Promotion  (1896) 
by Guy Boothby

Extracted from Windsor magazine, v.04, 1896, pp. 280-283. Accompanying illustrations by Stephen Reid may be omitted.



FAR away in the heart of the Never-never country stood a small stockaded hut, the central repairing station of the Overland Telegraph Line. It was manned by two Government servants who, while they did their duty, were not grateful to an all-powerful Providence for the state of life to which it had been pleased to call them.

Though news from the great world flashed continuously day and night through the station; though they could read on the tape the shifting politics of Europe, the upheaval of empires and dethronement of kings, they were not interested. Their cabbage crop behind the hut concerned them far more. The one was only a circumstance in one dull routine of business, the other meant staving off the scurvy.

Inside the stockade, constructed for protection against the blacks, they had laboriously manufactured an apology for a garden. Outside the desert winds threw banks of sand against the gate, and shrieked nightly for admittance.

The two rooms of the hut opened into one another; the first contained the instruments, and was used as a sitting-room; the second formed their bedroom. Each was more than sufficiently uncomfortable.

Both men worked year in year out without interest and without excitement, and only when they made the two-hundred-mile journey into comparative civilisation for rations did they see any strange faces.

One never-to-be-forgotten morning Omerod reeled off an instruction to the effect that he had received promotion and was to hold himself in readiness for a change. A man had started from the South to relieve him.

Replying his thanks, he sat down to consider his position. He had not met twenty people in three years, and for the moment the magnitude of the prospect rather staggered him. It opened up unlimited possibilities, and almost unconsciously he began to pick up the threads of his life where he had dropped them years before. He was only thirty-three.

“Congratulations,” said Goddard from the doorway. “I wish it was me. Fancy town, with girls and shop windows, policemen and ’buses after this!”

He wheeled his hand over the scorching plain with its mirages and dancing heat haze. As he spoke a sand-devil whistled towards them, to break with a sort of low moan about a hundred yards from the gate. The thermometer registered 118° in the shadow of the veranda, and the hot wind was like the breath of the desert.

“Wonder where they’ll send me?” said Omerod, throwing the dust-cover over the instrument. “I should think I’ve done bush service enough to satisfy them.”

“Probably somewhere in the suburbs, where you’ll become a churchwarden, develop a corporation, and end by marrying the parson’s daughter!”

“Thanks muchly. But to tell the truth, somehow, now it has come, I don’t feel half as grateful as I should.”

“Gad! let ’em try me, that’s all. I'd lick their boots for the chance. Why man, just think what it means, even in small things. You’ll have real potatoes every day instead of preserved, more cabbages and lettuces than you can eat, no scurvy, the thermometer never higher than 100°, live people to talk to, dances, theatres, and girls to flirt with. Oh, how I wish I had your luck! I know the sweetest little duck of a girl.”

“I wonder who relieves me?”

“Goodness knows! Hope he’s a decent fellow for my sake. Hark! Message going through. I’ll reel off the state of Europe, and we’ll see how it affects our present and future.” It clicked out, and Goddard translated—


Omerod shivered in his chair.

“I don’t like these dreadful death telegrams.”

“Bless you, the chap’s not dead!” Goddard asserted authoritatively. “To-morrow he’ll be all alive and kicking, just as if nothing had happened. What’s wrong old man? You don’t look right.”

“I don’t; I feel beastly. Somebody walking over my grave—you know the sensation. It’s awfully cold in here.”

“Cold! with the thermometer 19° past blood heat? You want physic, my boy. How long have you been feeling like this?”

“Off and on for the last two or three days. I have physicked, but it don’t seem to make any difference. I think I’ll lie down.”

He passed into the bedroom. Goddard cast a wondering look across the plain, and then down at the shimmering water-hole in the creek bed.

“Old Ommy’s not fit by any means; too much white about his gills for my liking. Hang that cipher, I wish I hadn’t read it. Just like my thoughtlessness.”

Omerod appeared in the veranda again and made for the water bag.

“Steady, old man; not too much of the aqua pura. It can’t do you any good.”

“What’s that got to do with you?” snarled his comrade, pannikin in hand, “I'll drink as much as I please and thank you to mind your own business!”

“Humph!” said Goddard, returning to his study of the plain. “A bit touched in the temper. Well I suppose the old beggar feels bad and can’t help it.”

When they sat down to tea—the inevitable salt junk and preserved potatoes—Omerod found his appetite had left him, so he grumbled at the cooking and went back to bed, only to re-appear half an hour later, in a very excited state, for another raid on the water bag.

It was past sundown. Goddard was milking a goat by the gate and called out, “Feel any better, old man!”

“No, no, no! Why on earth do you bore me with your idiotic questions? Can’t you see I’m bad—bad as you make ’em. Oh, this cursed country! Why ever don’t they drown us when we’re young, to stop our ever coming into it? I’m sorry, old man, I spoke roughly just now. You’re a good little chap; but you’re too blooming demonstrative!”

