Idylls of Youth
In pursuance of his duty a government mail-contractor passed Caddagat every Monday, dropping the Bossier mail as he went. On Thursday we also got the post, but had to depend partly on our own exertions.
A selector at Dogtrap, on the Wyambeet run, at a point of the compass ten miles down the road from Caddagat, kept a hooded van. Every Thursday he ran this to and from Gool-Gool for the purpose of taking to market vegetables and other farm produce. He also took parcels and passengers, both ways, if called upon to do so. Caddagat and Five-Bob gave him a great deal of carrying, and he brought the mail for these and two or three other places. It was one of my duties, or rather privileges, to ride thither on Thursday afternoon for the post, a leather bag slung round my shoulders for the purpose. I always had a splendid mount, and the weather being beautifully hot, it was a jaunt which I never failed to enjoy. Frank Hawden went with me once or twice--not because grannie or I thought his escort necessary. The idea was his own; but I gave him such a time that he was forced to relinquish accompanying me as a bad job.
Harold Beecham kept a snivelling little Queensland black boy as a sort of black-your-boots, odd-jobs slavey or factotum, and he came to Dogtrap for the mail, but after I started to ride for it Harold came regularly for his mail himself. Our homeward way lay together for two miles, but he always came with me till nearly in sight of home. Some days we raced till our horses were white with lather; and once or twice mine was in such a state that we dismounted, and Harold unsaddled him and wiped the sweat off with his towel saddle-cloth, to remove the evidence of hard riding, so that I would not get into a scrape with uncle Jay-Jay. Other times we dawdled, so that when we parted the last rays of sunset would be laughing at us between the white trunks of the tall gum-trees, the kookaburras would be making the echoes ring with their mocking good-night, and scores of wild duck would be flying quickly roostward. As I passed through the angle formed by the creek and the river, about half a mile from home, there came to my cars the cheery clink-clink of hobble-chains, the jangle of horse-bells, and the gleam of a dozen camp-fires. The shearing was done out in Riverina now, and the men were all going home. Day after day dozens of them passed along the long white road, bound for Monaro and the cool country beyond the blue peaks to the southeast, where the shearing was about to begin. When I had come to Caddagat the last of them had gone "down" with horses poor; now they were travelling "up" with their horses--some of them thoroughbreds--rolling fat, and a cheque for their weeks of back-bending labour in their pockets. But whether coming or going they always made to Caddagat to camp. That camping-ground was renowned as the best from Monaro, to Riverina. It was a well-watered and sheltered nook, and the ground was so rich that there was always a mouthful of grass to be had there. It was a rare thing to see it without a fire; and the empty jam-tins, bottles, bits of bag, paper, tent-pegs, and fish-tins to be found there would have loaded a dozen waggons.
Thursday evening was always spent in going to Dogtrap, and all the other days had their pleasant tasks and were full of wholesome enjoyment. The blue senna flowers along the river gave place to the white bloom of the tea-tree. Grannie, uncle, and aunt Helen filled the house with girl visitors for my pleasure. In the late afternoon, as the weather got hot, we went for bogeys in a part of the river two miles distant. Some of the girls from neighbouring runs brought their saddles, others from town had to be provided therewith, which produced a dearth in sidesaddles, and it was necessary for me to take a man's. With a rollicking gallop and a bogey ahead, that did not trouble me. Aunt Helen always accompanied us on our bathing expeditions to keep us in check. She was the only one who bothered with a bathing-dress. The rest of us reefed off our clothing, in our hurry sending buttons in all directions, and plunged into the pleasant water. Then--such water-fights, frolic, laughter, shouting and roaring fun as a dozen strong healthy girls can make when enjoying themselves. Aunt Helen generally called time before we were half inclined to leave. We would linger too long, then there would be a great scramble for clothes, next for horses, and with wet hair streaming on our towels, we would go home full belt, twelve sets of galloping hoofs making a royal clatter on the hard dusty road. Grannie made a rule that when we arrived late we had to unsaddle our horses ourselves, and not disturb the working men from their meal for our pleasure. We mostly were late, and so there would be a tight race to see who would arrive at table first. A dozen heated horses were turned out unceremoniously, a dozen saddles and bridles dumped down anywhere anyhow, and their occupants, with wet dishevelled hair and clothing in glorious disarray, would appear at table averring that they were starving.
