Australian Tales

by Marcus Clarke

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Chapter 1

Gentleman George's Bride

When it was known at Bullocktown that old Keturah Gow was going to be married to Gentleman George, there was some laughter and much shaking of heads.

Keturah was a woman of hard middle age. Scotch by birth, and Presbyterian by religion, she had come to Australia as the nurse of Flora McLeod, now Mrs. Marrable, of Seven Creeks, and had lived twenty years in the bush. The man whom she was about to marry was named George Harris. No one knew whence he came, or how long he had lived in the colonies. He had no religion worth mentioning, and no accomplishment save that of horsemanship. His age was three-and-twenty, or thereabouts and being impatient of temper, handy with his fists, prodigal of his money, and possessed of a certain gipsy beauty of face and figure, the intelligent stockmen called him 'Gentleman George.'

In vain did the gossips of Bullocktown animadvert upon the match. In vain did Longbow borrow Muniford's spring-cart and Coppinger's grey mare for the express purpose of making a pilgrimage to the Gap, and warning Neil Gow, the shepherd, of the misery which awaited his sister. 'She must just gang her ain gate,' said crippled Neil, wagging the stump of his arm in a feeble circle as though he would fain have waved the hand that was wanting. 'I've said a' I can, I'll say nae mair.Shall I speak to her?' asked Longbow. 'As ye please,' quoth Neil; 'but Kitty's the deevil's temper, and maybe she'll claw oot ye're e'en, man!' So Longbow sighed and shot ducks. In vain did Mrs. Marrable implore the headstrong old woman to reconsider her determination. 'The fellows a ne'er-do-well, Keturah--John says he is: he only wants your money (for Keturah had saved some £200 during her servitude). He's a bad man.' Keturah only sighed and vowed that all the world was prejudiced against puir Geordie. In vain did John Marrable--not without a hearty English curse or two--command Gentleman George not to make a fool of himself and to let the old woman alone. 'If she's minded to marry me,' said the young man, with a droop of his thickly-lashed lids, 'It isn't for you to interfere, sir--excuse me. I suppose a man can marry anyone he likes.' 'I suppose he can, confound him,' replied honest John Marrable. In vain did Coppinger, the publican, suggest--over a nobbler of P.B.--that George was throwing himself away. 'You'll have the whole township laughing at you, George. Shall I?' returns George, fiercely, and catching Alick, the blacksmith, in the very dead waste and middle of a grin, forthwith pitched him into the sandy street. 'Folks won't laugh at me twice, I'll pound it,' said he, and Alick--his mouth full of sand--reechoed the sentiment with spluttering humility. So the pair were married in due form, and the wedding feast was held at the 'Saw-pits.'

The 'Saw-Pits' was a public-house situated half-way between the Gap (where, under the shadow of the hills, nestled Neil Gow's hut), and the distant Glimmera, on whose farther bank smoked the chimneys of Coppinger's and drowsed the world of Bullocktown. The High Road was wont to run through Bullocktown and bend abruptly westward to avoid crossing the chain of water-holes called the Great Glimmera River; but three floods and a new Postmaster-General, with a turn for economy, had altered all that. The mail-carrying coaches had been directed to take the shortest cut, and a bridge had been built, in order that they might do so with convenience. The building of this bridge had established a colony of sawyers, and the bridge completed, the mill was converted into a tavern. Where the carcass is, there will the eagles be gathered together. Where is liquor, there flock the bushmen. It is thus that townships are formed.

The keeper of the 'Saw-pits' was one Trowbridge, who with his two daughters had migrated from Bullocktown. Neil Gow was a great crony of his, and despite the orders of Marrable (who, when a public-house was established on his run, thought the end of the world was come) frequently rode the bob-tailed pony through the sweet summer night, and 'hung him up'to Trowbridge's verandah-post. Trowbridge and the one-armed boundary rider had often seriously conversed on the subject of Keturah's approaching marriage, and it had been agreed that the wedding feast should be held at the 'Saw-pits.'

'She may do what she likes, lad,' said Trowbridge 'and if the match turns out ill, neither thou nor I will be to blame. But if we don't make every mother's son of 'em as drunk as a fiddler's bitch, my name ain't Tom Trowbridge!'

