ON TO BOOROOLOOLA. WE MEET MANY DOGS AND A FRIENDLY CHINAMAN WHO DISCOURSES ON THE GOVERNMENT OF THE NORTHERN TERRITORY. THE DEATH OF WOWSER IN ROUGH COUNTRY ; HIS FUNERAL AND OUR FIRST MEETING WITH A BLACK FELLOW TAKE THE STORY TO THE SUBURBS OF
WE were reminded that we were coming to Boorooloola long before we arrived there. All resident white men's eyes-about a dozen of them altogether -in the country-side for three hundred miles around were centred upon that fair city. And the reason was that a " mulga wire " had gone forth that a boat was due there on June 26th.
How the country-side had got the idea, no man could know.
It had just been born somehow, and every blackfellow was telling every other blackfellow as far as smoke fires could be seen, with the result that all the stations were getting their pack-horses ready to collect their stores, and all the swagmen who
ordinarily would have stuck to the inland route were beginning to make their way Over the ranges in the hope of getting a few pounds of free rations and, perhaps, a ride on a ration dray.
The only man who did not seem excited about it
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was mine host of the Boorooloola hotel, who was a round little man with a round little beard, answering cheerily to the name of Hogan. He, being a capitalist, was beyond such mundane things as communications, and when we met him he was journeying in a two-horse buggy with ample reserves of horses to the Rankine races of which we had heard so much, four hundred miles away-a mere matter of fourteen days' drive there and the same back.
Frankly, he said, he did not believe there was any boat coming, but as the poor devils round about were mainly living on Hope, what could be more cruel than to deprive them of their diet? They had had no flour for over two months, and he intended to bring back a bag if he could get it. If he could have made his motor car work he would have long ago led an expedition to seek some out and refill his bins and bar, but all attempts to move his obstinate conveyance, which he had received a few months previously by boat from Darwin, had failed signally. The whole town had pushed it and cranked it, and eventually they had had a muster of the local blacks who had run naked behind it like a swarm of bees urging it through Boorooloola, with shouts of wild laughter, what time its cursing driver at the wheel tried in very profane vain to " get the engine to gee."
" Not a kick in her," he said, describing the incident. " I reckon the man who sold her to me was a bit of a fraud. find, she was not old-only nine years or something, and a good make, too, I'm told, one of these Fords."
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He said this very solemnly as if he was giving us sound information.
" Have you tried fencing wire on her? " asked Francis.
Her owner expectorated deftly at a bush seven feet away, and said that he had tried every bloody thing there was except an axe.
" Give me 'orses," said his buggy driver, " if nothing else won't move them, you can always light a fire under 'em. I hadda a 'orse once .... "
We fled incontinently. Francis and I both knew that story about the horse and the fire.
A few miles farther on we came to a river, bowered in tropic unease. It takes more than mere heat to make a tropic atmosphere. There is an unexplainable air of unsleeping sloth about all timber lands north of the twentieth parallel, of bi-dimen-
sional vagueness in which death and life, noise and silence seem to be co-existent ; in which every tree seems dowered with the power of watching, so that you have the sensation of being for ever under observation by restless and uncomfortable nature.
In the South, this river which we had reached, at its then temperature, would have been a refreshing spot, but here, again, heat and coolness seemed to live on the same plane. In Southern Australia, the river bed would have been full of water. Here
in a region with a greater rainfall, it was almost empty. Tall trees, full of sinister sounding crows and quarrelling galahs, overhung its banks.
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Down the centre of its bed a limpid ribbon of water tinkled over golden sand, where, very evidently, a few months before there had been a roaring stream rushing over the banks sixty feet above.
A dead bullock, bloated and unsavoury, lay in the middle of the tinkling stream, mustering place of a squawking mass of unpleasant feathered carrion. The sand round about was dry and loose, so that it flowed into your shoes.
We left the car and wallowed through it on to the bank beyond. Here was a well-treed plain and civilisation, somewhat qualified ; a fence, broken down; what seemed like a thousand angry dogs. Here were clothes fluttering upon a real clothes-
line; crows wheeling warily about a butcher's gallows. Here, in a word, was McArthur station. From this distance, it appeared to be inhabited only by birds and dogs---bull terriers and hybrids, all yelling like the wolves in " Dracula." At nearer
earshot, one mentally added black gins, who scurried about squealing in their loud, high-pitched voices.
Closer still, the station revealed itself as an old, iron-roofed building, past its best days, with all its floorboards loose and furnished meanly with an undraped iron bed of enormous dimensions and some other rickety impedimenta.
A featherless parrot, in a great cage, stood in the yard, adding his screech to the pandemonium raised by the gins and the dogs. A colony of blacks and half-castes--small boys as white as any Britisher, yet, alas, tainted, as their curious black opal eyes showed-mixtures of white and black and yellow,
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and brindle, all surrounded by a buzzing congregation of flies, and all, themselves, buzzing with excitement, occupied the woodheap in the sun.
Beyond them was a skillion kitchen from the door of which there presently issued a sedate Oriental presence, whose authority made itself felt on the moment. Half-castes and flies alike receded before him. His broad smile of welcome seemed to
embrace the whole landscape.
" Hullo, you Frank," he shouted, recognising Francis, " what name that one bullocky foot? He good fella, eh ? My word ! "
He choked with his own excitement. It transpired that when Francis had gone to Boorooloola in his car a year or two before, his lubricant had become exhausted, and he had been reduced to using neatsfoot oil, which had been the gift of his Chinese friend (Grand High Chef of the McArthur and now its Acting Manager).
Francis assured him that it had carried him safely to civilisation, and the Chinaman was so delighted that he held his paunch and fairly rocked with delight.
" My word, he good fella ; he plenty good fella," he gurgled, amid murmurs of applause from the woodheap, protests from the scattering flies whom the quakings of his mirth drove from his shoulders, and surly growls from the dogs under the house.
" Me savee moto' ca'," he chuckled, " me savee allabout."
Then he invited us into the kitchen to the customary Bush meal, but with careful qualifications.He had, he said, plenty of tea and sugar and jam.
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But bread !-there was no bread, no flour, though he expected some from Tanumbirini, whither the " Boss " had sent an emissary, in a few days. (Tanumbirini was about 200 miles away by the nearest road.)
And, of course, the boat was coming in.
At least, it might ; one never knew. It had been coming so often, but never arrived.
As he talked about the boat his cheerfulness gave way to rage, and his indignation eventually became so deep that he had to lapse into Chinese pidgin to express it and the views which it compassed about the White Australia policy and the Government.
Who, he asked, as he stood, enwrapped in his big white apron against a shimmering wall of heat haze seen through the door behind him, had made the Northern Territory? Who had built its railway and its few roads and its stone houses in Darwin? Who had mined its gold and pioneered its tracks ?
Why, the Chinaman.
And now the Government had cast the Chinaman out, what had happened? Desolation. Look at the ruin! Look at the emptiness; look at the starvation !
What kind of Government was this ? he demanded.
And we, to humour him, sympathised with him so urgently-you could not help it, his distress was so comical--that he insisted on our having some stale bread and jam with our tea, and I am afraid that he went without most of his own meal in
consequence as, leaning against a post for support, he grew warmer and warmer on his subject.
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" Maskee," I said to him, " byme-bye Government ee come, ee makee look-see all about this side. Plesently lailway ee come, plentee piecee town, plentee boss, plentee missis, plentee piecee eblyting."
