Australian Tales

by Marcus Clarke

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Poor Joe

He was the ostler at Coppinger's, and they called him Poor Joe. Nobody knew whence he came; nobody knew what misery of early mutilation had been his. He had appeared one evening, a wandering swagman, unable to speak, and so explain his journey's aim or end. Able only to mutter and gesticulate, making signs that he was cold and hungry, and needed fire and food. The rough crowd in Coppinger's bar looked on him kindly, having for him that sympathy which marked physical affliction commands in the rudest natures. Poor Joe needed all their sympathies: he was a dwarf, and dumb.

Coppinger (bluff, blasphemous, and good-hearted soul) dispatched him, with many oaths, to the kitchen, and when the next morning the deformed creature volunteered in his strange sign-speech to do some work that might "pay for his lodging," sent him to help the ostler that ministered to King Cobb's coach-horses. The ostler, for lack of a better name, perhaps, called him "Joe," and Coppinger, finding that the limping mute, though he could speak no word of human language, yet had a marvellous power of communication with horseflesh, installed him as tinder-ostler and stable-helper, with a scat at the social board, and a wisp of clean straw in King Cobb's stable.

"I have taken him on," said Coppinger, when the township cronies met the next night in the bar.

"Who," asked the croniest, bibulously disregarding grammar. "Poor Joe," said Coppinger.

The sympathetic world of Bullocktown approved the epithet, and the deformed vagabond, thus baptized, was known as Poor Joe ever after.

He was a quiet fellow enough. His utmost wrath never sufficed to ruffle a hair on the sleek backs of King Cobb's horses. His utmost mirth never went beyond an ape-like chuckle, that irradiated his pain-stricken face, as a stray gleam of sunshine lights up the hideousness of the gargoyle on some old cathedral tower.

It was only when "in drink" that Poor Joe became a spectacle for strangers to wonder at. Brandy maddened him, and when thus excited his misshapen soul would peep out of his sunken fiery eyes, force his grotesque legs to dance unseemly sarabands, and compel his pigeonbreast to give forth monstrous and ghastly utterances, that might have been laughs, were they not so much like groans of a brutish despair that had in it a strange chord of human suffering. Coppinger was angry when the poor dwarf was thus tortured for the sport of the whisky-drinkers, and once threw Frolicksome Fitz into the muck midden for inciting the cripple to sputter forth his grotesque croonings and snatches of gruesome merriment. "He won't be fit for nothin' to-morrer," was the excuse Coppinger made for his display of feeling. Indeed, on the days that followed these debauches, Poor Joe was sadly downcast. Even his beloved horses failed to cheer him, and he would sit, red-eyed and woe-begone, on the post-and-rail-fence, like some dissipated bird of evil omen.

The only thing he seemed to love, save his horses, was Coppinger, and Coppinger was proud of this simple affection. So proud was he, that when he discovered that whenever Miss Jane, the sister of Young Bartram, from Seven Creeks, put her pony into the stable, the said pony was fondled and slobbered over and caressed by Poor Joe, he felt something like a pang of jealousy.

Miss Jane was a fair maiden, with pale gold hair, and lips like the two streaks of crimson in the leaf of the white poppy. Young Bartram, owner of Seven Creeks Station (you could see the lights in the house windows from Coppinger's) had brought her from town to "keep house for him," and she was the beauty of the country side. Frolicksome Fitz, the pound-keeper, was at first inclined to toast an opposition belle (Miss Kate Ryder of Ryder's Mount), but when returning home one evening by the New Dam, he saw Miss Jane jump Black Jack over the post-and-wire into the home station paddock, he forswore his allegiance.

"She rides like an angel," said pious Fitz, and the next time he met her he told her so.

