The New Arcadia/Chapter 22

CHAPTER XXII.

HOW TOM WON A RACE.

Looking at the moral aspect of the question alone, no one will deny the advantages which the possession of landed property must confer upon a man or a body of men—that it imparts a higher sense of independence and security, greater self-respect, and supplies stronger motives for industry, frugality, and forethought, than any other kind of property.—Cobden.

Two or three years had elapsed since the emigrants trooped over the hills and sought their rest in Mimosa Vale. Each anniversary of the Hegira was commemorated by two days' high festival.

The sky on the present occasion was cloudless; so rare and transparent the air, that the vines on the terraced slopes about the red-brick walls stood out as though a few hundred yards away. At six o'clock in the morning a special service was conducted in the church for those who cared to attend. The entire community was represented, largely out of respect for the settler parson. The doctor read the lessons; the Bishop of the Campaspe, who had come the night before to take part in the festival, preached.

"Two are better than one, and a threefold cord is not quickly broken," was the text from which the good man educed lessons as to the benefits arising from "brotherly union and concord." The transformation that had been effected in the lonely valley, be said, witnessed to the ability of human labour to establish itself, under free and fair conditions, without aid of the State, dole of charity, or the Church. They had learned, he pointed out, that by loving their neighbours as themselves, life became, in spiritual as in all temporal things, trebly richer.

In a loft above the wide chancel-screen the band was playing. With the surpliced choir of men and boys, some clergy and singers from town were associated. The chairs, free to all, were every one occupied. As orchestra, choir, and people joined in the Te Deum, and all faced, like one army, the figured eastern light, high above the home-carved reredos and glowing altar, the first beams of the dawning shed a soft light about the sacred building. Frank Brown felt that a better day was indeed being ushered in.

Later, all repaired, by tramway and on foot, to the lake. The common daily bathe was enlivened by swimming contests—for families, for men, and for women. The lake rang with laughter, that coursed along its surface, and set the magpies in the few gaunt gums remaining, piping a loud symphony of song.

The morning ablutions over, the prize-winners announced, all assembled in a bower of saplings and gum-boughs specially erected for the purpose. Here about one thousand five hundred persons sat down to the breakfast that a committee of the villagers dispensed. The band played; the 'Song of the Village Settlers' was sung; the doctor and the bishop delivered short addresses inseparable from all British social gatherings.

Later, a stream of visitors wound down the hill-side in four-in-hands, wagons, and Cobb & Co.'s coaches; in every and any kind of vehicle. Half the township of Gumford, miners of Tin-pot Gully, "Cockies" from the selections, "hands" from the stations, were among the visitors. The sham-fight between the yeomanry and their neighbours resulted in victory for the local organized force.

The regatta in the afternoon was the principal event of the first day. The Mimosa, of one thousand tons, yachts, barges, rafts, and pontoons were placed in requisition by onlookers, while the wattle-lined shores were crowded with eager partisans.

The "eights" did good rowing, though a crew from the Yarra carried off the prize. That for the "fours" fell to the villagers. Amusement was caused by the awkward attempts of some of these latter to manage their crafts. Cheers and laughter burst from the onlookers as here and there two village-made boots shot upward, a well-rounded back disappeared into the bottom of a boat that discharged its awkward cargo into the smiling lake.

The gig and dingey chase made an exciting finish. Travers happened to be the dingey man; a crack oarsman from the town the occupant of the gig. Breathless excitement reigned as the champion of the vale careered in his cockle-shell round his antagonist in long razorback boat. Here dingey just saved himself by backing, there by darting aside. A roar of delight rang across the water as gig, trying to seize his nimble antagonist, almost capsized. In an incautious moment dingey allowed himself to be closed in by the sides of the Mimosa

"Gig has him now!" was the cry.

"Dodge him, dingey!" echoed back others.

Catching a rope suspended from a spar, Travers flung himself clear of his boat just as gig dashed at him, and, missing his man, fell headlong into the water. Now Travers is on the spar, straddling towards the thronged bulwarks. Gig in his turn has the rope, and is raising himself, hand over hand, to the beam, in eager pursuit. Peals of laughter greet his dripping and bedraggled appearance.

