A Double Buggy at Lahey's Creek
PART I. Spuds, and a Woman’s Obstinacy.
EVER since we were married it had been Mary’s great ambition to have a buggy. The house or furniture didn’t matter so much—out there in the Bush where we were—but, where there were no railways or coaches, and the roads were long, and mostly hot and dusty, a buggy was the great thing. I had a few pounds when we were married, and was going to get one then; but new buggies went high, and another party got hold of a second-hand one that I’d had my eye on, so Mary thought it over and at last she said, ‘Never mind the buggy, Joe; get a sewing-machine and I’ll be satisfied. I’ll want the machine more than the buggy, for a while. Wait till we’re better off.’ After that, whenever I took a contract—to put up a fence or wool-shed, or sink a dam or something—Mary would say, ‘You ought to knock a buggy out of this job, Joe;’ but something always turned up— bad weather or sickness. Once I cut my foot with the adze and was laid up; and, another time, a dam I was making was washed away by a flood before I finished it. Then Mary would say, ‘Ah, well—never mind, Joe. Wait till we are better off.’ But she felt it hard the time I built a wool-shed and didn’t get paid for it, for we’d as good as settled about another second-hand buggy then.
I always had a fancy for carpentering, and was handy with tools. I made a spring-cart—body and wheels—in spare time, out of colonial hardwood, and got Little the blacksmith to do the ironwork; I painted the cart myself. It wasn’t much lighter than one of the tip-drays I had, but it WAS a spring-cart, and Mary pretended to be satisfied with it: anyway, I didn’t hear any more of the buggy for a while.
I sold that cart, for fourteen pounds, to a Chinese gardener who wanted a strong cart to carry his vegetables round through the Bush. It was just before our first youngster came: I told Mary that I wanted the money in case of extra expense—and she didn’t fret much at losing that cart. But the fact was, that I was going to make another try for a buggy, as a present for Mary when the child was born. I thought of getting the turn-out while she was laid up, keeping it dark from her till she was on her feet again, and then showing her the buggy standing in the shed. But she had a bad time, and I had to have the doctor regularly, and get a proper nurse, and a lot of things extra; so the buggy idea was knocked on the head. I was set on it, too: I’d thought of how, when Mary was up and getting strong, I’d say one morning, ‘Go round and have a look in the shed, Mary; I’ve got a few fowls for you,’ or something like that— and follow her round to watch her eyes when she saw the buggy. I never told Mary about that—it wouldn’t have done any good.
Later on I got some good timber—mostly scraps that were given to me— and made a light body for a spring-cart. Galletly, the coach-builder at Cudgeegong, had got a dozen pairs of American hickory wheels up from Sydney, for light spring-carts, and he let me have a pair for cost price and carriage. I got him to iron the cart, and he put it through the paint-shop for nothing. He sent it out, too, at the tail of Tom Tarrant’s big van—to increase the surprise. We were swells then for a while; I heard no more of a buggy until after we’d been settled at Lahey’s Creek for a couple of years.
I told you how I went into the carrying line, and took up a selection at Lahey’s Creek—for a run for the horses and to grow a bit of feed— and shifted Mary and little Jim out there from Gulgong, with Mary’s young scamp of a brother James to keep them company while I was on the road. The first year I did well enough carrying, but I never cared for it—it was too slow; and, besides, I was always anxious when I was away from home. The game was right enough for a single man—or a married one whose wife had got the nagging habit (as many Bushwomen have—God help ’em!), and who wanted peace and quietness sometimes. Besides, other small carriers started (seeing me getting on); and Tom Tarrant, the coach-driver at Cudgeegong, had another heavy spring-van built, and put it on the roads, and he took a lot of the light stuff.
The second year I made a rise—out of ‘spuds’, of all the things in the world. It was Mary’s idea. Down at the lower end of our selection— Mary called it ‘the run’—was a shallow watercourse called Snake’s Creek, dry most of the year, except for a muddy water-hole or two; and, just above the junction, where it ran into Lahey’s Creek, was a low piece of good black-soil flat, on our side—about three acres. The flat was fairly clear when I came to the selection— save for a few logs that had been washed up there in some big ’old man’ flood, way back in black-fellows’ times; and one day, when I had a spell at home, I got the horses and trace-chains and dragged the logs together— those that wouldn’t split for fencing timber—and burnt them off. I had a notion to get the flat ploughed and make a lucern-paddock of it. There was a good water-hole, under a clump of she-oak in the bend, and Mary used to take her stools and tubs and boiler down there in the spring-cart in hot weather, and wash the clothes under the shade of the trees—it was cooler, and saved carrying water to the house. And one evening after she’d done the washing she said to me—
‘Look here, Joe; the farmers out here never seem to get a new idea: they don’t seem to me ever to try and find out beforehand what the market is going to be like—they just go on farming the same old way and putting in the same old crops year after year. They sow wheat, and, if it comes on anything like the thing, they reap and thresh it; if it doesn’t, they mow it for hay— and some of ’em don’t have the brains to do that in time. Now, I was looking at that bit of flat you cleared, and it struck me that it wouldn’t be a half bad idea to get a bag of seed-potatoes, and have the land ploughed—old Corny George would do it cheap— and get them put in at once. Potatoes have been dear all round for the last couple of years.’
