Triangles of Life, and other stories/Mateship

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Mateship

THE grandest stories ever written were the stories of two men. That holds good up to our times, from Sidney Carton and Charles Darnay to Tennessee's Partner and Tennessee.

I can always see Sidney Carton mounting the scaffold to the guillotine, his hands tied behind, a dreamy, far-away expression in his eyes; his hair bound back in its ribband, much more carefully than was usual with him; himself clothed more tidily than was usual with him, because he was supposed to be the man for the sake of whose wife and little girl he was about to die. Poor Sidney was a drunkard, and perhaps that is why some of us are drawn to him all the more.

And Tennessee's Partner at the Court of Judge Lynch: "An' I answers you fair and square, Jedge, as between man and man, 'What should a man know about his partner?'" And Tennessee's Partner knew all.

And Tennessee's Partner, with his donkey Jenny and cart, and rough coffin, in the shadow of the trees, after the lynching. He didn't want to hurry the gentlemen at all. "But if yer quite done with Tennessee, my partner thar"——And the last glimpse of Tennessee, the grave filled up the grave in the little digger's vegetable garden, I've seen them in Australia Tennessee sitting on the foot of the mound, wiping his face with his red bandana handkerchief.

They used to say I was influenced by Bret Harte. I hope so. I read "Tennessee's Partner" and the other stories when I was about thirteen, and Dickens a little later on. Bret Harte died near to where I lived in England, by the way.

Tennessee forgave his partner the greatest wrong that one man can do another; and that's one thing that mateship can do.

The man who hasn't a male mate is a lonely man indeed, or a strange man, though he have a wife and family. I believe there are few such men. If the mate isn't here, he is somewhere else in the world, or perhaps he may be dead.

Marcus Clarke speaks of a recaptured convict being asked where his mate was, in a tone as if a mate were something a convict was born with—like a mole, for instance. When I was on the track alone for a stretch, I was always asked where my mate was, or if I had a mate.

*****

And so it is, from "Boko Bill" (bottle-ho!) and "Three-Pea Ginger," of Red Rock Lane, up or down—or up and down—to Percy and Harold who fraternize at the Union Club. Bill gets "pinched" for shifting cases from a cart, or something of that sort, and Ginger, who is "pretty swift with the three-pea," but never rises above a little safe "thieving" or paltry swindling, and is, therefore, never likely to need serious “outside "assistance, works for Bill for all he is worth. For a good deal more than he is worth, in fact. But in spite of the positive and unanimous testimony of "Frowsy Sal" (one time "The Red Streak"), B11l’s "piece," "Ginger," "The Red Rover," "One·Eyed Kate," "Stousher," "Pincher," and as many other equally respectable and well-known ladies and gentlemen as the Court will listen to, Bill goes up for a "sixer."

Ginger’s work doesn’t end here. Others are "pinched" and sent up, and they take messages into Bill, and arrange with certain prisoners who are "on tobacco" to help Bill, and be helped themselves when they come out. Poor Pincher being pinched, Sal says to him: "If yer do get fixed, Pincher, tell Bill I'm stickin'.

Presently the word goes round that Frowsy Sal is stickin’ ter Boko Bill, and is received, for the most part, with blasphemous incredulity by the "talent." But Sal cooks in third·rate public—houses, and were and works hard to keep the kid, the room, and the "sticks," and have a few shillings for Bill against comes out, and she keeps "the blokes" out of her kitchen. Which facts are commented on with yet further wondering blasphemy, into which creeps a note almost of reverence.

So Ginger, being Bill’s cobber, is deputed to round the hat to help Sal, because Sal is sticking to Bill. It is a furtive hat, but the money comes in, and so Ginger sticks to Bill through Sal. The money is from thievish hearts and thievish hands; but the hearts o' men are there all the same.

Ginger, by the way, gets two black eyes, and a blue, swollen nose, from a bigger "bloke," in an argument concerning Sal, and is hurt about it. But wait till Bill comes out!

