So the years went on—slow enough they seemed to us sometimes—the green winters, pretty cold, I tell you, with frost and hail-storms, and the long hot summers. We were not called boys any longer, except by mother and Aileen, but took our places among the men of the district. We lived mostly at home, in the old way; sometimes working pretty hard, sometimes doing very little. When the cows were milked and the wood chopped, there was nothing to do for the rest of the day. The creek was that close that mother used to go and dip the bucket into it herself, when she wanted one, from a little wooden step above the clear reedy waterhole.
Now and then we used to dig in the garden. There was reaping and corn-pulling and husking for part of the year; but often, for weeks at a time, there was next to nothing to do. No hunting worth much—we were sick of kangarooing, like the dogs themselves, that as they grew old would run a little way and then pull up if a mob came, jump, jump, past them. No shooting, except a few ducks and pigeons. Father used to laugh at the shooting in this country, and say they'd never have poachers here—the game wasn't worth it. No fishing, except an odd codfish, in the deepest waterholes; and you might sit half a day without a bite.
Now this was very bad for us boys. Lads want plenty of work, and a little play now and then to keep them straight. If there's none, they'll make it; and you can't tell how far they'll go when they once start.
Well, Jim and I used to get our horses and ride off quietly in the afternoon, as if we were going after cattle; but, in reality, as soon as we were out of sight of mother, to ride over to that old villain, Grimes, the shanty-keeper, where we met the young Dalys, and others of the same sort—talked a good deal of nonsense and gossip; what was worse played at all-fours and euchre, which we had learned from an American harvest hand, at one of the large farms.
Besides playing for money, which put us rather into trouble sometimes, as we couldn't always find a half-crown if we lost it, we learned another bad habit, and that was to drink spirits. What burning nasty stuff I thought it at first; and so did we all! But every one wanted to be thought a man, and up to all kinds of wickedness, so we used to make it a point of drinking our nobbler, and sometimes treating the others twice, if we had cash.
There was another family that lived a couple of miles off, higher up the creek, and we had always been good friends with them, though they never came to our house, and only we boys went to theirs. They were the parents of the little girl that went to school with us, and a boy who was a year older than me.
Their father had been a gardener at home, and he married a native girl who was born somewhere about the Hawkesbury, near Windsor. Her father had been a farmer, and many a time she told us how sorry she was to go away from the old place, and what fine corn and pumpkins they grew; and how they had a church at Windsor, and used to take their hay and fruit and potatoes to Sydney, and what a grand place Sydney was, with stone buildings called markets for people to sell fruit and vegetables and poultry in; and how you could walk down into Lower George Street and see Sydney Harbour, a great shining salt-water plain, a thousand times as big as the biggest waterhole, with ships and boats and sailors, and every kind of strange thing upon it.
Mrs. Storefield was pretty fond of talking, and she was always fond of me, because once when she was out after the cows, and her man was away, and she had left Grace at home, the little thing crawled down to the waterhole and tumbled in. I happened to be riding up with a message for mother,to borrow some soap, when I heard a little cry like a lamb's, and there was poor little Gracey struggling in the water like a drowning kitten, with her face under. Another minute or two would have finished her, but I was off the old pony and into the water like a teal flapper. I had her out in a second or two, and she gasped and cried a bit, but soon came to, and when Mrs. Storefield came home she first cried over her as if she would break her heart, and kissed her, and then she kissed me, and said, `Now, Dick Marston, you look here. Your mother's a good woman, though simple; your father I don't like, and I hear many stories about him that makes me think the less we ought to see of the lot of you the better. But you've saved my child's life to-day, and I'll be a friend and a mother to you as long as I live, even if you turn out bad, and I'm rather afraid you will—you and Jim both—but it won't be my fault for want of trying to keep you straight; and John and I will be your kind and loving friends as long as we live, no matter what happens.'