"Quick, dingey, he's upon you!" is the cry.

Through the throng on deck Travers pushed his way, dodged round the companion, about the mainmast, disappeared down the forecastle, in a trice dashing up the ladder from the hold. Now gigantic gig presses him sore. For a moment dingey stands on the bulwark on the side opposite his boat. He almost brushes past Gwyneth, who leaned there. Their eyes met. So eagerly was she watching the chase, she forgot the restraint set upon her. She smiled, then recovered herself. In a moment dingey dives into the lake, coming up twenty feet from the vessel's side. Another second, and gig follows.

"Poor dingey, you're done at last!" some murmur.

Gig's head appears a few feet from the object of his pursuit. A few strokes, that evinced the superiority of gig's swimming powers, bring him close alongside.

"It's all up!" shout hundreds of voices. Again dingey disappears. Gig waits for him to come to the surface. Breathless seconds pass! A minute!—two! Gig looks anxious; dives down, down, with open, staring eyes, seeking in the dark depths of the lake the form of him who, he feared, must be unconscious. The stillness of death lay upon the steamer. As she leaned over, with her boat's spar in the water, eagerly all watched the surface from which the face of him so full of life a few moments before had disappeared. The strain became intense. Another and another dived from the vessel's side.

"Will no one save him?" almost shrieked Gwyneth, as she clutched convulsively at the arm nearest hers. Two ashen faces looked blankly on each other! Despair was written on each—Hilda's and Gwyneth's.

"Oh, my wicked letter!" thought the former.

"How could I mistrust him?" murmured the latter.

All this in two seconds.

Hark! a cheer that rends the air. The report of the gun shakes the little vessel, causing the ladies to stop their ears—after the report is over.

"Time's up! Dingey's won!" a hundred voices are shouting. A rush now to the other side of the vessel. Gig climbs disconsolately on to the spar and regains the Mimosa.

"Hang him, I thought he was drowned. I could have caught him otherwise," growled the discomfited one, as he saw the victor on the other side, paddling to his yacht midst the plaudits of the onlookers.

"No, you would not have caught him," said the Mimosa skipper. "Not a man on board could dive under the ship as he did."

Somewhat disdainfully Hilda drew her arm away and looked coldly at Gwyneth, as though she would say, "What do you mean by touching me, minion?"

Gwyneth heaved a sigh of relief and looked out across the lake, thinking—

"What business had I to smile at him and he at me! I'll be very careful not to do it again."

The varied entertainments of the evening over, the visitors repaired to tents that had been pitched for their accommodation. Tom insisted upon "camping out" for the first time.

In the dead of night groaning, as of a man dying, awoke him.

"Good God! what's that?" he cried as he clutched the arm of his sleeping companion, a grumpy old "Cockie" whose team had been beaten in the tug-of-war the day before.

"Hold to it, boys! All together now. Bend your backs," responded the sleeper.

"Wake up, man," cried Tom, "some one's dying! Hearken to the terrible moan."

The champion of the team at length leaped up, growling—

"What the deuce do you want?"

"Some one's dying, I say."

The champion listened a moment, cast a pitying, withering glance at the little man shivering in his pyjamas, and flung himself back into his nest of blankets, exclaiming—" Pity you're not dying. Don't yer know a native bear when yer hear it snore?"

"A bear!" cried Tom, seeking his revolver; "black or white? Are they large, or ferocious, hereabouts, sir?"

"By Jove, arn't they! Eat you up, soon as look at you!" This was the only information the little man could elicit.

Reconnoitring for himself, expecting to encounter some huge creature intent on a deadly embrace, Tom was disappointed to trace the gruesome sounds to a rounded mass suggestive of an overgrown 'possum.

"Is that their native bear?" exclaimed the Englishman, disdaining to fire. "Everything's disappointing in this country, even its beasts and adventures. Now I thought I'd something to write home about," and he wrapped himself in his rug, and hoped that no snakes had taken possession of it in his absence. While pondering as to the proper mode of procedure, if one discovered itself coiled coquettish on his breast, he fell asleep.

