The Blenheim coach was descending into the valley of the Avetere River―pronounced Aveterry―from the saddle of Taylor's Pass. Across the river to the right, the grey slopes and flats stretched away to the distant sea from a range of tussock hills. There was no native bush there; but there were several groves of imported timber standing wide apart―sentinel-like―seeming lonely and striking in their isolation.
'Grand country, New Zealand, eh?' said a stout man with a brown face, grey beard, and grey eyes, who sat between the driver and another passenger on the box.
'You don't call this grand country!' exclaimed the other passenger, who claimed to be, and looked like, a commercial traveller, and might have been a professional spieler―quite possibly both. 'Why, it's about the poorest country in New Zealand! You ought to see some of the country in the North Island―Wairarapa and Napier districts, round about Pahiatua. I call this damn poor country.'
'Well, I reckon you wouldn't, if you'd ever been in Australia―back in New South Wales. The people here don't seem to know what a grand country they've got. You say this is the worst, eh? Well, this would make an Australian cockatoo's mouth water―the worst of New Zealand would.'
'I always thought Australia was all good country,' mused the driver―a flax-stick. 'I always thought―'
'Good country!' exclaimed the man with the grey beard, in a tone of disgust. 'Why, it's only a mongrel desert, except some bits round the coast. The worst dried-up and God-forsaken country I was ever in.'
There was a silence, thoughtful on the driver's part, and aggressive on that of the stranger.
'I always thought,' said the driver, reflectively, after the pause 'I always thought Australia was a good country,' and he placed his foot on the break.
They let him think. The coach descended the natural terraces above the river bank, and pulled up at tne pub.
'So you're a native of Australia?' said the bagman to the grey-beard, as the coach went on again.
'Well, I suppose I am. Anyway, I was born there. That's the main thing I've got against the darned country.'
'How long did you stay there?'
'Till I got away,' said the stranger. Then, after a think, he added, 'I went away first when I was thirty-five―went to the islands. I swore I'd never go back to Australia again; but I did. I thought I had a kind of affection for old Sydney. I knocked about the blasted country for five or six years, and then I cleared out to 'Frisco. I swore I'd never go back again, and I never will.'
'But surely you'll take a run over and have a look at old Sydney and those places, before you go back to America, after getting so near?'
'What the blazes do I want to have a look at the blamed country for?' snapped the stranger, who had refreshed considerably. 'I've got nothing to thank Australia for except getting out of it. It's the best country to get out of that I was ever in.'
'Oh, well, I only thought you might have had some friends over there,' interposed the traveller in an injured tone.
'Friends! That's another reason. I wouldn't go back there for all the friends and relations since Adam. I had more than quite enough of it while I was there. The worst and hardest years of my life were spent in Australia. I might have starved there, and did do it half my time. I worked harder and got less in my own country in five years than I ever did in any other in fifteen'―he was getting mixed―'and I've been in a few since then. No, Australia is the worst country that ever the Lord had the sense to forget. I mean to stick to the country that stuck to me, when I was starved out of my own dear native land―and that country is the United States of America. What's Australia? A big, thirsty, hungry wilderness, with one or two cities for the convenience of foreign speculators, and a few collections of humpies, called towns―also for the convenience of foreign speculators: and populated mostly by mongrel sheep, and partly by fools, who live like European slaves in the towns, and like dingoes in the bush―who drivel about 'democracy,' and yet haven't any more spunk than to graft for a few cockney dudes that razzle-dazzle most of the time in Paris. Why, the Australians haven't even got the grit to claim enough of their own money to throw a few dams across their watercourses, and so make some of the interior fit to live in. America's bad enough, but it was never so small as that.…Bah! The curse of Australia is sheep, and the Australian war cry is Baa!'
'Well, you're the first man I ever heard talk as you've been doing about his own country,' said the bagman, getting tired and impatient of being sat on all the time. '"Lives there a man with a soul so dead, who never said―to―to himself"…I forget the darned thing.'