" What you tink ? " shouted our friend. " Befotime he capman (Government) he good piecee man ; now ee la-li-loong (robber). Plentee muchee talk! Oh yes-s! suppose you talkee: 'Now you makee something,' he talkee: 'No can do.' What you
tink ? "
Then as if letting us into a great secret :
" I tink this capman ee bin dielo--ee bin go finisee altogether, now.
" No mo' capman," he mourned sarcastically.
All of which, being interpreted, meant that once upon a time the Government was a Government to be respected, but that now it appeared to have given up the ghost altogether-a presumption in which he might have been seriously justified in the
light of our experience during a great part of our remoter journeyings.
Later he, with all his dogs barking savagely in the rear, accompanied us through an admiring procession of lubras to the car and inspected Wowser, the bull pup.
" He all same flawg (frog)," was his succinct verdict on that ill-fated youngster, and when I gave him the remains of a tin of Murray's smoking mixture-last relic of my sojourn in H.M.S. Hood's ward-room-he said, after carefully regarding the
long, curly cut of the leaf :
" My word! I tink that one allee same snake,"
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and he added, after inhaling the aroma from the tin :
"I tink he cheeky (poisonous) beggar, too." But he seemed none the less very glad to get it and we drove off to his cheery " So long" and pursued by the yelping station pack, on our last forty-mile stage to Boorooloola.
It was certainly a blazing and unlucky day. The country became rougher and rougher, with long-grass covered tracks, boulder-strewn " jump downs " and an increasing thickness of timber. The sun seemed to be shining through a thousand
magnifying glasses each focussed on a different point We went on, nevertheless, steadily, climbing down the rocky eminences warily. At two o'clock, our bull pup fell off the car, unnoticed, and was left behind. I went after him expecting a long walk,
but after going a few hundred yards, I found him panting along, very tired and contrite. I brought him back and tied him firmly to the luggage and we made another start.
The roadway now alternated in patches of deep, cloying sand and ragged, washed-out surfaces scarred with long, deep gullies and occasional plum pudding surfaces full of stones the size of a cannonball.
The Engineer was on driving shift with Francis beside him in command of the car, while I stood on the luggage behind navigating among the many paths which opened up. Presently the tracks seemed to end altogether, except for the gullies.
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" Go through there," said Francis, " and keep on in a straight line till I give you the signal. Keep your head down."
" But how do I get her round those little trees ? " asked the Engineer. " She's not a blooming caterpillar."
" You don't go round anything any more," said Francis. " You've got to make up your mind to go through it."
But it was several minutes before we could persuade the Engineer that this was in earnest.
It was our first real touch of driving excitement. The timber was small and brittle, but sometimes tenacious of the soil. The way became more and more paved with rocks and sand. The heat became more and more oppressive and insistent.
Yet we were too busy to mind it. The Engineer, driving, Francis yelling directions in his ear, certainly was.
I, close behind on the eminence, one eye on the sun for general direction, tapped on Francis's shoulder the approach of real danger.
" Hit that one "--tap-tap-tap-" washout ahead "-" now to your left "-" mind the stump " -" STOP."
I stood, crouched, or fell flat on the load as occasion demanded, with the devil looking after me.
At three o'clock, pausing for breath in an open stretch, I missed the bull pup again. He was found hanging over the back of the car, dead as a stone, on the end of his leash. It was our first tragedy, and Francis, who loves dogs a good deal better than
he loves men, seemed very near weeping.
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Presently we reached a long, still water-hole, in the old days the scene of many adventurous campings and occasionally a little war and death. The sun still blazed and the crows, scenting a meal, came low in the trees cawing hungrily, while we
buried poor little Wowser and covered him with logs to prevent the dingoes from reaching him.
Francis took no part in the funeral. He sat at a distance, growling savagely, and picking off every crow which ventured within gunshot with his light rifle. He did not make a pretty sight sitting there in the clearing with dead crows all about him, and I was glad to move on, though it meant more scrub breaking and involved, later, the smashing of our largest ration case. Darkness fell as we came to a clear road and plunged into a sand creek up to our hubs.
" Lu I Lu I Lu I " sang a voice in the distance.
" Blackfellows," said Francis and I together, and answered :
" Lu I Ululu I Lu-Lu I "
I have often wondered whether that cry came down through Asia with the Romans to be passed to the Indies and find an echo in the South, or whether it was the universal human war cry and hunting cry, peer with such primal words common to almost all humanity as " Papa " and " Mamma."
Presently the hail was succeeded by its owner. He looked like a gnome in the glare of our motor lights. He had a long beard and no clothes whatever on his spindly form, but he was a mighty and a sprightly worker. I immediately christened him
" Ruebezahl " after the dwarf of the Riesengebirge.
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After he had helped us to extricate the car, I invited him to come to our camp, which he did after putting on what were apparently his only clothes, a combination of garments which made him, squatting in the fire light, more like a good tempered gnome than ever.
We asked him if he had known what the motor- car was when he saw it, and he replied that he saveed it good fella; that it was " all same boggy belong Hogan." (Hogan, you will remember, was the hotel keeper at Boorooloola.)
We gave him a piece of bread and a huge piece of beef together with tea in a jam tin and, in exchange, sitting at a respectful distance, he told us his life story, the central event of which appeared to have been a journey with drovers to Charleville, in Southern Queensland--a " beeg---beeg-beeg-fella station near Sini (Sydney)," he told us, as he went on to describe its wonders. (Its population is under a thousand, and it is well immured in the west.)
A gentle, lovable chap this black fellow. We noticed that he put all we gave him of that tremendous luxury, bread, behind him, pulling it out every now and then to look longingly at it as if it were some treasure, and returning it again to hiding. I asked him whom he was saving it for, and it appeared that his wife and father and uncle were to share it-those proud relatives, by the
way, being just outside in the darkness, in the gallery as it were, unseen, but enjoying the social
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elevation of their bread-winner to our company and betraying their excited presence every now and then by squeaks of wonder.
There are in the world no peoples so Christ-like as the Australian blackfellows in their relations with their weaker dependents. The best is always kept for the old with a regularity none the less touching because it is rigidly enjoined by the laws
of the tribes. Temptation must be very great sometimes in times of hunger or cold.
I put it out of the way of our visitor by giving him tea and sugar and a loaf for the absent ones, and he justified his native upbringing by coming courteously to the camp next morning with an armful of wood, and by needlessly running behind the car
for fifty yards, giving it a preliminary and entirely futile push to help it on its way.
At breakfast, after a long and refreshing sleep, we noticed that the Engineer had been indulging in an unjustifiable course of hygiene and personal decoration.
"What's up? Are you thinking of getting married? " I asked.
" Oh, just tidied up a bit before we get into town," he replied off-handedly, looking with innocent disgust at our Bush untidiness.
And he wondered why we both laughed.
BOOROOLOOLA THE "CITY WITH THE OLDEST AVERAGE INHABITANTS IN THE WORLD " GREETS US. WE MEET AN EXPLORER, REPLENISH THE FLOUR SUPPLY AND PREPARE (WITH THE AID OF A FAITHFUL BLACK SERVANT) FOR AN EXPEDITION DOWN THE MACARTHUR RIVER.
BOOROOLOOLA explained for itself why we had smiled when the Engineer put on his clean collar to enter it.