Now this young maiden, so fair, so daring, and so silent, came upon the Bullocktown folk like a new revelation. The old Frenchman at the Melon Patch vowed tearfully that she had talked French to him like one of his countrywomen, and the school master, Mr. Frank Smith (duly certificated under the Board of Education) reported that she played the piano divinely, singing like a seraph the while. As nobody played (except at euchre) in Bullocktown, this judgment was undisputed. Coppinger swore, slapping with emphasis his mighty thigh, that Miss Jane was a lady, and when he said that he said everything. So, whenever Miss Jane visited the township, she was received with admiration. Coppinger took off his hat to her, Mr. Frank Smith walked to the station every Sunday afternoon to see her, and Poor Joe stood afar off and worshipped her, happy if she bestowed a smile upon him once out of every five times that he held her tiny stirrups.

This taming of Poor Joe was not unnoticed by the whisky-drinkers, and they came in the course of a month or so to regard the cripple as part of the property of Miss Jane--as they regarded her dog for instance. The schoolmaster, moreover, did not escape tap-room comment. He was frequently at Seven Creeks. He brought flowers from the garden there. He sent for some new clothes from Melbourne. He even borrowed Coppinger's bay mare "Flirt," to ride over to the Sheep-wash, and Dick the mail-boy, who knew that Coppinger's mare was pigeon-toed, vowed that he had seen another horse's tracks besides her's in the sand of the Rose Gap Road.

"You're a deep 'un, Mr. Smith" said Coppinger. "I found yer out sparking Miss Jane along the Mountain Track. Deny it if yer can?"

But Frank Smith's pale cheek only flushed, and he turned off the question with a laugh. It was Poor Joe's eyes that snapped fire in the corner.

So matters held themselves until the winter, when the unusually wet season forbade riding parties of pleasure. It rained savagely that year, as we all remember, and Bullocktown in rainy weather is not a cheerful place. Miss Jane kept at home, and Poor Joe's little eyes, wistfully turned to the Station on the hill, saw never her black pony cantering round the corner of Archie Cameron's hayrick.

A deeper melancholy seemed to fall on the always melancholy township. Coppinger's cronies took their "tots" in silence, steaming the while, and Coppinger himself would come gloomily to the door, speculating upon evil unless the leaden curtain lifted.

But it did not lift, and rumour of evil came. Up the country, by Parsham and Merrydale, and Black Adder's Gully, there were whole tracts of grass-land under water. The neighbouring station of Hall's, in the mountains, was a swamp. The roads were bogged for miles. Tim Doolan was compelled to leave his dray and bullocks Tom and Jerry's, and ride for his life before the advancing waters. The dams were brimming, at Quartzborough, St. Rey reservoir was running over. It was reported by little McCleod, the sheep-dealer, that the old bridge at the Little Glimmera had been carried away. It was reported that Old Man Horn, whose residence overlooked the river, had fastened a bigger hook to a larger pole (there was a legend to the effect that Old Man Horn had once hooked a body from the greedy river, and after emptying its pockets, had softly started it down stream again), and was waiting behind his rickety door, rubbing his withered hands gleefully. Young Bartram rode over to Quartzborough to get McCompass, the shire engineer, to look at his new dam. Then the coach stopped running, and then Flash Harry, galloping through the township at night, like the ghost-rider in Bürger's ghastly ballad, brought the terrible news; THE FLOODS WERE UP, AND THE GLIMMERA BANK AND BANK AT THE OLD CROSSING-PLACE HAD BROKEN.

"It will be here in less than an hour," he shouted, under Coppinger's red lamps; "make for the high ground if you love your lives;" and so wet, wild-eyed, and white, splashed off into the darkness, if haply he might warn the poor folk down the river of the rushing death that was coming upon them.

