Triangles of Life, and other stories/The Ridiculous Family
The Ridiculous Family
EVERYTHING happened to the Mathews family, but Andy Page stuck to it all through, because he had—secretly and unsuspectedly—worshipped little Nelly Mathews, who died and became "Helen"; and because he was Andy Page. Andy stuck to trouble all his life, and trouble stuck to him.
There is something infinitely sad about the death of a grown-up daughter in the Bush, so we'll pass away from Helen's death and Andy's sorrow, that he shared with the people, and Andy's secret heart-bursting grief that no earthly people could share with him, and Andy's practical sympathy that was the more tender and touching for being "uncouth."
Old Mathews drank to drown sorrow, which is the strongest swimmer in the world. They said that any one would have thought he'd have kept straight because of Helen—because of Nelly's death, I suppose they meant—which is a way people have of looking at things. Or, rather, of not looking at things.
Then Andy lent a hand. He finished ploughing the ten-acre paddock, and put in the crop, and shepherded old Mathews, and saddled up in the gloaming and followed him to Mudgee (or some wayside shanty, when he missed him there), and wrestled with him, or waited and bore with him with infinite patience until he got him home. And after a very bad and heart-breaking time of this kind, and in the dusk—or in the moonlight—an ungainly spook would haunt the grave that was
Sacred to the Memory
Born February 10th, 1862,
Departed This Life on the
9th June, a.d. 1885.
And the spook seemed to find comfort there, for after a while it would sit on a log by the cemetery fence, at a respectful distance from the grave, and calmly smoke, with eyes to the stars.
One time, when Andy was known to be out of work, the grave was found, on a Sunday visit, to have been carefully weeded round the mound, and the palisading had been given a coat of paint, by snatches between daylight and sunrise—or in the moonlight, or partly by candlelight, perhaps. There were signs of candle-grease—and a scare about ghosts. But Andy never touched the mound. The old caretaker (who fossicked in the gullies in his spare time—which was mostly) said he'd fix that. He'd got a letter with a "note" an' no name, askin' him to do it. As to the rest, and the ghost, he only cocked his pipe and looked as if he knew as much about the ways of the living as he did about the doings of the dead.
Then one morning Mrs. Mathews couldn't, and didn't, get up, and this stunning event sobered and steadied Mathews, and he did his level best for all of them—as, indeed, he always had done when he wasn't drinking.
Andy made the best nurse of all of them. It isn't the comic man that makes the best clown, nor the solemn the best tragedian—whether on stage or page.
When Mrs. Mathews got well, Bob came home from shearing and halved his cheque with his mother, and went to town with the other half and the old man, to get a rig-out and presents. They got "glorious" together, and Bob fought for the old man (and was obliged to fight him afterwards, they said), and Andy could get neither of them out of Mudgee while the cheque lasted. And he couldn't get one of them more than a mile from the town while Bob's credit lasted. And Andy was obliged to fight them both, and in turns, before it ended; for he was the most obstinate galoot in Australia when doing what he considered "the right thing."
Then, after a day or two, Bob kissed the girls, and his mother last; then shook hands with the rest and Andy, and then, at the very last, and safe in the saddle, he gave the old man's hand a hurried grip, gulped, and rode away for Out Back; and his pack-horse followed him. Bob loved the old man, though Jim was the Joseph. But they both and all the rest loved Jim. The old man blundered blindly and hurriedly round to the back of the house to see to something that wanted seeing to, and the dust hid Bob and his horses in the West.
The spook sought Nelly's grave that night; for Andy Page loved Bob better than them all, and felt "terrible" dull whenever he was gone.
Then drought, then rust in wheat, then smut, then the "ploorer," of course; and, when all was gone, Andy went out with the old man and bullocked on clearing and tank-sinking contracts that would break the heart of a working bullock; and he drew no wages, so that the family might have full rations.
Then the glorious seasons when the prices went down to nothing—but there was more than plenty to eat, and clothes didn't matter much. And Andy came home—he had come to call Mathews' home—and went up in the afternoon to see how the wattles looked above the cemetery. And they were all in bloom.
The old people thought it would be the best thing to fix things up between Andy and Susan-the-Plain. Andy also thought it would be the right thing, both to the family and the memory of Helen; for Susan was her sister, and seemed hopeless, not so much on account of her plainness and age, as because of her temper. But Susan thought Andy was too much of a "goat" altogether, and, when all was settled, she "chucked" him for an animal of another kind, and married a brute, after all, who wanted a woman to do a man's work for him. Andy had got his heart sort of indirectly set on her because of—well, that night, the night of Susan's marriage, a doleful spook haunted the cemetery and didn't smoke.