There it was, standing on the bank of the McArthur River, spacious, if nothing else, rising coyly out of fields of blady grass which seemed almost to submerge it. Every building was of galvanised iron and situated in a vast open space. The monoto-
nously blue police station lay to the left, distinguished by its huge wood-heap, the hallmark of all police stations in the Never Never, since, whatever the state of the population, the sergeant always sees that there is sufficient crime to ensure the baking of his bread throughout the wet season. (That, by the way, is far from difficult).
Further away, lay the equally blue and equally corrugated McArthur Institute (grandiloquent in name, but in actuality only the place where the constable slept) winking across a vast maidan, and a store on high legs and a tumbledown hotel three parts hidden by mango trees. The first-word which occurred to one's mind on seeing Boorooloola was " Death." It looked utterly
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at an end. Nobody moved except for the inevitable crow strutting with a lordly gait across the open space between the store and the police quarters. The tins in the store window were obviously empty and their owner, careless who knew it, had allowed
them to fall over at all sorts of angles. Two or three gold diggers' dishes and a rusty pick or two formed a frame for intricate and ancient spider web colonies.
The very shade from this building thrown by a bluish, molten sun seemed static. Nothing lived or moved but the crow paddling along in the pools of water mirage which the heat haze had painted on the clearing.
The hotel looked deserted, too. Its shingle hung anglewise, by a nail. A long line of proprietors had left their names to appear through the thin paint in which those of their successors were limned. Thus one could gaze into the deep water of McArthur history, back to the days when this was on the Old Gold Track, and when the country-side rang with romance and murder and forty bullock bells sometimes tonked by the river in the twilight.
It was oppressive, the Boorooloola atmosphere.
We coo=eed. There was no answering call, and we felt almost humorously relieved when a surprised-looking old black fellow, accompanied by a person who was undoubtedly a lady, since she was so garbed that there could be no mistake about her sex, came sedately round a corner.
The old gentleman had a reverend beard and was wearing a collarless blue working shirt reaching slightly below a lean waist line. He was dragging
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a spear in his toes, presumably for amusement, and when he beheld us he sat down in the middle of the street and put on his trousers which he had been carrying tied round his neck. His poor lady was unable to put anything more on, because she hadn't
anything to wear, but she was not embarrassed.
A moment later the township woke to life. In the distance, a large and hasty procession of native prisoners, naked save for a tassel hung round the waist and an imposing assortment of chains, hove in sight, and, through a dilapidated gate in the sepulchre which the mango trees seemed to be forming for the hostel, an old man, who must have been a giant in his time, came out leaning on a stick and welcomed us. His name, known through Queensland, was Tom Lynott, who, having helped to found several towns, now prosperous to the tune of millions of pounds accrued from wool, was here, poverty stricken and worn out, waiting for his end which came the year after we were in Boorooloola.
He led us into a sort of arbour behind the main building, where mango leaves strewed the floor and the atmosphere was even more redolent of rotting vegetation and timber than the outer air. One could smell the mould all the time and through the open doors of a long row of rooms were visible broken and tottering furniture, legless chairs, overturned beds and scattered odds and ends of crockery and time-wrecked pictures all too plainly yielding to the ravages of neglect and years.
Round a table, four men were seated in the relaxed attitude of very old age, all but one leaning on sticks, with their beards almost touching the
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boards. They preserved a curious, unnatural listlessness of mien which defeated all their attempts to
look cheerful and welcoming. From the brightness of the yard outside the noise of a man engaged in
a profane pursuit of something and the delighted squealing of a fat black piccaninny entered.
One felt curiously ill at ease in this atmosphere. Little was said. These old men, who had huddled themselves together to die in this out of the way spot, behaved as if they had parted with the great world, and its messengers were unpleasant reminders of a more expansive past.
Finally, one of them asked whether we had any flour. That broke the ice, and opened the floodgates of a torrent of wistful query.
Did we know anything of the boat which had been due to-day and for which they had been waiting for eight months ? Did we know how they were treated by the Government ? Were we aware that for two months they had not tasted bread; that water-lily roots and some tapioca which they were saving in case of illness during the fever month were their only meal diet ?
When they spoke of bread their old eyes glittered and their knuckles whitened. The word seemed to have a fascination for them. Anyone who has gone without accustomed meal for even a few days will know why. There is no hunger more weakening or torturing than the gnawing of a desire for grain food.
Every now and then as we talked a dog would chase a chicken through the arbour, and the fat black baby whom we had heard squealing outside, would come bouncing in like a rubber ball, making
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the grim expressions leave the faces of her old companions, who seemed to be all bent upon spoiling her.
A shadow fell in the doorway and a new and rather terrifying figure added itself to the group. Its long whipcord frame had to bend to clear the door sill. Its swarthy countenance, half covered by a beard, was aquiline and handsome and of a youthful quality, strange in the senility of that place. The new-comer held out an arm, which seemed fashioned of iron, from which the blood dripped on the earthen floor, but nobody noticed this for somebody said excitedly as this young-old man came in :
" Hey, Scrutton, they have some flour."
And that was how we came to meet the last survivor of the famous Jardine expedition to Cape York in 1865, probably the greatest pioneering feat in Australian history, as those who have been along its route, even on the tracks of today, will admit.
Mr. Scrutton was only ninety-three and he apologised for the state of his arm, which he said he had just hurt through falling on a stone while chasing a chicken. It was the sort of wound that would have put a young man's arm in a sling, but his eagerness about the flour transcended his pain and when I went out and brought in four pounds of it-four whole pounds, they said-everybody came out to the kitchen to see that it was real, and a young fellow of sixty-two or so, the " boy " of the
settlement, who had just come in from the store, was despatched to invite the whole township to a feast of johnny cake.
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It was, indeed, a gala day and, when we added to other luxury a real newspaper only a month old, comfort could do no more. They divided it into sheets and (old Mr. Scrutton without his glasses) began to while away the time before lunch.
Francis and I set about finding a camping place and, on our way, went to the police station, where we discovered the police sergeant immaculate and busy. He had seen our white helmets and had hoped that we were the Police Commissioner, who had been expected to arrive " any time these three months, now." The sergeant cheerfully opined that the Commissioner would turn up some day, but hoped it would be soon because the police were no better off for rations than the populace; worse, indeed, because they had no tobacco. How (asked the sergeant) could one expect a native witness to give evidence without first being encouraged with this necessary of life? Without tobacco, the whole machinery of criminal justice was paralysed.
We gave him some rice and he turned out his chain gang to smooth our path across a rocky creek.
The chain gang proved a happy-looking lot. Their bonds, secured at neck and ankle by huge padlocks, would have made the gentle heart of the League of Nations Administrator in New Guinea, where the nigger is being taught to wear flowers in
his hair and say his alphabet, turn pale ; but they seemed to regard them with pride as decorations.
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They included an arch-murderer who wore the only hat of the party, a distinction thrust upon him so that he might be the more quickly recognised. He was being held for trial on a charge of destroying his lady love and seemed to be inordinately proud of his prowess as a wife despatcher.
I asked him whether it was true that he had polished off the good woman and it is only fair to say, in the light of his answer, that later on when he was taken 700 miles to Darwin, the legal evidence against him proved insufficient to convict.
" Yowai, boss," he said in answer to my tactless question, with something of the air ot a Boy Scout relating the one good deed of a particularly red-letter day, " Yowai, me bin killem that one. Me bin killem dead fellow altogether. Me bin killem
two other fella."
