I’d sold the two tip-drays that I used for tank-sinking and dam-making, and I took the traps out in the waggon on top of a small load of rations and horse-feed that I was taking to a sheep-station out that way. Mary drove out in the spring-cart. You remember we left little Jim with his aunt in Gulgong till we got settled down. I’d sent James (Mary’s brother) out the day before, on horseback, with two or three cows and some heifers and steers and calves we had, and I’d told him to clean up a bit, and make the hut as bright and cheerful as possible before Mary came.
We hadn’t much in the way of furniture. There was the four-poster cedar bedstead that I bought before we were married, and Mary was rather proud of it: it had ‘turned’ posts and joints that bolted together. There was a plain hardwood table, that Mary called her ‘ironing-table’, upside down on top of the load, with the bedding and blankets between the legs; there were four of those common black kitchen-chairs— with apples painted on the hard board backs—that we used for the parlour; there was a cheap batten sofa with arms at the ends and turned rails between the uprights of the arms (we were a little proud of the turned rails); and there was the camp-oven, and the three-legged pot, and pans and buckets, stuck about the load and hanging under the tail-board of the waggon.
There was the little Wilcox & Gibb’s sewing-machine—my present to Mary when we were married (and what a present, looking back to it!). There was a cheap little rocking-chair, and a looking-glass and some pictures that were presents from Mary’s friends and sister. She had her mantel-shelf ornaments and crockery and nick-nacks packed away, in the linen and old clothes, in a big tub made of half a cask, and a box that had been Jim’s cradle. The live stock was a cat in one box, and in another an old rooster, and three hens that formed cliques, two against one, turn about, as three of the same sex will do all over the world. I had my old cattle-dog, and of course a pup on the load —I always had a pup that I gave away, or sold and didn’t get paid for, or had ‘touched’ (stolen) as soon as it was old enough. James had his three spidery, sneaking, thieving, cold-blooded kangaroo-dogs with him. I was taking out three months’ provisions in the way of ration-sugar, tea, flour, and potatoes, &c.
I started early, and Mary caught up to me at Ryan’s Crossing on Sandy Creek, where we boiled the billy and had some dinner.
Mary bustled about the camp and admired the scenery and talked too much, for her, and was extra cheerful, and kept her face turned from me as much as possible. I soon saw what was the matter. She’d been crying to herself coming along the road. I thought it was all on account of leaving little Jim behind for the first time. She told me that she couldn’t make up her mind till the last moment to leave him, and that, a mile or two along the road, she’d have turned back for him, only that she knew her sister would laugh at her. She was always terribly anxious about the children.
We cheered each other up, and Mary drove with me the rest of the way to the creek, along the lonely branch track, across native-apple-tree flats. It was a dreary, hopeless track. There was no horizon, nothing but the rough ashen trunks of the gnarled and stunted trees in all directions, little or no undergrowth, and the ground, save for the coarse, brownish tufts of dead grass, as bare as the road, for it was a dry season: there had been no rain for months, and I wondered what I should do with the cattle if there wasn’t more grass on the creek.
In this sort of country a stranger might travel for miles without seeming to have moved, for all the difference there is in the scenery. The new tracks were ‘blazed’—that is, slices of bark cut off from both sides of trees, within sight of each other, in a line, to mark the track until the horses and wheel-marks made it plain. A smart Bushman, with a sharp tomahawk, can blaze a track as he rides. But a Bushman a little used to the country soon picks out differences amongst the trees, half unconsciously as it were, and so finds his way about.
Mary and I didn’t talk much along this track—we couldn’t have heard each other very well, anyway, for the ‘clock-clock’ of the waggon and the rattle of the cart over the hard lumpy ground. And I suppose we both began to feel pretty dismal as the shadows lengthened. I’d noticed lately that Mary and I had got out of the habit of talking to each other—noticed it in a vague sort of way that irritated me (as vague things will irritate one) when I thought of it. But then I thought, ‘It won’t last long—I’ll make life brighter for her by-and-by.’