The Caddagat folk were enthusiastic anglers. Fishing was a favourite and often enjoyed amusement of the household. In the afternoon a tinful of worms would be dug out of one of the water-races, tackle collected, horses saddled, and grannie, uncle, aunt, Frank Hawden, myself, and any one else who had happened to drop in, would repair to the fish-holes three miles distant. I hate fishing. Ugh! The hideous barbarity of shoving a hook through a living worm, and the cruelty of taking the fish off the hook! Uncle allowed no idlers at the river--all had to manipulate a rod and line. Indulging in pleasant air-castles, I generally forgot my cork till the rod would be jerked in my hand, when I would pull--too late! the fish would be gone. Uncle would lecture me for being a jackdaw, so next time I would glare at the cork unwinkingly, and pull at the first signs of it bobbing--too soon! the fish would escape again, and I would again be in disgrace. After a little experience I found it was a good plan to be civil to Frank Hawden when the prospect of fishing hung around, and then he would attend to my line as well as his own, while I read a book which I smuggled with me. The fish-hole was such a shrub-hidden nook that, though the main road passed within two hundred yards, neither we nor our horses could be seen by the travellers thereon. I lay on the soft moss and leaves and drank deeply of the beauties of nature. The soft rush of the river, the scent of the shrubs, the golden sunset, occasionally the musical clatter of hoofs on the road, the gentle noises of the fishers fishing, the plop, plop of a platypus disporting itself mid stream, came to me as sweetest elixir in my ideal, dream-of-a-poet nook among the pink-based, grey-topped, moss-carpeted rocks.
I was a creature of joy in those days. Life is made up of little things. It was a small thing to have a little pocket-money to spend on anything that took my fancy--a very small thing, and yet how much pleasure it gave me. Though eating is not one of the great aims of my life, yet it was nice to have enough of any delicacy one fancied. Not that we ever went hungry at home, but when one has nothing to cat in the hot weather but bread and beef it gives them tendency to dream of fruit and cool dainties. When one thinks of the countless army of one's fellows who are daily selling their very souls for the barest necessaries of life, I suppose we--irresponsible beings--should be thankful to God for allowing us, by scratching and scraping all our lives, to keep a crust in our mouth and a rag on our back. I am not thankful, I have been guilty of what Pat would term a "digresshion"--I started about going for the mail at Dogtrap. Harold Beecham never once missed taking me home on Thursdays, even when his shearing was in full swing and he must have been very busy. He never once uttered a word of love to me--not so much as one of the soft nothings in which young people of opposite sexes often deal without any particular significance. Whether he went to all the bother and waste of time accruing from escorting me home out of gentlemanliness alone, was a mystery to me. I desired to find out, and resolved to drive instead of ride to Dogtrap one day to see what he would say.
Grannie assented to the project. Of course I could drive for once if I didn't feel able to ride, but the horses had been spelling for a long time and were very frisky. I must take Frank with me or I might get my neck broken.
I flatly opposed the idea of Frank Hawden going with me. He would make a mull of the whole thing. It was no use arguing with grannie and impressing upon her the fact that I was not the least nervous concerning the horses. I could take Frank with me in the buggy, ride, or stay at home. I preferred driving. Accordingly the fat horses were harnessed to the buggy, and with many injunctions to be careful and not forget the parcels, we set out. Frank Hawden's presence spoilt it all, but I determined to soon make short work of him.
There was one gate to go through, about four miles from the house. Frank Hawden got out to open it. I drove through, and while he was pushing it to, laid the whip on the horses and went off full tilt. He ran after me shouting all manner of things that I could not hear on account of the rattle of the buggy. One horse began kicking up, so, to give him no time for further pranks, I drove at a good round gallop, which quickly left the lovable jackeroo a speck in the distance. The dust rose in thick clouds, the stones rattled from the whirling wheels, the chirr! chirr! of a myriad cicadas filled the air, and the white road glistened in the dazzling sunlight. I was enjoying myself tip-top, and chuckled to think of the way I had euchred Frank Hawden. It was such a good joke that I considered it worth two of the blowings-up I was sure of getting from grannie for my conduct.
It was not long before I fetched up at Dogtrap homestead, where, tethered to the "six-foot" paling fence which surrounded the flower-garden, was Harold Beecham's favourite, great, black, saddle-horse Warrigal. The vicious brute turned his beautiful head, displaying a white star on the forehead, and snorted as I approached. His master appeared on the veranda raising his soft panama hat, and remarking, "Well I never! You're not by yourself, are you?"