I told her she was talking nonsense, that the ground was no good for potatoes, and the whole district was too dry. ‘Everybody I know has tried it, one time or another, and made nothing of it,’ I said.
‘All the more reason why you should try it, Joe,’ said Mary. ‘Just try one crop. It might rain for weeks, and then you’ll be sorry you didn’t take my advice.’
‘But I tell you the ground is not potato-ground,’ I said.
‘How do you know? You haven’t sown any there yet.’
‘But I’ve turned up the surface and looked at it. It’s not rich enough, and too dry, I tell you. You need swampy, boggy ground for potatoes. Do you think I don’t know land when I see it?’
‘But you haven’t tried to grow potatoes there yet, Joe. How do you know——’
I didn’t listen to any more. Mary was obstinate when she got an idea into her head. It was no use arguing with her. All the time I’d be talking she’d just knit her forehead and go on thinking straight ahead, on the track she’d started,—just as if I wasn’t there,— and it used to make me mad. She’d keep driving at me till I took her advice or lost my temper,—I did both at the same time, mostly.
I took my pipe and went out to smoke and cool down.
A couple of days after the potato breeze, I started with the team down to Cudgeegong for a load of fencing-wire I had to bring out; and after I’d kissed Mary good-bye, she said—
‘Look here, Joe, if you bring out a bag of seed-potatoes, James and I will slice them, and old Corny George down the creek would bring his plough up in the dray and plough the ground for very little. We could put the potatoes in ourselves if the ground were only ploughed.’
I thought she’d forgotten all about it. There was no time to argue— I’d be sure to lose my temper, and then I’d either have to waste an hour comforting Mary or go off in a ‘huff’, as the women call it, and be miserable for the trip. So I said I’d see about it. She gave me another hug and a kiss. ‘Don’t forget, Joe,’ she said as I started. ‘Think it over on the road.’ I reckon she had the best of it that time.
About five miles along, just as I turned into the main road, I heard some one galloping after me, and I saw young James on his hack. I got a start, for I thought that something had gone wrong at home. I remember, the first day I left Mary on the creek, for the first five or six miles I was half-a-dozen times on the point of turning back— only I thought she’d laugh at me.
‘What is it, James?’ I shouted, before he came up—but I saw he was grinning.
‘Mary says to tell you not to forget to bring a hoe out with you.’
‘You clear off home!’ I said, ’or I’ll lay the whip about your young hide; and don’t come riding after me again as if the run was on fire.’
‘Well, you needn’t get shirty with me!’ he said. ‘*I* don’t want to have anything to do with a hoe.’ And he rode off.
I did get thinking about those potatoes, though I hadn’t meant to. I knew of an independent man in that district who’d made his money out of a crop of potatoes; but that was away back in the roaring ’Fifties —’54—when spuds went up to twenty-eight shillings a hundredweight (in Sydney), on account of the gold rush. We might get good rain now, and, anyway, it wouldn’t cost much to put the potatoes in. If they came on well, it would be a few pounds in my pocket; if the crop was a failure, I’d have a better show with Mary next time she was struck by an idea outside housekeeping, and have something to grumble about when I felt grumpy.
I got a couple of bags of potatoes—we could use those that were left over; and I got a small iron plough and a harrow that Little the blacksmith had lying in his yard and let me have cheap—only about a pound more than I told Mary I gave for them. When I took advice, I generally made the mistake of taking more than was offered, or adding notions of my own. It was vanity, I suppose. If the crop came on well I could claim the plough-and-harrow part of the idea, anyway. (It didn’t strike me that if the crop failed Mary would have the plough and harrow against me, for old Corny would plough the ground for ten or fifteen shillings.) Anyway, I’d want a plough and harrow later on, and I might as well get it now; it would give James something to do.
I came out by the western road, by Guntawang, and up the creek home; and the first thing I saw was old Corny George ploughing the flat. And Mary was down on the bank superintending. She’d got James with the trace-chains and the spare horses, and had made him clear off every stick and bush where another furrow might be squeezed in. Old Corny looked pretty grumpy on it—he’d broken all his ploughshares but one, in the roots; and James didn’t look much brighter. Mary had an old felt hat and a new pair of ‘lastic-side boots of mine on, and the boots were covered with clay, for she’d been down hustling James to get a rotten old stump out of the way by the time Corny came round with his next furrow.