After that—it was strange enough—but I always took to the little toddling thing that I'd pulled out of the water. I wasn't very big myself, if it comes to that, and she seemed to have a feeling about it, for she'd come to me every time I went there, and sit on my knee and look at me with her big brown serious eyes—they were just the same after she grew up—and talk to me in her little childish lingo. I believe she knew all about it, for she used to say, `Dick pull Gracey out of water;' and then she'd throw her arms round my neck and kiss me, and walk off to her mother. If I'd let her drown then, and tied a stone round my neck and dropped through the reeds to the bottom of the big waterhole, it would have been better for both of us.
When John came home he was nearly as bad as the old woman, and wanted to give me a filly, but I wouldn't have it, boy as I was. I never cared for money nor money's worth, and I was not going to be paid for picking a kid out of the water.
George Storefield, Gracey's brother, was about my own age. He thought a lot of what I'd done for her, and years afterwards I threatened to punch his head if he said anything more about it. He laughed, and held out his hand.
`You and I might have been better friends lately,' says he; `but don't you forget you've got another brother besides Jim—one that will stick to you, too, fair weather or foul.'
I always had a great belief in George, though we didn't get on over well, and often had fallings out. He was too steady and hardworking altogether for Jim and me. He worked all day and every day, and saved every penny he made. Catch him gaffing!—no, not for a sixpence. He called the Dalys and Jacksons thieves and swindlers, who would be locked up, or even hanged, some day, unless they mended themselves. As for drinking a glass of grog, you might just as soon ask him to take a little laudanum or arsenic.
`Why should I drink grog,' he used to say—`such stuff, too, as you get at that old villain Grimes's—with a good appetite and a good conscience? I'm afraid of no man; the police may come and live on my ground for what I care. I work all day, have a read in the evening, and sleep like a top when I turn in. What do I want more?'
`Oh, but you never see any life,' Jim said; `you're just like an old working bullock that walks up to the yoke in the morning and never stops hauling till he's let go at night. This is a free country, and I don't think a fellow was born for that kind of thing and nothing else.'
`This country's like any other country, Jim,' George would say, holding up his head, and looking straight at him with his steady gray eyes; `a man must work and save when he's young if he don't want to be a beggar or a slave when he's old. I believe in a man enjoying himself as well as you do, but my notion of that is to have a good farm, well stocked and paid for, by and by, and then to take it easy, perhaps when my back is a little stiffer than it is now.'
`But a man must have a little fun when he is young,' I said. `What's the use of having money when you're old and rusty, and can't take pleasure in anything?'
`A man needn't be so very old at forty,' he says then, `and twenty years' steady work will put all of us youngsters well up the ladder. Besides, I don't call it fun getting half-drunk with a lot of blackguards at a low pothouse or a shanty, listening to the stupid talk and boasting lies of a pack of loafers and worse. They're fit for nothing better; but you and Jim are. Now, look here, I've got a small contract from Mr. Andrews for a lot of fencing stuff. It will pay us wages and something over. If you like to go in with me, we'll go share and share. I know what hands you both are at splitting and fencing. What do you say?'
Jim, poor Jim, was inclined to take George's offer. He was that good-hearted that a kind word would turn him any time. But I was put out at his laying it down so about the Dalys and us shantying and gaffing, and I do think now that some folks are born so as they can't do without a taste of some sort of fun once in a way. I can't put it out clear, but it ought to be fixed somehow for us chaps that haven't got the gift of working all day and every day, but can do two days' work in one when we like, that we should have our allowance of reasonable fun and pleasure—that is, what we called pleasure, not what somebody thinks we ought to take pleasure in. Anyway, I turned on George rather rough, and I says, `We're not good enough for the likes of you, Mr. Storefield. It's very kind of you to think of us, but we'll take our own line and you take yours.'
`I'm sorry for it, Dick, and more sorry that you take huff at an old friend. All I want is to do you good, and act a friend's part. Good-bye—some day you'll see it.'
`You're hard on George,' says Jim, `there's no pleasing you to-day; one would think there were lots of chaps fighting how to give us a lift. Good-bye, George, old man; I'm sorry we can't wire in with you; we'd soon knock out those posts and rails on the ironbark range.'