The laudible purpose of the publican seemed likely to be fulfilled. Before the wedding party arrived, the 'Saw-pits Hotel' was crowded. Trowbridge's Sunday shirt had come to torment him before the time, and Alick anticipated the daily period of his intoxication by full three hours. In the hollows round about the creek were camped tilt-waggons galore, and in the half-acre of mud that did duty for the stableyard of the 'Saw-pits,' the brand new buggy of Jim Porter, the lucky reefer, lay stranded like a skeleton-wreck upon a bleak, inhospitable shore. Festoons of such wild flowers as were procurable, decorated the front of the hostelry, and wreathed themselves lovingly about the transparent beauties of Hennessy and Otard, while in the long room, where dancing was to be undergone, the air was pungent with the exhilarating odour of smashed gum-leaves. To these preparations arrived presently, in a cloud of dust, the bridal party.

Let the classical reader recall the triumphs of old Rome, the glittering spears, the hollow-clanging shield, the sound of the trumpets, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting. First, galloping furiously, a crowd of horsemen, bearded and long-haired, cracking their whips like pistol-shots, and filling the air with Homeric laughter. Then a mass of vehicles, bumping, jolting, leaping, filled with men in white shirts, and women with yellow shawls. Then were stockriders, some with led horses, in order that the swift pace of the morning might be preserved on the homeward journey. Now behind, now before, in the midst of this fury and clamour, borne along, and overwhelmed by dust and friendship, clattered the triumphal car--a hooded buggy lent by Coppinger, to which were attached four grass-fed nags, postillioned by the two sons of Archy Fletcher, youths to whom, in the matter of rapidity of locomotion, Jehu, the son of Nimshi, would have appeared but as a farmer's wife, jogging with egg-laden panniers to market. From the buggy--jerked to a swaying standstill in the most approved bush method when the fore legs of the leaders threatened the skillion window of the inn--descended, to shouts that rent the hot heaven, the happy pair.

Gentleman George was dressed in the height of bush fashion. A cabbage-tree hat, so browned and battered that it boasted the colour of a well-smoked meerschaum, adorned his handsome bullet-head. A short linen coat served but to enhance the purity of a white shirt, from the falling collar of which fluttered the ends of one of those gaily-coloured kerchiefs known to London costermongers as 'Kingsmen.' Round his supple waist was girded a red silk sash, and tightly-fitted breeches of creamy whiteness met, and defied boots, so marvellously black, so astonishingly wrinkled, that Mr. Rapersole, bootmaker and parish clerk, had forgotten an Amen in gazing at them. As this hero walked, the rowels of huge German-silver spurs, loosely fastened by one broad semicircular strap, click-clacked upon the boards in the musical manner so dear to the stockman's soul. Keturah, now Mrs. Harris, was none the less imposing in her attire. She wore a purple shot-silk dress, on the shifting surface of which played rays of crimson and gold, as shoot the colours of the prism across a mass of molten metal. From beneath this marvel two white boots played in and out--not so much like Sir John Suckling's mice as like plump mill-rats newly escaped from a flour-bag. Keturah wore a red velvet bonnet adorned with blue and white flowers; her shawl, fastened by a plaid brooch, was a glowing yellow with a green border, and her hands swelled in all the magnificent mockery of mauve kid gloves. Yet, with all this, her honest brown face shone with an honesty of purpose and a hopefulness of future happiness that rendered it almost beautiful.

She hung lovingly on her husband's arm, smiling up at him, nor removing her eyes from his face but to gaze proudly at the cheering crowd. He walked rather quickly, and his lips tightly compressed, and his black eyes set forward steadily, seemingly wrought up to endure the scene, but anxious to be quit of it. She seemed to say, 'See what a noble husband I have won!' He seemed to say, 'I guess your thoughts, but my marriage is none of your business.'

'He's a temper, Jenny,' said Susie Barnes.

'My word!' assented Jenny.

'She aint such a bad-looking bit of stuff after all,' said Jim Porter. 'I'd rather marry her than break my leg, blowed if I wouldn't.'

So the wedding feast began.

