There are times when a man is happy. When he finds out that the girl loves him. When he’s just married. When he’s a lawful father for the first time, and everything is going on all right: some men make fools of themselves then—I know I did. I’m happy to-night because I’m out of debt and can see clear ahead, and because I haven’t been easy for a long time.
But I think that the happiest time in a man’s life is when he’s courting a girl and finds out for sure that she loves him and hasn’t a thought for any one else. Make the most of your courting days, you young chaps, and keep them clean, for they’re about the only days when there’s a chance of poetry and beauty coming into this life. Make the best of them and you’ll never regret it the longest day you live. They’re the days that the wife will look back to, anyway, in the brightest of times as well as in the blackest, and there shouldn’t be anything in those days that might hurt her when she looks back. Make the most of your courting days, you young chaps, for they will never come again.
A married man knows all about it—after a while: he sees the woman world through the eyes of his wife; he knows what an extra moment’s pressure of the hand means, and, if he has had a hard life, and is inclined to be cynical, the knowledge does him no good. It leads him into awful messes sometimes, for a married man, if he’s inclined that way, has three times the chance with a woman that a single man has—because the married man knows. He is privileged; he can guess pretty closely what a woman means when she says something else; he knows just how far he can go; he can go farther in five minutes towards coming to the point with a woman than an innocent young man dares go in three weeks. Above all, the married man is more decided with women; he takes them and things for granted. In short he is— well, he is a married man. And, when he knows all this, how much better or happier is he for it? Mark Twain says that he lost all the beauty of the river when he saw it with a pilot’s eye,— and there you have it.
But it’s all new to a young chap, provided he hasn’t been a young blackguard. It’s all wonderful, new, and strange to him. He’s a different man. He finds that he never knew anything about women. He sees none of woman’s little ways and tricks in his girl. He is in heaven one day and down near the other place the next; and that’s the sort of thing that makes life interesting. He takes his new world for granted. And, when she says she’ll be his wife——!
Make the most of your courting days, you young chaps, for they’ve got a lot of influence on your married life afterwards—a lot more than you’d think. Make the best of them, for they’ll never come any more, unless we do our courting over again in another world. If we do, I’ll make the most of mine.
But, looking back, I didn’t do so badly after all. I never told you about the days I courted Mary. The more I look back the more I come to think that I made the most of them, and if I had no more to regret in married life than I have in my courting days, I wouldn’t walk to and fro in the room, or up and down the yard in the dark sometimes, or lie awake some nights thinking. . . . Ah well!
I was between twenty-one and thirty then: birthdays had never been any use to me, and I’d left off counting them. You don’t take much stock in birthdays in the Bush. I’d knocked about the country for a few years, shearing and fencing and droving a little, and wasting my life without getting anything for it. I drank now and then, and made a fool of myself. I was reckoned ‘wild’; but I only drank because I felt less sensitive, and the world seemed a lot saner and better and kinder when I had a few drinks: I loved my fellow-man then and felt nearer to him. It’s better to be thought ‘wild’ than to be considered eccentric or ratty. Now, my old mate, Jack Barnes, drank—as far as I could see— first because he’d inherited the gambling habit from his father along with his father’s luck: he’d the habit of being cheated and losing very bad, and when he lost he drank. Till drink got a hold on him. Jack was sentimental too, but in a different way. I was sentimental about other people—more fool I!—whereas Jack was sentimental about himself. Before he was married, and when he was recovering from a spree, he’d write rhymes about ‘Only a boy, drunk by the roadside’, and that sort of thing; and he’d call ’em poetry, and talk about signing them and sending them to the Town and Country Journal. But he generally tore them up when he got better. The Bush is breeding a race of poets, and I don’t know what the country will come to in the end.
Well. It was after Jack and I had been out shearing at Beenaway shed in the Big Scrubs. Jack was living in the little farming town of Solong, and I was hanging round. Black, the squatter, wanted some fencing done and a new stable built, or buggy and harness-house, at his place at Haviland, a few miles out of Solong. Jack and I were good Bush carpenters, so we took the job to keep us going till something else turned up. ‘Better than doing nothing,’ said Jack.
‘There’s a nice little girl in service at Black’s,’ he said. ‘She’s more like an adopted daughter, in fact, than a servant. She’s a real good little girl, and good-looking into the bargain. I hear that young Black is sweet on her, but they say she won’t have anything to do with him. I know a lot of chaps that have tried for her, but they’ve never had any luck. She’s a regular little dumpling, and I like dumplings. They call her ‘Possum. You ought to try a bear up in that direction, Joe.’
I was always shy with women—except perhaps some that I should have fought shy of; but Jack wasn’t—he was afraid of no woman, good, bad, or indifferent. I haven’t time to explain why, but somehow, whenever a girl took any notice of me I took it for granted that she was only playing with me, and felt nasty about it. I made one or two mistakes, but—ah well!
‘My wife knows little ‘Possum,’ said Jack. ‘I’ll get her to ask her out to our place and let you know.’
I reckoned that he wouldn’t get me there then, and made a note to be on the watch for tricks. I had a hopeless little love-story behind me, of course. I suppose most married men can look back to their lost love; few marry the first flame. Many a married man looks back and thinks it was damned lucky that he didn’t get the girl he couldn’t have. Jack had been my successful rival, only he didn’t know it— I don’t think his wife knew it either. I used to think her the prettiest and sweetest little girl in the district.
But Jack was mighty keen on fixing me up with the little girl at Haviland. He seemed to take it for granted that I was going to fall in love with her at first sight. He took too many things for granted as far as I was concerned, and got me into awful tangles sometimes.
‘You let me alone, and I’ll fix you up, Joe,’ he said, as we rode up to the station. ‘I’ll make it all right with the girl. You’re rather a good-looking chap. You’ve got the sort of eyes that take with girls, only you don’t know it; you haven’t got the go. If I had your eyes along with my other attractions, I’d be in trouble on account of a woman about once a-week.’
‘For God’s sake shut up, Jack,’ I said.
Do you remember the first glimpse you got of your wife? Perhaps not in England, where so many couples grow up together from childhood; but it’s different in Australia, where you may hail from two thousand miles away from where your wife was born, and yet she may be a countrywoman of yours, and a countrywoman in ideas and politics too. I remember the first glimpse I got of Mary.
It was a two-storey brick house with wide balconies and verandahs all round, and a double row of pines down to the front gate. Parallel at the back was an old slab-and-shingle place, one room deep and about eight rooms long, with a row of skillions at the back: the place was used for kitchen, laundry, servants’ rooms, &c. This was the old homestead before the new house was built. There was a wide, old-fashioned, brick-floored verandah in front, with an open end; there was ivy climbing up the verandah post on one side and a baby-rose on the other, and a grape-vine near the chimney. We rode up to the end of the verandah, and Jack called to see if there was any one at home, and Mary came trotting out; so it was in the frame of vines that I first saw her.