Hearts o' men are kind to Sal in other places. The warder inside the gaol gate lays a kindly hand on her shoulder, and says, "Come along, my girl." But Sal has no use for sympathy, and little for kindness. "Blarst their eyes!" she says. "They can always ketch and gaol better men than themselves. If it wasn't for the likes of poor Bill they'd have to go to work themselves, from the Guv'nor down, blarst 'em!"

*****

Let's have a look where Bill is, and, though I might seem to be on branch tracks from my subject, the red thread is running all through.

If you go in " under the Government," and not as a visitor, you might be the Duke of All-That-Is, and yet little Cooney, who is finishing a sentence for breakin' 'n' enterin', and is "on tobacco," is a greater man than you. Because he is on tobacco, which is worth twice its weight in gold in gaol, and can lend bits to his mates.

In gaol the initiated help the awkward newcomers all they can. There is much sympathy and practical human kindness cramped and cooped up in gaol. A good-conduct prisoner with a "billet"—say, warder or pantry-man in the hospital or observation ward, or cook or assistant in some position which enables him to move about—will often risk his billet, food and comfort (aye and extra punishment) in order to smuggle tobacco to a prisoner whom he never met outside, and is never likely to meet again. And this is often done at the instance of the prisoner's mate. Mateship again!

*****

True mateship looks for no limelight. They say that self-preservation is the strongest instinct of mankind; it may come with the last gasp, but I think the preservation of the life or liberty of a mate—man or woman—is the first and strongest. It is the instinct that irresistibly impels a thirsty, parched man, out on the burning sands, to pour the last drop of water down the throat of a dying mate, where none save the sun or moon or stars may see. And the sun, moon and stars do not write to the newspapers. To give a weaker "partner" the last sup of coffee, or bite of boiled beans and bacon, on the snow wastes of Alaska, when the rim of the sun only touches the rim of the south at noon. To give up the only vacant place in the boats at sea, and die that perhaps most dreaded of all deaths the deaths—by drowning in mid-ocean.

And the simple heroes of common life! They come down to us from a certain Samaritan who journeyed down to Jericho one time, and pass—mostly through Dickens in my case. Kit Nubbles, the uncouth champion of Little Nell! The world is full of Kits, and this is one of the reasons why the world lasts. Young John Chivery, turnkey at the Marshalsea, who loved Little Dorrit! There was never a gentleman in all his family, he said; but he stood, in the end, the greatest gentleman in that book. All the others had something to gain—either money, fame, or a woman's love; but he had nothing. Mark Tapley, poor Tom Pinch, and simple Jo Gargery, Cap'n Cuttle, and—and Newman Noggs. Newman Noggs, the drink-ruined scarecrow and money-lender's drudge, wiping little Kate Nickleby's eyes with something that might have been his handkerchief, but looked like a duster, and risking his very bread to fight for her afterwards. Newman was a gentleman once, they said, and kept his dogs. I think he was a gentleman yet. And little Snagsby, the mild and the hopelessly henpecked, with his little cough of deference behind his hand, and his furtive half-crown for a case of distress.

The creed of mateship embraces an old mate's wife, sons and daughters. "Yes, I'll lend you the money, Jack; don't mention it—your father an' me was mates on the diggings long before you was thought of, my boy." Or, simply: "I'm an old mate of your father's."

Mateship extends to an old absent mate's new mates and friends; as with the present generation of Bush mates: "Why!"—with a surprised and joyful oath, and a mighty clout on back or shoulder—"Did you know Bill? Comeanavadrink!! "And, when you get confidential: " You don't happen to be stiff, do you? Don't be frightened to say so! There's always a quid or two there for any of blanky old Bill's friends as is hard up! " (Bill is still young, by the way.) And the mighty burst of joyous profanity when two Bush mates meet after a separation of some years!