It is not for my feeble pen to detail the glories of that day. The little township--buried as it was beneath the shadow of the purple hills, and yet preserving in itself all the petty malice, the local jealousy, the blatant conceit of larger towns--gave loose on this one occasion to the wildest merriment. Local feuds were forgotten, personal hatreds forgiven or suspended. Even Mr. McTaggart, a rabid Orangeman from Derry, forbore to attack Mr. Michael Murphy, a rabid Ribbandman from Clare, and going out into the solitude of the bridge, drank in silence his favourite toast of 'Here's the Pope in the devil's belly, and Martin Luther pitching red hot priests at him!' a toast which was wont to cause Mr. Murphy's 'bhlood to bhoil, bhoys,' and to bring about wrathful combats. Fighting Fitz, the poundkeeper, who was at daggers drawn with Dick Mossop, Scabby Barton's overseer, on account of a brindled poley bullock branded P.W. over T.S. on the off rump, with a notch in both ears, and a star on the forehead, consented to be friends again, and even offered to sell Dick a certain bay mare in defiance of the Impounding Act. Rapersole, of course, could not be kept from politics, and insisted on putting what he was pleased to call 'supposititious' cases in such numbers that Neil Gow, vowing him a bletherin' bumbee's byke, took him by the collar, and flourishing the stump of his arm menacingly, deposited him in an empty buggy. The breakfast was an immense success. Tom Trowbridge presided, having formally asked permission to lay aside his unaccustomed coat, and carved a noble round of beef with the air of a gold stick in waiting. But a round of beef was not the only viand. There was mutton broth and cow-heel, and an ox's head decorated with flowers, and rump steaks, and sweetbreads, and a haggis, and lamb's head, and sheep's trotters, and cold saddle of mutton, and preserved peaches, and tins of jam, and sago pudding, and plum duff, and bottled ale, and tea, and sweet cake, and brandy, and rum, and one bottle of champagne for the ladies.

'My eyes that's a merry tightener!' said Chirrup, the mail-boy. 'Could you eat any more, Archy?' 'No fear!' said Archy, ruefully, 'them blessed puff-tillooners did my business.' After the breakfast and the speeches--you should have heard Rapersole's!--and the digestive smoke, drinking and dancing commenced, Trowbridge doing his best to carry out his promise to Neil Gow and vindicate his self-impugned title to his name. Some notion of the result may be gleaned from a glance at his bill, duly paid by Mrs. Keturah Harris two days afterwards.

Mr. George Harris' weding brakefast. As by T. TROWBRIDGE.
The brakefast1000
8 spiders080
Dit o080
Refreshments for lades200
Peppermint drops010
ginger Bear and bitters006
Drinks, phromiskus1100
Squar gin for six036
Kake speshul1100
Shout round500
Dit o500
Drinks for same0100
10 noblers050
24 spiders140
24 noblers140
2 broken chares100
1 winder2100
Hoarse feed900
Shout all round5100
Dit o parting5100
Beds for 12200
Shampane for lades100
Received by cash5606

In the consumption of such items as those mentioned above did the day wear out; and Trowbridge nobly fulfilled his promise. Of the sixty or seventy persons present, but a very insignificant number went home sober. Indeed, had it not been for the coquetry of Jenny Joyce, who, riding her father's bay horse, Walkover, dared any of the young men to give her five minutes' start and catch her before she reached the Bluff, there is no saying what might have happened. Eight or nine of the best-mounted followed laughing Jenny, but no one got within arm's length of her supple waist save Harry Scallan, and they do say that she checked her nag to let him snatch the kiss he had begged for in vain. However, Harry never confessed the fact; but as Dick Mossop, his rival, broke his horse's knees at Mount Hopeless, but half-way to the Bluff, and Jenny became Mrs. Scallan a month afterwards, Harry could afford to be generous. Two or three horse-accidents happened that day. Jim Porter saddled his new buggy-horse, and attempting to ride him, despite the advice of Gentleman George himself, was bucked ignominiously, and his collar-bone ingloriously fractured. Lucy Sperrin's grey pony kicked Chirrup in the stomach and hurt him badly. 'Serves him right for fossicking round me,' Miss Lucy had said. 'I told him the mare was handy with her heels.' Poor Cooke--Mad Cooke, who wore a silver plate on his head, to the wonder of Bullocktown--must needs bring out his old stock-horse and witch the world with noble horsemanship. 'Heigh, boys! Heigh, boys!' he would cry while at full gallop. 'There's none of ye can go up the hills like Ballie!'And indeed no one attempted to do so, all standing aghast at the feats Ballie performed upon the side of the steep hill that shadowed the inn, until poor Ballie put his foot into a hole, or slipped on a rolling stone, and his master came to earth with a fresh brain concussion--the third in his short mad life-time.

Amid such sports the hot, sweet day wore out to cool evening. The pure perfume of grass, and earth scented the air. The red sun sunk in glory behind the ragged shoulder of the bluff. A purple mist slowly enveloped the hills the laughing jackasses, merry fellows, set up a tremendous chattering; the frogs began to babble in the marshes, the sheep to move off their camps, the cattle to make for water. The wedding-day was over, and as, amidst a hurricane of cheers, Gentleman George handed his wife to the spring-cart that was to bear them to their home in the Swamp Hut, the great stars came slowly out and looked with tender eyes upon this hopeful, ill-dressed bride.