‘I thought I’d make the boots easy for you, Joe,’ said Mary.
‘It’s all right, Mary,’ I said. ‘I’m not going to growl.’ Those boots were a bone of contention between us; but she generally got them off before I got home.
Her face fell a little when she saw the plough and harrow in the waggon, but I said that would be all right—we’d want a plough anyway.
‘I thought you wanted old Corny to plough the ground,’ she said.
‘I never said so.’
‘But when I sent Jim after you about the hoe to put the spuds in, you didn’t say you wouldn’t bring it,’ she said.
I had a few days at home, and entered into the spirit of the thing. When Corny was done, James and I cross-ploughed the land, and got a stump or two, a big log, and some scrub out of the way at the upper end and added nearly an acre, and ploughed that. James was all right at most Bushwork: he’d bullock so long as the novelty lasted; he liked ploughing or fencing, or any graft he could make a show at. He didn’t care for grubbing out stumps, or splitting posts and rails. We sliced the potatoes of an evening—and there was trouble between Mary and James over cutting through the ‘eyes’. There was no time for the hoe—and besides it wasn’t a novelty to James— so I just ran furrows and they dropped the spuds in behind me, and I turned another furrow over them, and ran the harrow over the ground. I think I hilled those spuds, too, with furrows—or a crop of Indian corn I put in later on.
It rained heavens-hard for over a week: we had regular showers all through, and it was the finest crop of potatoes ever seen in the district. I believe at first Mary used to slip down at daybreak to see if the potatoes were up; and she’d write to me about them, on the road. I forget how many bags I got; but the few who had grown potatoes in the district sent theirs to Sydney, and spuds went up to twelve and fifteen shillings a hundredweight in that district. I made a few quid out of mine—and saved carriage too, for I could take them out on the waggon. Then Mary began to hear (through James) of a buggy that some one had for sale cheap, or a dogcart that somebody else wanted to get rid of—and let me know about it, in an offhand way.
PART II. Joe Wilson’s Luck.
THERE was good grass on the selection all the year. I’d picked up a small lot—about twenty head—of half-starved steers for next to nothing, and turned them on the run; they came on wonderfully, and my brother-in-law (Mary’s sister’s husband), who was running a butchery at Gulgong, gave me a good price for them. His carts ran out twenty or thirty miles, to little bits of gold-rushes that were going on at th’ Home Rule, Happy Valley, Guntawang, Tallawang, and Cooyal, and those places round there, and he was doing well. Mary had heard of a light American waggonette, when the steers went— a tray-body arrangement, and she thought she’d do with that. ‘It would be better than the buggy, Joe,’ she said— ‘there’d be more room for the children, and, besides, I could take butter and eggs to Gulgong, or Cobborah, when we get a few more cows.’ Then James heard of a small flock of sheep that a selector— who was about starved off his selection out Talbragar way— wanted to get rid of. James reckoned he could get them for less than half-a-crown a-head. We’d had a heavy shower of rain, that came over the ranges and didn’t seem to go beyond our boundaries. Mary said, ‘It’s a pity to see all that grass going to waste, Joe. Better get those sheep and try your luck with them. Leave some money with me, and I’ll send James over for them. Never mind about the buggy— we’ll get that when we’re on our feet.’
So James rode across to Talbragar and drove a hard bargain with that unfortunate selector, and brought the sheep home. There were about two hundred, wethers and ewes, and they were young and looked a good breed too, but so poor they could scarcely travel; they soon picked up, though. The drought was blazing all round and Out-Back, and I think that my corner of the ridges was the only place where there was any grass to speak of. We had another shower or two, and the grass held out. Chaps began to talk of ‘Joe Wilson’s luck’.
I would have liked to shear those sheep; but I hadn’t time to get a shed or anything ready—along towards Christmas there was a bit of a boom in the carrying line. Wethers in wool were going as high as thirteen to fifteen shillings at the Homebush yards at Sydney, so I arranged to truck the sheep down from the river by rail, with another small lot that was going, and I started James off with them. He took the west road, and down Guntawang way a big farmer who saw James with the sheep (and who was speculating, or adding to his stock, or took a fancy to the wool) offered James as much for them as he reckoned I’d get in Sydney, after paying the carriage and the agents and the auctioneer. James put the sheep in a paddock and rode back to me. He was all there where riding was concerned. I told him to let the sheep go. James made a Greener shot-gun, and got his saddle done up, out of that job.
I took up a couple more forty-acre blocks—one in James’s name, to encourage him with the fencing. There was a good slice of land in an angle between the range and the creek, farther down, which everybody thought belonged to Wall, the squatter, but Mary got an idea, and went to the local land office and found out that it was ’unoccupied Crown land’, and so I took it up on pastoral lease, and got a few more sheep—I’d saved some of the best-looking ewes from the last lot.