"Hullo, I say, covey, lend us your 'billy' to chop some wood to boil the 'tommy,'" Tom called to a neighbour next morning.

Novice-like, Tom was intent upon parading technical terms applying to the paraphernalia of the camp.

"What on earth do you mean?" retorted the Gumford bank-clerk, who had occupied the adjoining tent, and was also making preparations for the early morning meal.

"I was inclined to forget which was which—'billy' or 'tommy,'" explained the Englishman; "but I remember that 'billy' is short for 'bill-hook'—the affair the fellows top the shrubs with at home. So 'tommy' must be t'other thing—the can or pot you boil your tea in. This billy's mighty blunt," he added critically, rubbing the rough edge of the weapon.

"Not the only city-tool that's taken that way," replied the rude bank-clerk.

All who could secure steed or vehicle rollicked off to witness the coursing-match. Abbott-buggies laden with ladies, dashing through timber, over fallen logs a foot high, across trackless creeks, galloping over open plains, threading in and out thick trees of the ranges, astonished the city men who had never before seen a "throw off" in the bush.

The "horse races" constituted the great event of the afternoon. Every "Cockie" for miles round had brought the pony that was "sure to win." The squatter sent his son with "the half-brother to 'Calyx,'" who won the Cup five years before.

"Races are right," decided the doctor, "bar three things—'betting,' 'beer,' and 'cruelty to beasts.' We shall wind up with a scamper or two for the fun of the thing—to prove our horse-flesh and our men. But he who bets, whoever he be, walks off the course."

Young "Cocksure," nephew of a neighbouring squatter, deemed this "all blow," as he publicly termed it, and offered "two to one on Travers' 'Temeraire.'"

True to his word, the host, approaching the young spruce, bid him "Good-bye," and putting arm in his escorted him off the course. None essayed "odds" after that.

"You spoil your sport, as you do your work, in town," explained the doctor to some friends. "We are going to have both pure and simple here. English folk take pleasures sadly, their labour moodily, owing partly to the greed that—in some form of gambling or exploiting— finds its way to every social sphere. I'll have none of it here. What say you. Brown?"

"That I am going to win the 'Wattle Blossom'—the prize of the day," was the reply. Arrayed in red flannelette and white pants, the village parson was leading his light-limbed steed by the rein, flung carelessly over his arm.

"Looks well, but not very dignified, in that get-up," objected the mining manager of the "Golden Stream," who held forth at the chapel on Sundays.

"Dash dignity!" retorted the doctor, energetically. "Your churches are dying of it—or were doing so, until such as my friend Brown arose. Because he identifies himself with the lawful pursuits' and pastimes of his people, in no namby-pamby, patronizing way; because he lives their life right down amongst them—and a higher one all the while, never forgetting it, though he does not always speak of it—he holds these people by the heart-strings. Brimful of life—animal spirits, intellectual force and spiritual life, as you call it—he is, literally, the father of his flock."

"I won't have this, Tom," Frank Brown was saying. "You know you couldn't sit your horse once round."

"I'm going to ride, and ride to win, nevertheless," persisted the little man, as he scraped some mud from the sides of a huge beast he was leading.

"Why, your mount's been rolling, and never even been groomed since," remonstrated Frank.

"You want me to scratch my horse to give you a show," retorted Tom. "I won't do it! That's plain. I'm going to show you all how to win, hands down."

Unmercifully Tom had been chaffed concerning his horsemanship. He rather liked the joke, and loved to exaggerate his awkwardness just, as he termed it, "for the fun of the thing."

So cleverly did he mingle affectation of innocence with evidence of shrewdness, that it was difficult to discover where his knowledge ended and ignorance began.

"Let those laugh who win. I'll whip you all tomorrow," he had ominously declared.

Tom and O'Lochlan had put their heads together.

"I have a horse," said Larry, "that'll carry you first past the winning-post, if only you can stick to him."