More than once since then I’ve had a fancy to wonder whether the rose-bush killed the grape-vine or the ivy smothered ’em both in the end. I used to have a vague idea of riding that way some day to see. You do get strange fancies at odd times.
Jack asked her if the boss was in. He did all the talking. I saw a little girl, rather plump, with a complexion like a New England or Blue Mountain girl, or a girl from Tasmania or from Gippsland in Victoria. Red and white girls were very scarce in the Solong district. She had the biggest and brightest eyes I’d seen round there, dark hazel eyes, as I found out afterwards, and bright as a ‘possum’s. No wonder they called her “Possum”. I forgot at once that Mrs Jack Barnes was the prettiest girl in the district. I felt a sort of comfortable satisfaction in the fact that I was on horseback: most Bushmen look better on horseback. It was a black filly, a fresh young thing, and she seemed as shy of girls as I was myself. I noticed Mary glanced in my direction once or twice to see if she knew me; but, when she looked, the filly took all my attention. Mary trotted in to tell old Black he was wanted, and after Jack had seen him, and arranged to start work next day, we started back to Solong.
I expected Jack to ask me what I thought of Mary—but he didn’t. He squinted at me sideways once or twice and didn’t say anything for a long time, and then he started talking of other things. I began to feel wild at him. He seemed so damnably satisfied with the way things were going. He seemed to reckon that I was a gone case now; but, as he didn’t say so, I had no way of getting at him. I felt sure he’d go home and tell his wife that Joe Wilson was properly gone on little ‘Possum at Haviland. That was all Jack’s way.
Next morning we started to work. We were to build the buggy-house at the back near the end of the old house, but first we had to take down a rotten old place that might have been the original hut in the Bush before the old house was built. There was a window in it, opposite the laundry window in the old place, and the first thing I did was to take out the sash. I’d noticed Jack yarning with ‘Possum before he started work. While I was at work at the window he called me round to the other end of the hut to help him lift a grindstone out of the way; and when we’d done it, he took the tips of my ear between his fingers and thumb and stretched it and whispered into it—
‘Don’t hurry with that window, Joe; the strips are hardwood and hard to get off—you’ll have to take the sash out very carefully so as not to break the glass.’ Then he stretched my ear a little more and put his mouth closer—
‘Make a looking-glass of that window, Joe,’ he said.
I was used to Jack, and when I went back to the window I started to puzzle out what he meant, and presently I saw it by chance.
That window reflected the laundry window: the room was dark inside and there was a good clear reflection; and presently I saw Mary come to the laundry window and stand with her hands behind her back, thoughtfully watching me. The laundry window had an old-fashioned hinged sash, and I like that sort of window—there’s more romance about it, I think. There was thick dark-green ivy all round the window, and Mary looked prettier than a picture. I squared up my shoulders and put my heels together and put as much style as I could into the work. I couldn’t have turned round to save my life.
Presently Jack came round, and Mary disappeared.
‘Well?’ he whispered.
‘You’re a fool, Jack,’ I said. ‘She’s only interested in the old house being pulled down.’
‘That’s all right,’ he said. ‘I’ve been keeping an eye on the business round the corner, and she ain’t interested when I’m round this end.’
‘You seem mighty interested in the business,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ said Jack. ‘This sort of thing just suits a man of my rank in times of peace.’
‘What made you think of the window?’ I asked.
‘Oh, that’s as simple as striking matches. I’m up to all those dodges. Why, where there wasn’t a window, I’ve fixed up a piece of looking-glass to see if a girl was taking any notice of me when she thought I wasn’t looking.’
He went away, and presently Mary was at the window again, and this time she had a tray with cups of tea and a plate of cake and bread-and-butter. I was prizing off the strips that held the sash, very carefully, and my heart suddenly commenced to gallop, without any reference to me. I’d never felt like that before, except once or twice. It was just as if I’d swallowed some clockwork arrangement, unconsciously, and it had started to go, without warning. I reckon it was all on account of that blarsted Jack working me up. He had a quiet way of working you up to a thing, that made you want to hit him sometimes—after you’d made an ass of yourself.
I didn’t hear Mary at first. I hoped Jack would come round and help me out of the fix, but he didn’t.
‘Mr—Mr Wilson!’ said Mary. She had a sweet voice.
I turned round.
‘I thought you and Mr Barnes might like a cup of tea.’
‘Oh, thank you!’ I said, and I made a dive for the window, as if hurry would help it. I trod on an old cask-hoop; it sprang up and dinted my shin and I stumbled—and that didn’t help matters much.
‘Oh! did you hurt yourself, Mr Wilson?’ cried Mary.
‘Hurt myself! Oh no, not at all, thank you,’ I blurted out. ‘It takes more than that to hurt me.’I was about the reddest shy lanky fool of a Bushman that was ever taken at a disadvantage on foot, and when I took the tray my hands shook so that a lot of the tea was spilt into the saucers. I embarrassed her too, like the damned fool I was, till she must have been as red as I was, and it’s a wonder we didn’t spill the whole lot between us. I got away from the window in as much of a hurry as if Jack had cut his leg with a chisel and fainted, and I was running with whisky for him. I blundered round to where he was, feeling like a man feels when he’s just made an ass of himself in public. The memory of that sort of thing hurts you worse and makes you jerk your head more impatiently than the thought of a past crime would, I think.
I pulled myself together when I got to where Jack was.
‘Here, Jack!’ I said. ‘I’ve struck something all right; here’s some tea and brownie—we’ll hang out here all right.’
Jack took a cup of tea and a piece of cake and sat down to enjoy it, just as if he’d paid for it and ordered it to be sent out about that time.
He was silent for a while, with the sort of silence that always made me wild at him. Presently he said, as if he’d just thought of it—
‘That’s a very pretty little girl, ‘Possum, isn’t she, Joe? Do you notice how she dresses?—always fresh and trim. But she’s got on her best bib-and-tucker to-day, and a pinafore with frills to it. And it’s ironing-day, too. It can’t be on your account. If it was Saturday or Sunday afternoon, or some holiday, I could understand it. But perhaps one of her admirers is going to take her to the church bazaar in Solong to-night. That’s what it is.’
He gave me time to think over that.
‘But yet she seems interested in you, Joe,’ he said. ‘Why didn’t you offer to take her to the bazaar instead of letting another chap get in ahead of you? You miss all your chances, Joe.’
Then a thought struck me. I ought to have known Jack well enough to have thought of it before.
‘Look here, Jack,’ I said. ‘What have you been saying to that girl about me?’