`You'd better stop, Jim, and take a hand in the deal,' says I (or, rather, the devil, for I believe he gets inside a chap at times), `and then you and George can take a turn at local-preaching when you're cut out. I'm off.' So without another word I jumped on to my horse and went off down the hill, across the creek, and over the boulders the other side, without much caring where I was going. The fact was, I felt I had acted meanly in sneering at a man who only said what he did for my good; and I wasn't at all sure that I hadn't made a breach between Gracey and myself, and, though I had such a temper when it was roused that all the world wouldn't have stopped me, every time I thought of not seeing that girl again made my heart ache as if it would burst.
I was nearly home before I heard the clatter of a horse's feet, and Jim rode up alongside of me. He was just the same as ever, with a smile on his face. You didn't often see it without one.
I knew he had come after me, and had given up his own fancy for mine.
`I thought you were going to stay and turn good,' I said. `Why didn't you?'
`It might have been better for me if I had,' he said, `but you know very well, Dick, that whatever turns up, whether it's for good or evil, you and I go together.'
We looked at one another for a moment. Our eyes met. We didn't say anything; but we understood one another as well as if we had talked for a week. We rode up to the door of our cottage without speaking. The sun had set, and some of the stars had come out, early as it was, for it was late autumn. Aileen was sitting on a bench in the verandah reading, mother was working away as usual at something in the house. Mother couldn't read or write, but you never caught her sitting with her hands before her. Except when she was asleep I don't think she ever was quite still.
Aileen ran out to us, and stood while we let go our horses, and brought the saddles and bridles under the verandah.
`I'm glad you're come home for one thing,' she said. `There is a message from father. He wants you to meet him.'
`Who brought it?' I said.
`One of the Dalys—Patsey, I think.'
`All right,' said Jim, kissing her as he lifted her up in his great strong arms. `I must go in and have a gossip with the old woman. Aileen can tell me after tea. I daresay it's not so good that it won't keep.'
Mother was that fond of both of us that I believe, as sure as I sit here, she'd have put her head on the block, or died in any other way for either of her boys, not because it was her duty, but glad and cheerful like, to have saved us from death or disgrace. I think she was fonder of us two than she was of Aileen. Mothers are generally fonder of their sons. Why I never could see; and if she thought more of one than the other it was Jim. He was the youngest, and he had that kind of big, frolicsome, loving way with him, like a Newfoundland pup about half-grown. I always used to think, somehow, nobody ever seemed to be able to get into a pelter with Jim, not even father, and that was a thing as some people couldn't be got to believe. As for mother and Aileen, they were as fond of him as if he'd been a big baby.
So while he went to sit down on the stretcher, and let mother put her arms round his neck and hug him and cry over him, as she always did if he'd been away more than a day or two, I took a walk down the creek with Aileen in the starlight, to hear all about this message from father. Besides, I could see that she was very serious over it, and I thought there might be something in it more than common.
`First of all, did you make any agreement with George Storefield?' she said.
`No; why should I? Has he been talking to you about me? What right has he to meddle with my business?'
`Oh, Dick, don't talk like that. Anything that he said was only to do you a kindness, and Jim.'
`Hang him, and his kindness too,' I said. `Let him keep it for those that want it. But what did he tell you?'
`He said, first of all,' answered poor Aileen, with the tears in her eyes, and trying to take hold of my hand, `that he had a contract for fencing timber, which he had taken at good prices, which he would share with you and Jim; that he knew you two and himself could finish it in a few weeks, and that he expected to get the contract for the timber for the new bridge at Dargo, which he would let you go shares in too. He didn't like to speak about that, because it wasn't certain; but he had calculated all the quantities and prices, and he was sure you would make 70 or 80 Pounds each before Christmas. Now, was there any harm in that; and don't you think it was very good of him to think of it?'
`Well, he's not a bad fellow, old George,' I said, `but he's a little too fond of interfering with other people's business. Jim and I are quite able to manage our own affairs, as I told him this evening, when I refused to have anything to do with his fencing arrangement.'