"I am. Would you please tell Mrs Butler to bring out grannie's parcels and post at once. I'm afraid to dawdle, it's getting late."
He disappeared to execute my request and reappeared in less than a minute.
"Mr Beecham, please would you examine Barney's harness. Something must be hurting him. He has been kicking up all the way."
Examining the harness and noticing the sweat that was dripping from the animals, panting from their run, he said:
"It looks as though you've been making the pace a cracker. There is nothing that is irritating Barney in the least. If he's putting on any airs it is because he is frisky and not safe for you to drive. How did Julius happen to let you away by yourself?"
"I'm not frightened," I replied.
"I see you're not. You'd be game to tackle a pair of wild elephants, I know, but you must remember you're not much bigger than a sparrow sitting up there, and I won't let you go back by yourself."
"You cannot stop me."
"I'm going with you," he said.
"You ar-r-re not."
"You are, ar-r-re not."
"We'll see whether I will or not in a minute or two," he said with amusement.
"But, Mr Betcham, I object to your company. I am quite capable of taking care of myself; besides, if you come home with me I will not be allowed out alone again--it will be altogether unpleasant for me."
Mrs Butler now appeared with the mail and some parcels, and Harold stowed them in the buggy.
"You'd better come in an' 'ave a drop of tay-warter, miss, the kittle's bilin'; and I have the table laid out for both of yez."
"No, thank you, Mrs Butler. I can't possibly stay today, it's getting late. I must hurry off. Good-bye! Good afternoon, Mr Beecham."
I turned my buggy and pair smartly round and was swooping oil. Without a word Harold was at their heads and seized the reins. He seized his horse's bridle, where it was over the paling, and in a moment had him tied on the off-side of Barney, then stepping quietly into the buggy he put me away from the driver's seat as though I were a baby, quietly took the reins and whip, raised his hat to Mrs Butler, who was smiling knowingly, and drove off.
I was highly delighted with his action, as I would have despised him as a booby had he given in to me, but I did not let my satisfaction appear. I sat as far away from him as possible, and pretended to be in a great huff. For a while he was too fully occupied in making Barney "sit up" to notice me, but after a few minutes he looked round, smiling a most annoying and pleasant smile.
"I'd advise you to straighten out your chin. It is too round and soft to look well screwed up that way," he said provokingly.
I tried to extinguish him with a look, but it had not the desired effect.
"Now you had better be civil, for I have got the big end of the whip," he said.
"I reserve to myself the right of behaving as I think fit in my own uncle's buggy. You are an intruder; it is yourself that should be civil."
I erected my parasol and held it so as to tease Harold. I put it down so that he could not see the horses. He quietly seized my wrist and held it out of his way for a time, and then loosing me said, "Now, behave."
I flouted it now, so that his cars and eyes were endangered, and he was forced to hold his hat on.
"I'll give you three minutes to behave, or I'll put you out," he said with mock severity.
"Shure it's me wot's behavin' beautiful," I replied, continuing my nonsense.
He pulled rein, seized me in one arm, and lifted me lightly to the ground.
"Now, you can walk till you promise to conduct yourself like a Christian!" he said, driving at a walk.
If you wait till I promise anything, you'll wait till the end of the century. I'm quite capable of walking home."
"You'll soon get tired of walking in this heat, and your feet will he blistered in a mile with those bits of paper."
The bits of paper to which he alluded were a pair of thin-soled white canvas slippers--not at all fitted for walking the eight miles on the hard hot road ahead of me. I walked resolutely on, without deigning a glance at Harold, who had slowed down to a crawling walk.
"Aren't you ready to get up now?" he inquired presently.
I did not reply. At the end of a quarter of a mile he jumped out of the buggy, seized upon me, lifted me in, and laughed, saying, "You're a very slashing little concern, but you are not big enough to do much damage."
We were about half-way home when Barney gave a tremendous lurch, breaking a trace and some other straps. Mr Beecham was at the head of the plunging horse in a twinkling. The harness seemed to be scattered everywhere.
"I expect I had better walk on now," I remarked.
"Walk, be grannied! With two fat lazy horses to draw you?" returned Mr Beecham.