"I'll do that, never fear," Tom assured him, "if they won't bump against me."

"That they'll do, right enough," replied Larry, laughing.

"I do not mind, O'Lochlan, if I get a good grip of the pummel. The man should be canonized who invented pummels. They are so convenient when you feel you're rolling off—e. g. when the brute stops suddenly—that's always awkward, isn't it?—and you lie on his neck; or when he shies at a rustling leaf."

"Well, you hold on by your eyebrow, and you'll finish right. The old stager knows his way about, and will jockey himself better than the 'Cookies' can their own horses."

Purposely Larry sent the old blood across with the marks of a roll in the half-dried dam still fresh upon him.

The appearance of Tom upon his mud-caked "Leviathan" was the signal for shouts of derisive laughter. One whispered that Lord, a moment before, had been bribing the stable-boy to "give him a leg up."

"What shall I do," he was reported to have said, "if I come off in the race? I'll never get on again, myself, even if I'm whole lengths ahead, as I shall be. I suppose you couldn't follow us, sonny, just to be handy to pop me on again, in case I find myself on the ground?"

"Whiff!" went the pistol. Off the strange field started. Travers on "Temeraire," Brown on "the Rector," Tom astride "Leviathan," the village carrier on a mount borrowed from the local storekeeper, shearers on their Rosinantes—twenty, of all sizes, styles, and strides—jockeys high in stirrup, arching over neck, or leaning back to save their steed—all in a ruck. Now "Temeraire" draws out, Gumford storekeeper's nag presses him hard; "the Rector" creeps steadily to the fore.

Last time round; Storekeeper's nag well beat; "Temeraire" and "Rector" neck to neck.

"Two to one on 'Rector'!" incautiously cries one, of habit taught. All were too intent to heed.

"Well ridden, Parson! 'Rector''s got it!" was the cry. Turning towards "the straight," Frank Brown had clearly secured the inside running.

"Bravo, 'Rector'! 'Temeraire''s out of it."

Where all the while is "Leviathan," with his confident jockey? Forging along, with even steady pace. Others may shoot forward, others drop behind, his level stride neither quickens nor slackens. Nay, it is quickening now! Slowly from out the field he draws. The clay brushed by living curry-combs from his shining sides, the jockey clinging manfully with both hands to the friendly pummel, the reins fluttering like ribbons in the breeze.

Now the self-riding steed is riding past Storekeeper's nag. Then drawing slowly ahead of brave "Temeraire," up to "the Rector," who is whipping hard; head to flank—to shoulder—they ride.

Neck to neck, they flash up "the straight," Frank riding as a jockey bred; Tom bundled up like a bicycle-rider, all elbows and legs! One second more! Old "Leviathan's" great eye glances round at his one competitor. The huge beast puts forth, for one last moment, his full powers. In a few strides Tom with his pummel shoots past the post, ere "Rector's" nose has come into line with it! The cheers that greeted the winner might have been heard at Gumford.

While other competitors were struggling to rein in their steeds, still dashing onward, "Leviathan," a few yards from the winning-post, duly comes to a standstill, almost throwing Tom across his neck. Jauntily but stiffly, the townsman dismounted, on the wrong side, descending like a miner down a ladder, and dropping from a little height on to the ground. Round the course the prize-rider was carried, bowing and grimacing to the applauding multitude.

"Didn't I tell you I'd beat the field?" he called to Travers and Frank, as they came to wring the victor's hands.

"You stuck on gamely," they replied, "especially in that scramble round the far turn. I thought you'd come off."

"Couldn't if I'd tried," replied Tom, wagging his head. "There wasn't room to fall."

"It's a good job you didn't try," they answered.

"A hundred guineas for the veteran, Larry," said Travers, coming up to where O'Lochlan stood fondling the sagacious creature, of whose coat scarcely a hair was turned.

"Not a thousand," was the reply. "Not another horse in the country could ride itself like that to win."

"I beg your pardon," demurred Tom, "I rode the race. And won it too!"