For a time the men could not account even to themselves for this strange alteration; an attempt was made to make the climate responsible, and a few insisted that it was something in the drink, but certainly all had become “sudden and quick in quarrel”—hats went down and hands went up on the slightest provocation. Men whose ordinary work-a-day friendship had previously heightened to brotherly love under the warming influence of alcohol now became profane and bitter in drink, and short arguments terminated with a rush and a collision in the bar. Little differences that might previously have been settled by mutual concessions were now nursed and coddled till they grew into hot enmities, and even Foster and Brierly, once the best of mates, were camping apart and each working a lone hand at Goat Creek.
Eventually Hefty Maconochie was generally recognized as the disturbing element at the Grasstree, but, by tacit agreement, that fact was not publicly admitted. Possibly a delicate and chivalrous consideration for “Miss Mack’s” sensibilities inspired this polite reticence, but perhaps it chiefly arose from the shamefacedness of her worshippers. The man out-back, secretive in most things personal, will admit any weakness or wickedness ere confessing to the pangs of unrequited passion. Hence when Hetty was particularly affable to Stacey on Monday evening in the bar, and allowed Riverton to monopolize her smiles on Tuesday evening, Riverton and Stacey fought a desperate and bloody battle on the Wednesday afternoon to decide the ownership of a one-eyed dog which was the local head depot for fleas, and which really belonged to a third man, who, being public-spirited, waived his claim rather than spoil sport. Riverton won the dog.
Of course Miss Maconochie was quite conscious that she had introduced a new element into the relationship of things at the Grasstree, but, although exultant in the knowledge that the men were contending with animal ferocity for her favour, she appeared always quite oblivious, and was genial or distant with the discrimination of a conscientious barmaid.
Miss Mack had been sent to the Travellers’ Rest from a Melbourne labour office in response to Cleever’s order, which specified “a strapping girl, not more than 26, to work and assist in bar.” Hetty was “strapping,” and certainly not more than 26; five feet seven, straight as a lath, strong, ruddy-cheeked, and possessing a marvellous efflorescence of glorious red hair as fine as spun silk, coruscant, throwing little subtle tendrils down about her ears, her temples, and her long white neck. There are many female Samsons. But Hetty’s power was not wholly in her hair; her strength was peculiarly attractive to the men; her every action suggested strength—strength underlying a womanly softness and roundness. She often served in the bar on warm evenings with her sleeves rolled well above her shapely elbows, and then Cleever’s patrons felt it was worth the price of the drink to see “Mack” reach up for the bottle. She draped lightly for comfort, and blushed to find it fame. The average woman who puts on much to make herself attractive does not realize that half the art is in taking off. Hetty was innocent of coquetry when she divested herself of superfluous drapery, but she could not remain long ignorant of the advantages she enjoyed from her emancipation. Then her laugh helped to ensure success—it was a generous laugh, full of suggestive music, and discovered new attractions in her large, handsome mouth. Such a laugh is honeyed flattery for the man who provokes it, and, as Hetty was proud of her fine white teeth, no man’s joke was altogether a failure in Cleever’s bar.
There were other young women in and about the Grasstree—two or three in the township, and settlers’ and farmers’ daughters judiciously distributed over the district; but, although these had been courted, it was in a temperate and bloodless manner. These girls were not slow in concluding that Miss Maconochie was a person of extraordinary deceit and peculiar morals. But Hetty was by no means a designing woman. Saving a year spent in domestic service in an extremely Methodist household in Melbourne, her knowledge of men and manners had been gathered in the bush township where she was born and bred. Her morals were particularly healthy; it was soon understood by Cleever’s customers that “Mack” knew how to take care of herself—an understanding that detracted not from the zest of the pursuit.
After the morbid propriety of that Methodist household, Hetty revelled in the unrestraint and comparative brilliancy of life at the Travellers’ Rest. Cleever was a widower, and not at all exacting, and in the bar of evenings the girl received at least a specious show of respect sufficiently gratifying to a young woman of her intellectual limitations.