‘Oh, not much,’ said Jack. ‘There isn’t much to say about you.’
‘What did you tell her?’
‘Oh, nothing in particular. She’d heard all about you before.’
‘She hadn’t heard much good, I suppose,’ I said.
‘Well, that’s true, as far as I could make out. But you’ve only got yourself to blame. I didn’t have the breeding and rearing of you. I smoothed over matters with her as much as I could.’
‘What did you tell her?’ I said. ‘That’s what I want to know.’
‘Well, to tell the truth, I didn’t tell her anything much. I only answered questions.’
‘And what questions did she ask?’
‘Well, in the first place, she asked if your name wasn’t Joe Wilson; and I said it was, as far as I knew. Then she said she heard that you wrote poetry, and I had to admit that that was true.’
‘Look here, Jack,’ I said, ‘I’ve two minds to punch your head.’
‘And she asked me if it was true that you were wild,’ said Jack, ‘and I said you was, a bit. She said it seemed a pity. She asked me if it was true that you drank, and I drew a long face and said that I was sorry to say it was true. She asked me if you had any friends, and I said none that I knew of, except me. I said that you’d lost all your friends; they stuck to you as long as they could, but they had to give you best, one after the other.’
‘She asked me if you were delicate, and I said no, you were as tough as fencing-wire. She said you looked rather pale and thin, and asked me if you’d had an illness lately. And I said no— it was all on account of the wild, dissipated life you’d led. She said it was a pity you hadn’t a mother or a sister to look after you— it was a pity that something couldn’t be done for you, and I said it was, but I was afraid that nothing could be done. I told her that I was doing all I could to keep you straight.’
I knew enough of Jack to know that most of this was true. And so she only pitied me after all. I felt as if I’d been courting her for six months and she’d thrown me over—but I didn’t know anything about women yet.
‘Did you tell her I was in jail?’ I growled.
‘No, by Gum! I forgot that. But never mind I’ll fix that up all right. I’ll tell her that you got two years’ hard for horse-stealing. That ought to make her interested in you, if she isn’t already.’
We smoked a while.
‘And was that all she said?’ I asked.
‘Who?—Oh! ‘Possum,’ said Jack rousing himself. ‘Well—no; let me think—— We got chatting of other things—you know a married man’s privileged, and can say a lot more to a girl than a single man can. I got talking nonsense about sweethearts, and one thing led to another till at last she said, “I suppose Mr Wilson’s got a sweetheart, Mr Barnes?”’
‘And what did you say?’ I growled.
‘Oh, I told her that you were a holy terror amongst the girls,’ said Jack. ‘You’d better take back that tray, Joe, and let us get to work.’
I wouldn’t take back the tray—but that didn’t mend matters, for Jack took it back himself.
I didn’t see Mary’s reflection in the window again, so I took the window out. I reckoned that she was just a big-hearted, impulsive little thing, as many Australian girls are, and I reckoned that I was a fool for thinking for a moment that she might give me a second thought, except by way of kindness. Why! young Black and half a dozen better men than me were sweet on her, and young Black was to get his father’s station and the money—or rather his mother’s money, for she held the stuff (she kept it close too, by all accounts). Young Black was away at the time, and his mother was dead against him about Mary, but that didn’t make any difference, as far as I could see. I reckoned that it was only just going to be a hopeless, heart-breaking, stand-far-off-and-worship affair, as far as I was concerned— like my first love affair, that I haven’t told you about yet. I was tired of being pitied by good girls. You see, I didn’t know women then. If I had known, I think I might have made more than one mess of my life.
Jack rode home to Solong every night. I was staying at a pub some distance out of town, between Solong and Haviland. There were three or four wet days, and we didn’t get on with the work. I fought shy of Mary till one day she was hanging out clothes and the line broke. It was the old-style sixpenny clothes-line. The clothes were all down, but it was clean grass, so it didn’t matter much. I looked at Jack.
‘Go and help her, you capital Idiot!’ he said, and I made the plunge.
‘Oh, thank you, Mr Wilson!’ said Mary, when I came to help. She had the broken end of the line and was trying to hold some of the clothes off the ground, as if she could pull it an inch with the heavy wet sheets and table-cloths and things on it, or as if it would do any good if she did. But that’s the way with women —especially little women—some of ’em would try to pull a store bullock if they got the end of the rope on the right side of the fence. I took the line from Mary, and accidentally touched her soft, plump little hand as I did so: it sent a thrill right through me. She seemed a lot cooler than I was.
Now, in cases like this, especially if you lose your head a bit, you get hold of the loose end of the rope that’s hanging from the post with one hand, and the end of the line with the clothes on with the other, and try to pull ’em far enough together to make a knot. And that’s about all you do for the present, except look like a fool. Then I took off the post end, spliced the line, took it over the fork, and pulled, while Mary helped me with the prop. I thought Jack might have come and taken the prop from her, but he didn’t; he just went on with his work as if nothing was happening inside the horizon.
She’d got the line about two-thirds full of clothes, it was a bit short now, so she had to jump and catch it with one hand and hold it down while she pegged a sheet she’d thrown over. I’d made the plunge now, so I volunteered to help her. I held down the line while she threw the things over and pegged out. As we got near the post and higher I straightened out some ends and pegged myself. Bushmen are handy at most things. We laughed, and now and again Mary would say, ‘No, that’s not the way, Mr Wilson; that’s not right; the sheet isn’t far enough over; wait till I fix it,’ &c. I’d a reckless idea once of holding her up while she pegged, and I was glad afterwards that I hadn’t made such a fool of myself.
‘There’s only a few more things in the basket, Miss Brand,’ I said. ‘You can’t reach—I’ll fix ’em up.’
She seemed to give a little gasp.
‘Oh, those things are not ready yet,’ she said, ‘they’re not rinsed,’ and she grabbed the basket and held it away from me. The things looked the same to me as the rest on the line; they looked rinsed enough and blued too. I reckoned that she didn’t want me to take the trouble, or thought that I mightn’t like to be seen hanging out clothes, and was only doing it out of kindness.
‘Oh, it’s no trouble,’ I said, ‘let me hang ’em out. I like it. I’ve hung out clothes at home on a windy day,’ and I made a reach into the basket. But she flushed red, with temper I thought, and snatched the basket away.
‘Excuse me, Mr Wilson,’ she said, ‘but those things are not ready yet!’ and she marched into the wash-house.
‘Ah well! you’ve got a little temper of your own,’ I thought to myself.
When I told Jack, he said that I’d made another fool of myself. He said I’d both disappointed and offended her. He said that my line was to stand off a bit and be serious and melancholy in the background.
That evening when we’d started home, we stopped some time yarning with a chap we met at the gate; and I happened to look back, and saw Mary hanging out the rest of the things—she thought that we were out of sight. Then I understood why those things weren’t ready while we were round.