As we went along—and the track seemed endless—I got brooding, of course, back into the past. And I feel now, when it’s too late, that Mary must have been thinking that way too. I thought of my early boyhood, of the hard life of ‘grubbin’’ and ‘milkin’’ and ‘fencin’’ and ‘ploughin’’ and ‘ring-barkin’’, &c., and all for nothing. The few months at the little bark-school, with a teacher who couldn’t spell. The cursed ambition or craving that tortured my soul as a boy— ambition or craving for—I didn’t know what for! For something better and brighter, anyhow. And I made the life harder by reading at night.
It all passed before me as I followed on in the waggon, behind Mary in the spring-cart. I thought of these old things more than I thought of her. She had tried to help me to better things. And I tried too—I had the energy of half-a-dozen men when I saw a road clear before me, but shied at the first check. Then I brooded, or dreamed of making a home—that one might call a home—for Mary— some day. Ah, well!——
And what was Mary thinking about, along the lonely, changeless miles? I never thought of that. Of her kind, careless, gentleman father, perhaps. Of her girlhood. Of her homes—not the huts and camps she lived in with me. Of our future?—she used to plan a lot, and talk a good deal of our future —but not lately. These things didn’t strike me at the time—I was so deep in my own brooding. Did she think now—did she begin to feel now that she had made a great mistake and thrown away her life, but must make the best of it? This might have roused me, had I thought of it. But whenever I thought Mary was getting indifferent towards me, I’d think, ‘I’ll soon win her back. We’ll be sweethearts again— when things brighten up a bit.’
It’s an awful thing to me, now I look back to it, to think how far apart we had grown, what strangers we were to each other. It seems, now, as though we had been sweethearts long years before, and had parted, and had never really met since.
The sun was going down when Mary called out—
‘There’s our place, Joe!’
She hadn’t seen it before, and somehow it came new and with a shock to me, who had been out here several times. Ahead, through the trees to the right, was a dark green clump of the oaks standing out of the creek, darker for the dead grey grass and blue-grey bush on the barren ridge in the background. Across the creek (it was only a deep, narrow gutter— a water-course with a chain of water-holes after rain), across on the other bank, stood the hut, on a narrow flat between the spur and the creek, and a little higher than this side. The land was much better than on our old selection, and there was good soil along the creek on both sides: I expected a rush of selectors out here soon. A few acres round the hut was cleared and fenced in by a light two-rail fence of timber split from logs and saplings. The man who took up this selection left it because his wife died here.
It was a small oblong hut built of split slabs, and he had roofed it with shingles which he split in spare times. There was no verandah, but I built one later on. At the end of the house was a big slab-and-bark shed, bigger than the hut itself, with a kitchen, a skillion for tools, harness, and horse-feed, and a spare bedroom partitioned off with sheets of bark and old chaff-bags. The house itself was floored roughly, with cracks between the boards; there were cracks between the slabs all round—though he’d nailed strips of tin, from old kerosene-tins, over some of them; the partitioned-off bedroom was lined with old chaff-bags with newspapers pasted over them for wall-paper. There was no ceiling, calico or otherwise, and we could see the round pine rafters and battens, and the under ends of the shingles. But ceilings make a hut hot and harbour insects and reptiles—snakes sometimes. There was one small glass window in the ‘dining-room’ with three panes and a sheet of greased paper, and the rest were rough wooden shutters. There was a pretty good cow-yard and calf-pen, and—that was about all. There was no dam or tank (I made one later on); there was a water-cask, with the hoops falling off and the staves gaping, at the corner of the house, and spouting, made of lengths of bent tin, ran round under the eaves. Water from a new shingle roof is wine-red for a year or two, and water from a stringy-bark roof is like tan-water for years. In dry weather the selector had got his house water from a cask sunk in the gravel at the bottom of the deepest water-hole in the creek. And the longer the drought lasted, the farther he had to go down the creek for his water, with a cask on a cart, and take his cows to drink, if he had any. Four, five, six, or seven miles—even ten miles to water is nothing in some places.
James hadn’t found himself called upon to do more than milk old ‘Spot’ (the grandmother cow of our mob), pen the calf at night, make a fire in the kitchen, and sweep out the house with a bough. He helped me unharness and water and feed the horses, and then started to get the furniture off the waggon and into the house. James wasn’t lazy—so long as one thing didn’t last too long; but he was too uncomfortably practical and matter-of-fact for me. Mary and I had some tea in the kitchen. The kitchen was permanently furnished with a table of split slabs, adzed smooth on top, and supported by four stakes driven into the ground, a three-legged stool and a block of wood, and two long stools made of half-round slabs (sapling trunks split in halves) with auger-holes bored in the round side and sticks stuck into them for legs. The floor was of clay; the chimney of slabs and tin; the fireplace was about eight feet wide, lined with clay, and with a blackened pole across, with sooty chains and wire hooks on it for the pots.