The first battle fell about between Stacey and one of the Devoys. Both had been dangling over the bar, chatting and larking with Hetty for an hour or so, when Stacey’s glass was upset in a bit of horse-play, and Stacey, receiving its contents over his shirt-front, became a butt and an object of derision to all in the bar. “Mack” laughed aloud, and flashed her white teeth in the lamp-light, and Devoy laughed too, and Stacey’s blood grew hot, and he longed for slaughter. His opportunity came when the girl left the bar a minute later. He confronted Devoy:
“Damn you, Devoy, you did that on purpose!”
It was entirely an accident, but neither was in any humour for explanations. Devoy felt it was beneath him to excuse or parley; he blurted much defiant profanity.
“What if I did! Why don’t you drink up your liquor like a man!”
He was cut short by a swinging, open-hand blow. Then thud, thud, thud, thud—four quick blows, two and two, with a sound as of a teamster banging the ribs of his bogged horses with a shovel—and Stacey and Devoy were fighting with the ferocity of tigers at mating-time.
Hetty returned to the bar to see the first blow struck, and now, leaning over the counter, with sparkling eyes, glowing cheeks, and heaving breast she watched the fight. There was none of the impassivity of the lolling tigress in her attitude: she burned with excitement; she clenched her own hands, and bruised her knuckles on the boards; she followed each swift, cutting blow, and uttered inarticulate cries of wonder.
The men fought without science, fought with the brutality of powerful men, wounding with every blow, but feeling nothing in their heat and fury. A ring of onlookers circled round them, and outside this ring danced Cleever—“Fighting” Cleever—with his “peacemaker,” a wicked-looking “waddy,” eager to get in a blow and stun one of the combatants, for the peace of Devil’s End and the credit of the house.
The fight was not settled in Cleever’s bar. Two or three rounds served to exhaust the blind fury of the combatants, and then mutual friends interceded, and a formal meeting was arranged for next day. A two hours’ struggle in Haddon’s grass paddock on the following afternoon ended in the defeat of Stacey, and that night Devoy appeared before Hetty Maconochie, bruised, bandaged, and badly hacked about, but big with victory. The fight was not discussed, but the girl quite understood, and the conquering hero rejoiced in her luminous smile, and was sullenly given the pride of place by his companions, who tacitly admitted this right to the victor for the time being.
After that fistic battles were daily occurrences at Devil’s End. Callaghan, the solitary constable of the district, made a gallant attempt to cope with the press of business, but after an exhausting week yielded to public opinion and was officially blind and deaf when the battle-cries were heard at the Travellers’ Rest. Presently every second man in the district possessed black eyes, split lips, or a swollen ear, or all these things, and the local chemist did a roaring trade in court-plaster and Friar’s balsam. The men fought on the slightest provocation, or with no obvious provocation at all; arguments on religion or politics invariably ended in bloodshed; mates in the drives below disagreed as to the proper locality for a “shot,” and came blaspheming up the shafts to “settle it” in a “mill;” the boys at “Old Burgoo’s” fought viciously to maintain their superiority as horsemen and shearers, and always the victorious pugilist turned up at Cleever’s, in all the glory of his wounds and bruises, to invite the admiration of the creamy-skinned goddess with the brown eyes.
Grasstree had discovered Hetty Maconochie. Previously she had received a reasonable amount of attention from the men with whom she was thrown in contact, but Grasstree had made her a sensation—a craze. She gloried and revelled in her success, and the sense of pride and power it gave her. Thinking over it through the day, she laughed with rapturous delight, and felt like a queen amongst her pans. Cleever did well these times: there were no tee-totallers left in and about Grasstree, and the Travellers’ Rest had absorbed all the business of the district. Being in love with Hetty himself, Cleever made an effort to dispense with her help in the bar, and excited an instantaneous revolt.
“Fetch out the girl,” was the general demand. “You don’t think we’ve travelled down here to be served by a splay-mouthed Dutchman!”