Then in a voice strained with anxiety he asked hoarsely :
" You gottem baccy, boss ? "
We set up camp under a shady tree and held a council of war, which decided that we should go into laager while we carried out a short expedition down the McArthur River, the sergeant, with the backing of the townsmen, having promised us a boat.
Began a busy afternoon-rifles to be prepared; swags to be cut down to a minimum ; provender to be carefully weighed out and packed.
A first, and necessary, precaution was to engage black labour, a scarce commodity since the local tribes were absent on their annual " walkabout "
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holding their corroborees and initiating their young men, but we were fortunate in securing the services of one Maran Jack who had been prevented, it appeared, from going with the tribes through an immense prosperity and his Christian principles. His faith denied him a part in tribal ritual and his prosperity came from the fact that his wife was working for the Chinese gardener, who, presumably, was providing very well for him, since he had a sleek appearance and a carefree look.
We discovered him walking jovially down the street, grinning under his extraordinary moustache and arrayed in the almost deceased remnant of some patron's dungarees. Much to the amusement of the Engineer, who was having his first experience
of the native, Francis and I hailed him with one voice and put him through an ironic catechism as to his morals, manners and standing in the community.
He turned round gently when we shouted at him. He grinned. His face seemed to split completely in half with such an expression of innocent and trusting good humour that we were immediately conquered.
" Hey," I cried, " suppose you big fellow boss boy along me, you like, eh ? "
Immediately jacky split his face in half again and out of the convulsion came the cheerful words :
" Yowai, boss, me good fellow boss boy along you."
The questioning proceeded in hilarious vein. Why did he wear trousers ? Because he was a good fellow Christian, my word, brought up for " one month-that long time- " in a Mission Station. I examined him on the tenets of Christianity and he
summarised them promptly as :
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" You know, boss, no more knowl (growl), no more swear, no more smokem baccy, drinkem tea, eatem shucker (sugar) "-an exposition which did great credit to the expertness of some harassed missionary in putting the fear of a Divine Providence between his convert and his pantry.
He admitted the possession of a shirt, but his wife was wearing it. He had been married " good fellow " (oh, useful phrase !) properly at the Mission and was very proud of her. He had two children. He knew that if he stole tea or sugar we would, by the living snakes and great jumping jehoshaphat, seize him by the weasand and scatter his tangled remains on the waters of the McArthur for alligator bait.
Apart from that, he could make fires, drink tea, sail a boat and, best of all, command abundant labour.
As a final query, I asked him if he had ever heard of King George and he promptly acknowledged his acquaintanceship with His Majesty, whom he opined to be the sergeant of police at a place called " Melmun " (Melbourne), who every now and then served out blankets to deserving blackfellows.
We sent him to collect a labour gang to cache the car and he went hot foot, presently returning with what appeared to be the whole of the native population of the Northern Territory over seventy years of age. He had his four grandfathers (so he proudly
said), one uncle, three brothers of his wife and several disreputable and unsavoury people with long beards and gentle smiles whom he introduced with a show of pride as " bee-ruther (brother) belong me."
They began proceedings by having lunch. It was
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our lunch and it would be unfair to say that they did not do full justice to it. Indeed, they did not stop until I became rude. In our innocence we then expected them to begin work, and Francis had particular faith in the thews and muscles of one dignified old " flour bag fella " (old gentleman with white hair and beard) who had shown a sprightly wit and been an energetic consumer during the meal.
But so soon as the repast was finished everyone but Jacky remembered that he had left his pipe at home, or recollected his sore leg, or went to look at the river, or retired to rest under a tree.
We chased them out of the camp with so profane a vigour that none of them dared to return except the " flour bag fella " who had disappointed Francis, and who so reaped the reward of his indiscretion that he was compelled to race howling like a banshee across the landscape with Francis and the camp tomahawk only five yards in the rear.
We never saw any of Jacky Maran's male relatives any more, but he himself remained, a willing servitor, with an appetite and a power of abdominal distention under the influence of food almost uncanny. He could eat any quantity of anything whatever,
but we certainly did not grudge him the right.
He needed no waking in the morning. His " billycan jump up " (the pot is boiling, i.e. the water is bubbling up) inconveniently preceded the dawn. He did whatever was given him to do with willingness and merriment. He revelled in praise and now and then would stop in his work to ask for a little testimonial : " Me plenty big mob good fella boss boy, eh,
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boss? " he would laugh. " Me savee cookem tea, makem fire. Me savee allabout, eh, boss ? "
And he would roar with pleasure at my " Yowai ; you good fella altogether."
There was nothing at which he could not laugh. The front stalls of vaudeville never provided a more hearty and constant mirth, but nevertheless he was the only person who wept, as he did unashamedly, when we left Boorooloola. He brought all his
female relatives to see us off and collect the debris and leavings of the camp, and he spent a chesty morning strutting about with a new blue handkerchief (with pink spots) conspicuously round his neck, giving me plenty of chances to say to him, for the
benefit of his womenfolk: " My word, you savee big mob too much. You good fella boss boy."
Many a night will those sentences be repeated around the camp fires of Boorooloola and long will they be handed down to the coming generations of the Jacky family as evidence of his greatness.
Some people will tell you that the Australian blackfellow is a stupid and ungrateful person, only to be ruled with kicks and curses. Myself, born among them, I have always found them to be, wild or tame, a gentle, courteous race, more anxious to
please than island natives and just as light-hearted as any coloured man the world over.
Boorooloola brought out its only half-bottle of rum to drink our health when we left. It sent us off with eager adjurations to " give hell to that blanky Government in Melbourne."
The last words we heard as we drove away included " boat " and " flour."
WE TRAVEL DOWN THE RIVER MCARTHUR IN BOOROOLOOLA'S ONLY BOAT; MEET AN OLD-TIME VOYAGER; LOSE MUCH SLEEP THROUGH ALARMS, AND MAKE A LAND JOURNEY THROUGH THE LONG GRASS.
BACK in Boorooloola after a four days' sojourn down the River McArthur, we felt not the least bit sorry. Our journey had been anything but comfortable, for, though the fair city of the North had fully carried out the promise which it made to provide us with a boat, the discussion of that coracle needs to be qualified by the remark that there are boats and boats.
The last on which I had travelled was a neat, brass-funnelled picket boat, commanded by a trim midshipman, which had brought me off the Hood two months before.
This boat was not like that. It was a plebeian vessel, ancient, dirty, apparently dug up, out of idle curiosity and a reverence for antiquity, from the muddy river-bed by the local justice, and redolent of well-greased blackfellow and bad fish. Its seams
were cracked ; its hull had an uncertain twist ; its rudder was a broken oar; it leaked like a fishing net ; it drew too much water to be rowed over the river bars and it was so small and precarious that
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when three passengers, one black boy and their scanty dunnage had been loaded aboard, it was dangerously overfreighted and we gladly trespassed on the kind offer of a lugger master, who was going down stream in a dinghy, to be our cargo carrier.
That arranged, and leaving the Scarler Runner tarpaulined over under a spreading emu apple tree in the custody of the justice, who lived in a tin humpy hard by, we set off with the ambitious intention of sailing twenty-five miles down the stream under about three yards of canvas, visiting the lugger Iolanthe, which was lying there, to see some evidences of a wreck which she had aboard, and finding a big blacks' camp, which was said to be temporarily located at a place called Blackfellows'
There were only three things wrong with this easy-going programme. Firstly, the tide was against us. Secondly, there was little or no wind with which to sail. Thirdly, so soon as we put our tiny mast in place the hull strain so opened the planks that
the water rushed terrifyingly aboard. There was another element, also, which we had not counted on.