Mary didn’t seem able to eat. She sat on the three-legged stool near the fire, though it was warm weather, and kept her face turned from me. Mary was still pretty, but not the little dumpling she had been: she was thinner now. She had big dark hazel eyes that shone a little too much when she was pleased or excited. I thought at times that there was something very German about her expression; also something aristocratic about the turn of her nose, which nipped in at the nostrils when she spoke. There was nothing aristocratic about me. Mary was German in figure and walk. I used sometimes to call her ‘Little Duchy’ and ‘Pigeon Toes’. She had a will of her own, as shown sometimes by the obstinate knit in her forehead between the eyes.
Mary sat still by the fire, and presently I saw her chin tremble.
‘What is it, Mary?’
She turned her face farther from me. I felt tired, disappointed, and irritated—suffering from a reaction.
‘Now, what is it, Mary?’ I asked; ‘I’m sick of this sort of thing. Haven’t you got everything you wanted? You’ve had your own way. What’s the matter with you now?’
‘You know very well, Joe.’
‘But I don’t know,’ I said. I knew too well.
She said nothing.
‘Look here, Mary,’ I said, putting my hand on her shoulder, ‘don’t go on like that; tell me what’s the matter?’
‘It’s only this,’ she said suddenly, ‘I can’t stand this life here; it will kill me!’
I had a pannikin of tea in my hand, and I banged it down on the table.
‘This is more than a man can stand!’ I shouted. ‘You know very well that it was you that dragged me out here. You run me on to this! Why weren’t you content to stay in Gulgong?’
‘And what sort of a place was Gulgong, Joe?’ asked Mary quietly.
(I thought even then in a flash what sort of a place Gulgong was. A wretched remnant of a town on an abandoned goldfield. One street, each side of the dusty main road; three or four one-storey square brick cottages with hip roofs of galvanised iron that glared in the heat—four rooms and a passage—the police-station, bank-manager and schoolmaster’s cottages, &c. Half-a-dozen tumble-down weather-board shanties—the three pubs., the two stores, and the post-office. The town tailing off into weather-board boxes with tin tops, and old bark huts—relics of the digging days— propped up by many rotting poles. The men, when at home, mostly asleep or droning over their pipes or hanging about the verandah posts of the pubs., saying, ‘’Ullo, Bill!’ or ‘’Ullo, Jim!’— or sometimes drunk. The women, mostly hags, who blackened each other’s and girls’ characters with their tongues, and criticised the aristocracy’s washing hung out on the line: ‘And the colour of the clothes! Does that woman wash her clothes at all? or only soak ’em and hang ’em out?’—that was Gulgong.)
‘Well, why didn’t you come to Sydney, as I wanted you to?’ I asked Mary.
‘You know very well, Joe,’ said Mary quietly.
(I knew very well, but the knowledge only maddened me. I had had an idea of getting a billet in one of the big wool-stores —I was a fair wool expert—but Mary was afraid of the drink. I could keep well away from it so long as I worked hard in the Bush. I had gone to Sydney twice since I met Mary, once before we were married, and she forgave me when I came back; and once afterwards. I got a billet there then, and was going to send for her in a month. After eight weeks she raised the money somehow and came to Sydney and brought me home. I got pretty low down that time.)
‘But, Mary,’ I said, ‘it would have been different this time. You would have been with me. I can take a glass now or leave it alone.’
‘As long as you take a glass there is danger,’ she said.
‘Well, what did you want to advise me to come out here for, if you can’t stand it? Why didn’t you stay where you were?’ I asked.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘why weren’t you more decided?’
I’d sat down, but I jumped to my feet then.
‘Good God!’ I shouted, ‘this is more than any man can stand. I’ll chuck it all up! I’m damned well sick and tired of the whole thing.’
‘So am I, Joe,’ said Mary wearily.
We quarrelled badly then—that first hour in our new home. I know now whose fault it was.
