is to get a dog to lie down when told. A well-trained dog should drop down like dead at the word of command; but this demands such an absolute control over their excited feelings that it is not easily accomplished. It takes time. We have to make every allowance for the ardour and impulsiveness of youth. Some dogs are over-zealous, others too fiery, others so sensitive as to need the most careful and gentle handling. I rarely beat my dogs; a cross word is sufficient punishment for any ordinary fault. A dog nearly always knows when he has done wrong or disobeyed, and the crestfallen penitent way in which the poor animal will come creeping back to his irate master, with a face full of contrition, is quite affecting. Our dogs have nearly all the foibles and passions, and many of the eccentricities, that distinguish the superior creature, man, combined with some virtues that are but rarely met with in the prodigy of nature. There is Tiny, for instance, a dear little fellow and a great pet, but he has some notable weaknesses. I'm afraid he is a page 339spoilt boy, for he is wayward, capricious, and given to sulking. He will lead, and if I were to send Mop off to head a mob of sheep and keep him back, he would nearly go frantic. When he gives me any of his tantrums I simply neglect him altogether and devote a little attention to Mop. This rouses his jealousy to a high pitch, and soon brings him round. Now, Mop is of quite a different temperament; he is phlegmatic, easy-going, but not without a spice of vindictiveness. I have noticed the little scamp, after he had been much bothered by the pranks of some obstreperous sheep, creep slyly round, and, making a sudden dash on the culprit, give him a hard nip on the quiet. I have whacked him for it, for it would never do to allow a dog to take the law into his own hands—or teeth, I should say. Altogether, to break in a dog well requires knowledge of character and a lot of drilling, I can tell you."
"Not so bad as drilling raw recruits," interjected the sergeant. "There's very little instinct among that lot. We had to take them as they came, and to lick them into shape anyhow. Aye, and it was a rougher process in the old days than it is now; hard on both sides, for it has taken me a couple of years to learn some of the louts just to walk straight."
"But they could fight," exclaimed Raleigh; "they page 340had the bump of combativeness developed all round. 'British pluck' was something more than a name in those glorious days you talk about. Warfare was not then what it has since become—a horrible contrivance for human destruction on mechanical principles. Bravery went for something, and men were not merely reckoned by numbers, and considered principally as 'food for powder.' I hope," he added, "that we shall have many a long yarn together, sergeant. I want to hear about your campaigns—those grand old wars. What a deal of life you must have seen—what stirring times you must have gone through."
"Ay, ay," replied the old veteran, as a softened expression overspread his weather-beaten countenance. "I have lived long, and gone through a lot; and if you care to listen to an old soldier's experiences—but, you know, once you start a prosy old fellow on that lay the difficulty is to stop him. Ay, ay, I be getting on in years, and yet I don't feel it, sir—leastways, not much. I have my pension, you know, a sergeant's full pension; and, thank God, I still retain my health and strength, with just a touch of rheumatics now and then, and a swelling about the knuckles."
Here the old man showed his hands—thin, bony page 341fingers, with dark protuberant veins and knobby joints—for Raleigh's sympathetic inspection.
"There is no need for me to work now—I could retire and live in peace on my small means; but, you see, I came out here with my son and his family—for I've been a grandfather, sir, for these past eight years—and I just want to see the young people well settled at the farm. I spent a good bit of money in fixing them up and putting them in a good way, so I just thought I would lend a hand at shearing time, and maybe make a few pounds, while the young folk are pulling themselves together, and then, sir, I shall hie me back home again, and hope to lay my old bones in my native land."
"It may be many years ere that; you have a ripe old age before you," answered the other kindly. "Have you only one son, then, and he out here?"