Men are clumsy, stupid creatures regarding little things, but in their right place they are wonderful animals. If a buggy was smashed to smithereens, from one of their many mysterious pockets they would produce a knife and some string, and put the wreck into working order in no time.
Harold was as clever in this way as any other man with as much bushman ability as he had, so it was not long ere we were bowling along as merrily as ever.
Just before we came in sight of Caddagat he came to a standstill, jumped to the ground, untied Warrigal, and put the reins in my hand, saying:
I think you can get home safely from here. Don't be in such a huff--I was afraid something might happen you if alone. You needn't mention that I came with you unless you like. Goodbye."
"Good-bye, Mr Beecham. Thank you for being so officious," I said by way of a parting shot.
"Old Nick will run away with you for being so ungrateful," he returned.
"Old Nick will have me anyhow," I thought to myself as I drove home amid the shadows. The hum of the cicadas was still, and dozens of rabbits, tempted out by the cool of the twilight, scuttled across my path and hid in the ferns.
I wished the harness had not broken, as I feared it would put a clincher on my being allowed out driving alone in future.
Joe Slocombe, the man who acted as groom and rouseabout, was waiting for me at the entrance gate.
"I'm glad you come at last, Miss Sybyller. The missus has been in a dreadful stoo for fear something had happened yuz. She's been runnin' in an' out like a gurrl on the look-out fer her lover, and was torkin' of sendin' me after yuz, but she went to her tea soon as she see the buggy come in sight. I'll put all the parcels on the back veranda, and yuz can go in at woncest or yuz'll be late fer yer tea."
"Joe, the harness broke and had to be tied up. That is what kept me so late," I explained.
"The harness broke!" he exclaimed. "How the doose is that! Broke here in the trace, and that strap! Well, I'll be hanged! I thought them straps couldn't break only onder a tremenjous strain. The boss is so dashed partickler too. I believe he'll sool me off the place; and I looked at that harness only yesterday. I can't make out how it come to break so simple. The boss will rise the devil of a shine, and say you might have been killed."
This put a different complexion on things. I knew Joe Slocombe could mend the harness with little trouble, as it was because he was what uncle Jay-Jay termed a "handy divil" at saddlery that he was retained at Caddagat. I said carelessly:
"If you mend the harness at once, Joe, uncle Julius need not be bothered about it. As it happened, there is no harm done, and I won't mention the matter."
"Thank you, miss," he said eagerly. "I'll mend it at once."
Now that I had that piece of business so luckily disposed of, I did not feel the least nervous about meeting grannie. I took the mail in my arms and entered the dining-room, chirping pleasantly:
"Grannie, I'm such a good mail-boy. I have heaps of letters, and did not forget one of your commissions."
"I don't want to hear that now," she said, drawing her dear old mouth into a straight line, which told me I was not going to palm things off as easily as I thought. "I want a reason for your conduct this afternoon."
"Explain what, grannie?" I inquired.
"None of that pretence! Not only have you been most outrageously insulting to Mr Hawden when I sent him with you, but you also deliberately and wilfully disobeyed me."
Uncle Julius listened attentively, and Hawden looked at me with such a leer of triumph that my fingers tingled to smack his cars. Turning to my grandmother, I said distinctly and cuttingly:
"Grannie, I did not intentionally disobey you. Disobedience never entered my head. I hate that thing. His presence was detestable to me. When he got out at the gate I could not resist the impulse to drive off and leave him there. He looked such a complete jackdaw that you would have laughed yourself to see him."
"Dear, oh dear! You wicked hussy, what will become of you!" And grannie shook her head, trying to look stern, and hiding a smile in her serviette.
"Your manners are not improving, Sybylla. I fear you must be incorrigible," said aunt Helen.
When uncle Jay-Jay heard the whole particulars of the affair, he lay back in his chair and laughed fit to kill himself.
"You ought to be ashamed to always encourage her in her tomboyish ways, Julius. It grieves me to see she makes no effort to acquire a ladylike demeanour," said grannie.
Mr Hawden had come off second-best, so he arose from his half-finished meal and stamped out, banging the door after him, and muttering something about "a disgustingly spoilt and petted tomboy", "a hideous barbarian", and so forth.
Uncle Jay-Jay related that story to everyone, dwelling with great delight upon the fact that Frank Hawden was forced to walk four miles in the heat and dust.