“Poor old Ommy, I’d give something to know what’s the matter with him. If he’s not better in the morning I’ll wire his symptoms through to headquarters.”

“On the morrow he was decidedly worse, with all the signs of fever. His face was flushed, he had lost his appetite, and he clamoured continuously for water.

Goddard was seriously alarmed and rapped through the symptoms to the Government medical man, twelve hundred miles away. The verdict, “Typhoid in a serious form,” frightened him considerably, and the course of treatment prescribed did not tend to re-assure him.

They had never been provided with half the “absolutely necessaries,” and the supply of the other half had pretty well run out.

It was his first experience in nursing, and he didn’t enjoy it. At any time, even with all the resources of medical science at one’s beck and call, it is not nice to have the sole charge of a delirious man. But in the solitude of the desert, remote from help of any kind, it becomes the most horrible of all conceivable horrors.

Hour by horn, through scorching days and sweltering nights, Goddard watched by the sick man’s bed; the closest supervision was necessary for the patient was often violent and always restless.

Every morning he despatched his bulletin to the doctor and took his instructions in return. When he wanted a change he slipped out and watered his cabbages, milked his goats and inspected their limited stock of poultry. All the time the news of Europe was flashing along on the wires overhead, heedless of the struggle between life and death below.

For three weeks Goddard nursed and did double duty. But the strain was beginning to tell on him. He could take no exercise, and he had almost forgotten what sleep meant. It was enough to drive a man mad. But the chief of his department wired a message through that gave him fresh strength.

He knew that he might expect the crisis about the twenty-first day and his anxiety was boundless. He carried out the doctor’s directions with more than scrupulous exactness, anxiously noting every change, however faint, in the condition of his patient. The wires smoked with the number of his messages, imploring counsel and advice. The instrument was his one connecting link with the outside world and he clung to it with all the tenacity of despair, realising that if anything went wrong within his line of control this last saving link would be cut through, and then—well, he never dared to think what would happen then.

The night was very very still; the brilliance of the stars lit up the waste of sand, and the surging of the wires above the hut sounded like the notes of an Æolian harp.

Goddard sat by his companion’s bedside anxiously watching for the turn. Omerod had been delirious, off and on, all day.

As he sat looking down on his patient a new and unknown fear crept into Goddard’s heart. He began to wonder what he would do if left alone in the silence of the night, in the illimitable solitude of the unknown, with a dead man unshrived. He tried to put it from him again and again, but it would not be dispelled. It was a simple fancy, born of an overtaxed brain, but it brought out a great sweat on the man’s face. In the horror of the moment he fell upon his knees and prayed as he had never done in his life before. It was a curious and involved supplication to an uncertain deity, but it had the effect of somewhat relieving his overcharged mind.

The night’s batch of news was galloping through to the Southern papers, so, to pull his thoughts together, he hitched on and read. His first message ran: “Prince—better—hope.” It was a good omen and he returned to the adjoining room.

At the first glance he saw that the crisis was passed; the patient was slumbering like a little child. He could hardly control himself; a great wave of thankfulness engulfed him; he felt an enormous desire to shout his gratitude aloud. Creeping out into the silent hot night he pranced joyously beneath the winking stars.

In three weeks Omerod was convalescent, and his successor having arrived, he decided to travel south as soon as his strength would allow of it.

Goddard was unfeignedly glad to see his friend about once more, but somehow he was not enthusiastic. The nursing had been too much for him, he said, but he would soon be himself again.

One morning he did not get up to breakfast, talked in a strange fashion, and by midday was in a raging fever. Greenall, the new arrival, took him in hand, while Omerod went about his work, praying for his deliverer’s life. Again the verdict was fever.

Again the hut saw another bitter night and day fight, and again the wires brought the doctor’s science to the bedside. Once more the crisis was safely passed. Then a telegram from his chief told the patient that he was promoted, and that Omerod and he were to journey down together.

That night he had a relapse, and about nine o’clock called Omerod to him.

“Omerod,” he said faintly, stretching out his hand, “it’s no use making bones about it—I’m done.”

“No, no, old man, don’t lose heart; you’re better. Keep up your pluck; we’ll go down together yet.”

“I don’t think so. Something tells me I hold a losing hand. It’s an awful sell, isn’t it? I thought of doing so much you know when I got below. Why, old pal, what are you snivelling about? How the wires sing to-night, don’t they? And now I come to think of it there seems to be a regular tune in it.”

Beating time with his wasted hands upon the rough blanket he chirped feebly—

Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,
Be it ever so humble there’s no place like home;
A charm from the skies seems to hallow us there,
Which, sought through the world …

He stopped abruptly and half sat up.

“Ommy,” he said, “I’m promoted. I’m going home—home—out of this—home!”

Greenall led Omerod out of the presence of the dead and then went to the instrument to despatch the sad news south.

The night batch blocked the wires. The message going through at the moment ran—