But Andy stuck to Susan all through the poor girl's life trouble with the other animal, which was several kinds of Hog, and the struggle was long and great and cruel.
Uncle Bob was killed riding home from the races (horse threw back its head and smashed his face) and a nephew was thrown while riding for a doctor for a dead man, and died next day; and Andy broke his favourite mare's heart riding to Mudgee for both of them, and nearly broke his own over it.
His brother's death sent old Mathews on the drink again, and this time, by way of variety, he fell down a diggers' hole on the Old Pipe Clay in the dark, on his way home. It was Andy who found him, of course— or, rather, Andy's dog. The old man was howling for them to open the door, and Andy heard him when the dog led him to the shaft. When they got him out and home, and when the doctor searched him, he found that his arm was broken close up to the joint, and his right ankle either badly sprained or fractured—two little matters that the old man began to notice, and mention, himself, when the gin worked off.
Then Mary—but we don't want to talk about that. No gentleman born and bred could have been more delicately and tactfully sympathetic and helpful than Andy was in that trouble.
Then, while the old man's arm and ankle and poor Mary's reputation slowly mended, came Jim, the dark blue-eyed and dark curly-haired and popular. Poor Jim had something wrong with the shape of his head, which was constantly sending him into trouble connected with cards, or dice, or two pennies—or about a horse. The business about the last horse was very bad, and they came and took Jim.
The old man went on grubbing round a stump, as if he was done with all things in this world now except the getting out of that stump. But the old woman (they were neither old in years) lay down on the rough bed—in her clothes, this time—and turned her face to the split-slab wall, which was lined with scrim and pasted over with old newspapers.
She turned from the wall for Andy, and for no one else.
"D—don't take it like that, Mrs. Mathews," said Andy. "Yer know—yer know ye're like a mother t' me."Then, with a burst: "An' yer might 'a' bin—an' I might 'a' bin yer son all right if I'd bin a different kinder cove."
She sat up and put both hands on his shoulders, and looked at him for a space.
"Andy," she said, "was it Helen?"
"Yes," said Andy.
"Poor Andy!" she said. "But, Andy; you are my son the only son I've got now." Then, with a sudden and fearful change of expression that scared Andy: "Andy, you'd do anything for me, wouldn't you?—poor Nelly's heart-broken mother?"
"I'd do anything for you, Mrs. Mathews. I'd do anything for you that I'd do for—for Nelly."
"And for Jim, for our sakes—mine and poor dead Nelly's?"
"Y—yes, Mrs. Mathews."
"Then you are my son, just as much as if Nelly had lived and you had married her."
That night Andy Page walked down the gullies with his hat back and his face up, and a new light on it, like a lad who had just won the best girl in the world. But the pull or wrench was to come, as it generally comes, the day after the wedding, so to speak, when most men want an hour or so to themselves.
It was a question of proving an alibi in Jim's case, and so it came to pass that Andy stood up in Court at the next circuit, and told the first deliberate lie he had ever told in his life. Jim turned deathly, and one or two others shook in their shoes as Andy took the oath, for he seemed more deliberately awkward than usual, and fumbled with the Bible, while old Mathews grew corpse-like, and there was a blasphemous and furtive whisper that Andy had funked it. But Andy straightened himself, took up the book firmly, kissed it squarely, and told the lie—after swearing on the Holy Bible to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help him God!
And Andy's word got Jim off.
They slunk away from Andy's hopelessly staring eyes, as he stumbled dazedly out of Court, and let him go. He didn't go home to Mathews', nor yet to the spot that was sacred to the memory of Helen Mathews; but he rode round through dark gullies behind old Mt. Buckaroo, and went seven miles in an opposite direction to Home Rule, where he had struggled through a blank childhood and a terrible boyhood, and where his mother was buried. And she had been a good woman. Perhaps this was a case to take to his mother's grave.
So some men will do for the sake of a dead girl what they will not do for any living soul on earth.
Jim was getting into more trouble, when, a few days later, Andy took him for a walk—past the cemetery, as it happened, and, at the end of the walk and talk, he put his arm round Jim's shoulders, and said—
"An' now, Jim, it's a fair thing. Take my advice and go Out Back, and stay there till Christmas."
