THERE were about a dozen of us jammed into the coach,
on the box seat and hanging on to the roof and tailboard as best we could.
We were shearers, bagmen, agents, a squatter, a cockatoo, the usual joker
and one or two professional spielers, perhaps. We were
tired and stiff and nearly frozentoo cold to talk and too irritable
to risk the inevitable argument which an interchange of ideas
would have led up to. We had been looking forward for hours, it seemed,
to the pub where we were to change horses. For the last hour or two
all that our united efforts had been able to get out of the driver
was a grunt to the effect that it was bout a couple o miles.
Then he said, or grunted, Taint fur now, a couple of times,
and refused to commit himself any further; he seemed grumpy
about having committed himself that far.
He was one of those men who take everything in dead earnest; who regard
any expression of ideas outside their own sphere of life as trivial,
or, indeed, if addressed directly to them, as offensive; who, in fact,
are darkly suspicious of anything in the shape of a joke or laugh
on the part of an outsider in their own particular dust-hole. He seemed to be
always thinking, and thinking a lot; when his hands were not both engaged,
he would tilt his hat forward and scratch the base of his skull
with his little finger, and let his jaw hang. But his intellectual powers
were mostly concentrated on a doubtful swingle-tree, a misfitting collar,
or that there bay or piebald (on the off or near side) with the sore shoulder.
Casual letters or papers, to be delivered on the road,
were matters which troubled him vaguely, but constantly
like the abstract ideas of his passengers.
The joker of our party was a humourist of the dry order, and had been
slyly taking rises out of the driver for the last two or three stages.
But the driver only brooded. He wasnt the one to tell you straight
if you offended him, or if he fancied you offended him,
and thus gain your respect, or prevent a misunderstanding
which would result in life-long enmity. He might meet you in after years
when you had forgotten all about your trespassif indeed
you had ever been conscious of itand stoush you unexpectedly on the ear.
Also you might regard him as your friend, on occasion,
and yet he would stand by and hear a perfect stranger tell you
the most outrageous lies, to your hurt, and know that the stranger
was telling lies, and never put you up to it. It would never enter his head
to do so. It wouldnt be any affair of hisonly an abstract question.
It grew darker and colder. The rain came as if the frozen south were spitting
at your face and neck and hands, and our feet grew as big as camels,
and went dead, and we might as well have stamped the footboards
with wooden legs for all the feeling we got into ours. But they were
more comfortable that way, for the toes didnt curl up and pain so much,
nor did our corns stick out so hard against the leather, and shoot.
We looked out eagerly for some clearing, or fence, or light
some sign of the shanty where we were to change horsesbut there was
nothing save blackness all round. The long, straight, cleared road
was no longer relieved by the ghostly patch of light, far ahead,
where the bordering tree-walls came together in perspective
and framed the ether. We were down in the bed of the bush.
We pictured a haven of rest with a suspended lamp burning
in the frosty air outside and a big log fire in a cosy parlour off the bar,
and a long table set for supper. But this is a land of contradictions;
wayside shanties turn up unexpectedly and in the most unreasonable places,
and are, as likely as not, prepared for a banquet when you
are not hungry and cant wait, and as cold and dark as a bushmans grave
when you are and can.
Suddenly the driver said: Were there now. He said this
as if he had driven us to the scaffold to be hanged, and was fiercely glad
that hed got us there safely at last. We looked but saw nothing;
then a light appeared ahead and seemed to come towards us;
and presently we saw that it was a lantern held up by a man in a slouch hat,
with a dark bushy beard, and a three-bushel bag around his shoulders.
He held up his other hand, and said something to the driver
in a tone that might have been used by the leader of a search party
who had just found the body. The driver stopped and then went on slowly.
Whats up? we asked. Whats the trouble?
Oh, its all right, said the driver.
The publicans wife is sick, somebody said, and he wants us
to come quietly.
The usual little slab and bark shanty was suggested in the gloom,
with a big bark stable looming in the background. We climbed down
like so many cripples. As soon as we began to feel our legs
and be sure we had the right ones and the proper allowance of feet, we helped,
as quietly as possible, to take the horses out and round to the stable.
Is she very bad? we asked the publican, showing as much concern as we could.
Yes, he said, in a subdued voice of a rough man who had spent
several anxious, sleepless nights by the sick bed of a dear one.
But, God willing, I think well pull her through.
Thus encouraged we said, sympathetically: Were very sorry to trouble you,
but I suppose we could manage to get a drink and a bit to eat?
Well, he said, theres nothing to eat in the house,
and Ive only got rum and milk. You can have that if you like.
One of the pilgrims broke out here.
Well of all the pubs, he began, that Ive ever
Hush-sh-sh! said the publican.
The pilgrim scowled and retired to the rear. You cant express
your feelings freely when theres a woman dying close handy.
Well, who says rum and milk? asked the joker, in a low voice.
Wait here, said the publican, and disappeared into the little front passage.
Presently a light showed through a window, with a scratched and fly-bitten
B and A on two panes, and a mutilated R on the third, which was broken.
A door opened, and we sneaked into the bar. It was like
having drinks after hours where the police are strict and independent.
When we came out the driver was scratching his head and looking at the harness
on the verandah floor.
You fellows ll have ter put in the time for an hour or so.
The horses is out back somewheres, and he indicated the interior of Australia
with a side jerk of his head, and the boy aint back with em yet.
But dash it all, said the Pilgrim, me and my mate
Hush! said the publican.
How long are the horses likely to be? we asked the driver.
Dunno, he grunted. Might be three or four hours. Its all accordin.
Now, look here, said the Pilgrim, me and my mate wanter catch the train.
Hush-sh-sh! from the publican in a fierce whisper.