"I had two," he said, and as he said it his head drooped and his countenance became clouded; "I had two,—my eldest boy Charlie, he was the apple of my eye—our cherished hope—the support of my old days. Such a good, kind boy, sir, and so clever. Well, there, you couldn't believe how clever he was. Oh, we had mighty fine ideas about Charlie; we wanted to make a gentleman of him—his mother had set her heart on it. So we saved and pinched to give him a good page 342education—to set him up in style. But, Lor' bless you, Charlie he went along better than any one could learn him. He didn't want to be set up neither. 'Give me a trade, dad, that I can always be sure of earning an honest living by the work of my hands, and make a home for mother and you, for I never mean to part from you.' And he would have done it, sir, he would have done it—if it had pleased God. We put him in a foundry to be a mechanic, and he got on wonderful, and learnt drawing all by himself; and he got promoted over the heads of other chaps as had been there for many years, and was such a favourite with the master, as indeed with everyone. Ay, he was getting on fine; he would have gone far, and been a comfort—but there. It was not to be. First the mother, then the son—the Lord's will be done."
The old man bowed his head and turned his face away.
Raleigh felt grieved that he had inadvertently touched a painful chord. There was a pause.
Then, with a semblance of cheerfulness in his voice he replied—
"Well, you have another son—I trust he is doing well."
"Ay," said the old soldier, with a shake of the head, "but he is not like my Charlie, although, mind page 343you, Fred is a good son—a sensible, industrious young man, and married to as nice a girl as ever you saw, although it's I that say it. And haven't I made a cosy little nest for them? A forty-acre allotment, sir, all fenced in, and ten acres under crop; a four-roomed cottage, kitchen, and outhouses, verandahs front and back. And stocked it too! A pair of draught horses, and a beautiful cow with a calf at her foot. Fred ought to do well; but he's not like Charlie—no, nor never will be. He hasn't got the brightness nor the light-heartedness—no, nor the 'savey' either. Well, there, to have seen us together it was more like two jolly pals than father and son."
The old man paused in his chatter; he turned a softened glistening look on his young companion and touched him gently on the shoulder.
"Do you know," he said with a strange smile, "that when you came suddenly upon me just now you gave me quite a start, you looked so much as he——used to look. It may be an old man's fancy, but you remind me of my boy. There's a something—I hope there's no offence, sir?"
"Offence!" exclaimed Raleigh, not without emotion, "why offence, indeed? I should only be too glad to imagine that I resembled such a one as you have described—one who must have had some good stuff page 344in him to have merited so much love. I fear the resemblance can only be skin-deep at best, for nobody cares for me. I am a ne'er-do-well, without home or profession—nay, not even with an object in life; without money or friends. A solitary tramp by the world's highway."
"Oh, you are not that — leastways, you were never intended for that," said the old man, as he turned a sharp scrutinising gaze on his companion. "But, maybe, like so many others, you've mistook your vocation."
"Likely enough," muttered the other, as he leisurely filled his pipe, and settled himself down for a placid smoke. "Well, you have what I lack—experience; you have fought the good fight; you have steered your course through stormy seas and have reached, I hope, a safe harbour of rest for your declining years; perhaps you can tell me where I have gone astray, and put me on the right track. I am always happy to take advice—the smallest contributions thankfully received—for I cannot help thinking that those who have gone through an arduous and varied life must surely know more about it than the novice who first enters in the lists, and who has everything to learn—possibly, even at that early stage, much to unlearn. And how it comes to pass page 345that the world grows no wiser with age; that all the accumulated stores of thought, research, and dearly-bought experience, preserved to us through the long course of time, should have added so little, if anything, to the felicity of the individual, or even to the sum total of human happiness—this has often perplexed me. It is the hardest nut to crack I know of."
And as he lounged listlessly backwards on the grassy slope, stretching out his limbs, basking in the warm sunshine, and blowing forth gentle whiffs of smoke in light columns or circling rings, which he watched disappear in the ambient air, the philosopher, in his usual chatty, desultory and caustic style, delivered himself of a short account of his chequered career. He sketched himself, as he liked to picture himself—laying on the colours pretty thick at times—making himself out to be just the sort of being which in reality he was not.