Cleever was a Swede; but Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, Belgians, Germans, Austrians, and men of Holland are all Dutchmen out-back. Other foreigners are invariably Frenchmen. If Hetty was not produced on demand there was no more drinking, but much disorder and many accidents, and the proprietor was always compelled to yield. Cleever fought with the rest. He fought without science or discrimination, and nobody took any satisfaction from an encounter with the “Dutchman.” He never knew when he was beaten, and had a ridiculous and disconcerting way of resuming the battle, without word or warning, a day, a week, or a month after being egregiously whipped. Being a foreigner, he did not allow any absurd sentiment to interfere with his manner of fighting, and repudiated British prejudices and British reverence for rule and precedent, and fought with all his weapons—fists, nails, teeth, and feet. There was no credit in beating Cleever; he couldn’t fight, but he was always willing to try, and, although he was considered wildly humorous in his tantrums, his opponents rarely escaped an injury of some kind or another before the battle was ended.
After much indiscriminate fighting, in the course of a couple of months it was understood and admitted without argument that the final must be contested by Riverton and Devoy. Both were unbeaten, and each would have done battle with a raging lion for the love of Hetty Maconochie. Cleever alone, of all the whipped candidates, refused to abandon his hopes of winning his handsome Hebe, and was quite willing to “take on” the two last aspirants one after the other or both together. The other men of Grasstree, and Ramrod Flat, and Grecian Bend admitted themselves “out of it,” and it was quite understood that the winner of the Riverton-Devoy contest had only to step up and take possession of the prize. This view had never been questioned; Hetty’s keen interest in the many battles, and her evident delight in the knowledge that she was the prize in the greatest competition that had ever shaken an Australian bush township out of its habitual quietude and lethargy, were taken as indicating her acquiescence. Certainly both Devoy and Riverton took it for granted that the best man of the two was destined to marry the belle of Grasstree.
The great fight came off on a beautiful pitch under Grecian Bend on a Tuesday morning, and half the male population of the district was there to see. Devoy and Riverton fought because the latter had ventured before witnesses to assert his disbelief in the story of Devoy’s great shooting exploit—a wonderful narrative, never before questioned at Grasstree. The fight was long and stubborn. Both men were young, strong, hardened with toil, active, game as peccaries, six-foot and a bit, and fighting for an issue that seemed dear as dear life.
They fought bare-knuckled and stripped to the buff. There was no sparring and no vain display; every blow cut or bruised; and during the first half-dozen rounds the great toughened, knubbly fists were going like sledge-hammers about a busy forge. After that it was a brutal exhibition of butchery and endurance. Blood ran freely, dyeing the combatants and darkening the grass. The faces of the fighters became unrecognizable, and after the 13th round neither could see. By this time half the spectators had sickened and turned away, and awaited the end at a distance. Devoy was knocked clean out in the 19th round, and then Riverton was carried away across three saplings, a bruised and battered champion, limp as a wet shirt, but triumphant, and feeling drunk—happily, jubilantly drunk.
Riverton would have much liked to drag himself to the Travellers’ Rest that night, but it was impossible.
He was helpless next night, and on the following morning his bunk still held him captive. But on Friday night, with the assistance of his mate, he conveyed his battered carcass into Cleever’s bar. A woeful spectacle was the champion of Grasstree, but his wounds were glorious. About a dozen men sat in the bar. Cleever was in attendance. The hero called for drinks all round.
“Where’s Mack?” he asked authoritatively.
The publican had evaded this query from others for two days in order to produce a good effect when the champion appeared to claim her. He lingered over the answer now as he served the drinks.
“She haf went by dot city for der honeymoons,” he said composedly.
“Wha-at!” Riverton sprawled upon the counter, and his bruised face went livid.
“Vile you vos fight mit Devoy, she haf ride away in der coach to marry anodder feller.”
“Marry! marry! Who—who is he?”
“Haynes!” Riverton stood upright, looking around upon his companions, but saw only blank faces.
Tommy Haynes was the successful storekeeper of Grasstree, a small boyish man of 24, slight and fair, with curls and a complexion. He would easily have stood upright under Hetty’s extended arm. Whilst others fought and suffered Haynes courted—courted pluckily, with kisses and caresses and pretty presents—courted and conquered. “Haynes!” repeated Riverton, with a lingering, bitter imprecation, “that—that worm. By the Lord! when they come back I’ll put him over my knee and spank him before her face.”
But they were two months coming, and long before their return Riverton had thought better of it.