One evening—I was going down next day for a load of fencing-wire for myself—Mary said,—
‘Joe! do you know that the Matthews have got a new double buggy?’
The Matthews were a big family of cockatoos, along up the main road, and I didn’t think much of them. The sons were all ‘bad-eggs’, though the old woman and girls were right enough.
‘Well, what of that?’ I said. ‘They’re up to their neck in debt, and camping like black-fellows in a big bark humpy. They do well to go flashing round in a double buggy.’
‘But that isn’t what I was going to say,’ said Mary. ‘They want to sell their old single buggy, James says. I’m sure you could get it for six or seven pounds; and you could have it done up.’
‘I wish James to the devil!’ I said. ‘Can’t he find anything better to do than ride round after cock-and-bull yarns about buggies?’
‘Well,’ said Mary, ‘it was James who got the steers and the sheep.’
Well, one word led to another, and we said things we didn’t mean— but couldn’t forget in a hurry. I remember I said something about Mary always dragging me back just when I was getting my head above water and struggling to make a home for her and the children; and that hurt her, and she spoke of the ‘homes’ she’d had since she was married. And that cut me deep.
It was about the worst quarrel we had. When she began to cry I got my hat and went out and walked up and down by the creek. I hated anything that looked like injustice—I was so sensitive about it that it made me unjust sometimes. I tried to think I was right, but I couldn’t—it wouldn’t have made me feel any better if I could have thought so. I got thinking of Mary’s first year on the selection and the life she’d had since we were married.
When I went in she’d cried herself to sleep. I bent over and, ‘Mary,’ I whispered.
She seemed to wake up.
‘Joe—Joe!’ she said.
‘What is it Mary?’ I said.
‘I’m pretty well sure that old Spot’s calf isn’t in the pen. Make James go at once!’
Old Spot’s last calf was two years old now; so Mary was talking in her sleep, and dreaming she was back in her first year.
We both laughed when I told her about it afterwards; but I didn’t feel like laughing just then.
Later on in the night she called out in her sleep,—
‘Joe—Joe! Put that buggy in the shed, or the sun will blister the varnish!’
I wish I could say that that was the last time I ever spoke unkindly to Mary.
Next morning I got up early and fried the bacon and made the tea, and took Mary’s breakfast in to her—like I used to do, sometimes, when we were first married. She didn’t say anything— just pulled my head down and kissed me.
When I was ready to start Mary said,—
‘You’d better take the spring-cart in behind the dray and get the tyres cut and set. They’re ready to drop off, and James has been wedging them up till he’s tired of it. The last time I was out with the children I had to knock one of them back with a stone: there’ll be an accident yet.’
So I lashed the shafts of the cart under the tail of the waggon, and mean and ridiculous enough the cart looked, going along that way. It suggested a man stooping along handcuffed, with his arms held out and down in front of him.
It was dull weather, and the scrubs looked extra dreary and endless— and I got thinking of old things. Everything was going all right with me, but that didn’t keep me from brooding sometimes—trying to hatch out stones, like an old hen we had at home. I think, taking it all round, I used to be happier when I was mostly hard-up—and more generous. When I had ten pounds I was more likely to listen to a chap who said, ‘Lend me a pound-note, Joe,’ than when I had fifty; then I fought shy of careless chaps—and lost mates that I wanted afterwards— and got the name of being mean. When I got a good cheque I’d be as miserable as a miser over the first ten pounds I spent; but when I got down to the last I’d buy things for the house. And now that I was getting on, I hated to spend a pound on anything. But then, the farther I got away from poverty the greater the fear I had of it—and, besides, there was always before us all the thought of the terrible drought, with blazing runs as bare and dusty as the road, and dead stock rotting every yard, all along the barren creeks.
I had a long yarn with Mary’s sister and her husband that night in Gulgong, and it brightened me up. I had a fancy that that sort of a brother-in-law made a better mate than a nearer one; Tom Tarrant had one, and he said it was sympathy. But while we were yarning I couldn’t help thinking of Mary, out there in the hut on the Creek, with no one to talk to but the children, or James, who was sulky at home, or Black Mary or Black Jimmy (our black boy’s father and mother), who weren’t oversentimental. Or maybe a selector’s wife (the nearest was five miles away), who could talk only of two or three things— ‘lambin’’ and ‘shearin’’ and ‘cookin’ for the men’, and what she said to her old man, and what he said to her—and her own ailments— over and over again.
It’s a wonder it didn’t drive Mary mad!—I know I could never listen to that woman more than an hour. Mary’s sister said,—
‘Now if Mary had a comfortable buggy, she could drive in with the children oftener. Then she wouldn’t feel the loneliness so much.’
I said ‘Good night’ then and turned in. There was no getting away from that buggy. Whenever Mary’s sister started hinting about a buggy, I reckoned it was a put-up job between them.
