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Philosopher Dick

Chapter V

page 110

Chapter V.

A few days after M'Whirter had made his unexpected appearance at the mountain hut, "the philosopher," in one of his boundary walks, found himself at the Horse-shoe Saddle, which was on the dividing line between the Marino Run and Grey's. It was a curved and narrow ridge connecting the rocky peaks on either side.

To the westward the Bald Hills stood out like a cluster of enormous sugar-loafs, their steep and rugged sides dipping into precipitous gullies that were concealed in dense masses of brushwood. These gullies formed almost impassable barriers, and it was only along a few leading spurs that sheep could cross over to the neighbouring run. Raleigh examined the ground carefully to find out if there were tracks across the border, and it was with great mortification that he noticed the very recent footprints of a considerable flock. "Confound the brutes," he mentally exclaimed; "it was only last night that I had them all rounded up three miles off, and started page 111them rejoicing on the road to Mount Vulcan. What the deuce can have turned them back again? Now the flocks will have mixed, and there will be the devil to pay, d—— it!"

It was very vexing, and the disconsolate sheep-walker fully realised the fact.

He asked himself what was to be done. The question required grave consideration, so he thought the best thing under such trying circumstances would be to set himself down and light his pipe, in order to grasp the situation in all its aspects. So he found shelter under the lea of a large outspreading flax bush, and, having wriggled himself into the most comfortable position that the stony nature of the ground admitted of, he "lit up," and indulged in a quiet smoke and a "big think." He first relieved his mind with a good all-round curse. The sheep were consigned with one breath to everlasting perdition; he d——d them singly and collectively, at all times and under all conditions; he cursed them for their cunning, he cursed them for their stupidity, he cursed them for activity, he cursed them for their sloth, and above all he cursed them for their cursedness. That business over, he felt better, and was able to take a calmer view of the situation—his outburst of anger at his flock subsided, and gave place page 112to a sensation of immense pity. He wondered how it came to pass that nature could have brought forth creatures so utterly perverse and of such overwhelming imbecility. He reasoned it out quietly and logically; he put it in the form of a syllogism; he investigated it by the scientific method; he considered it on Darwinian principles; but all to no avail—the theory of the survival of the fittest didn't help him a little bit, but rather increased his perplexity. At last he gave it up; only it did seem strange—passing strange—that any animal gifted with the faintest glimmer of the most debased instinct should wilfully, knowingly abandon the green pastures and flowing springs to wander over miles of pointed rocks and desolate wastes into a wilderness without grass or shelter! And there the philosopher suddenly paused in his soliloquy, for an unpleasant retrospection forced itself on his mind. The ghost of a Nathan rose up before him, and pointing the finger of scorn, ejaculated, "Thou art that sheep!"

"So I am," sighed the prostrate man. "So I am; convicted out of my own mouth. Did I not abandon a happy land of civilisation and refinement; did I not leave congenial pursuits, the companionship of friends, the attractions of society and art, and all for what? To make a fool of myself; to bury myself page 113in a wilderness; to seek for solitude, misery, and privation at the farthest end of the world. Truly, I am that blessed sheep!"

He was startled out of this pleasant reverie by a loud noise of bleating flocks and barking dogs, and immediately afterwards a large body of sheep were seen streaming over the opposite hillside and racing down the steep declivity on to the saddle. Raleigh recognised his own sheep, but was at a loss to account for their welcome but unexpected return. Soon the mystery was explained, for hard upon them, shouting, swearing, and gesticulating furiously, two men appeared on the scene. The one, short, square, squat; the other, long and lean. They were both exerting their limbs and lungs most vigorously, hounding on the trespassers with volleys of oaths, not unaccompanied with more effective missiles. Raleigh discerned in the short square man his next-door neighbour, Sailor Jack, and in the long lean lad Jack's faithful henchman, Jim Pipe, but he lay quiet under the flax bush, watching the proceedings with perfect equanimity. He waited until the last of the stragglers had scampered across the boundary, under a fire of awful imprecations and a shower of stones, until all the noise and stampede was over, and then from his hidden retreat he sounded a loud "Coo-e!" page 114Sailor Jack ceased mopping the perspiration from his heated brow, and Jim withdrew his hands from his pockets; the next moment a couple of binoculars were pointed to the spot from whence the voice proceeded, and some uncomplimentary remarks were launched forth in the same direction. Raleigh jumped to his feet, and came rattling down the stony slope to where the other two were standing, and advanced with his usual placid unconcern.

"Thanks, old man," he said; "you have saved me a lot of trouble. I was just wondering where the darned critters had got to. Couldn't make it out at all."

Jack looked savage. With anybody else he would have squared up and called upon the intruder to defend himself.

"You go the right way about to find hout," he growled; "squatting under a flax bush and smoking a pipe. That may be a philosopher's way of keeping his boundary—'tain't ourn."