For the next day or two Mary didn’t take the slightest notice of me, and I kept out of her way. Jack said I’d disillusioned her— and hurt her dignity—which was a thousand times worse. He said I’d spoilt the thing altogether. He said that she’d got an idea that I was shy and poetic, and I’d only shown myself the usual sort of Bush-whacker.
I noticed her talking and chatting with other fellows once or twice, and it made me miserable. I got drunk two evenings running, and then, as it appeared afterwards, Mary consulted Jack, and at last she said to him, when we were together—
‘Do you play draughts, Mr Barnes?’
‘No,’ said Jack.
‘Do you, Mr Wilson?’ she asked, suddenly turning her big, bright eyes on me, and speaking to me for the first time since last washing-day.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I do a little.’ Then there was a silence, and I had to say something else.
‘Do you play draughts, Miss Brand?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘but I can’t get any one to play with me here of an evening, the men are generally playing cards or reading.’ Then she said, ‘It’s very dull these long winter evenings when you’ve got nothing to do. Young Mr Black used to play draughts, but he’s away.’
I saw Jack winking at me urgently.
‘I’ll play a game with you, if you like,’ I said, ‘but I ain’t much of a player.’
‘Oh, thank you, Mr Wilson! When shall you have an evening to spare?’
We fixed it for that same evening. We got chummy over the draughts. I had a suspicion even then that it was a put-up job to keep me away from the pub.
Perhaps she found a way of giving a hint to old Black without committing herself. Women have ways—or perhaps Jack did it. Anyway, next day the Boss came round and said to me—
‘Look here, Joe, you’ve got no occasion to stay at the pub. Bring along your blankets and camp in one of the spare rooms of the old house. You can have your tucker here.’
He was a good sort, was Black the squatter: a squatter of the old school, who’d shared the early hardships with his men, and couldn’t see why he should not shake hands and have a smoke and a yarn over old times with any of his old station hands that happened to come along. But he’d married an Englishwoman after the hardships were over, and she’d never got any Australian notions.
Next day I found one of the skillion rooms scrubbed out and a bed fixed up for me. I’m not sure to this day who did it, but I supposed that good-natured old Black had given one of the women a hint. After tea I had a yarn with Mary, sitting on a log of the wood-heap. I don’t remember exactly how we both came to be there, or who sat down first. There was about two feet between us. We got very chummy and confidential. She told me about her childhood and her father.
He’d been an old mate of Black’s, a younger son of a well-to-do English family (with blue blood in it, I believe), and sent out to Australia with a thousand pounds to make his way, as many younger sons are, with more or less. They think they’re hard done by; they blue their thousand pounds in Melbourne or Sydney, and they don’t make any more nowadays, for the Roarin’ Days have been dead these thirty years. I wish I’d had a thousand pounds to start on!
Mary’s mother was the daughter of a German immigrant, who selected up there in the old days. She had a will of her own as far as I could understand, and bossed the home till the day of her death. Mary’s father made money, and lost it, and drank—and died. Mary remembered him sitting on the verandah one evening with his hand on her head, and singing a German song (the ‘Lorelei’, I think it was) softly, as if to himself. Next day he stayed in bed, and the children were kept out of the room; and, when he died, the children were adopted round (there was a little money coming from England).
Mary told me all about her girlhood. She went first to live with a sort of cousin in town, in a house where they took in cards on a tray, and then she came to live with Mrs Black, who took a fancy to her at first. I’d had no boyhood to speak of, so I gave her some of my ideas of what the world ought to be, and she seemed interested.
Next day there were sheets on my bed, and I felt pretty cocky until I remembered that I’d told her I had no one to care for me; then I suspected pity again.
But next evening we remembered that both our fathers and mothers were dead, and discovered that we had no friends except Jack and old Black, and things went on very satisfactorily.
And next day there was a little table in my room with a crocheted cover and a looking-glass.
I noticed the other girls began to act mysterious and giggle when I was round, but Mary didn’t seem aware of it.
We got very chummy. Mary wasn’t comfortable at Haviland. Old Black was very fond of her and always took her part, but she wanted to be independent. She had a great idea of going to Sydney and getting into the hospital as a nurse. She had friends in Sydney, but she had no money. There was a little money coming to her when she was twenty-one—a few pounds—and she was going to try and get it before that time.
‘Look here, Miss Brand,’ I said, after we’d watched the moon rise. ‘I’ll lend you the money. I’ve got plenty—more than I know what to do with.’
But I saw I’d hurt her. She sat up very straight for a while, looking before her; then she said it was time to go in, and said ‘Good-night, Mr Wilson.’
I reckoned I’d done it that time; but Mary told me afterwards that she was only hurt because it struck her that what she said about money might have been taken for a hint. She didn’t understand me yet, and I didn’t know human nature. I didn’t say anything to Jack— in fact about this time I left off telling him about things. He didn’t seem hurt; he worked hard and seemed happy.
I really meant what I said to Mary about the money. It was pure good nature. I’d be a happier man now, I think, and richer man perhaps, if I’d never grown any more selfish than I was that night on the wood-heap with Mary. I felt a great sympathy for her— but I got to love her. I went through all the ups and downs of it. One day I was having tea in the kitchen, and Mary and another girl, named Sarah, reached me a clean plate at the same time: I took Sarah’s plate because she was first, and Mary seemed very nasty about it, and that gave me great hopes. But all next evening she played draughts with a drover that she’d chummed up with. I pretended to be interested in Sarah’s talk, but it didn’t seem to work.
A few days later a Sydney Jackaroo visited the station. He had a good pea-rifle, and one afternoon he started to teach Mary to shoot at a target. They seemed to get very chummy. I had a nice time for three or four days, I can tell you. I was worse than a wall-eyed bullock with the pleuro. The other chaps had a shot out of the rifle. Mary called ‘Mr Wilson’ to have a shot, and I made a worse fool of myself by sulking. If it hadn’t been a blooming Jackaroo I wouldn’t have minded so much.
Next evening the Jackaroo and one or two other chaps and the girls went out ‘possum-shooting. Mary went. I could have gone, but I didn’t. I mooched round all the evening like an orphan bandicoot on a burnt ridge, and then I went up to the pub and filled myself with beer, and damned the world, and came home and went to bed. I think that evening was the only time I ever wrote poetry down on a piece of paper. I got so miserable that I enjoyed it.
I felt better next morning, and reckoned I was cured. I ran against Mary accidentally and had to say something.
‘How did you enjoy yourself yesterday evening, Miss Brand?’ I asked.
‘Oh, very well, thank you, Mr Wilson,’ she said. Then she asked, ‘How did you enjoy yourself, Mr Wilson?’