PART III. The Ghost of Mary’s Sacrifice.
WHEN I got to Gudgeegong I stopped at Galletly’s coach-shop to leave the cart. The Galletlys were good fellows: there were two brothers—one was a saddler and harness-maker. Big brown-bearded men—the biggest men in the district, ’twas said. Their old man had died lately and left them some money; they had men, and only worked in their shops when they felt inclined, or there was a special work to do; they were both first-class tradesmen. I went into the painter’s shop to have a look at a double buggy that Galletly had built for a man who couldn’t pay cash for it when it was finished—and Galletly wouldn’t trust him.
There it stood, behind a calico screen that the coach-painters used to keep out the dust when they were varnishing. It was a first-class piece of work—pole, shafts, cushions, whip, lamps, and all complete. If you only wanted to drive one horse you could take out the pole and put in the shafts, and there you were. There was a tilt over the front seat; if you only wanted the buggy to carry two, you could fold down the back seat, and there you had a handsome, roomy, single buggy. It would go near fifty pounds.
While I was looking at it, Bill Galletly came in, and slapped me on the back.
‘Now, there’s a chance for you, Joe!’ he said. ‘I saw you rubbing your head round that buggy the last time you were in. You wouldn’t get a better one in the colonies, and you won’t see another like it in the district again in a hurry—for it doesn’t pay to build ’em. Now you’re a full-blown squatter, and it’s time you took little Mary for a fly round in her own buggy now and then, instead of having her stuck out there in the scrub, or jolting through the dust in a cart like some old Mother Flourbag.’
He called her ‘little Mary’ because the Galletly family had known her when she was a girl.
I rubbed my head and looked at the buggy again. It was a great temptation.
‘Look here, Joe,’ said Bill Galletly in a quieter tone. ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll let you have the buggy. You can take it out and send along a bit of a cheque when you feel you can manage it, and the rest later on,— a year will do, or even two years. You’ve had a hard pull, and I’m not likely to be hard up for money in a hurry.’
They were good fellows the Galletlys, but they knew their men. I happened to know that Bill Galletly wouldn’t let the man he built the buggy for take it out of the shop without cash down, though he was a big-bug round there. But that didn’t make it easier for me.
Just then Robert Galletly came into the shop. He was rather quieter than his brother, but the two were very much alike.
‘Look here, Bob,’ said Bill; ‘here’s a chance for you to get rid of your harness. Joe Wilson’s going to take that buggy off my hands.’
Bob Galletly put his foot up on a saw-stool, took one hand out of his pockets, rested his elbow on his knee and his chin on the palm of his hand, and bunched up his big beard with his fingers, as he always did when he was thinking. Presently he took his foot down, put his hand back in his pocket, and said to me, ‘Well, Joe, I’ve got a double set of harness made for the man who ordered that damned buggy, and if you like I’ll let you have it. I suppose when Bill there has squeezed all he can out of you I’ll stand a show of getting something. He’s a regular Shylock, he is.’
I pushed my hat forward and rubbed the back of my head and stared at the buggy.
‘Come across to the Royal, Joe,’ said Bob.
But I knew that a beer would settle the business, so I said I’d get the wool up to the station first and think it over, and have a drink when I came back.
I thought it over on the way to the station, but it didn’t seem good enough. I wanted to get some more sheep, and there was the new run to be fenced in, and the instalments on the selections. I wanted lots of things that I couldn’t well do without. Then, again, the farther I got away from debt and hard-upedness the greater the horror I had of it. I had two horses that would do; but I’d have to get another later on, and altogether the buggy would run me nearer a hundred than fifty pounds. Supposing a dry season threw me back with that buggy on my hands. Besides, I wanted a spell. If I got the buggy it would only mean an extra turn of hard graft for me. No, I’d take Mary for a trip to Sydney, and she’d have to be satisfied with that.
I’d got it settled, and was just turning in through the big white gates to the goods-shed when young Black, the squatter, dashed past the station in his big new waggonette, with his wife and a driver and a lot of portmanteaus and rugs and things. They were going to do the grand in Sydney over Christmas. Now it was young Black who was so shook after Mary when she was in service with the Blacks before the old man died, and if I hadn’t come along— and if girls never cared for vagabonds—Mary would have been mistress of Haviland homestead, with servants to wait on her; and she was far better fitted for it than the one that was there. She would have been going to Sydney every holiday and putting up at the old Royal, with every comfort that a woman could ask for, and seeing a play every night. And I’d have been knocking around amongst the big stations Out-Back, or maybe drinking myself to death at the shanties.
The Blacks didn’t see me as I went by, ragged and dusty, and with an old, nearly black, cabbage-tree hat drawn over my eyes. I didn’t care a damn for them, or any one else, at most times, but I had moods when I felt things.