"D——the boundary; I'm sick of it," replied the other coolly.

"Then why don't ye clear hout," replied Jack surlily, "and give up your billet to some cove as 'll mind it? Here's Jim, what 'ud be glad of the place. He's looking for a crib to settle down; ain't you, Jim?"

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"My word!" ejaculated the stripling.

"The deuce you are!" said Raleigh. "Well, I would be very glad to make place for you, but I believe Mr. Dale has arranged to send Malcolm there. It's no great privilege or any sinecure either."

"What's that 'ere?" inquired Jack.

"A sinecure, my good man, is a fat place that can be held without any particular fitness for the office or much personal exertion."

"Then I should just advise you to look hout for the like, for it's about hall you are fit for," answered the surly Jack.

"Why, what are you growling about?" inquired Raleigh, with extreme suavity.

"Growling? What am I growling about? You'd be enough to make a saint swear, you would. First you sets fire to the run, and burns us out; then you lets your sheep go to blazes while you lies on your back smoking your pipe or playing the flute, and us bursting ourselves doing your tarnation work."

"Avast heaving there; belay, belay!" cried Raleigh. "What's all the fuss about? There's no harm done."

"No thanks to you."

"Certainly not; I give you all the credit. You are a splendid fellow, Jack; always on the alert— page 116here, there, and everywhere! While you are about I feel no concern whatever. But without you for a neighbour where should I be?"

"None of your gammon," replied Jack, somewhat pacified.

"The devil must be in the confounded critters," continued Raleigh. "I don't know what possesses them to be for ever crossing the boundary on to your ground, unless it be simple unmitigated cussedness. They have nothing to get on your wretched run besides thorns and shingle, and I can never keep them off it. I set fire to the country in order to burn whatever feed there might be, to create a belt of barrenness—a zone of desolation—to drive them away. Now, d——me, if they don't swarm over the place thicker than ever."

"On course," replied Jack. "Them young green shoots is springing hup all over the burnt ground, and sheep will travel miles to pick at 'em. Don't 'em, Jim?"

"My word!" said Jim.

"Howsomever, we've given 'em a routing they won't forget for a bit; haven't us, Jim?"

"My word!" said Jim.

"They travelled as if the devil kicked them," replied Raleigh. "Well, in a few days I am going to page 117take your advice and clear out. These happy regions shall know me no more. My successor is to be a raw, red, rantin' Highlander. I hope you won't come to fisticuffs at the first meeting, that's all."

"You ain't really going?" inquired Jack.

"Certain as death."

"Well, there! We shall be sorry; shan't us, Jim?"

"My word!" said Jim, quite dolefully.

"We shall be werry sorry, if I do let out when I'm riled," repeated Jack. "Howsomever, as I always tells Jim, I can't make hout as how a gentleman like you, and a scholard, should go and plant hisself in such a lonesome hole to live by hisself."

"It is miserable," observed Raleigh; "and I really believe that a little more of it would drive me mad. Then the homestead is worse. You have heard, I suppose, all about the accident at Marino, and poor Dan's death?"

"Yes; Aleck the German and Yankee Bill came over to the Glen to split shingles, and they told us."

"A miserable time we had of it. I was glad to get back to the hut. It was dark when I reached home, and I got the deuce of a start there. I found the hut empty, as I thought. So I lit the fire, boiled page 118the kettle, had tea and a smoke, and was just about thinking of turning in, when I heard a noise close by, and on looking round—lo and behold! within an arm's length was the figure-head of a man. A ghastly apparition! It gave me the creeps, and for the moment I really thought it was a ghost."

"I'd a gone for it straight!" exclaimed the combative Jack.

"My word," said Jim, "I'd ha' made for the door."

"I did neither," continued Raleigh; "but I invited it to supper. The ghost partook largely of spirits, but it was human after all. It turned out to be a Scotchman named M'Whirter, who had travelled your way. A poor beggar apparently, although no fool."

"What! M'Whirter a poor beggar!" cried out Jack. "I wish I had half his beggary. Aye, or even one tenth. I should retire from hactive service to-morrow, and live 'appy ever aterwards."

"You don't mean to say that the old man is well off"? He was most shabbily dressed, and with such hands! And he was humping a swag that would have been a load for a packhorse."

"Likely enough. He don't spare hisself or anybody else either. A hard nail is old Mac. I've known him drive a bullock team all night to his farm page 119near town, just to save time next day. The old beggar would steer off the track, and give the pubs a wide berth, to save spending anything on the road. The old chap has made his pile, but he don't like parting with any of it. There's the farm where he lives, the town place, and no end of property all over the country."

"Is he a miser then?"

"Not 'xactly that, but awfu' near. He ain't a bad sort neither, at times, and he's free enough in his own house. If ever you goes there, he'll find you a drop of good whisky, and 'elp you to drink it too."