*****

Visiting an old mate in the hospital! The broad grins! Bill wasn't used to being fixed up like that in the old days, with pretty nurses, in caps and uniforms, gliding round him. But there was a woman——

Bill-o'-th'-Bush being dead, Jim and mates bury him, and Jim blubbers and is unashamed. Later it is Jim's sad duty to take round the hat and gather in the quids for poor Bill's missus and kids. And Jim sticks to them, and helps them all he can; though Bill's missus always hated Jim like poison, and Jim "could never stand her."

In ordinary cases, when a man or woman is in a hole—and the man need not be a saint, nor the woman any better than she ought to be, either—the hat is started round with bad swear words of unnecessary vehemence, lest some —— might cherish a suspicion that there is any —— sentiment behind it at all. "Chuck in half a quid and give the poor —— a show! "

*****

Another kind of case—a little story of two men who went up and down in the world. One mate went up because Fortune took a fancy to him, and he didn't discredit Fortune; the other went down because he drank, and Luck forbore to camp by his fire. In later years the pair came together, and the mate who was up gave the mate who was down a billet in his business in town, and bore with him with boundless patience, and took him back time and again. And it came to pass that one day the mate who was down saved the life of the little girl of the mate who was up. Forthwith, the mate who was down rolled up his swag and took the track, without even giving the mate who was up a chance to try and thank him. He felt he couldn't meet him and look him in the face again. And the old mate who was up understood. It was an extremely awkward and embarrassing case all round. A money gift was absolutely impossible—utterly out of the question; and it was equally impossible for them to continue comfortably in their old relations. The only way to mend matters would have been for the mate who was up to save the life of the child of the mate who was down, in return; but the mate who was down didn't have a child that he knew of. He went away, and straightened up, and did not return until he was on his feet, and the late affair had had time to blow over.

A man will more often reform because of a good or heroic deed he has done, and has not been rewarded for, than because of a foolish or bad one he has done and been punished for. Punishment does not reform men.

*****

Mateship is jealous at times; and, if any jealousy can be unselfish, free from vindictiveness, and even noble, this can be. Which reminds me of an incident in the mateship of Bob Lucas and Jim Barnes, professional shearers, west of the Darling River.

Bob was a good cove, a straight chap, a white man. So was Jim, so long as he kept away from drink, cards, dice, and headin' 'em. They had lost sight of each other for two or three years, and it had been whispered that Bob had been in trouble, but for "nothin' bad." But it wasn't whispered in Jim's presence, for he was always over-eager to fight where Bob's name was concerned.

But there came a man, or a chap, to the shed where Bob and Jim shore or rather, a cove, in the vague sense of the term. Some of the chaps referred to him as "a ———." Call him Cooney. Cooney was short and stout, or rather fat, where some men would be called burly, or nuggety. He had, where it showed through holes in his rags, the unhealthy pallid fatness of the tramp or gaol-bird who hasn't worked for a long time. He had no moustache, but stubble nearly all over his fce. He had no proper swag, just a roll of rags on a string; he had no water-bag, only a billy. To the surprise of some, Bob recognized him and went and spoke to him. And Bob gave him tobacco, and spoke to the boss over the board, and got him on picking up in the place of a rouse-about who was leaving.

Jim was greatly disgusted, for Cooney was picking up for him and Bob and three others, and was no good. "We'll cut out in a week or so, and he'll get into it," said Bob. "Give the man a show." Jim and mates grumbled, but mateship forbore to ask Bob's reasons for sticking to the ——. It was the etiquette of mateship. But Cooney, who was short of something in his head, and got worse, instead of better, though Bob helped him all he could, and Cooney had to be put off when an old hand turned up. But Bob stuck to him, got him a few things from the store, and arranged about his tucker for a day or two.