The McArthur River is a delusively broad stream ; but it is also delusively shallow, being set across with many bars and sandbanks in unexpected places, so that every mile or two, with our draught of fully two feet, we found it necessary for somebody to get off and push. As captain, this labour was naturally enough thrown upon me and I enjoyed it immensely ;
partly, because of the sliminess of the foothold, which frequently resulted in my having involuntary
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baths taken with celerity; partly, because it was thoroughly hard work ; and partly, because Jacky Maran, our boss boy, regularly oozed encouragement in the shape of interesting tales about the habits of the McArthur River alligator and his penchant for lying in shallows in the hope that cattle might cross. For some reason, Francis seemed to think that this was humorous and never failed to cap his stories.
However, alligators were put out of our minds at lunch-time by access to deeper water and the arrival of Captain Harney of the Iolanthe with the tail end of our luggage. The mariner was dressed in his own pocket handkerchief and his whiskers. He had a Government survey cadet, returning to Vanderlin Island, and a black boy with him, and he greeted me with a ceremonious bow and asked me if I thought they would let him walk down Pitt Street, Sydney, in his present garb.
I told him that I would telegraph the Lord Mayor about it but that I thought he would be sent to Gladesville (anglice, Bedlam) if he tried it.
" When I was at this here war," he said gravely in his quiet voice, " I see a fellow buying a ticket at the Gare du Nord in less than I've got on. But he was a Moroccan or something and he had a knife about him nearly a yard long. Perhaps he was a Chow, but anyway he caught the train in spite of half the Johnny Darms of Paris moossooing around him."
Then he winked at the blackboy and opened, with his teeth, a tin of sardines, which he offered us with another graceful obeisance, and after that everybody felt at his ease, so that the conversation pottered
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round the world and touched such subjects of human interest as dugong fishing, the fight at Pozieres, the Government (of course !), the novels of Dumas, the conjurer at Port Said, and a recent tribal war on an outlandish Carpentaria Island which our visitor had umpired.
Thoroughly refreshed, we set out on the second stage of the voyage and on the Captain's invitation to " have a bit of Oxford and Cambridge " we began to race. In our boat the outcome of this sporting venture was regarded in a spirit of the deepest possible pessimism. The Engineer was half asleep ; Francis had incipient fever. But Jacky Maran was a cheerful soul. He and I pulled uneven oars, but that mattered nothing to him. Neither did time nor anything else. The spectacle of the writhing
muscles of Captain Harney, so different from the long, lean ones of the average blackfellow, afforded him intense amusement.
" Back belong that fella, he altogether walkabout," he shouted with glee, and none cheered more loudly when we gained on the foe, nor worked harder or with more splashing when we did not.
Presently, as the flesh went weary, we would ask him at every bend if it were Blackfellows' Crossing.
And Jacky would unfold his extraordinary visage and obligingly say : " Yowai, boss."
" He sit down around corner ? " I would ask.
" Yowai," Jacky would acquiesce cheerfully.
But round the corner there would be nothing but the black pool of the river, fringed with olive-green
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mangrove, and lazy white herons flopping off the sandbanks to join the nankin cranes in the safety of the gum trees.
The wind fell. The tide became a listless, oily swirl. Great circles marked the passage of the enemy boat, now well in front. Here and there an alligator slid from the mud into deep water with an ominous plop. As we passed close to the shore, a
couple of doe-eyed, grey wallabies scuttered into the undergrowth. The sun, gradually going down,
struck home with a fiercer and more oppressive heat. The blood pounded in one's brain, a hammer with
a body-length impact.
Still there seemed more corners to turn. Still there was no human life ahead but the straining figures of the gallant captain and his sweating menage.
The water changed in hue to a cruel bronze, and out in the East the tall column of smoke from a blackfellows' signal fire clambered into the air.
" Hwee! Hwee! Hwee ! " shrieked the homing cranes, sweltering on the bank.
Such stillness there surely never was before. Only we and the mangroves, slipping by with a curious appearance of crawling along the mudfiats by the shore, seemed to move. The rest of the world lay petrified under a glorious, molten heaven, waiting for the sun to sink.
Then, unbelievable, every rope and spar of her graceful lines magnified into a great spider web tracery, we saw the Iolanthe, gently riding, a vivid fire blazing in the iron galley on her deck, her
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victorious owner, winner of the afternoon's race, climbing aboard her with his cheering crew and greeting a giant of a man, garbed like himself, at the gangways.
How peaceful and how remote it looked, with a wraith of white smoke rising off the fire and all the colour of the river subdued into the hues of evening, the dim and lonely shores behind.
The sun fell into the void across the ranges. The world went to bed with tropical suddenness, drawing over it a star-spangled tarpaulin of a night . . .
" Home " the Captain called the Iolanthe, and a home she was with her fifty feet of sheer deck, her capacious cuddy, her shelf of books therein, her open-air galley, her clean smell of being well tended and well painted. The Captain was quite an
enthusiast about her and his life in her-a long dream of sluggish seas, bright moonlight, uncivilised islands, queer adventures and lazy baskings on the golden beaches of Arnheim Land.
How good a place to be she seemed with the johnny cakes, fresh floured, cooking in the embers on the
iron sheet on the deck and the steak which we had brought from Boorooloola sizzling on the grill; how cosy below, where trophies, from half the land of De Rougemont and farther out, hung in careless array--buckets from some old Spanish wreck on
an Indien shoal ; festoons made from bark in Groote Eylandt; stone knives; fish spears, with
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double prongs; an ancient Martini carbine-all pickled in an atmosphere of wholesome pitch vapour distilled from her seams--and, last but not least, an ancient Mauser pistol which the Captain tried to sell me for my own good.
Mine had proved useless through a trigger fault, and the Captain said I was most foolish to go up to the Roper with no handy arm. He said this was a very good gun, and by way of reference for it, declared that it had belonged to a man who had
been speared by the blacks in Arnheim Land and that he himself had had it from a fellow killed later in the war. When I fired a shot with it, the echo came rolling up the river like the sound of giant kettledrums and filled the sky with screaming feathered folk.
At dinner we all sat on the deck and I wondered what the cities would have thought of us-the Captain in his lava lava (waist cloth), a fragrant johnny cake well lined with meat in one hand, his quart pot in the other ; his big, silent mate, always in the background ; the rest of us in various attitudes of ease with the swinging oil lamp flinging our shadows as huge grotesqueries out across the steel- like water. The sweet, mellow voices of the two black boys drifting up from the poop.
It was one of those hours when the lock of restraint comes off and the lonely abandon themselves to the luxury of a bath of news, and a dinner of reminiscence and confession. The Captain was a great talker. He talked the world and the ages round. He talked of D'Artagnan and Tom Laurie, the buffalo shooter. He skated from Armentieres,
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where he lay one night a few years back (" me nose stuck in the mud expecting to get mine every minute"), oddly wondering exactly where pretty Lady Clark lost her head, to Port Alexandra, on the savage Arnheim Coast, where he had chased a black
outlaw with a revolver. He took a flying leap from his first sight of a lady of Paris to his initial meeting with a grande dame of Groote Eylandt (" she was going like the hammers of hell for the timber with devil a stitch about her.") He turned scornfully
from a dignified adventure with a Sydney policeman to an argument with a Limmen alligator. And he bracketed turtles and Robespierre, the Japanese problem and champagne with an easy zest that took one's breath away.
