Short Stories/Poor Devil
"Ah! old man. That's it; that's just it! What did I do it for? Hanged if I know; because I was a born fool I suppose. Did I care for her? Is it me? Not I, faith—at least—no. You see it was this way, Harry. Ah, but the year's too long—an—you're nearest the billy old man, slue yourself round and lift it Off. So—"
It was Christmas Eve. Not the long chill-nighted eve of jolly old England, but hot—hot, and up on the reefs at Solferino, away to the north of the Clarence river, New South Wales.
We were up there amongst the first of the rush. Gold! But the times were bad now, the wages low.
Jack and I were mates. He'd been at sea; so had I. Met at the store and mated over Laird's rum—warranted. Egad, it wanted some passport down a fellow's throat, for the drays hadn't been up for over a month; and I swear there wasn't a sign of old Jamaica three weeks before, at the long weather-board shanty that did duty for everything in the shape of civilization on the reefs. Jack wasn't half a bad sort, frank, free—and twenty-three. We mated.
It seems years ago. The first time I saw him, was with a swag over his shoulder, an unmistakable serge shirt on his back, a thatch of his head that a "Conway" boy would have revelled in, jerked jauntily back with the peak at "full cock;" a six-shooter stuck in his belt, and altogether looking about as jolly and new-chumish as any fellow who had yet come up to the rush.
Work was over for the day, and there were eight thousand of us—of all nations and all colours—lounging about the camp. The store was in our centre—Jimmy Laird's "claim" we used to call it—and, by Jove, it was the richest claim on the whole diggings.
The boys hailed Jack with a shout. He just stopped for a moment, and the collie trotting beside him settled into a long, low growl.
"Shut up Kaiser" and then he walked into the thick of us.
He was too free and jolly not to take all hearts, and before he'd settled down amongst us an hour, his voice was ringing through the place in a rattling song, and he'd made a dozen friends.
"Where'll I camp at all to-night, I wonder!"
I offered him a corner in my hut, and he came. That's how we met. He shouted rum—and then we went down the creek together—and never parted again on Solferino.
We built our humpy down in a quiet nook away from the camp, pegged out a claim on the "Don Juan" line, and worked it, till the lead ran out and times got hard. Ours was a strange, wild life, with a lot of ups and downs—chiefly downs; but we got on well together, and were happy.
Christmas Eve! We'd just came from the store—been laying in a stock for the next day.
Christmas Eve, with a cloudless, clear night, and a grand moon. Our iron bark fire crackled cheerfully, the cool air just lifting up the smoke which, as it rose, mixed with the long branches of the trees above. We didn't feel like turning in, so stretched out upon the grass, and set to thinking.
Kaiser cruised round a bit, but soon settled; and turning his wistful eyes first at one and then at the other of us, snugged his nose down between his paws and went to sleep.
I was thinking of home away in England, wondering what they were doing there. Next day an empty chair would be placed at the table in my old place, and a dear voice, I was destined never to hear again, would say, "God bless my boy, and absent friends."
"Say, old man," said Jack after a bit, "did you know I was married?"
"Begorra, then, it's a fact."
"Where's your wife?"
"Devil a bit of me knows. Somewhere South, I think."
"You think! Scissors, man, if I'd a wife—I'm thinking, I'd know."
"Yes—happen you would," and his hand wandered towards Kaiser.
A log of wood, burnt through in the middle, fell in two upon the fire, sending up a cloud of smoke and sparks.
"Curse the smoke!" and turning away his head for a moment, Jack wiped his eyes with the rough sleeve of his shirt.
"If you don't know where she is, old man," I said, "what did you do it for?"
It was at this point Jack spoke the opening sentences of this story.
I handed him the billy, and lifting off the lid, he took a drink of the stuff inside; we called it tea.
I knew, if I waited, he'd tell me all the story, for we were true mated, and his bothers were mine, as much as mine were his. He took a pipe from the leather pouch on his belt and filled it. Getting it fairly alight he lay along with his face to the fire, and began.
"Harry, old man, it's often a smiling face that hides a sick heart—mine does. What did I do it for? Well, it was this way you see. I was a born fool—from the first—darned if I wasn't a fool for being born; but that wasn't a matter of choice with me—if it had been, expect I'd have done something else more foolish.