"I—I will," blubbered Jim, who had broken down. "I—I'll go next week, Andy; I'd go to-morrow if I had a quid or two more to git a horse."
"Go to-morrow then, Jim," said Andy, and he pressed five dusty notes into Jim's hand. Jim still blubbered, but his fingers closed over the notes like the fingers of a schoolboy, who had been given a pocketknife to comfort him or keep him quiet.
"I will, Andy; I'll go to-morrow." Then with a weak attempt to look Andy squarely in the face: "And I'll turn over a new leaf, Andy; I swear to God I will. Just you wait and see, Andy."
"And you'll go to-morrow, Jim."
"I'll go to-morrow, Andy, as true as there's a God above me."
And he kept his word. He stole another horse, and started early.
They called, or sent for, and claimed Andy Page in all times of trouble—no matter what the trouble was; and forgot him, of course, in all scenes that aped festivity. Andy being wanted meant trouble with others, just as surely as it meant trouble for poor Jim (and, of course, his family) when any one, and no matter who it was, wanted to see Jim particularly. And Andy got into the way of starting when a message or call came from "home," just as Jim would start at the gleam of a "mounted trooper's" cap.
And they blamed Andy for every misfortune. No matter what it was, the blame would be screwed, by the family mental twist, round on to Andy. It was Andy's blundering—who never blundered from the right thing; or it was Andy's "thick tongue"—who had a silent and "straight" one. If Andy hadn't done this; or if Andy hadn't done that. If Andy hadn't said this; or if Andy hadn't said that. If Andy hadn't told.
There is a gap in the catalogue of family troubles, for I was away from the district; but the first day of my return it was my misfortune to have to ride on to Mathews', which meant Andy, with the cheerful message that Bob had been thrown from his horse on the way home from his last shed; or rather, that both his horses and he had fallen into a gully, and one horse had broken his neck and the other her leg (and had to be shot), and Bob was lying more or less broken-up at the Halfway House, where his recovery would be doubtful.
I found Andy rigging a Spanish windlass over a shaft in Sapling Gully, above the farm, where one of the plough horses had fallen down in the night. Old Mathews had just run home for tools, a pole, or fencing-wire, or something.
Billy Leonard, Mrs. Mathews' brother, arrived with me, having been sent for, and he was wild. He thought it was his horse he had lent Andy the week before, and had been stoking himself and boiling-over all the way, and, as is usual in such cases, he was not mollified to find that he had worked himself up for nothing.
"Look here, Andy Page!" he said, "send back my horse to-morrow. I can't breed horses to burst themselves for other people, and be let loose to fall down a shaft any night."
"But it isn't your horse, Mr. Leonard," said Andy.
"Don't you mind whose horse it is. You send it back to-night. You won't want it now, anyway, by the look of things."
"Well, Mr. Leonard," said Andy, plucking up, " I only borrowed it to help your own sister, anyway. You might think of that." "Well, if that's the way you're going to talk to me, Andy Page," snarled Billy, "you can get your horse out yourself. An' look here, before you begin to talk to me, you can let me have the rest of that fiver I lent you. Send back my horse to-night, that's all!" and he rode off.
It struck Andy's face stoney, for he knew why the "fiver" had been borrowed, and where it went. But there was no help for it. I had to tell him about Bob.
Then Andy gave his head a despairing jerk, and his arm a great, impatient swing—the first time I remember him showing a sign of impatience, and he said to me, as if struck with a sudden idea—
"Look here, Harry! That family's gettin' redicklus!"
Then, as though momentarily stunned by the stupendous ingratitude of it all, he passed his hand across his sweaty, clayey brow, and added—
"An' it's lucky for me that I didn't marry inter it. I'll say that now."
But just here there was a great screaming and running about and wringing of helpless hands down at the house. Then Mary came running, screaming all the way up the gully. Andy seemed rooted to the spot, awaiting the worst in deadly calmness.
"Andy! Andy!!" she screamed, "father's just bin found unconscious in the middle of ther forty-acre paddock."
Andy turned slowly, as though turned by hypnotism, and, after a short helpless stare in the direction where, I knew, lay the little cemetery on the hillside, he swung back again and started running in the direction of the forty-acre paddock.
She had loved, and had always shielded and stuck up for her father.
I thought I might as well follow.
The world is a ridiculous family, but it's safe to follow the Andies—at a little distance.