Those who were there have told of the horrors of that night. How the muddy street, scarce reclaimed from the river-bed, was suddenly, full of startled half-dressed folk. How Coppinger's was crowded to the garret. How the schoolmaster dashed off, stumbling through the rain, to warn them at Seven Creeks. How bullies grew pale with fear, and men hitherto mild of speech and modest of mien, waxed fiery-hot with wrath at incapacity, and fiercely self-assertive in relegating fools to their place in the bewildered social economy of that general overturn. How the roaring flood came down, bearing huge trees, fragments of houses, grotesquely terrible waifs and strays of house-hold furniture upon its yellow and turbid bosom, timid women grew brave, and brave men hid their faces for a while. How Old Man Horn saved two lives that night. How Widow Rae's cottage, with her light still burning in the windowsill, was swept off, and carried miles down stream. How Archy Cameron's hayrick stranded in the middle of the township. How forty drowned sheep were floated into the upper windows of the "Royal Mail". How Patey Barnes's cradle, with its new-born occupant sucking an unconscious thumb, was found jammed in the bight of the windlass in Magby's killing-yard. How all this took place has been told, I say, by, those who were present, and needs no repeating. But one thing which took place shall be chronicled here. When the terror and confusion were somewhat stilled, and Coppinger, by dint of brand and blankets, had got some strength and courage into the half-naked, shivering creatures clustered in his ark, a sudden terrible tremor went through the crowd, like an electric current. In some mysterious way, no one knew how originating, or by what fed and fostered, men came to hear that Bartram's Dam was breaking. That is to say, that in ten minutes or less, all the land that lay between Coppinger's and the river, would be a roaring waste of water--that in less than ten minutes the Seven Creeks Station, with all its inmates, would be swept off the face of the earth, and that if Coppinger's escaped it would be a thing to thank God for.

After the first sharp agony of self-apprehension, one thought came to each - Miss Jane.

"Good God," cries Coppinger, "can nobody go to her?" Ten men volunteered to go.

"It's no good," said faint-hearted Riley, the bully of the bar.

"The dam'll burst twice over 'fore you can reach the Station."

It was likely.

"I'll go myself," cries brave old Coppinger; but his wife clung to his arm, and held him back with all the weight of her maternity. "I have it," says Coppinger; "Poor Joe'll go. Where is he?"

No one had seen him. Coppinger dashed down the stairs, splashed through the yard into the stable. The door was open, and Blackboy, the strongest of King Cobb's horses, was missing. Coppinger flashed round the lantern he held. The mail-boy's saddle had disappeared, and faintly mingling with the raging wind and roaring water, died the rapid strokes of a horse pat.

Poor Joe had gone.

The house was already flooded out, and they were sitting (so I was told) with their arms round each other, not far from where poor Bartram's body was found, when the strange misshapen figure, bestriding the huge horse, splashed desperately through the water, that was once the garden.

"Rescue," cried Frank, but she only, clung to him the closer.

Poor Joe bit his lips at the sight of the pair, and then, so Frank Smith averred, flung him one bitter glance of agony, and dropping his deformed body from the back of the reeking horse, held out the bridle with a groan.

In moments of supreme danger one divines quickly. Frank placed his betrothed upon the saddle, and sprang up behind her. If ever Blackboy was to prove his metal, he must prove it then, for already the lightning revealed a thin stream of water trickling over the surface of the dam.

"But what is to become of you?" cried Miss Jane.

Poor Joe, rejecting Frank's offered hand, took that of Miss Jane, patted it softly, and let it fall. He pointed to Coppinger's red light, and then to the black wall of the dam. No man could mistake the meaning of that trembling finger, and those widely-opened eyes. They said "Ride for your lives ride!" plainer than the most eloquent tongue owned by schoolmaster could speak.

It was no time for sentiment, and for the schoolmaster there was but one life to be saved or lost that night. He drove his heels into the good horse's sides, and galloped down the hill. "God bless you Joe" cried Miss Jane. Poor Joe smiled, and then, falling down on his knees, waited, straining his ears to listen. It was not ten minutes, but it seemed ten hours, when, through the roar, he heard a distant shout go up. They were saved. Thank God! And then the dam burst with a roar like thunder, and he was whirled away amid a chaos of tree trunks.

They found his little weak body four days afterwards, battered and bruised almost out of recognition but his great brave soul had gone on to judgment.

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