I puzzled over that afterwards, but couldn’t make anything out of it. Perhaps she only said it for the sake of saying something. But about this time my handkerchiefs and collars disappeared from the room and turned up washed and ironed and laid tidily on my table. I used to keep an eye out, but could never catch anybody near my room. I straightened up, and kept my room a bit tidy, and when my handkerchief got too dirty, and I was ashamed of letting it go to the wash, I’d slip down to the river after dark and wash it out, and dry it next day, and rub it up to look as if it hadn’t been washed, and leave it on my table. I felt so full of hope and joy that I worked twice as hard as Jack, till one morning he remarked casually—
‘I see you’ve made a new mash, Joe. I saw the half-caste cook tidying up your room this morning and taking your collars and things to the wash-house.’
I felt very much off colour all the rest of the day, and I had such a bad night of it that I made up my mind next morning to look the hopelessness square in the face and live the thing down.
It was the evening before Anniversary Day. Jack and I had put in a good day’s work to get the job finished, and Jack was having a smoke and a yarn with the chaps before he started home. We sat on an old log along by the fence at the back of the house. There was Jimmy Nowlett the bullock-driver, and long Dave Regan the drover, and big Jim Bullock the fencer, and one or two others. Mary and the station girls and one or two visitors were sitting under the old verandah. The Jackaroo was there too, so I felt happy. It was the girls who used to bring the chaps hanging round. They were getting up a dance party for Anniversary night. Along in the evening another chap came riding up to the station: he was a big shearer, a dark, handsome fellow, who looked like a gipsy: it was reckoned that there was foreign blood in him. He went by the name of Romany. He was supposed to be shook after Mary too. He had the nastiest temper and the best violin in the district, and the chaps put up with him a lot because they wanted him to play at Bush dances. The moon had risen over Pine Ridge, but it was dusky where we were. We saw Romany loom up, riding in from the gate; he rode round the end of the coach-house and across towards where we were— I suppose he was going to tie up his horse at the fence; but about half-way across the grass he disappeared. It struck me that there was something peculiar about the way he got down, and I heard a sound like a horse stumbling.
‘What the hell’s Romany trying to do?’ said Jimmy Nowlett. ‘He couldn’t have fell off his horse—or else he’s drunk.’
A couple of chaps got up and went to see. Then there was that waiting, mysterious silence that comes when something happens in the dark and nobody knows what it is. I went over, and the thing dawned on me. I’d stretched a wire clothes-line across there during the day, and had forgotten all about it for the moment. Romany had no idea of the line, and, as he rode up, it caught him on a level with his elbows and scraped him off his horse. He was sitting on the grass, swearing in a surprised voice, and the horse looked surprised too. Romany wasn’t hurt, but the sudden shock had spoilt his temper. He wanted to know who’d put up that bloody line. He came over and sat on the log. The chaps smoked a while.
‘What did you git down so sudden for, Romany?’ asked Jim Bullock presently. ‘Did you hurt yerself on the pommel?’
‘Why didn’t you ask the horse to go round?’ asked Dave Regan.
‘I’d only like to know who put up that bleeding wire!’ growled Romany.
‘Well,’ said Jimmy Nowlett, ‘if we’d put up a sign to beware of the line you couldn’t have seen it in the dark.’
‘Unless it was a transparency with a candle behind it,’ said Dave Regan. ‘But why didn’t you get down on one end, Romany, instead of all along? It wouldn’t have jolted yer so much.’
All this with the Bush drawl, and between the puffs of their pipes. But I didn’t take any interest in it. I was brooding over Mary and the Jackaroo.
‘I’ve heard of men getting down over their horse’s head,’ said Dave presently, in a reflective sort of way—‘in fact I’ve done it myself— but I never saw a man get off backwards over his horse’s rump.’
But they saw that Romany was getting nasty, and they wanted him to play the fiddle next night, so they dropped it.
Mary was singing an old song. I always thought she had a sweet voice, and I’d have enjoyed it if that damned Jackaroo hadn’t been listening too. We listened in silence until she’d finished.
‘That gal’s got a nice voice,’ said Jimmy Nowlett.
‘Nice voice!’ snarled Romany, who’d been waiting for a chance to be nasty. ‘Why, I’ve heard a tom-cat sing better.’
I moved, and Jack, he was sitting next me, nudged me to keep quiet. The chaps didn’t like Romany’s talk about ‘Possum at all. They were all fond of her: she wasn’t a pet or a tomboy, for she wasn’t built that way, but they were fond of her in such a way that they didn’t like to hear anything said about her. They said nothing for a while, but it meant a lot. Perhaps the single men didn’t care to speak for fear that it would be said that they were gone on Mary. But presently Jimmy Nowlett gave a big puff at his pipe and spoke—
‘I suppose you got bit too in that quarter, Romany?’
‘Oh, she tried it on, but it didn’t go,’ said Romany. ‘I’ve met her sort before. She’s setting her cap at that Jackaroo now. Some girls will run after anything with trousers on,’ and he stood up.
Jack Barnes must have felt what was coming, for he grabbed my arm, and whispered, ‘Sit still, Joe, damn you! He’s too good for you!’ but I was on my feet and facing Romany as if a giant hand had reached down and wrenched me off the log and set me there.
‘You’re a damned crawler, Romany!’ I said.
Little Jimmy Nowlett was between us and the other fellows round us before a blow got home. ‘Hold on, you damned fools!’ they said. ‘Keep quiet till we get away from the house!’ There was a little clear flat down by the river and plenty of light there, so we decided to go down there and have it out.
Now I never was a fighting man; I’d never learnt to use my hands. I scarcely knew how to put them up. Jack often wanted to teach me, but I wouldn’t bother about it. He’d say, ‘You’ll get into a fight some day, Joe, or out of one, and shame me;’ but I hadn’t the patience to learn. He’d wanted me to take lessons at the station after work, but he used to get excited, and I didn’t want Mary to see him knocking me about. Before he was married Jack was always getting into fights—he generally tackled a better man and got a hiding; but he didn’t seem to care so long as he made a good show— though he used to explain the thing away from a scientific point of view for weeks after. To tell the truth, I had a horror of fighting; I had a horror of being marked about the face; I think I’d sooner stand off and fight a man with revolvers than fight him with fists; and then I think I would say, last thing, ‘Don’t shoot me in the face!’ Then again I hated the idea of hitting a man. It seemed brutal to me. I was too sensitive and sentimental, and that was what the matter was. Jack seemed very serious on it as we walked down to the river, and he couldn’t help hanging out blue lights.