One of Black’s big wool teams was just coming away from the shed, and the driver, a big, dark, rough fellow, with some foreign blood in him, didn’t seem inclined to wheel his team an inch out of the middle of the road. I stopped my horses and waited. He looked at me and I looked at him—hard. Then he wheeled off, scowling, and swearing at his horses. I’d given him a hiding, six or seven years before, and he hadn’t forgotten it. And I felt then as if I wouldn’t mind trying to give some one a hiding.
The goods clerk must have thought that Joe Wilson was pretty grumpy that day. I was thinking of Mary, out there in the lonely hut on a barren creek in the Bush—for it was little better—with no one to speak to except a haggard, worn-out Bushwoman or two, that came to see her on Sunday. I thought of the hardships she went through in the first year— that I haven’t told you about yet; of the time she was ill, and I away, and no one to understand; of the time she was alone with James and Jim sick; and of the loneliness she fought through out there. I thought of Mary, outside in the blazing heat, with an old print dress and a felt hat, and a pair of ’lastic-siders of mine on, doing the work of a station manager as well as that of a housewife and mother. And her cheeks were getting thin, and her colour was going: I thought of the gaunt, brick-brown, saw-file voiced, hopeless and spiritless Bushwomen I knew—and some of them not much older than Mary.
When I went back down into the town, I had a drink with Bill Galletly at the Royal, and that settled the buggy; then Bob shouted, and I took the harness. Then I shouted, to wet the bargain. When I was going, Bob said, ‘Send in that young scamp of a brother of Mary’s with the horses: if the collars don’t fit I’ll fix up a pair of makeshifts, and alter the others.’ I thought they both gripped my hand harder than usual, but that might have been the beer.
PART IV. The Buggy Comes Home.
I ‘whipped the cat’ a bit, the first twenty miles or so, but then, I thought, what did it matter? What was the use of grinding to save money until we were too old to enjoy it. If we had to go down in the world again, we might as well fall out of a buggy as out of a dray— there’d be some talk about it, anyway, and perhaps a little sympathy. When Mary had the buggy she wouldn’t be tied down so much to that wretched hole in the Bush; and the Sydney trips needn’t be off either. I could drive down to Wallerawang on the main line, where Mary had some people, and leave the buggy and horses there, and take the train to Sydney; or go right on, by the old coach-road, over the Blue Mountains: it would be a grand drive. I thought best to tell Mary’s sister at Gulgong about the buggy; I told her I’d keep it dark from Mary till the buggy came home. She entered into the spirit of the thing, and said she’d give the world to be able to go out with the buggy, if only to see Mary open her eyes when she saw it; but she couldn’t go, on account of a new baby she had. I was rather glad she couldn’t, for it would spoil the surprise a little, I thought. I wanted that all to myself. I got home about sunset next day, and, after tea, when I’d finished telling Mary all the news, and a few lies as to why I didn’t bring the cart back, and one or two other things, I sat with James, out on a log of the wood-heap, where we generally had our smokes and interviews, and told him all about the buggy. He whistled, then he said—
‘But what do you want to make it such a Bushranging business for? Why can’t you tell Mary now? It will cheer her up. She’s been pretty miserable since you’ve been away this trip.’
‘I want it to be a surprise,’ I said.
‘Well, I’ve got nothing to say against a surprise, out in a hole like this; but it ’ud take a lot to surprise me. What am I to say to Mary about taking the two horses in? I’ll only want one to bring the cart out, and she’s sure to ask.’
‘Tell her you’re going to get yours shod.’
‘But he had a set of slippers only the other day. She knows as much about horses as we do. I don’t mind telling a lie so long as a chap has only got to tell a straight lie and be done with it. But Mary asks so many questions.’
‘Well, drive the other horse up the creek early, and pick him up as you go.’
‘Yes. And she’ll want to know what I want with two bridles. But I’ll fix her—you needn’t worry.’
‘And, James,’ I said, ‘get a chamois leather and sponge— we’ll want ’em anyway—and you might give the buggy a wash down in the creek, coming home. It’s sure to be covered with dust.’
‘And if you can, time yourself to get here in the cool of the evening, or just about sunset.’
I’d thought it would be better to have the buggy there in the cool of the evening, when Mary would have time to get excited and get over it—better than in the blazing hot morning, when the sun rose as hot as at noon, and we’d have the long broiling day before us.
‘What do you want me to come at sunset for?’ asked James. ‘Do you want me to camp out in the scrub and turn up like a blooming sundowner?’
‘Oh well,’ I said, ‘get here at midnight if you like.’
We didn’t say anything for a while—just sat and puffed at our pipes. Then I said,—
‘Well, what are you thinking about?’
