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In the Shadow of the Bush

Chapter IV

page 17

Chapter IV.

M'Keown was first out of bed in the morning.

"Roll out, my hearties," he cried, after he had raked the red embers together and piled on more wood on a fire that was seldom or never allowed to die quite out "Roll out," he cried. "The tuis have been whistling good morning for the last half-hour, and the kakas screaming shame on all sluggards. Get up, Davie"—touching that individual with the toe of his boot—"Get up, you Murrumbidgee whaler, and clear the deck. You'll find plenty of water in the creek below for a wash."

The breakfast was soon ready, and ample justice done to it. The only hint Maurice gave of there being anything extraordinary in Davie's appetite was by remarking, as that person helped himself to another plateful of meat, "We'll have to kill a sheep this morning, Mr. Frank."

He suggested, also, as they went outside, that their visitors, before leaving, might just as well chop up a log of firewood that lay near the door. Davie picked up an axe and made two or three strokes with it, but presently, whether intentionailly or not, over-reached his blow, and, bringing the handle down heavily on the farther edge of the log, snapped it off close to the head.

"If I thought you broke that axe-handle on purpose," Maurice said, angrily, "I would break what's left of it over your head again."

"Would ye, by G——I'd cleave yer skull for ye if page 18ye tried it, my bonnie man," shouted Davie, as he picked up the axe-head.

M'Keown looked for a moment as if he would have sprung upon him, but Ashwin interposed, and said:

"Never mind, Maurice. Accidents will happen, you know. It is evident that Davie isn't qualified as a bush whacker yet. Good morning, men."

"Let us know when you are coming back this way, and we'll have the fatted calf killed for you," Maurice called out after them.

"You shouldn't rouse the bad blood in such a fellow," Ashwin said, when the others had gone. "He might be a dangerous character where there's felled bush lying about. He could stick a match in it some night when it wasn't wanted."

"Faith, I didn't think of that," replied the other; "and yet I remember now that he was blamed for firing the tussocks and burning a lot of sheep on Grassdale run, down south, one night when there was a big Nor'-wester blowing. Old Jones, the owner, had been in a bad humour, and turned Davie away when he came up to the station in the evening. He was sorry for it afterwards. The tussocks got alight somehow, and the fire swept half the run, whether Davie lit it or not. He was blamed for it, anyhow But I don't suppose we'll have these gentry back this way again. I'm thinking the bush country won't suit Davie, and before there's any danger with the felled bush he'll be back among the stations again. I hate these lazy, loafing devils," Maurice went on, "that roam the country and don't want to work. They give honest men that are looking for a job a bad name. That other chap, that Davie calls Bill, doesn't seem to have much harm in him, but I fancy he won't stray far from a public-house if he can help it."

Meanwhile Davie and his companion trudged on towards Bloomsbury. The road which they now followed was better page 19than that which they had travelled on the previous day, though it was still wet and muddy in most places. The buildings which they had noticed on the evening before as lying some distance down the road, on the left, proved on nearer approach to be of a better character than those usually met with in a newly-settled bush district. A plantation of pines and macrocarpa had already attained forward growth, and showed that this farm must have been one of the first in the locality to be cleared and improved. The house itself was near the road, and as the travellers passed the gateway leading to it, an old man, grey-haired and bent, was walking on the drive in front, which was bordered with some shrubs and flower-beds; while a young woman, gifted with good looks, stood on the steps of the verandah, speaking with the old man the while. Empty packing cases were lying about—these and other evidence tending to show that the present occupants had only lately taken possession.

"There's a bonnie lassie, noo," said Davie, whose inquisitive eyes were ever on the alert and allowed nothing to go unnoticed.

Westall, who would have passed by without lifting his head, turned at Davie's remark and looked also. Stopping suddenly, however, his gaze seemed riveted on the face of the old man.

"My God!" he exclaimed in a low voice, as if speaking to himself, as he turned again and walked on, "could it be possible?"

"What the de'il were ye glow'rin' at?" asked Davie. "Did ye think ye saw the ghaist o' yer gran'feyther?"

"I thought I saw something like the ghost of a man I used to know," Westall replied, and added, musingly, "But the thing's impossible—only some fancied resemblance in the features to those I once knew so well."

"It was the lassie took my fancy," said Davie. "Ecod, I'll ca' at that hoose some o' these days, if I traivel this page 20gate again. I'm aye sure o' a guid meal whaur there's a bonnie lassie aboot—I can aye get to the saft side o' them. But I'm thinkin', Bill, we micht do waur than just turn in here the noo for anither bit o' breakfast—a second breakfast micht save the price o' a dinner in the toonship. What say ye? I'm for turnin' back and gangin' in."

"Turn back, and be d——d to you for a glutton! I'm going on," replied Bill, with unusual heat, his thoughts suddenly recalled from contemplation of the past.

"Ah, weel," said Davie, nothing put out, "a wilfu' man maun hae his way; but gin ye hae been as lang on the road as I hae been, ye'll learn mair wisdom."