‘Why didn’t you let me teach you to use your hands?’ he said. ‘The only chance now is that Romany can’t fight after all. If you’d waited a minute I’d have been at him.’ We were a bit behind the rest, and Jack started giving me points about lefts and rights, and ‘half-arms’, and that sort of thing. ‘He’s left-handed, and that’s the worst of it,’ said Jack. ‘You must only make as good a show as you can, and one of us will take him on afterwards.’
But I just heard him and that was all. It was to be my first fight since I was a boy, but, somehow, I felt cool about it—sort of dulled. If the chaps had known all they would have set me down as a cur. I thought of that, but it didn’t make any difference with me then; I knew it was a thing they couldn’t understand. I knew I was reckoned pretty soft. But I knew one thing that they didn’t know. I knew that it was going to be a fight to a finish, one way or the other. I had more brains and imagination than the rest put together, and I suppose that that was the real cause of most of my trouble. I kept saying to myself, ‘You’ll have to go through with it now, Joe, old man! It’s the turning-point of your life.’ If I won the fight, I’d set to work and win Mary; if I lost, I’d leave the district for ever. A man thinks a lot in a flash sometimes; I used to get excited over little things, because of the very paltriness of them, but I was mostly cool in a crisis—Jack was the reverse. I looked ahead: I wouldn’t be able to marry a girl who could look back and remember when her husband was beaten by another man—no matter what sort of brute the other man was.
I never in my life felt so cool about a thing. Jack kept whispering instructions, and showing with his hands, up to the last moment, but it was all lost on me.
Looking back, I think there was a bit of romance about it: Mary singing under the vines to amuse a Jackaroo dude, and a coward going down to the river in the moonlight to fight for her.
It was very quiet in the little moonlit flat by the river. We took off our coats and were ready. There was no swearing or barracking. It seemed an understood thing with the men that if I went out first round Jack would fight Romany; and if Jack knocked him out somebody else would fight Jack to square matters. Jim Bullock wouldn’t mind obliging for one; he was a mate of Jack’s, but he didn’t mind who he fought so long as it was for the sake of fair play—or ‘peace and quietness’, as he said. Jim was very good-natured. He backed Romany, and of course Jack backed me.
As far as I could see, all Romany knew about fighting was to jerk one arm up in front of his face and duck his head by way of a feint, and then rush and lunge out. But he had the weight and strength and length of reach, and my first lesson was a very short one. I went down early in the round. But it did me good; the blow and the look I’d seen in Romany’s eyes knocked all the sentiment out of me. Jack said nothing,— he seemed to regard it as a hopeless job from the first. Next round I tried to remember some things Jack had told me, and made a better show, but I went down in the end.
I felt Jack breathing quick and trembling as he lifted me up.
‘How are you, Joe?’ he whispered.
‘I’m all right,’ I said.
‘It’s all right,’ whispered Jack in a voice as if I was going to be hanged, but it would soon be all over. ‘He can’t use his hands much more than you can—take your time, Joe—try to remember something I told you, for God’s sake!’
When two men fight who don’t know how to use their hands, they stand a show of knocking each other about a lot. I got some awful thumps, but mostly on the body. Jimmy Nowlett began to get excited and jump round—he was an excitable little fellow.
‘Fight! you——!’ he yelled. ‘Why don’t you fight? That ain’t fightin’. Fight, and don’t try to murder each other. Use your crimson hands or, by God, I’ll chip you! Fight, or I’ll blanky well bullock-whip the pair of you;’ then his language got awful. They said we went like windmills, and that nearly every one of the blows we made was enough to kill a bullock if it had got home. Jimmy stopped us once, but they held him back.
Presently I went down pretty flat, but the blow was well up on the head and didn’t matter much—I had a good thick skull. And I had one good eye yet.
‘For God’s sake, hit him!’ whispered Jack—he was trembling like a leaf. ‘Don’t mind what I told you. I wish I was fighting him myself! Get a blow home, for God’s sake! Make a good show this round and I’ll stop the fight.’
That showed how little even Jack, my old mate, understood me.
I had the Bushman up in me now, and wasn’t going to be beaten while I could think. I was wonderfully cool, and learning to fight. There’s nothing like a fight to teach a man. I was thinking fast, and learning more in three seconds than Jack’s sparring could have taught me in three weeks. People think that blows hurt in a fight, but they don’t— not till afterwards. I fancy that a fighting man, if he isn’t altogether an animal, suffers more mentally than he does physically.
While I was getting my wind I could hear through the moonlight and still air the sound of Mary’s voice singing up at the house. I thought hard into the future, even as I fought. The fight only seemed something that was passing.
I was on my feet again and at it, and presently I lunged out and felt such a jar in my arm that I thought it was telescoped. I thought I’d put out my wrist and elbow. And Romany was lying on the broad of his back.
I heard Jack draw three breaths of relief in one. He said nothing as he straightened me up, but I could feel his heart beating. He said afterwards that he didn’t speak because he thought a word might spoil it.
I went down again, but Jack told me afterwards that he felt I was all right when he lifted me.
Then Romany went down, then we fell together, and the chaps separated us. I got another knock-down blow in, and was beginning to enjoy the novelty of it, when Romany staggered and limped.
‘I’ve done,’ he said. ‘I’ve twisted my ankle.’ He’d caught his heel against a tuft of grass.
‘Shake hands,’ yelled Jimmy Nowlett.
I stepped forward, but Romany took his coat and limped to his horse.
‘If yer don’t shake hands with Wilson, I’ll lamb yer!’ howled Jimmy; but Jack told him to let the man alone, and Romany got on his horse somehow and rode off.
I saw Jim Bullock stoop and pick up something from the grass, and heard him swear in surprise. There was some whispering, and presently Jim said—
‘If I thought that, I’d kill him.’
‘What is it?’ asked Jack.
Jim held up a butcher’s knife. It was common for a man to carry a butcher’s knife in a sheath fastened to his belt.
‘Why did you let your man fight with a butcher’s knife in his belt?’ asked Jimmy Nowlett.
But the knife could easily have fallen out when Romany fell, and we decided it that way.
‘Any way,’ said Jimmy Nowlett, ‘if he’d stuck Joe in hot blood before us all it wouldn’t be so bad as if he sneaked up and stuck him in the back in the dark. But you’d best keep an eye over yer shoulder for a year or two, Joe. That chap’s got Eye-talian blood in him somewhere. And now the best thing you chaps can do is to keep your mouth shut and keep all this dark from the gals.’
Jack hurried me on ahead. He seemed to act queer, and when I glanced at him I could have sworn that there was water in his eyes. I said that Jack had no sentiment except for himself, but I forgot, and I’m sorry I said it.
‘What’s up, Jack?’ I asked.
‘Nothing,’ said Jack.
‘What’s up, you old fool?’ I said.