I got my hat and went out and started to walk down the creek. I didn’t feel bitter against Mary—I had spoken too cruelly to her to feel that way. Looking back, I could see plainly that if I had taken her advice all through, instead of now and again, things would have been all right with me. I had come away and left her crying in the hut, and James telling her, in a brotherly way, that it was all her fault. The trouble was that I never liked to ‘give in’ or go half-way to make it up—not half-way— it was all the way or nothing with our natures.
‘If I don’t make a stand now,’ I’d say, ‘I’ll never be master. I gave up the reins when I got married, and I’ll have to get them back again.’
What women some men are! But the time came, and not many years after, when I stood by the bed where Mary lay, white and still; and, amongst other things, I kept saying, ‘I’ll give in, Mary— I’ll give in,’ and then I’d laugh. They thought that I was raving mad, and took me from the room. But that time was to come.
As I walked down the creek track in the moonlight the question rang in my ears again, as it had done when I first caught sight of the house that evening—
‘Why did I bring her here?’
I was not fit to ‘go on the land’. The place was only fit for some stolid German, or Scotsman, or even Englishman and his wife, who had no ambition but to bullock and make a farm of the place. I had only drifted here through carelessness, brooding, and discontent.
I walked on and on till I was more than half-way to the only neighbours— a wretched selector’s family, about four miles down the creek,— and I thought I’d go on to the house and see if they had any fresh meat.
A mile or two farther I saw the loom of the bark hut they lived in, on a patchy clearing in the scrub, and heard the voice of the selector’s wife—I had seen her several times: she was a gaunt, haggard Bushwoman, and, I supposed, the reason why she hadn’t gone mad through hardship and loneliness was that she hadn’t either the brains or the memory to go farther than she could see through the trunks of the ’apple-trees’.
‘You, An-nay!’ (Annie.)
‘Ye-es’ (from somewhere in the gloom).
‘Didn’t I tell yer to water them geraniums!’
‘Well, didn’t I?’
‘Don’t tell lies or I’ll break yer young back!’
‘I did, I tell yer—the water won’t soak inter the ashes.’
Geraniums were the only flowers I saw grow in the drought out there. I remembered this woman had a few dirty grey-green leaves behind some sticks against the bark wall near the door; and in spite of the sticks the fowls used to get in and scratch beds under the geraniums, and scratch dust over them, and ashes were thrown there —with an idea of helping the flower, I suppose; and greasy dish-water, when fresh water was scarce—till you might as well try to water a dish of fat.
Then the woman’s voice again—
‘You, Tom-may!’ (Tommy.)
Silence, save for an echo on the ridge.
‘Ye-e-s!’ shrill shriek from across the creek.
‘Didn’t I tell you to ride up to them new people and see if they want any meat or any think?’ in one long screech.
‘Well—I karnt find the horse.’
‘Well-find-it-first-think-in-the-morning and. And-don’t-forgit-to-tell-Mrs-Wi’son-that-mother’ll-be-up-as-soon-as-she-can.’
I didn’t feel like going to the woman’s house that night. I felt—and the thought came like a whip-stroke on my heart— that this was what Mary would come to if I left her here.
I turned and started to walk home, fast. I’d made up my mind. I’d take Mary straight back to Gulgong in the morning— I forgot about the load I had to take to the sheep station. I’d say, ‘Look here, Girlie’ (that’s what I used to call her), ‘we’ll leave this wretched life; we’ll leave the Bush for ever! We’ll go to Sydney, and I’ll be a man! and work my way up.’ And I’d sell waggon, horses, and all, and go.
When I got to the hut it was lighted up. Mary had the only kerosene lamp, a slush lamp, and two tallow candles going. She had got both rooms washed out—to James’s disgust, for he had to move the furniture and boxes about. She had a lot of things unpacked on the table; she had laid clean newspapers on the mantel-shelf— a slab on two pegs over the fireplace—and put the little wooden clock in the centre and some of the ornaments on each side, and was tacking a strip of vandyked American oil-cloth round the rough edge of the slab.
‘How does that look, Joe? We’ll soon get things ship-shape.’
I kissed her, but she had her mouth full of tacks. I went out in the kitchen, drank a pint of cold tea, and sat down.
Somehow I didn’t feel satisfied with the way things had gone.