"My poor old governor—God bless him!—brought me up for the army. Of course, I ran counter, and chose the sea. Well, I went to sea; gay old times I had of it, too, till they wanted me to stop at home. I stopped, and the governor thought he'd make a respectable member of society of me.
"He put me in an office—shipping firm in Leaden-hall Street. It was something—something—and Co. I forget what now. Anyway I cheeked the 'Co.' first day I was there; kicked a coon out of the office, the second for cheeking me, and the third, I flung a directory at the head clerk for calling me a 'useless article.'
"I left next day. Coming down the street soon after, I saw the 'True Briton' stuck up outside Wigram's office, to sail for Melbourne.
"That's how I got here, Harry.
"Ever in Melbourne? No! Oh, well, it's a fine kind of place. I thought it would be paved with gold, but it wasn't. It was blue stone, and jolly hard to find a soft berth on. Well, old man, there was a doctor's daughter—and—oh, you can imagine the rest!
"She cared for me a bit, I think, and I think I cared for her. I think I—but there—that's all gone now. Yes, I did love her, old man, loved her with all my heart.
"She went away to Adelaide on a visit, and I did not hear from her. A fellow came up from there a week or two after—a fellow I knew—spoke about her—said she was flirting with another man. I wish I'd crammed the dirty lie down his throat, but I didn't. I was a born fool, and took it to heart—nursed it up till it grew big and filled every fibre on my body.
"Damn it! it was a rough one on me. I don't quite know evenwhat I did. I used to cruise round, and then—well—I forgot—drink, I think.
"One night I was in the theatre, and two ladies, one an old, the other a young one, came and sat in a box behind me. They talked French. I'd seen them there often before. The younger one was an actress. They were there again next night, so was I. Same again next. It was raining. I got them a cab.
"Then I called—fool!——Yes."
He paused for a bit, and flicked the ashes out of his pipe.
"Harry, old man, I spooned that woman—I don't know why. She wasn't pretty—at least—no—she wasn't; fine eyes, that's all—but still a kind of face you'd have to turn round and look at twice.
"I used to buy her little presents. She liked the rings I wore. I gave them to her, all but one—a plain broad gold band, with a 'love of a life,' engraved on it in old English letters. She wanted that too—but I couldn't get it off. She got it off, though and looked at it—asked me what the writing was. I laughed and told her, though I felt as if a knife had gone through me. The ring had never left my hand since—since—well, since the girl I'd cared for, put it there and kissed me, under the trees by the gate—at her home.—Heaven! Harry, did you ever care for a woman and believe she'd thrown you up? Pass the billy, old man, I'm not up to speaking so much."
He took a long drink at the tea, and then went on.
"'You love this girl who gave you the ring,' she said. I told her I had cared for her. Then she said 'give it me;' well I couldn't, and I said so.
"She threw it on the ground, and before I could pick it up her heel was on it, and it snapped in two.
"The love of life was indeed broken.
"Then she turned to me—I shan't forget her face—and told me to leave the house. I was going—got to the door—when she fell on the sofa and burst out crying.
"That was kind of rough on me, you know, and I came back again. The first thing I remember was a pair of hot passionate lips clinging to mine—a soft low voice whispering in my ear, 'Mon amour! Ma Vie! Je t'aime!'
"That's how it happened, Harry. I told you she acted, didn't I! Yes! I married her. It was private, in the sacristy of the Cathedral. She told me I wasn't to say I was married just yet, because she had an engagement to play in Sydney, and if they knew it up there, it would hurt the business.
"See that dog, Harry—guess he sees further with his shut eyes now, than I did then with mine open. Devil a word did I say to anyone at all.
"I lived at one end of the town—she at the other. I saw her home from the church—had dinner. Don't I mind that dinner! There were green peas—wish we'd got some for tomorrow. Well, I kissed her—said good night—and went home.
"That was Monday, October 27, 1873. Tuesday she went to Sydney—to play an engagement.
"I used to write. It was queer sending letters to a wife—Harry—and my own at that. I think I used to write much better ones to other fellow's wives—at least judging from results.