‘Nothing,’ said Jack, ’except that I’m damned proud of you, Joe, you old ass!’ and he put his arm round my shoulders and gave me a shake. ‘I didn’t know it was in you, Joe—I wouldn’t have said it before, or listened to any other man say it, but I didn’t think you had the pluck— God’s truth, I didn’t. Come along and get your face fixed up.’
We got into my room quietly, and Jack got a dish of water, and told one of the chaps to sneak a piece of fresh beef from somewhere.
Jack was as proud as a dog with a tin tail as he fussed round me. He fixed up my face in the best style he knew, and he knew a good many— he’d been mended himself so often.
While he was at work we heard a sudden hush and a scraping of feet amongst the chaps that Jack had kicked out of the room, and a girl’s voice whispered, ‘Is he hurt? Tell me. I want to know,— I might be able to help.’
It made my heart jump, I can tell you. Jack went out at once, and there was some whispering. When he came back he seemed wild.
‘What is it, Jack?’ I asked.
‘Oh, nothing,’ he said, ’only that damned slut of a half-caste cook overheard some of those blanky fools arguing as to how Romany’s knife got out of the sheath, and she’s put a nice yarn round amongst the girls. There’s a regular bobbery, but it’s all right now. Jimmy Nowlett’s telling ’em lies at a great rate.’
Presently there was another hush outside, and a saucer with vinegar and brown paper was handed in.
One of the chaps brought some beer and whisky from the pub, and we had a quiet little time in my room. Jack wanted to stay all night, but I reminded him that his little wife was waiting for him in Solong, so he said he’d be round early in the morning, and went home.
I felt the reaction pretty bad. I didn’t feel proud of the affair at all. I thought it was a low, brutal business all round. Romany was a quiet chap after all, and the chaps had no right to chyack him. Perhaps he’d had a hard life, and carried a big swag of trouble that we didn’t know anything about. He seemed a lonely man. I’d gone through enough myself to teach me not to judge men. I made up my mind to tell him how I felt about the matter next time we met. Perhaps I made my usual mistake of bothering about ‘feelings’ in another party that hadn’t any feelings at all—perhaps I didn’t; but it’s generally best to chance it on the kind side in a case like this. Altogether I felt as if I’d made another fool of myself and been a weak coward. I drank the rest of the beer and went to sleep.
About daylight I woke and heard Jack’s horse on the gravel. He came round the back of the buggy-shed and up to my door, and then, suddenly, a girl screamed out. I pulled on my trousers and ‘lastic-side boots and hurried out. It was Mary herself, dressed, and sitting on an old stone step at the back of the kitchen with her face in her hands, and Jack was off his horse and stooping by her side with his hand on her shoulder. She kept saying, ‘I thought you were——! I thought you were——!’ I didn’t catch the name. An old single-barrel, muzzle-loader shot-gun was lying in the grass at her feet. It was the gun they used to keep loaded and hanging in straps in a room of the kitchen ready for a shot at a cunning old hawk that they called ‘’Tarnal Death’, and that used to be always after the chickens.
When Mary lifted her face it was as white as note-paper, and her eyes seemed to grow wilder when she caught sight of me.
‘Oh, you did frighten me, Mr Barnes,’ she gasped. Then she gave a little ghost of a laugh and stood up, and some colour came back.
‘Oh, I’m a little fool!’ she said quickly. ‘I thought I heard old ‘Tarnal Death at the chickens, and I thought it would be a great thing if I got the gun and brought him down; so I got up and dressed quietly so as not to wake Sarah. And then you came round the corner and frightened me. I don’t know what you must think of me, Mr Barnes.’
‘Never mind,’ said Jack. ‘You go and have a sleep, or you won’t be able to dance to-night. Never mind the gun—I’ll put that away.’ And he steered her round to the door of her room off the brick verandah where she slept with one of the other girls.
‘Well, that’s a rum start!’ I said.
‘Yes, it is,’ said Jack; ‘it’s very funny. Well, how’s your face this morning, Joe?’
He seemed a lot more serious than usual.
We were hard at work all the morning cleaning out the big wool-shed and getting it ready for the dance, hanging hoops for the candles, making seats, &c. I kept out of sight of the girls as much as I could. One side of my face was a sight and the other wasn’t too classical. I felt as if I had been stung by a swarm of bees.
‘You’re a fresh, sweet-scented beauty now, and no mistake, Joe,’ said Jimmy Nowlett—he was going to play the accordion that night. ‘You ought to fetch the girls now, Joe. But never mind, your face’ll go down in about three weeks. My lower jaw is crooked yet; but that fight straightened my nose, that had been knocked crooked when I was a boy—so I didn’t lose much beauty by it.’
When we’d done in the shed, Jack took me aside and said—
‘Look here, Joe! if you won’t come to the dance to-night—and I can’t say you’d ornament it—I tell you what you’ll do. You get little Mary away on the quiet and take her out for a stroll—and act like a man. The job’s finished now, and you won’t get another chance like this.’
‘But how am I to get her out?’ I said.
‘Never you mind. You be mooching round down by the big peppermint-tree near the river-gate, say about half-past ten.’
‘What good’ll that do?’
‘Never you mind. You just do as you’re told, that’s all you’ve got to do,’ said Jack, and he went home to get dressed and bring his wife.
After the dancing started that night I had a peep in once or twice. The first time I saw Mary dancing with Jack, and looking serious; and the second time she was dancing with the blarsted Jackaroo dude, and looking excited and happy. I noticed that some of the girls, that I could see sitting on a stool along the opposite wall, whispered, and gave Mary black looks as the Jackaroo swung her past. It struck me pretty forcibly that I should have taken fighting lessons from him instead of from poor Romany. I went away and walked about four miles down the river road, getting out of the way into the Bush whenever I saw any chap riding along. I thought of poor Romany and wondered where he was, and thought that there wasn’t much to choose between us as far as happiness was concerned. Perhaps he was walking by himself in the Bush, and feeling like I did. I wished I could shake hands with him.
But somehow, about half-past ten, I drifted back to the river slip-rails and leant over them, in the shadow of the peppermint-tree, looking at the rows of river-willows in the moonlight. I didn’t expect anything, in spite of what Jack said.
I didn’t like the idea of hanging myself: I’d been with a party who found a man hanging in the Bush, and it was no place for a woman round where he was. And I’d helped drag two bodies out of the Cudgeegong river in a flood, and they weren’t sleeping beauties. I thought it was a pity that a chap couldn’t lie down on a grassy bank in a graceful position in the moonlight and die just by thinking of it—and die with his eyes and mouth shut. But then I remembered that I wouldn’t make a beautiful corpse, anyway it went, with the face I had on me.
I was just getting comfortably miserable when I heard a step behind me, and my heart gave a jump. And I gave a start too.