"Well, he helped me to drink some of mine with right good-will, and in return gave me lots of good advice. He sketched out a little plan of campaign, how to succeed in the world and to get rich. I did not pay much attention, thinking what a miserable example he was of his own principles. Had I known that the old man was a wealthy squatter, I fancy his remarks would have carried more weight. Who would have thought it?"

"Them's the coves who do make money, for they knows how to keep it," judiciously observed Jack, as he set about filling his pipe. "It ain't philosophers like you or gruff Jack Tars like me as gets on in the world."

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"Is he married?" inquired Raleigh.

"Married—rather! A very nice lady is Mistress M'Whirter; cute enough too, with a score of youngsters, as all works, and makes theirselves generally useful, down to the three-year-old."

"Canny old buffer!" exclaimed Raleigh; "and true to his principles, even in matrimony. So he makes the procreation of children a paying business, does he?"

"My word," put in Jim, "I knows 'em well; have worked there. The boys used to take turn about on the farm with us hands and do the schooling at night. Two of them manage a run of the old man's on the western ranges. He pays them something—gives them a percentage, as they calls it—it can't be much. The gals milks the cows and helps with the housework, and gets themselves smart of an afternoon and looks as nice as anything."

"Quite a model of a thrifty household," said Raleigh; "patriarchal, with an eye to the main chance. What made you leave, Jim?"

"Ah! thereon 'angs a tale," blurted out Jack, with a grin. "Jim 'as gone and done it this time. Didn't I tell you he was a looking hout for some crib to settle down."

"Settle down, indeed! What do you mean?"

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"Why, he's about to get spliced."

"Come now," laughed Raleigh, "that's too much of a good thing. Why, he is a mere boy. Is this a true bill, Jim?"

Jim Pipe hung his head. His plump rosy cheeks became a shade rosier, as he tried to smother his confusion under a chuckle, and he gave a reproachful glance at Jack for telling on him.

"I suppose so," he muttered.

"What a lark!" exclaimed Raleigh.

"It was a lark," gravely observed Jack; "but it's past the larking stage now I've had to talk to the boy like a Dutch uncle; but it ain't no use tacking about now—he must come up to the scratch like a man. It's the key as did it."

"The key," cried Raleigh; "oh! this is good. So there is a key to the story, is there? By all means let's have it. Jim, unlock the mystery. Come, let us bring ourselves to an anchor in this nook. Light up and smoke a pipe of peace, while Jim relates the story of his courtship. I'm sure it is a good one."

Jim demurred a little. He was shy, and inclined to slur over certain details which Jack considered essential to the right understanding of the whole transaction, but under judicious prompting and gentle pressure it all came out.

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"Well, you see," he began, "it was this ways, I was down at M'Whirter's farm, and was sent to work at the shed last shearing, and there was a gal there, Rosetta, as had to help in the kitchen and look after the shearers. I took an interest in the gal because she was so unprotected like among all them rough chaps—a rowdy lot them shearers are, as you know—and she a nice-looking gal; ain't she, Jack?"

"Reg'lar slap-up," observed the sailor approvingly. "As neat a little craft as ever reefed a mainsail, with a clean rig fore and aft."

"I should have thought," remarked the philosopher, "that this model housewife, her mistress, would have kept a sharp eye after the girl."

"So she did," continued Jim, "and was always a ferreting about the premises, and poking her nose into every corner to see as nothing was wasted. She was awful partic'ler to see that the melted sugar as was left in the pannikins should be kept to make treacle, and the scraps of bread was made into puddings, and the sheeps' heads, as what the men wouldn't touch, would be biled and served up in the parlour. But she didn't seem to look after Rosetta as if she minded what was agoing on; and when I tell you, the young woman had to sleep in an outhouse, down by the woolshed, away from the family." page 123"As wanted a sharp look-out for the night watch," remarked Jack.

"As I told you," continued Jim, warming up to his subject, "I took an interest in the young woman, and thought I'd try to protect her. So I just used to lock her up of a nights and carry away the key. It was safer for Rosetta, and good for me to know for certain that no one could disturb her."

"Barring yourself, Jim," said Jack.

"She never took no notice of me," replied the other.

"How far had your acquaintance with the young person proceeded?" inquired Raleigh modestly.

Jim looked puzzled; he was at a loss for a definition." We were walking together," he said.

"I understand; and you locked her up when the walk was over?"

"Just so," continued Jim; "she didn't mind it at all, so she said. But one morning there was an awful bobbery, for the missus she came down to the kitchen at sunrise, and called to Rosetta to come out, but Rosetta couldn't, because she was locked in. I had the key, and couldn't be found anywhere, because I was a fetching in the cows; and they sent looking for me all over the place, and when I did come with the key and lets her out there was the page 124missus a scolding like anything, and the chaps a laughing like mad, and I felt as if I could sink through the ground; and Rosetta came out as red as a turkey cock."