The old man, sitting bolt upright, all attention, pensive and demure, with knitted eyebrows, and his piercing eyes riveted on his recumbent interlocutor, said not a word until the rambling discourse was over. Then his hard features relaxed into a kindly smile, and in a half quizzical way he asked abruptly, "Have you ever been in love, my boy?"page 346
"What a question!" replied the other pettishly. "The old trite notion, that if a man is melancholy or forlorn he must have been crossed in love. No, my father confessor, I can't say that I ever have been in love, in the sense that you mean it, at any rate. Do I look like a love-sick swain, pining away, like a fool, over some unrequited passion? I hate maudlin sentiment; I never was a lady's man. I never fell in love, after the manner of sentimental heroes in novels; no, nor after the manner of the steady young man who looks about for a suitable object of devotion. In love—no, not I. Why do you ask?"
"I didn't mean it that way," said the sergeant drily. "But there is nothing like a young wife to put a man through his facings. You complain of not having an object in life. Well, to my thinking, a dearly-loved lass is about the best object a young man can have to care for, and, mind you—to work for too."
"Oh, gemini! I have heard something of the sort before. That means matrimony, I suppose, which by all accounts is a lottery to begin with, and with many more blanks than prizes. Besides, you can't support a wife and family on love alone; can you, now?"
"No, that you can't. The best incentive to action page 347I know of," observed the sergeant, with a humorous twinkle in his eye. "But, you know, Where there's a will there's a way. What you want is the will."
"The way is hard enough as it is," observed the philosopher sententiously. "I have done my best singly and failed; I have no idea of putting my head in a yoke to drag another helpless being after me. Then where is a man to find this devoted paragon? He might travel and seek long. For my part, I have never yet met with my 'affinity.' Yours is the popular cure—the old woman's remedy—which, according to some great thinkers, is the cause of more privation, misery, ay, and even degradation, than all other ills which flesh is heir to. It is dictated by that consummate old quack, Dame Nature, whom it has been the object of philosophers in all ages to expose and denounce—a useless attempt, no doubt, as far as the vulgar are concerned."
"Well, well, what is the world coming to!" interjected the old man, with a broad grin.
"The world is going from bad to worse," pursued the philosopher petulantly. "The artificial restrictions and restraints of our social life cramp and stifle all the nobler aspirations; it is a 'struggle for existence' which is becoming a death grapple. The advice which you favour me with, and which I could not page 348follow even if I wished it, would be excellent if addressed to a hearty young ploughman. But for the impecunious gentlefolk—the man of taste and education—in most cases of refined temperament and more delicate constitution—but bah! why dilate on that hackneyed topic. Whatever my failings and deficiencies may be, at least I am not of the cart-horse type, willing to plod in one unvarying round, inured to monotony, hardened to drudgery. Let me live a Bohemian—a vagabond even—sooner than sicken and die in the cold shade of insipid respectability. I have but one longing left dear to my heart, and that is—liberty!"
The old man looked wistfully, tenderly even, into the animated countenance of the speaker, then with kindly familiarity he laid his hand on his companion's shoulder, and said softly—
"My young friend, you may yet learn to be happy some day in spite of all your fine arguments. If I mistake not, you are just cut out for the very thing you have set your mind against."
"What is that, pray?"
The young man threw himself back on the ground, kicked up his heels, and indulged in a hearty roar of laughter. "Come," he cried, "that's a good 'un." page 349But the old man merely wagged his grey head, and muttered, "Time will show."
Then they both rose up.
"I do believe," said Raleigh, who had been directing his field-glass towards the homestead, "that the good lady, as you call her, has been watching us all the time from the parlour window. I can see her now. She will go into a fit if we remain gossiping here much longer, and won't she have a pretty report to make to the boss on his return. I must help you to yard these sheep, then I will try to get old Flo for you. Long Bill will let you have her. She is a lazy, crawling, yelping old bitch, useless on the hills, but good enough for tailing on the fiats—at any rate, she will save your legs, so come along."