"One day a telegram came, saying I was to direct to her in her maiden name, to the Post Office.
It seemed strange. But I thought of her engagement, and did it.
"Did I say she'd a sister? Well, she had. One day the sister came to me and asked for eight pounds. Wouldn't tell me what for. I hadn't got it by me; but I found it soon, and gave it her. Next day I heard what it was for. My wife had come down suddenly from Sydney, and wanted the money for expenses.
"Of course I went off directly to see her, but they said she was too ill, too tired from the sea passage, to be disturbed from bed. So I took a ring off my hand, sent it up to her with my love, and left.
"Two days after I did see her. She wrote and asked me to meet her and her mother, and take them out in the gardens.
"I went; but the mother I didn't see. She said she'd follow.
"It was dusk, and the moon was getting up—almost full. I'll remember that night, Harry, as long as I live. We met. She looked pretty, but there was something so cold—so—-well, I don't know what about her—that I felt a kind of chill go through me when she spoke. I might have been a friend only.
"The evening set in. It was bright moonlight. We walked on together, not talking much—for married people, who had hardly met.
"We were in the Fitzroy gardens. Fine gardens, too. I could show you the foot of earth we stood on. There were trees all round. It was so quiet, and the moonlight stole through the branches, and threw long shadows over the grass. There was no wind; nothing stirring, nothing near us.
"Harry, did you ever feel it was your duty to love a woman?
"She had never said a kind word to me since we were married; but now she turned in the moonlight and stopped.
"There was a pair of great, big beautiful eyes looking into mine, a pair of little white arms flung around my neck, and in another minute her head fell upon my shoulder, and she burst out crying.
"I'm not stone, Harry. The girl was my wife. I lifted up her head, and kissed her.
"If ever a woman spoke words that a man could construe into love she spoke them then.
"I felt then—she was my wife—it was my duty to love her. I think for the next five minutes I did care about her, and while we stood there, a future I had never thought of opened up—and I was happy.
"She looked so pale, so soft, so womanly, in the moonlight, dressed in light muslin stuff—scarcely looking real—just a little thing like a bunch of flowers for a bonnet, and a thin lace shawl round her, which had fallen upon her waist and hung there.
"Then she kissed me a hundred times—great, long, lingering kisses. Asked me, did I love her?—would I swear to love her always?—never leave her? Could I forgive her faults?—she would be so true to me—would love—did love me with all her heart and soul.
"Harry, did you ever think a woman loved you? It's rough, old man—cursed rough to find out you were wrong.
"Then she talked long and kindly to me; and at last said, with tears in those big, dark eyes, and in her pretty little broken English:
"'Could you forgive anything in me—anything I had kept from you?'
"She'd an eager, pained look in her face, and she hardly breathed. I thought it was a foolish girl's question. Answered, 'Yes.'
"There was a sound of footsteps on the gravel-path, and the shrill laughter of a little child.
It was her mother's voice!
"For a moment the girl seemed pondering—looking into the future or the past—I knew not which. But suddenly she staggered back, and clasping her hands over her face, cried out—'Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu!'
"It was the Past!!!
"Harry, I'd sooner die a hundred deaths than feel again the pain that shot through my heart just then.
"She fell and fainted on the grass.
"I saw it all. I think there's murder in every man's soul on earth. I knelt over her for a moment. It was in mine then, I knew.
"The horrid, damning, bitter truth, was plain. I thought my head would burst; blood spurted from my mouth and nose. I felt a stifling, suffocating, choking, in my throat; and, with a cry that would come out, I cursed her there and then. I know no more."
His voice got very low and quiet; and he paused a long painful pause—thinking; then he spoke.
"I think they came and found me there. I turned to look for her, but she was gone.
"The moon was still bright, and beautiful. There was no wind and everything was still. I thought I'd waked up from a dream; but, as I passed my hand across my eyes, I felt there was something on it that wasn't there before.
"It was a thin gold, wedding ring. It's there still, Harry, and she's—ah! God—"
We'd left a shovel behind at the claim that evening. I went to fetch it, and as I crossed the creek, and stumbled through the ferns, a stifled heavy sob came down to me from where the hut lay in the quiet moonlight of that Christmas Eve.