I’m thinking it’s time you got a new hat, the sun seems to get in through your old one too much,’ and he got out of my reach and went to see about penning the calves. Before we turned in he said,—
‘Well, what am I to get out of the job, Joe?’
He had his eye on a double-barrel gun that Franca the gunsmith in Cudgeegong had—one barrel shot, and the other rifle; so I said,—
‘How much does Franca want for that gun?’
‘Five-ten; but I think he’d take my single barrel off it. Anyway, I can squeeze a couple of quid out of Phil Lambert for the single barrel.’ (Phil was his bosom chum.)
‘All right,’ I said. ‘Make the best bargain you can.’
He got his own breakfast and made an early start next morning, to get clear of any instructions or messages that Mary might have forgotten to give him overnight. He took his gun with him.
I’d always thought that a man was a fool who couldn’t keep a secret from his wife—that there was something womanish about him. I found out. Those three days waiting for the buggy were about the longest I ever spent in my life. It made me scotty with every one and everything; and poor Mary had to suffer for it. I put in the time patching up the harness and mending the stockyard and the roof, and, the third morning, I rode up the ridges to look for trees for fencing-timber. I remember I hurried home that afternoon because I thought the buggy might get there before me.
At tea-time I got Mary on to the buggy business.
‘What’s the good of a single buggy to you, Mary?’ I asked. ‘There’s only room for two, and what are you going to do with the children when we go out together?’
‘We can put them on the floor at our feet, like other people do. I can always fold up a blanket or ‘possum rug for them to sit on.’
But she didn’t take half so much interest in buggy talk as she would have taken at any other time, when I didn’t want her to. Women are aggravating that way. But the poor girl was tired and not very well, and both the children were cross. She did look knocked up.
‘We’ll give the buggy a rest, Joe,’ she said. (I thought I heard it coming then.) ‘It seems as far off as ever. I don’t know why you want to harp on it to-day. Now, don’t look so cross, Joe— I didn’t mean to hurt you. We’ll wait until we can get a double buggy, since you’re so set on it. There’ll be plenty of time when we’re better off.’
After tea, when the youngsters were in bed, and she’d washed up, we sat outside on the edge of the verandah floor, Mary sewing, and I smoking and watching the track up the creek.
‘Why don’t you talk, Joe?’ asked Mary. ‘You scarcely ever speak to me now: it’s like drawing blood out of a stone to get a word from you. What makes you so cross, Joe?’
‘Well, I’ve got nothing to say.’
‘But you should find something. Think of me—it’s very miserable for me. Have you anything on your mind? Is there any new trouble? Better tell me, no matter what it is, and not go worrying and brooding and making both our lives miserable. If you never tell one anything, how can you expect me to understand?’
I said there was nothing the matter.
‘But there must be, to make you so unbearable. Have you been drinking, Joe— or gambling?’
I asked her what she’d accuse me of next.
‘And another thing I want to speak to you about,’ she went on. ‘Now, don’t knit up your forehead like that, Joe, and get impatient——’
‘Well, what is it?’
‘I wish you wouldn’t swear in the hearing of the children. Now, little Jim to-day, he was trying to fix his little go-cart and it wouldn’t run right, and—and——’
‘Well, what did he say?’
‘He—he’ (she seemed a little hysterical, trying not to laugh)— ‘he said “damn it!”’
I had to laugh. Mary tried to keep serious, but it was no use.
‘Never mind, old woman,’ I said, putting an arm round her, for her mouth was trembling, and she was crying more than laughing. ‘It won’t be always like this. Just wait till we’re a bit better off.’
Just then a black boy we had (I must tell you about him some other time) came sidling along by the wall, as if he were afraid somebody was going to hit him—poor little devil! I never did.
‘What is it, Harry?’ said Mary.
‘Buggy comin’, I bin thinkit.’
He pointed up the creek.
‘Sure it’s a buggy?’
‘How many horses?’
We knew that he could hear and see things long before we could. Mary went and perched on the wood-heap, and shaded her eyes— though the sun had gone—and peered through between the eternal grey trunks of the stunted trees on the flat across the creek. Presently she jumped down and came running in.
‘There’s some one coming in a buggy, Joe!’ she cried, excitedly. ‘And both my white table-cloths are rough dry. Harry! put two flat-irons down to the fire, quick, and put on some more wood. It’s lucky I kept those new sheets packed away. Get up out of that, Joe! What are you sitting grinning like that for? Go and get on another shirt. Hurry—Why! It’s only James—by himself.’
She stared at me, and I sat there, grinning like a fool.
‘Joe!’ she said, ‘whose buggy is that?’
‘Well, I suppose it’s yours,’ I said.
She caught her breath, and stared at the buggy and then at me again. James drove down out of sight into the crossing, and came up close to the house.