They shortly afterwards reached a metalled portion of the road, and stepped out with increased pace towards the township.

The township of Bloomsbury was at this time, in so far at least as its population was located, confined chiefly to one long street, which also formed part of the main road of the district. This was intersected by two or three streets, with a few houses scattered along them. Indeed, the buildings generally had not as yet ranged themselves into serried ranks, but appeared rather to have been thrown out in skirmishing order. Here and there, it is true, two or three of them seemed to have been drawn together as if for mutual protection; but the gaps were as yet far in excess of the parts occupied by buildings, though every few months saw some curtailment of the former. The whole area of ground laid out as a township was very large, and extended for a mile or two in some directions; but as a good deal of it was still in standing bush, and a still larger portion was used only as grazing ground, it was somewhat difficult to know where town ended and country began.

Sanguine in their anticipations, and bountifully provident for the wants of posterity, the promoters of these bush townships—whether it were the Government, private companies page 21or individuals, or a supplementing of the former by the latter—made the boundaries of them wide enough for all possible future requirements, and gave ample scope for prospective development. This was very commendable and necessary in some instances, but where a township, as sometimes happened, did not "go off" at the sale, or if it did go off, was never subsequently embellished with a building of any kind, the effect had something of the ludicrous about it—for while settlement went on around the "township," and the land was cleared and occupied, the "town" itself remained a solid block of standing bush, and the absentee owners of its acre or quarter-acre sections were only reminded of their possessions by the persistent recurrence of the notices to pay rates.

Bloomsbury was not of this class. From the first it went steadily forward, with an ever-increasing value for its sections. And the future will yet see its vacant lots occupied—not, indeed, by buildings crowded together as in the cities of the Old World with their slums and stifling hot-beds of disease and crime, but with ample room and scope enough for cottage garden, for sheltered orchard, for shrubbery and lawn.

About the centre of the township, on the main street, two or three hotels, already mentioned, stood, with most of the other places of business scattered around in their vicinity. The hotels were at such a distance from each other as to allow the landlord of each to stand at his own door and watch with feelings of envy any unusual trend of customers seeking refreshment at the other. They were large, pretentious buildings of their class, with verandah and balcony to each, and were well-conducted inns, the accommodation afforded to travellers being all that could be expected—equal, indeed, to that of some of the best hotels in the larger centres. The third hotel stood at the junction of the main road with that leading from Ashwin's place—known as the Melton Road— page 22and was half-a-mile or more from the others, and near the boundary of the township. It seemed as if it were meant to lie in wait as the first house of call for the thirsty traveller coming in, and the last in which he could indulge in a parting glass if he were leaving the township; and as if it preferred to carry on its own business without the scrutiny and overlooking eye of any near neighbours.

The accommodation was of the rough and ready kind, and charged for accordingly. It was frequented chiefly by the less respectable among the bushfallers and other working men of the district. On a Saturday evening some of these were sure to seek the pleasures of the township, and make things lively for the night, keeping up, perhaps, their carouse till the following Monday; and when men were paid off from a contract, and came in with their cheques, a hearty welcome awaited them at the Cosmopolitan from Mr. Jacob Brasch, the landlord. Not that such a welcome was to be found only at the Cosmopolitan, for neither of the other bonifaces was at all inclined to turn away from the bar of his hotel any men just off a job, if their behaviour was at all decent, though he might be more particular as to the character and demeanour of those who would stay in his house—Powlet's Criterion had the reputation of being more select and particular in this respect.

The natives, too, who had a settlement some seven or eight miles distant, used to frequent the Cosmopolitan when they were in funds. At these times, men and women of them might be seen drinking in the bar, or seated, smoking, on the door steps and verandah, or lolling about the passages.

Brasch was a German who had knocked about the Colony for a good many years and had made money. He boasted that his establishment was open to all comers. He asked no questions from those requiring accommodation, and, in consequence, kept a rough and rowdy house. Men said, on the other hand, that he was never known to turn a fellow who page 23was hard-up away from his door without assistance, but would always give a meal, and, if need be, a bed to anyone who couldn't pay. He was popular with the men, consequently; and, perhaps, lost nothing by his liberality. And if a good deal of "lambing-down" was done in his house and he were charged with it, he would say, with his foreign accent, and in that stiff manner of speech which one who, as he proceeds, has to translate his thoughts into the spoken words of another tongue, necessarily used, "If a fellow vill knock down his cheque and spendt his moneys in drink, vy, he may as vell and betters do it in mine house as in anoder man's."

His Scandinavian cousins, of whom there are a good number in the bush districts, occasionally patronised Brasch's establishment, but generally only for a mid-day meal, or for a glass of beer, or as lodgers for the night when on a journey. The principles of economy, early inculcated, are not often forgotten by them, and it is rarely that anyone belonging to these frugal and industrious nationalities is to be found squandering his substance in riotous living, though, of course, one sometimes meets with an exception.

In the township proper a boarding-house or two provided accommodation, at a reasonable rate, for those among the labouring class who did not relish the life in the noisier and less reputable hotel.