He tried to remember it. The man whose soul was dead cleared his throat for action, and the driver―for whom the bagman had shouted twice as against the stranger's once―took the opportunity to observe that he always thought a man ought to stick up for his own country.
The stranger ignored him, and opened fire on the bagman. He proceeded to prove that that was all rot―that patriotism was the greatest curse on earth; that it had been the cause of all war; that it was the false, ignorant sentiment which moved men to slave, starve, and fight for the comfort of their sluggish masters; that it was the enemy of universal brotherhood, the mother of hatred, murder, and slavery, and that the world would never be any better until the deadly poison, called the sentiment of patriotism, had been 'educated' out of the stomachs of the people. 'Patriotism!' he exclaimed scornfully 'My country! The darned fools; the country never belonged to them, but to the speculators, the absentees, land-boomers, swindlers, gangs of thieves―the men the patriotic fools starve and fight for―their masters. Ba-a!'
The opposition collapsed.
The coach had climbed the terraces on the south side of the river, and was bowling along on a level stretch of road across the elevated flat.
'What trees are those?' asked the stranger, breaking the aggressive silence which followed his unpatriotic argument, and pointing to a grove ahead by the roadside. 'They look as if they've been planted there. There ain't been a forest here surely?'
'Oh, they're some trees the Government imported,' said the traveller, whose knowledge on the subject was limited. 'Our own bush won't grow in this soil.'
'But it looks as if anything else would———'
Here the stranger sniffed once by accident, and then several times with interest. It was a warm morning after rain. He fixed his eyes on those trees.
They didn't look like Australian gums; they tapered to the tops, the branches were pretty regular, and the boughs hung in ship-shape fashion. There was not the Australian heat to twist the branches and turn the leaves.
'Why!' exclaimed the stranger, still staring and sniffing hard. 'Why, dang me if they ain't (sniff) Australian gums!'
'Yes,' said the driver, flicking his horses, 'they are.'
'Blanky (sniff) blanky old Australian gums!' exclaimed the ex-Australian, with strange enthusiasm.
'They're not old,' said the driver; 'they're only young trees. But they say they don't grow like that in Australia―'count of the difference in the climate. I always thought———'
But the other did not appear to hear him; he kept staring hard at the trees they were passing. They had been planted in rows and cross-rows, and were coming on grandly.
There was a rabbit trapper's camp amongst those trees; he had made a fire to boil his billy with gum leaves and twigs, and it was the scent of that fire which interested the exile's nose, and brought a wave of memories with it.
'Good day, mate!' he shouted suddenly to the rabbit trapper, and to the astonishment of his fellow passengers.
'Good day, mate!' The answer came back like an echo―it seemed to him―from the past.
Presently he caught sight of a few trees which had evidently been planted before the others as an experiment, perhaps―and, somehow, one of them had grown after its own erratic native fashion―gnarled and twisted and ragged, and could not be mistaken for anything else but an Australian gum.
'A thunderin' old blue-gum!' ejaculated the traveller, regarding the tree with great interest.
He screwed his neck to get a last glimpse, and then sat silently smoking and gazing straight ahead, as if the past lay before him―and it was before him.
'Ah, well!' he said, in explanation of a long meditative silence on his part; 'ah, well―them saplings―the smell of them gum leaves set me thinking.' And he thought some more.
'Well, for my part,' said a tourist in the coach, presently, in a condescending tone, 'I can't see much in Australia. The bally colonies are———'
'Oh, that be damned!' snarled the Australian-born―they had finished the second flask of whisky. 'What do you Britishers know about Australia? She's as good as England anyway.'
'Well, I suppose you'll go straight back to the States as soon as you've done your business in Christchurch,' said the bagman, when near their journey's end they had become confidential.
'Well, I dunno. I reckon I'll just take a run over to Australia first. There's an old mate of mine in business in Sydney, and I'd like to have a yarn with him.