"And what became of the key after that?" inquired Raleigh.

"Well, I offered it to the missus. She said as how I had minded it so well, I'd a better take and mind the gal too, as I was the right chap to do so."

"You didn't 'alf mind her," growled Jack. "I never bothers about no keys when I takes hup with a girl."

"Jack," said the philosopher gravely, "this modest youth only wanted to mind the girl. In his place nothing would have satisfied you but to mount bodyguard. Go on, Jim."

"And after that Rosetta began a nagging at me, and t'other chaps they keeps up a chaffing. And then they tried all sorts of larks to hide away the key, and to steal it from me, but I kept a tight hold of it, I can tell you."

"Why didn't you give 'em a slap in the heye?" blustered out Jack.

"I didn't like to," replied Jim mildly.

"There you are again, Jack," exclaimed Raleigh, "always on for a stand-up fight. If you had your page 125way you would like to pummel all creation. That's not the way to overcome an antagonist."

"What is, then?" asked Jack, opening his eyes.

"Subdue him in logic, of course," replied the philosopher.

"I was not on to fight," continued Jim rather gloomily, "but I just held on to the key. But one night, or towards morning, I'm blowed if Teddy O'Dea didn't come up to my bunk and shake me, and call out, 'I say, Jim Pipe, you get up; there's that young woman a shivering like anything outside, and she can't get in. I'm not larking. Come an' see for yourself.' It ain't possible,' says I. So with that I jumps out of bed and runs round the shed; and there, sure enough—there was Rosetta a blocked up against the door, a shivering and a crying because she couldn't get in. Well, I felt knocked all of a heap, and I says to her—'Rosetta, what are you a doing out here?'

"'I'm not doing nothing,' says she; 'can't you see I want to get in?'

"'There's the key,' says I.

"'It's too late,' says she; 'the mischief's done.'

"'What mischief?' I says.

"'You're a fool,' says she.

"'Not such a fool as you take me for,' says I; and page 126with that I chucks the key at her, and went straight back, and packs up my traps, and clears out before morning."

"Dear me," remarked the philosopher. "I suppose there is an explanation for everything in this world, but at the first glance it does seem rather strange that the young person should have been locked in and locked out at the same time."

"I couldn't make it out nohow," replied Jim. "I kept a worrying over it ever so long, until Jack there talked to me about it."

"There was a window," observed Jack, with a wink. The philosopher gave a long whistle.

"That's it," continued Jim. "She told me after."

"Told you what?"

"That it was the window as did it. Says she to me, 'It was so hot, Jim, that I felt stifled like, and I got up on a chair and leant out of the window for a breath of fresh air, and so I fell out.'"

"Some young women is took that way," remarked Jack sententiously.

"So you have made it up, then?" asked Raleigh. "That's a good thing. All's well that ends well."

"The missus sent for me last month," Jem went on rather mournfully, "and gave me such a talking to. She said the gal had got into trouble; there page 127would be a talk, and all through me. 'You had the key, Jim Pipe,' says she. I told her all about it, but she only shook her head. 'And,' says she, 'you had the key, Jim Pipe. You must marry the gal; and may you be happy!'"

Sailor Jack put on a look of extreme gravity.

"It ain't no use, Jim," said he; "it's dead agin you. What do you say, Mr. Raleigh? If so be a house is robbed, and a cove as is suspected is found with the door-key on him"——

"The key would convict him," replied Raleigh.

"That's what I says. It's a clear case."

"So help me"——began Jim, in an appealing tone.

"There now, shut up, my lad," expostulated Jack with dignity; "the least said the soonest mended. It ain't no concern of ourn, nor any one else's, so long as you sticks to the gal. Well, there, you ain't the simple fool as you looks, my lad; I knows yer."

Jim Pipe felt that he was on the horns of a dilemma, so he preserved a discreet silence and merely scratched his head.

"When is this little event expected to come off?" asked Raleigh.

"Which one?" dubiously inquired Jim.

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"The wedding, of course. What else could I mean?"

"Blowed if I know. Next month, I suppose."

"Well, you are not a very ardent lover, I must say," remarked the other, with a laugh. "And yet you tell me that the girl is fair, and plump, and bonny"——

"Oh, the young woman is all there," interrupted Jim, with a broad grin, as if he had good reasons to be well satisfied on that point. "But she oughtn't to have got out of the window."

"You should 'ave been there to stop her, Jim," put in Jack.

"The moral of this interesting narrative," observed the philosopher, "would appear to be, what I have heard before, or read somewhere, that it is not safe trusting to lock and key where a woman is concerned."

"I'd sooner take her afloat," said Jack.