I listened to him fascinated, and sometimes when there was a moment's friendly silence while we made smoke rings with our pipes there would fall into it the quiet voice of Francis, sad and slow, with its bushman's accent. Once he was saying to the big
" No-I-only-killed-a-beast-once-myself . . .starving-for--a-drink--out-on-the-Ord . . . down-on-me-knees-sucking-its-blood-and-·gurgling-like-a-dingo."
Then, a little passionate and harsh, from the Captain's mate: " I wish to God I could say as
He must have had some rough times of it in his day, that mate.
It was nearly midnight when we parted from the
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Iolanthe and rowed ashore to make our camp at the crossing, high on the bank above the phosphorescent ripple of the ford.
The camp took some making for it was an inky night, lighted only by the stars, and the grass along the shore was seven or eight feet high, so that we had to brush some of it back to lay our tarpaulins.
So soon as we touched our pillows (mine was the ammunition box) the world seemed filled with small sounds. Every insect for miles around cheeped and chuckled as if at some great natural joke. The tree limbs creaked with laughter. The silvery tinkle of the tide across the shallow below us added itself to the chorus. The grass crackled with noises which might have meant the passage of all the beasts in the Ark. Not to add to our comfort, Dinkum was in his most restless mood. He was born in Cape
York where alligators abound, and where no wise man ever sleeps on a river bank, and every few minutes he woke some of us with his paw to tell us that we were committing a grave faux pas in sleeping in such a place and that we had better get up and
take to the mountains.
I got rid of Dinkum with soothing words when the Engineer, who slept between Francis and myself, said in a voice full of concern :" Are you awake? There's something crawling up the bank."
My eyes opened. We heard " click "-the cartridge slipping into the breech of Francis' carbine, as we lay still as logs. Sure enough, there was something crawling up the bank, though our ears told us plainly that it was no alligator. Presently;
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a large possum, little recking of the consequences to himself, sneaked into the camp, and all the echoes awoke to the hullabaloo of Dinkum's eager pursuit.
Jacky Maran, clothed in nothing but his skin and lying deftly between two fires, rose up to join in the hunt. After twenty minutes the possum made his get-away.
The camp settled down andl went to sleep again. But not for long. At three o'clock, in the deep blackness before dawn, a light hand touched me on the shoulder.
" Boss, alligator sit down."
" He sit down where ? "
" Down along bank."
" You talkem true, eh ? "
" Yowai, boss."
I reached for my rifle. I heard Francis sneaking out of his blankets. A distressful whine from the dog.
Plash . . . something large slid into the river.
Presently, smoke curled up in a grey daylight. Dew dripped from the trees. The grass tops were hung with faery spider webs. I went down to the water's edge and there were fresh alligator tracks thirty feet from us.
I climbed the bank to hear Francis say, " Sleep ! How could I sleep? Every moment I expected to have a snake in my bed ? "
" The devil you did," said the Engineer. " It's a bit late in the day to pull my---"
And there he stopped with his mouth wide open, for a large, black snake came out of the grass not three feet from him and, half somnolent with cold,
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made a leisurely progress across the clearing. Francis and I were too mirthful to do anything, but Jacky Maran had more presence of mind. He hastened to add that reptile to his commissariat without undue violence.
We spent the full day on the McArthur fishing and hunting and trying to find the blacks' camp, though without success, beyond learning that their fires were on the Weiran River, thirty miles away.
The shooting was, however, very good, and the face of Jacky Maran expanded and contracted with delight at each kill. In the end he was loaded down with provender.
We had intended to stay a few days longer, but as Francis was developing a bad attack of fever, we resolved to cut short the journey and make for home.
Since the boat refused to hold us all, with the load brought down by Captain Harney added to the outfit which it had previously carried, we left the Engineer and Jacky Maran to bring it up with the main luggage, while Francis and I set out to walk
twenty-three miles to Boorooloola. We took our rifles, thirty rounds of ammunition each, our cameras and a day's rations, and set out with Dinkum in the van, quite early in the morning.
It was not a pleasant walk. The grass, sword- bladed and tough, was sometimes ten to twelve feet high with tracks through it in places, only. Our progress brought down the old leaves about
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our heads in an incessant rain of powder and, in our first four miles, we killed three snakes and regretfully let others escape. One which we slaughtered, a brown of the poisonous variety, was eleven feet long with part of his head knocked off. Southern scientists would tell you that the brown snake does not grow so big, but if they do not believe me they will find our specimen hung on a paper bark tree by the McArthur River, if the ants have not devoured him.
One species of excitement which we had not bargained for were the creeks. These were generally about twenty feet wide, mangrove lined along the banks, with muddy shores plainly marked with all too recent alligator tracks.
The very thought of going into these was sufficient to set Dinkum howling, so we took all the precautions we could think of. One man would strip, pile his clothes on his head and wade to the other side what time the other stood on the bank with his rifle ready--not that a rifle is much use in such circumstances, but the moral effect was not to be despised.
Having gained the farther shore, the first man in would stand guard until the second made the passage. Dinkum invariably came last. His method was to wait on the bank howling in a tone of voice which meant plainly: " Now don't be a
fool and go in there ! Haven't you got any sense ? " But when he had made up his mind that you were going, he would give a final yelp and rush in after you, swimming as close to you as possible.
In our last creek, which was very deep, he placed
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his paws on the top of my head, with the result that he pulled the load which I was carrying into the water. The subsequent proceedings would have delighted Hollywood. From my point of view the spectacle of Francis on the bank (with nothing
on but a solar topee), solemnly holding a loaded rifle at the ready, was funny enough, but according to Francis, my attempts to rescue my scattered belongings and make the bank were better than the best vaudeville. He became so amused by them in spite of his severe fever that he dropped his rifle in his mirth.
In the end, I got out with everything but my trousers, which had floated off on the fast-running stream, and their loss left me cool but immodest.
Not long after this, we came into blady grass country, which was most painful. Still farther on, we met a number of cattle.
These bush cattle are curious creatures, and they proceeded to follow us in a long drawn out string. So that, taking us all in all, Boorooloola must have found us a remarkable procession. Francis's fever had reached the muttering stage, so I kept him in the van. I followed, garbed in a white topee, a khaki shirt and a pair of boots. Next trailed the cattle with a goodly escort of cheeky little willy wagtails, while Dinkum ranged in circles as he chose, barking his gladness to see the Scarlet Runner again.
A SAMPLE DAY ON THE BOOROOLOOLA TRACK
ON a blazing morning somewhere around the Gulf of Carpentaria in that region where you will see the words " White Stone Ranges " on the map, behold Francis Birtles, overlander and gentleman at large, at the wheel of the Scarlet Runner. One needs to climb a tree to do it, because of the length of the grass, but the view is well worth it.
The grass is interspersed, here and there, with a green, straggling shrub, known as turkey bush. Now and then an inquisitive ant-bed peeps over its tops and, occasionally, the decayed branches of a fallen tree stand above its matted tangle.
Across the top of the grassfield runs a rusty red line, usually elusive, sometimes well marked, often dying away into a labyrinth of paths, all tenuous with nothing to show which is the best to follow. This is the road.
We are following it carefully, even gingerly. Francis, in the driver's seat, knows that it has been made by last year's travelling bullocks and by the mailman who comes over on horseback once every two months from Darwin. And, though he has a deep respect for mailmen and blesses their name
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like everybody else in the out-back, he knows, also, that on horseback, one may take the rough with the smooth, and he is using his own judgment and depending, beyond that, only on the goodness of his luck.