Cooney seemed neither slouching nor sullen, but he kept vaguely and unobtrusively to himself. He would sit smoking in the row by the hut after tea. His manner suggested that of a mild, harmless, deaf man of rather low intelligence. Bob, who was a silent, seriout man, would sometimes squat beside him and talk in a low voice, and Jim began to brood, as much as it was in his nature to brood, and to wonder more often what there was between Cooney and his old mate. But mateship a forbade him to inquire. And so till " cut-out," and next day, the river-boat being delayed, and time of little importance (for it was the end of the season), while for an extra pound or two they decided to take the track up the river to the township where they intended to spend Christmas. As fuel to Jim's growing resentment, Cooney—who had a decent swag by this time, and a water-bag, thanks to Bob—seemed prepared to travel with them. Then Jim burst out—

"—— it all, Bob! Yer ain't going to take that —— on the track with us, are yer?"

" He's only going as far as the Wanaaring track," said Bob, " and then he's going to strike Out Back to look for a chance amongst the stragglers." Then he added in a mutter: " He's got pluck anyhow, poor devil."

"Well, I don't know about the pluck," said Jim. "But—why, he's got all the brands of a gaol-bird or something, and I can't make out how in —— you came to cotton to him. I ain't goin' to ask neither, but if it goes much farther it'll be a case of either him or me."

"You wait, Jim," said Bob, quietly. "I've got my reasons, and I might tell you afterwards."

"Oh, orlright. I don't want to know."

They said little all day, except a word or two, now and again, with reference to matches, the direction, and the distance to water, for they were on the outside track from the river, and they were very quiet by the camp-fire, and turned in early. Cooney made his camp some distance from the fire, and Jim some distance from—Bob they lay as at the points of a triangle, as it happened; a common triangle of life.

Next day it was much the same, but that night, while Bob was walking up and down, as he often did, even after a long day's tramp, Jim, tired of silence, stretched himself, and said to the silent Cooney—

"Well, Cooney! What'yer got on your mind? Writin' poetry, eh? What's the trouble all this time, old horse?"

And Cooney answered quietly, and the reverse of offensively—

"Wotter yer care?"

"Wotyer say?"

"Wotter yer care?"

"Wotyer say that for?"

"Oh, it's only a sayin' I have."

That hopelessly widened the breach, if there could be said to have been a breach, between Jim and Cooney, and increased Jim's irritability towards his mate. But they were on the Wanaaring track, and, next morning, after an early breakfast, Cooney, who had rolled his swag at daylight, took the track. He had the bulk of the tucker in his nose-bag, for they would reach the township in the afternoon, and would not need it. Bob walked along the track with him for a bit, while Jim sulkily rolled up his swag. Jim saw the two men stop about half a mile away, and something pass between them, and he guessed it was a pound-note, possibly two, and maybe a stick or so of tobacco. For a moment Bob stood with his hand on Cooney's shoulder, then they shook hands, and Cooney went on, and Bob came back to camp. He sat for a few minutes on his swag in front of the fire (for early mornings can be chilly Out Back, even in midsummer), and had another pint of tea to give zest to his morning pipe. He said nothing, but seemed very thoughtful.

"Well, Bob!" Jim blurted out at last. "What the —— are yer thinkin' about? Frettin' about yer new mate? Hey?"

Bob stood up slowly, and stood with hands behind, looking down at the fire.

"Jim," he said, in his sadly quiet way, "that man and me was in gaol together."

It brought Jim to his feet in an instant.

"Bob," he said, holding out his hand, "I'm sorry. I didn't know what I was drivin' at."

"It's all right, Jim," said Bob, with a quiet smile; "don't say no more about it."

But Jim had driven to gold.

A friend or a chum might have shunned Bob after that; a partner might have at least asked what he had been in trouble for; "a pal" would certainly have done so out of curiosity, and probably with rising admiration. But mateship didn't.

The faith of men is as strong as the sympathy between them, and perhaps the hardest thing on earth for a woman to kill.

Jim only glanced a little regretfully after the lonely little blur in the west, and said—

"I'm sorry I didn't shake hands with the poor little——. But it can't be helped now."

"Never mind," said Bob. "You might drop across him some day."