`Oh, Dick, did you?' she said. `What a pity! I made sure Jim would have liked it so, for only last week he said he was sick and tired of having nothing to do—that he should soon lose all his knack at using tools that he used to be so proud of. Didn't he say he'd like to join George?'
`He would, I daresay, and I told him to do as he liked. I came away by myself, and only saw him just before we crossed the range. He's big enough and old enough to take his own line.'
`But you know he thinks so much of you,' she groaned out, `that he'd follow you to destruction. That will be the end of it, depend upon it, Dick. I tell you so now; you've taken to bad ways; you'll have his blood on your head yet.'
`Jim's old enough and big enough to take care of himself,' I said sulkily. `If he likes to come my way I won't hinder him; I won't try to persuade him one way or the other. Let him take his own line; I don't believe in preaching and old women's talk. Let a man act and think for himself.'
`You'll break my heart and poor mother's, too,' said Aileen, suddenly taking both my hands in hers. `What has she done but love us ever since we were born, and what does she live for? You know she has no pleasure of any kind, you know she's afraid every morning she wakes that the police will get father for some of his cross doings; and now you and Jim are going the same wild way, and what ever—what ever will be the end of it?'
Here she let go my hands, and sobbed and cried as if she was a child again, much as I remember her doing one day when my kangaroo dog killed her favourite cat. And Aileen was a girl that didn't cry much generally, and never about anything that happened to herself; it was always about somebody else and their misfortunes. She was a quiet girl, too, very determined, and not much given to talking about what she was going to do; but when she made up her mind she was sure to stick to it. I used to think she was more like father than any of us. She had his coloured hair and eyes, and his way of standing and looking, as if the whole world wouldn't shift him. But she'd mother's soft heart for all that, and I took the more notice of her crying and whimpering this time because it was so strange for her.
If any one could have seen straight into my heart just then I was regularly knocked over, and had two minds to go inside to Jim and tell him we'd take George's splitting job, and start to tackle it first thing to-morrow morning; but just then one of those confounded night-hawks flitted on a dead tree before us and began his `hoo-ho', as if it was laughing at me. I can see the place now—the mountain black and dismal, the moon low and strange-looking, the little waterhole glittering in the half-light, and this dark bird hooting away in the night. An odd feeling seemed to come over my mind, and if it had been the devil himself standing on the dead limb it could not have had a worse effect on me as I stopped there, uncertain whether to turn to the right or the left.
We don't often know in this world sometimes whether we are turning off along a road where we shall never come back from, or whether we can go just a little way and look at the far-off hills and new rivers, and come home safe.
I remember the whole lot of bad-meaning thoughts coming with a rush over my heart, and I laughed at myself for being so soft as to choose a hard-working, pokey kind of life at the word of a slow fellow like George, when I might be riding about the country on a fine horse, eating and drinking of the best, and only doing what people said half the old settlers had made their money by.
Poor Aileen told me afterwards that if she'd thought for a moment I could be turned she'd have gone down on her knees and never got up till I promised to keep straight and begin to work at honest daily labour like a man—like a man who hoped to end his days in a good house, on a good farm, with a good wife and nice children round him, and not in a prison cell. Some people would call the first, after years of honest work, and being always able to look every one in the face, being more of a man than the other. But people have different ways and different ideas.
`Come, Ailie,' I said, `are you going to whine and cry all night? I shall be afraid to come home if you're going to be like this. What's the message from father?'
She wiped away her tears, and, putting her hand on my shoulder, looked steadily into my face.
`Poor boy—poor, dear Dick,' she said, `I feel as if I should see that fresh face of yours looking very different some day or other. Something tells me that there's bad luck before you. But never mind, you'll never lose your sister if the luck's ever so bad. Father sent word you and Jim were to meet him at Broken Creek and bring your whips with you.'