‘Oh, Joe! what have you done?’ cried Mary. ‘Why, it’s a new double buggy!’ Then she rushed at me and hugged my head. ‘Why didn’t you tell me, Joe? You poor old boy!—and I’ve been nagging at you all day!’ and she hugged me again.
James got down and started taking the horses out—as if it was an everyday occurrence. I saw the double-barrel gun sticking out from under the seat. He’d stopped to wash the buggy, and I suppose that’s what made him grumpy. Mary stood on the verandah, with her eyes twice as big as usual, and breathing hard— taking the buggy in.
James skimmed the harness off, and the horses shook themselves and went down to the dam for a drink. ‘You’d better look under the seats,’ growled James, as he took his gun out with great care.
Mary dived for the buggy. There was a dozen of lemonade and ginger-beer in a candle-box from Galletly—James said that Galletly’s men had a gallon of beer, and they cheered him, James (I suppose he meant they cheered the buggy), as he drove off; there was a ‘little bit of a ham’ from Pat Murphy, the storekeeper at Home Rule, that he’d ’cured himself’— it was the biggest I ever saw; there were three loaves of baker’s bread, a cake, and a dozen yards of something ‘to make up for the children’, from Aunt Gertrude at Gulgong; there was a fresh-water cod, that long Dave Regan had caught the night before in the Macquarie river, and sent out packed in salt in a box; there was a holland suit for the black boy, with red braid to trim it; and there was a jar of preserved ginger, and some lollies (sweets) (‘for the lil’ boy’), and a rum-looking Chinese doll and a rattle (‘for lil’ girl’) from Sun Tong Lee, our storekeeper at Gulgong—James was chummy with Sun Tong Lee, and got his powder and shot and caps there on tick when he was short of money. And James said that the people would have loaded the buggy with ‘rubbish’ if he’d waited. They all seemed glad to see Joe Wilson getting on—and these things did me good.
We got the things inside, and I don’t think either of us knew what we were saying or doing for the next half-hour. Then James put his head in and said, in a very injured tone,—
‘What about my tea? I ain’t had anything to speak of since I left Cudgeegong. I want some grub.’
Then Mary pulled herself together.
‘You’ll have your tea directly,’ she said. ‘Pick up that harness at once, and hang it on the pegs in the skillion; and you, Joe, back that buggy under the end of the verandah, the dew will be on it presently— and we’ll put wet bags up in front of it to-morrow, to keep the sun off. And James will have to go back to Cudgeegong for the cart,— we can’t have that buggy to knock about in.’
‘All right,’ said James—’anything! Only get me some grub.’
Mary fried the fish, in case it wouldn’t keep till the morning, and rubbed over the tablecloths, now the irons were hot—James growling all the time—and got out some crockery she had packed away that had belonged to her mother, and set the table in a style that made James uncomfortable.
‘I want some grub—not a blooming banquet!’ he said. And he growled a lot because Mary wanted him to eat his fish without a knife, ‘and that sort of Tommy-rot.’ When he’d finished he took his gun, and the black boy, and the dogs, and went out ‘possum-shooting.
When we were alone Mary climbed into the buggy to try the seat, and made me get up alongside her. We hadn’t had such a comfortable seat for years; but we soon got down, in case any one came by, for we began to feel like a pair of fools up there.
Then we sat, side by side, on the edge of the verandah, and talked more than we’d done for years—and there was a good deal of ‘Do you remember?’ in it—and I think we got to understand each other better that night.
And at last Mary said, ‘Do you know, Joe, why, I feel to-night just— just like I did the day we were married.’
And somehow I had that strange, shy sort of feeling too.
The Writer Wants To Say A Word
IN writing the first sketch of the Joe Wilson series, which happened to be ‘Brighten’s Sister-in-law’, I had an idea of making Joe Wilson a strong character. Whether he is or not, the reader must judge. It seems to me that the man’s natural sentimental selfishness, good-nature, ‘softness’, or weakness—call it which you like—developed as I wrote on.
I know Joe Wilson very well. He has been through deep trouble since the day he brought the double buggy to Lahey’s Creek. I met him in Sydney the other day. Tall and straight yet— rather straighter than he had been—dressed in a comfortable, serviceable sac suit of ‘saddle-tweed’, and wearing a new sugar-loaf, cabbage-tree hat, he looked over the hurrying street people calmly as though they were sheep of which he was not in charge, and which were not likely to get ‘boxed’ with his. Not the worst way in which to regard the world.
He talked deliberately and quietly in all that roar and rush. He is a young man yet, comparatively speaking, but it would take little Mary a long while now to pick the grey hairs out of his head, and the process would leave him pretty bald.
In two or three short sketches in another book I hope to complete the story of his life.
- Written by Henry Lawson
- First published: Blackwood's Magazine, February 1901
- Source: Joe Wilson and His Mates, Edinburgh and London, Blackwood, 1901