Well, boss, said the joker, can you let us have beds, then?
I dont want to freeze here all night, anyway.
Yes, said the landlord, I can do that, but some of you
will have to sleep double and some of youll have to take it out of the sofas,
and one or two ll have to make a shakedown on the floor.
Theres plenty of bags in the stable, and youve got rugs and coats with you.
Fix it up amongst yourselves.
But look here! interrupted the Pilgrim, desperately,
we cant afford to wait! Were only battlers, me and my mate,
pickin up crumbs by the wayside. Weve got to catch the
Hush! said the publican, savagely. You fool, didnt I tell you
my missus was bad? I wont have any noise.
But look here, protested the Pilgrim, we must catch the train
at Dead Camel
Youll catch my boot presently, said the publican, with a savage oath,
and go further than Dead Camel. I wont have my missus disturbed
for you or any other man! Just you shut up or get out,
and take your blooming mate with you.
We lost patience with the Pilgrim and sternly took him aside.
Now, for Gods sake, hold your jaw, we said. Havent you got
any consideration at all? Cant you see the mans wife is ill
dying perhapsand he nearly worried off his head?
The Pilgrim and his mate were scraggy little bipeds of the city push variety,
so they were suppressed.
Well, yawned the joker, Im not going to roost on a stump all night.
Im going to turn in.
Itll be eighteenpence each, hinted the landlord. You can settle now
if you like to save time.
We took the hint, and had another drink. I dont know
how we fixed it up amongst ourselves, but we got settled down somehow.
There was a lot of mysterious whispering and scuffling round
by the light of a couple of dirty greasy bits of candle.
Fortunately we dared not speak loud enough to have a row,
though most of us were by this time in the humour to pick a quarrel
with a long-lost brother.
The Joker got the best bed, as good-humoured, good-natured chaps generally do,
without seeming to try for it. The growler of the party
got the floor and chaff bags, as selfish men mostly do
without seeming to try for it either. I took it out of one of the sofas,
or rather that sofa took it out of me. It was short and narrow
and down by the head, with a leaning to one corner on the outside,
and had more nails and bits of gin-case than original sofa in it.
I had been asleep for three seconds, it seemed, when somebody
shook me by the shoulder and said:
Take yer seats.
When I got out, the driver was on the box, and the others
were getting rum and milk inside themselves (and in bottles)
before taking their seats.
It was colder and darker than before, and the South Pole seemed nearer,
and pretty soon, but for the rum, we should have been in a worse fix
There was a spell of grumbling. Presently someone said:
I dont believe them horses was lost at all. I was round behind the stable
before I went to bed, and seen horses there; and if they wasnt
them same horses there, Ill eat em raw!
Would yer? said the driver, in a disinterested tone.
I would, said the passenger. Then, with a sudden ferocity, and you too!
The driver said nothing. It was an abstract question
which didnt interest him.
We saw that we were on delicate ground, and changed the subject for a while.
Then someone else said:
I wonder where his missus was? I didnt see any signs of her about,
or any other woman about the place, and we was pretty well all over it.
Must have kept her in the stable, suggested the Joker.
No, she wasnt, for Scotty and that chap on the roof was there after bags.
She might have been in the loft, reflected the Joker.
There was no loft, put in a voice from the top of the coach.
I say, MisterMister man, said the Joker suddenly to the driver,
Was his missus sick at all?
I dunno, replied the driver. She might have been. He said so, anyway.
I aint got no call to call a man a liar.
See here, said the cannibalistic individual to the driver,
in the tone of a man who has made up his mind for a row,
has that shanty-keeper got a wife at all?
I believe he has.
And is she living with him?
No, she aintif yer wanter know.
Then where is she?
I dunno. How am I to know? She left him three or four years ago. She was
in Sydney last time I heard of her. It aint no affair of mine, anyways.
And is there any woman about the place at all, driver?
inquired a professional wanderer reflectively.
Nonot that I knows on. There useter be a old black gin
come pottering round sometimes, but I aint seen her lately.
And excuse me, driver, but is there anyone round there at all?
enquired the professional wanderer, with the air of a conscientious writer,
collecting material for an Australian novel from life, with an eye to detail.
Naw, said the driverand recollecting that he was expected
to be civil and obliging to his employers patrons, he added
in surly apology, Only the boss and the stableman, that I knows of.
Then repenting of the apology, he asserted his manhood again,
and asked, in a tone calculated to risk a breach of the peace,
Any more questions, gentlemenwhile the shops open?
There was a long pause.
Driver, asked the Pilgrim appealingly, was them horses lost at all?
I dunno, said the driver. He said they was. Hes got
the looking after them. It was nothing to do with me.
Twelve drinks at sixpence a drinksaid the Joker,
as if calculating to himselfthats six bob, and, say on an average,
four shoutsthats one pound four. Twelve beds at eighteenpence a bed
thats eighteen shillings; and say ten bob in various drinks
and the stuff we brought with us, thats two pound twelve.
That publican didnt do so bad out of us in two hours.
We wondered how much the driver got out of it, but thought it best
not to ask him.
We didnt say much for the rest of the journey. There was the usual man
who thought as much and knew all about it from the first,
but he wasnt appreciated. We suppressed him. One or two
wanted to go back and stoush that landlord, and the driver
stopped the coach cheerfully at their request; but they said
theyd come across him again and allowed themselves to be persuaded out of it.
It made us feel bad to think how we had allowed ourselves
to be delayed, and robbed, and had sneaked round on tiptoe,
and how we had sat on the inoffensive Pilgrim and his mate,
and all on account of a sick wife who didnt exist.
The coach arrived at Dead Camel in an atmosphere of mutual
suspicion and distrust, and we spread ourselves over the train and departed.