`What in the world's that for?' I said, half speaking to myself. `It looks as if there was a big mob to drive, and where's he to get a big mob there in that mountainous, beastly place, where the cattle all bolt like wallabies, and where I never saw twenty head together?'
`He's got some reason for it,' said Aileen sorrowfully. `If I were you I wouldn't go. It's no good, and father's trying now to drag you and Jim into the bad ways he's been following these years.'
`How do you know it's so bad?' said I. `How can a girl like you know?'
`I know very well,' she said. `Do you think I've lived here all these years and don't know things? What makes him always come home after dark, and be that nervous every time he sees a stranger coming up you'd think he was come out of gaol? Why has he always got money, and why does mother look so miserable when he's at home, and cheer up when he goes away?'
`He may get jobs of droving or something,' I said. `You have no right to say that he's robbing, or something of that sort, because he doesn't care about tying himself to mother's apron-string.'
Aileen laughed, but it was more like crying.
`You told me just now,' she said—oh! so sorrowfully—`that you and Jim were old enough to take a line of your own. Why don't you do it now?'
`And tell father we'll have nothing more to do with him!'
`Why not?' she said, standing up straight before me, and facing me just as I saw father face the big bullock-driver before he knocked him down. `Why not? You need never ask him for another meal; you can earn an easy living in half-a-dozen ways, you and Jim. Why should you let him spoil your life and ruin your soul for evermore?'
`The priest put that into your head,' I said sneeringly; `Father Doyle—of course he knows what they'll do with a fellow after he's dead.'
`No!' she said, `Father Doyle never said a word about you that wasn't good and kind. He says mother's a good Catholic, and he takes an interest in you boys and me because of her.'
`He can persuade you women to do anything,' I said, not that I had any grudge against poor old Father Doyle, who used to come riding up the rough mountain track on his white horse, and tiring his old bones, just `to look after his flock,' as he said—and nice lambs some of them were—but I wanted to tease her and make her break off with this fancy of hers.
`He never does, and couldn't persuade me, except for my good,' said she, getting more and more roused, and her black eyes glowed again, `and I'll tell you what I'll do to prove it. It's a sin, but if it is I'll stand by it, and now I'll swear it (here she knelt down), as Almighty God shall help me at the last day, if you and Jim will promise me to start straight off up the country and take bush-work till shearing comes on, and never to have any truck with cross chaps and their ways, I'll turn Protestant. I'll go to church with you, and keep to it till I die.'
Wasn't she a trump? I've known women that would give up a lot for a man they were sweet on, and wives that would follow their husbands about like spaniels, and women that would lie and deceive and all but rob and murder for men they were fond of, and sometimes do nearly as much to spite other women. But I don't think I ever knew a woman that would give up her religion for any one before, and it's not as if she wasn't staunch to her own faith. She was as regular in her prayers and crossings and beads and all the rest of it as mother herself, and if there ever was a good girl in the whole world she was one. She turned faint as she said this, and I thought she was going to drop down. If anything could have turned me then it would have been this. It was almost like giving her life for ours, and I don't think she'd have valued hers two straws if she could have saved us. There's a great deal said about different kinds of love in this world, but I can't help thinking that the love between brothers and sisters that have been brought up together and have had very few other people to care about is a higher, better sort than any other in the world. There's less selfishness about it—no thought but for the other's good. If that can be made safe, death and pain and poverty and misery are all little things. And wasn't I fond of Aileen, in spite of all my hardness and cross-grained obstinacy?—so fond that I was just going to hug her to me and say, `Take it all your own way, Ailie dear,' when Jim came tearing out of the hut, bareheaded, and stood listening to a far-off sound that caught all our ears at once. We made out the source of it too well—far too well.
What was the noise at that hour of the night?
It was a hollow, faint, distant roaring that gradually kept getting louder. It was the strange mournful bellowing that comes from a drove of cattle forced along an unknown track. As we listened the sound came clearly on the night wind, faint, yet still clearly coming nearer.
`Cattle being driven,' Jim cried out; `and a big mob too. It's father—for a note. Let's get our horses and meet him.'