The first thing you will notice about Francis is that he is without a shirt, firstly because of the tropic heat, secondly because, for some peculiar reason, the continued shower of grass seeds which come over the bonnet, pierce and scratch the skin when they strike through cloth, but seem innocuous against bare and perspiring flesh. He has four weeks' whiskers, which make him look exactly like the devil. A cut over his left eye, fresh and raw, adds a piratical look to the deviltry. A long lock of yellow hair matted with grass seeds depends upon his forehead from under his topee. The back of his right hand, black with oil, is bleeding from a timber gash and swollen from the effects of continual hard work and wheel strain.
The Engineer is not pretty either. He reclines gracefully (when he is not in the air) on sixty gallons of benzine astern, smoking eternal cigarettes in company with Dinkum, the dog. Francis says caustically that " a black gin would need to be given a lot of tobacco to kiss him," which is the limit of compliments to his filth. He is supposed to be " resting," and is doing it mainly on the bounce.
My own whiskers are full of grass seed and dirt, and Dinkum, high on the luggage where he gets the full flow of windblown vegetation, is a perfect armoury of vegetable spears.
You would probably note, if you were observing
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us from an eminence, the distinct air of nervous strain in the front seat where Francis and I sit with our eyes glued before us. You would note, too, that we communicate with each other only by a system of signs and nudges which are more certain than words in a high wind, and that we have an air of distinction derived from wearing goggles. Furthermore, your ears would inevitably tell you that Francis was relieving the situation by singing his favourite ballad. Heaven only knows where he learnt it, but it dates back to the long past days of the teams. It has 2I9 verses and a chorus. Very little of it, except the chorus, is printable, and the air is lugubrious and in keeping with our snail-like pace.
" Here's to Bullocky Brown and the devil may care,
howls Francis, deftly dodging a stump which has loomed up for a fraction of an instant.
" Here's to his wicked old face all covered with hair."
The chorus yells :
Bump! Bang! Wallop! An ant heap dissolves into powder. Its base disappears under the car, makes friends with the cross steering rod, trundles, muttering, in front of the differential casing and subsides in the dust of its own summit. Three misguided saplings which happen to be in our path go down with rifle—shot crackling as we trample them under, and we hear one of them
dragging protestingly in the undergear.
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A whirr of sliding gears and we slip suddenly into a gully and out again. A lightning turn of the wheel, two tons of car and luggage lurch sideways with a sickening swerve. You stiffen to avoid flying over Francis. Over your shoulder you have a hurried glimpse of the Engineer and Dinkum and the Engineer's cigarette all tangled up with a drum of benzine which has burst its mooring straps. However, we have missed the hidden pot-hole which last season's rains had formed right in the centre of our path and which we saw just in time.
The mailman's horse will walk into it one day and break its neck.
That thought just reaches your brain, when your spine seems to contract and about to break in three or four spots. The car stops and goes on in the same movement. We can hear the stump which we so fortuitously uprooted-—" by the skin of our
teeth," as Francis says—go scraping underneath.
" Vive—la—kumpanee," sings Francis jerkily.
Then a chasm yawns among a line of gums. So soon as this happens, the car stops and the moment the strain of concentration lifts itself from your mind, you notice that the bush is very beautiful.
A host of pink and grey galahs chatter in the trees overhead. A silver wallaby which has been sitting very still in the hope that we will pass without noticing him, goes " womp, womp, womp " in high, straining leaps into the undergrowth, Dinkum
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in his wake, squeaking with entirely unjustified optimism.
We all get out, and Francis and I survey the waterless creek before us. It is a pretty problem of passage.
There is no crossing. The banks go down, and up on the other side, at angles of from sixty to eighty degrees, and even if one could get the car down the grade which is scored with crumbling gutters and gullies, the space between the old man gum trees would make it impossible.
" No go!" we say with one breath, viewing the precipices, the trees, the soft sand in the creek bottom and the sheer wall of the opposite bank.
The sun is high in the sky just over our right shoulders. It is blazing hot. We start to look for a crossing.
Francis goes one way and I go the other. We have both been on low damper ration for three days, thanks to Boorooloola conditions, and it is surprising how, without flour, one soon becomes weak doing heavy work, even with plenty of other food, when wheat is excluded from one's diet. We crawl, stumble and creep through and over two miles of creek debris, noting possible crossings. We then return with suggestions and finally agree on a crossing of sorts, half a mile from where the car stands.
" She will need to be guided all the way here," says Francis. " If we get down in that sand, there we are, and it will be a case of Spanish windlass.'
I mark a track back to the car, and tell the Engineer to bring it along at minimum speed to the point where Francis is waiting. I then return
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to Francis, cross the creek and proceed to the ticklish task of blazing a safe track back to the packhorse " road " from the selected crossing. This is hot work, the grass being up to my neck, well larded with snakes and tangled like the hair of the
Medusa. Presently I begin to feel uneasy about the Scarlet Runner. I have not heard her moving—she has an open exhaust and roars like the Bull of Bashan when she is really working for her living.
I coo-ee, no answer. I go ear to earth. There are only the peaceful sounds of the bush to be heard —insects, birds, the swish of grass and the gossipy creaking of the trees.
I return to the crossing. No car. No Francis. I coo—ee again, and there is still no answer.
Later the party is discovered. The Engineer, tempted by an apparently open space, has desired to feel the exhilaration of a little speed, and has attempted to rush along at the breathless rate of fifteen miles an hour. The Scarlet Runner is not now travelling at fifteen miles an hour. She is lying at a drunken angle. Her back wheels are buried in a deep—sided washout, one hub below the level of the ground. One involuntarily thanks an inscrutable Providence that the front wheels have jumped over the depression. If they had gone into it, the car would probably have somersaulted and we should have had to use up two or
three hours burying the Engineer and a month walking to Darwin.
Two busy workers are hard at it, bringing the wheels to ground level, by the laborious process of gradually jacking the car up on alternate sides and
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building, with earth and stones, a surface under the tyres.
Eventually we cross the creek after having lunched in it with gusto, and Francis, buoyed by the meal, becomes so smitten with accursed hope that he remarks unguardedly that we seem to be in for a little good going——which means, of course, a
regular seven miles an hour. I touch wood, but it is of no avail.
Ahead appears a splash of tender purple. Flinders grass.
We sigh, deeply. We know that, where Flinders grass is, there will be a deep black—soil washout every three yards and that, in between the more dangerous washouts (they are usually about two feet deep and four feet wide with sheer, hard edges and well hidden in the tall tangle of grass) there will be " devil devil," ad libizfum. All " devildevil " is bad, but Flinders grass " devil devil " is the king of its species. It is formed by the cattle which, in the wet season, sink into the black soil to their hocks. When the rains are over the resulting hoof—holes dry into stone-like and jagged bumps, on which a heavy, highly-sprung car bounces
like a rubber ball.
Our pace slows down to an average of two miles an hour including stops, and for a time the world has a distinctly elastic appearance.
Most manufacturers would be surprised at how much of this sort of thing a heavily—loaded car would stand, and when we first encountered it, the Engineer was firmly of opinion that we could never cover a mile of it without falling in halves.
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He cited various mathematical and mechanical formulae to prove it.
However, three hours later, we would all be six or sixteen miles ahead with nothing damaged but ourselves.