‘Oh, is that you, Mr Wilson?’ said a timid little voice.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Is that you, Mary?’
And she said yes. It was the first time I called her Mary, but she did not seem to notice it.
‘Did I frighten you?’ I asked.
‘No—yes—just a little,’ she said. ‘I didn’t know there was any one——’ then she stopped.
‘Why aren’t you dancing?’ I asked her.
‘Oh, I’m tired,’ she said. ‘It was too hot in the wool-shed. I thought I’d like to come out and get my head cool and be quiet a little while.’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it must be hot in the wool-shed.’
She stood looking out over the willows. Presently she said, ‘It must be very dull for you, Mr Wilson—you must feel lonely. Mr Barnes said——’ Then she gave a little gasp and stopped— as if she was just going to put her foot in it.
‘How beautiful the moonlight looks on the willows!’ she said.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘doesn’t it? Supposing we have a stroll by the river.’
‘Oh, thank you, Mr Wilson. I’d like it very much.’
I didn’t notice it then, but, now I come to think of it, it was a beautiful scene: there was a horseshoe of high blue hills round behind the house, with the river running round under the slopes, and in front was a rounded hill covered with pines, and pine ridges, and a soft blue peak away over the ridges ever so far in the distance.
I had a handkerchief over the worst of my face, and kept the best side turned to her. We walked down by the river, and didn’t say anything for a good while. I was thinking hard. We came to a white smooth log in a quiet place out of sight of the house.
‘Suppose we sit down for a while, Mary,’ I said.
‘If you like, Mr Wilson,’ she said.
There was about a foot of log between us.
‘What a beautiful night!’ she said.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘isn’t it?’
Presently she said, ‘I suppose you know I’m going away next month, Mr Wilson?’
I felt suddenly empty. ‘No,’ I said, ‘I didn’t know that.’
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I thought you knew. I’m going to try and get into the hospital to be trained for a nurse, and if that doesn’t come off I’ll get a place as assistant public-school teacher.’
We didn’t say anything for a good while.
‘I suppose you won’t be sorry to go, Miss Brand?’ I said.
‘I—I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Everybody’s been so kind to me here.’
She sat looking straight before her, and I fancied her eyes glistened. I put my arm round her shoulders, but she didn’t seem to notice it. In fact, I scarcely noticed it myself at the time.
‘So you think you’ll be sorry to go away?’ I said.
‘Yes, Mr Wilson. I suppose I’ll fret for a while. It’s been my home, you know.’
I pressed my hand on her shoulder, just a little, so as she couldn’t pretend not to know it was there. But she didn’t seem to notice.
‘Ah, well,’ I said, ‘I suppose I’ll be on the wallaby again next week.’
‘Will you, Mr Wilson?’ she said. Her voice seemed very soft.
I slipped my arm round her waist, under her arm. My heart was going like clockwork now.
Presently she said—
‘Don’t you think it’s time to go back now, Mr Wilson?’
‘Oh, there’s plenty of time!’ I said. I shifted up, and put my arm farther round, and held her closer. She sat straight up, looking right in front of her, but she began to breathe hard.
‘Mary,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ she said.
‘Call me Joe,’ I said.
‘I—I don’t like to,’ she said. ‘I don’t think it would be right.’
So I just turned her face round and kissed her. She clung to me and cried.
‘What is it, Mary?’ I asked.
She only held me tighter and cried.
‘What is it, Mary?’ I said. ‘Ain’t you well? Ain’t you happy?’
‘Yes, Joe,’ she said, ‘I’m very happy.’ Then she said, ‘Oh, your poor face! Can’t I do anything for it?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘That’s all right. My face doesn’t hurt me a bit now.’
But she didn’t seem right.
‘What is it, Mary?’ I said. ‘Are you tired? You didn’t sleep last night——’ Then I got an inspiration.
‘Mary,’ I said, ‘what were you doing out with the gun this morning?’
And after some coaxing it all came out, a bit hysterical.
‘I couldn’t sleep—I was frightened. Oh! I had such a terrible dream about you, Joe! I thought Romany came back and got into your room and stabbed you with his knife. I got up and dressed, and about daybreak I heard a horse at the gate; then I got the gun down from the wall— and—and Mr Barnes came round the corner and frightened me. He’s something like Romany, you know.’
Then I got as much of her as I could into my arms.
And, oh, but wasn’t I happy walking home with Mary that night! She was too little for me to put my arm round her waist, so I put it round her shoulder, and that felt just as good. I remember I asked her who’d cleaned up my room and washed my things, but she wouldn’t tell.
She wouldn’t go back to the dance yet; she said she’d go into her room and rest a while. There was no one near the old verandah; and when she stood on the end of the floor she was just on a level with my shoulder.
‘Mary,’ I whispered, ‘put your arms round my neck and kiss me.’
She put her arms round my neck, but she didn’t kiss me; she only hid her face.
‘Kiss me, Mary!’ I said.
‘I—I don’t like to,’ she whispered.
‘Why not, Mary?’
Then I felt her crying or laughing, or half crying and half laughing. I’m not sure to this day which it was.
‘Why won’t you kiss me, Mary? Don’t you love me?’
‘Because,’ she said, ‘because—because I—I don’t—I don’t think it’s right for—for a girl to—to kiss a man unless she’s going to be his wife.’
Then it dawned on me! I’d forgot all about proposing.
‘Mary,’ I said, ‘would you marry a chap like me?’
And that was all right.
Next morning Mary cleared out my room and sorted out my things, and didn’t take the slightest notice of the other girls’ astonishment.
But she made me promise to speak to old Black, and I did the same evening. I found him sitting on the log by the fence, having a yarn on the quiet with an old Bushman; and when the old Bushman got up and went away, I sat down.
‘Well, Joe,’ said Black, ‘I see somebody’s been spoiling your face for the dance.’ And after a bit he said, ‘Well, Joe, what is it? Do you want another job? If you do, you’ll have to ask Mrs Black, or Bob’ (Bob was his eldest son); ‘they’re managing the station for me now, you know.’ He could be bitter sometimes in his quiet way.
‘No,’ I said; ‘it’s not that, Boss.’
‘Well, what is it, Joe?’
‘I—well the fact is, I want little Mary.’
He puffed at his pipe for a long time, then I thought he spoke.
‘What did you say, Boss?’ I said.
‘Nothing, Joe,’ he said. ‘I was going to say a lot, but it wouldn’t be any use. My father used to say a lot to me before I was married.’
I waited a good while for him to speak.
‘Well, Boss,’ I said, ‘what about Mary?’
‘Oh! I suppose that’s all right, Joe,’ he said. ‘I—I beg your pardon. I got thinking of the days when I was courting Mrs Black.’