A week afterwards frolicsome Fitz, wandering in search of prey wherewith to feed his ravenous Pound, met jolly Polwheal, the butcher, coming from the Swamp Hut.

'Have you seen the bride' asked Fitz.

'Ay, and a comely wench she's grown. She looks a young 'oman, Fitz.'

'Does she?' says Fitz, 'That's rum, too.'

Polwheal laughed, 'you're not a felosopher, Fitz! Don't you know,' he added, borrowing a metaphor from his own profession, 'that a working bullock, if you get him fat after a spell, makes the best beef.' In regard to the appearance of Keturah Harris, Mr. Polwheal was right. She had become a very comely woman. The lines in her face had faded, her spare figure had rounded, her withered arms had fattened, her grey eyes had a youthful sparkle, and her step a youthful lightness; she seemed a younger woman by twenty years. If you passed by the Swamp Hut, at any hour of the day, you could hear her singing, and the good-tempered woman who brought you out a pannikin of tea, or asked you to have a slice of sweet cake, was a very different being from 'old Ketty,' of the home station, the shrewish-tongued and withered maiden who was the terror of wandering swagmen. Bullocktown wondered at the change, and were not disinclined to roughly jest upon the subject with Gentleman George. That worthy, however, went about his business of stock-riding in silence, and seemed determined by honest attention to his business to merit the kindness shown him by Mrs. Marrable, and deserve the 'married couple' billet which John Marrable had bestowed upon him.

The astute reader will no doubt have come to the conclusion that this conduct of Gentleman George was but assumed for his own ends; and the astute reader will be right. Gentleman George had not the least intention of passing his life as a stockrider to Mr. Marrable and as the young husband of an old woman. He had married Keturah for her money, and intended, as soon as he could obtain that money, to take himself off. Until he was in a position to do this securely, it was his interest to be kind and gentle, and the scoundrel was kind and gentle accordingly. I trust, however, that the astute reader who has discovered this will not consider Mr. Harris a very great villain. For a young man to marry an old woman for her money, is not such a very rare thing, nor have there been wanting cases in the best society where the lady has been deserted afterwards. I admit, however, that to perpetrate such an offence for two hundred pounds does show a coarseness of intellect. If Keturah had been possessed of two hundred thousand pounds now, the case would have been different, and good society might have admitted Mr. Harris to its bosom without a pang. Yet men can but act according to their opportunity, and I am sure that had Gentleman George seen his way to marry a lady with two hundred thousand, or even one hundred thousand pounds, he would have left poor Keturah alone.

There is no necessity to protract the story at this period. In six months George had got possession of the endorsed deposit receipt of the Bank of Australia, Quartzborough, for £201 8s. 0d., had kissed his wife, told her he was going to look after the mare and foal last seen in Ponsonby's paddock. Once clear of the hut he saddled his own nag Peppercorn, secured his swag already 'planted' on the river bank, set out a smart canter for Quartzborough; drew the money, and slept that night at Hamilton, doing ninety-five miles in eleven and-a-half hours.

Poor Keturah was like a mad woman. At first she thought that some accident had befallen him, then that he was detained at a neighbouring station. She would fain have roused all the station to look for him. She ran to her mistress raging and upbraided her for not suffering the dam to be dragged. Then she began to suspect, then to weep, then to vow revenge. 'He's left ye missis,' said the wife of the other boundary-rider. 'He's a bad lot. Ye'd better forget him.'

'I'll no forget him, the black villain,' said the deserted woman. 'I'll pray to God on my bended knees that I may meet him, and if he's a heart o' flesh I'll wring it.'

'Come, Ketty,' said her mistress, some days after, 'It's no use greeting, woman. The fellow's gone.'

'Let him go,' said Ketty. 'I'll find him oot. Ef he's on his dying, bed, I'll find him oot, and dinna let him ask me to raise a finger to save him.'

'I must take her away,' said Mrs. Marrable to her husband. 'She can't bear the sneers and looks of the folk about.'

'All right, take her with you to town when you go,' said, John Marrable.

Thus it came to pass that having been twenty years in the bush, Keturah Harris became Upper nurse in the family of Mr. Thomas Marrable, of the firm of Marrable and Davis, softgoods-men.

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