By this time, of course, we are fairly frayed with the day's work, and matters are not made the more pleasant because I have to discuss with Francis the fact that, at luncheon, under cover of a savage tirade against the oppressors of his country, he
attempted to sneak some of his meagre bread ration into the common stock and to pretend that he had eaten it. There are circumstances under which unselfishness becomes a misdemeanour and fruit for protest.
It is just as well that the debate ends suddenly, for we presently discover ourselves upon a timbered plain in which there is no guiding red mark in the grass to tell us the direction we should go. Indeed, the long grass suddenly fades out and gives place
to porcupine spinifex. This luscious vegetable is about the size of a small Association football. The plants grow close together. They are round, and they consist of a thick arrangement of vegetable porcupine quills. If fever makes it impossible for you to wear boots, by reason of the swellings which it has induced, and if you have tropic itch which makes socks unbearable upon your ankles, there is no form of occupation more calculated to develop the memory than exploring in porcupine grass.
Francis and I, perforce, go exploring. We do not in the least wish it, but we have to. It becomes
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worth the effort to hear Francis's language. It is beyond the ordinary limits of profanity.
Eventually, scanning the ranges, my heart is gladdened by what appears to be a clear-cut gap in the trees on a mountain a few miles ahead of us. I instantly believe that the road must go through there. We return to the car with blood running down our ankles and the soles of our feet perforated and, after seven miles of timber smashing in brittle hardwood scrub around the foothills, we arrive at the gap.
There are certainly no trees growing on it, for the simple reason that no tree could grow there. It is a deeply-scored slide or slope about 150 yards long, tilting upwards at a sheer angle and covered with loose stones about sixty pounds in weight brought down by the rains. On top there is fairly open country which looks promising, so we decide to risk it in the hope of cutting the packhorse track later on. Francis and the Engineer set about clearing the worst of the boulders out of our path, and I address myself to the task of lightening the load of the car and carrying the impedimenta which I remove to the top of the hill.
This is splendid exercise. A drum of petrol carried on a perspiring shoulder is one of the most awkward burdens in the whole world.
Eventually, everything is ready for the push. We put the Engineer at the wheel, with instructions to throw in his clutch and " make her jump " when I shout the word "Go!" Francis and I stroll behind the car, and each arms himself with a big stone for a chock. Our shoulders press against the
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car body. The word is given. The clutch goes in. The car jumps a foot or two according to the grade and sprays us with dirt and small stones.
Before it has time to roll in its tracks, down go our chocks and on go the brakes. Our shoulders swell into the form of large, puffy blue bruises later in the day from this gentle exercise, since they bear the recoil of the car at every jump, but in a little over an hour we are at the top.
We start off again. Boulders hidden in the grass add to our tribulations. We have them at short intervals, together with ant beds, saplings, small and large stumps, washouts, " devil devil," creeks and clouds of grass seed as before, finally arriving,
when it is almost sundown, on a fairly open stretch with an undeiiled but very ancient wagon track, which we had been told we might find about 1ive miles from a deserted station homestead with a good water-hole. (" A team started out from there the year before last," said the Men of Boorooloola, " but it got bogged and turned back.")
When we should be three miles from the station on a calcu1ation we come to another difficult creek. We walk six or seven miles in grass up to our necks-- it is not possible always to travel in the creek bed because of the presence of water, looking for a new crossing. We return in inky darkness, falling down banks and over timber hidden in the long grass. We find our water drum is punctured so that washing is impossible, and we too weary to
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walk to the first water-hole more than a mile down the creek to get more. In the morning, the damper (bread) ration is exhausted.
The Engineer goes to sleep over his tea. Francis sings " Bullocky Brown " in his sleep. Then we get up in a tropic temperature of about forty degrees (it was below that one night) ; light a fire with water-logged wood ; burn the grass along the banks, construct a rude get out-for the car and, after a struggle negotiating it, clamber on our way.
The struggle begins all over again ....
That is a sample day from our journey between Boorooloola and the Overland Telegraph Line.
Days differed only in that some of them held more of these troubles than others. Occasionally there was a patch of as much as thirty miles long which allowed us to speed dizzily up to eight miles an hour, and then we felt in clover.
It took us five days to cover our first 188 miles out of Bo0rooloola-22 miles the first day; then 48.7, I8.2, 34.3 and 65 miles on successive days. The average speed for the 59 hours 40 minutes of travel was, therefore, a little over three miles an hour.
We called it motoring.
THE BOOROOLOOLA TRACK AND ITS POPULATION (OR LACK OF IT); THE ROADS AND THEIR PECULIAR CHARACTERISTICS, AND THE ARGUMENTS AND TROUBLES ARISING THEREFROM.
WHEN the Scarlet Runner had returned to civilisation and its crew had become respectably clean and shaven enough to consort with clubmen and foregather with the geographical experts, we were occasionally smiled at a little by the cognoscenti.
Sydney's judgment of the wilderness (so long as it makes no personal contact with it) is based more or less on the conceptions of the more ignorant type of newspaper, and on the patriotic imaginings of young men in the outskirts of the capital who court political salvation via such phrases as " enormous resources," and " land of golden opportunity."
" What's all this fuss about your journey through Carpentaria? " one young journalist asked us—a man who loves to write about the " great wide- open spaces," but who has never been north of New South Wales border. " The country is fairly civilised. You can see that from any map. People living every few miles. Blacks all wiped out. Police. Regular mails. What are the papers talking about ? "
Next time I go through that country, I propose
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to invite my friend, the journalist, to come with me, and I think the journey, if we take the route which we followed on this last trek, will surprise him a good deal.
Actually, the populative position was this : Starting from Anthony's Lagoons on the Barkley Tableland, where we had found two white men and a policeman, we motored towards Boorooloola on the Gulf of Carpentaria - and, after going a distance about half—way from London to Bristol, we discovered one white man entertaining a drover on Walhallow station. There had been two hundred blacks there the night before, but they had left, flour being short, and were somewhere ahead of us on the Boorooloola track, as their signal fires constantly reminded us. The great city of Valhallow consisted of one tin shanty with a mud floor, one outhouse, used as a store—room, and a stock yard. Also, there was a wood-heap forum of a very mixed black and half-caste population.
Regretfully refusing a pressing invitation to " stay a week and have a bit of a yarn," we traversed ninety miles to McArthur Station before we saw another human face. McArthur boasts a white manager, but he was away. His deputy was a Chinaman. There was the usual wood-heap full of Chinaman - aborigine and indescribable. Forty miles farther on lay Boorooloola. It is the only " town " in Western Carpentaria. It has no cathedral, but the local policeman told us that there were " mobs of people " there enjoying the six-weekly mail and the pleasure of waiting for the uncertain Government supply boat.
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Our own census showed a permanent population of fourteen within a ten - mile radius; but there were no white women or children, and the inhabitants proudly pointed out that their average age was the " highest of any city in the world " - sixty-three years, to be exact. We had some disagreement with these proud townsmen about the white census, they including the local Chinese gardener in their list as white. That good Oriental (aetat 71) owned the vegetable monopoly of the district and, as this was one of the years in which the Government had forgotten to send the supply boat, the gardener was, for the time being, an important burgess. He would have been still more important if the seedsman had not mistakenly sent him brown onion and shallot seeds instead of cabbages and carrots, though even the luscious onion is to be coveted when one is, perforce, living on a general diet of corned beef and water-lily roots.
Leaving Boorooloola and proceeding another sixty miles we met a man who said he was building a road. The process appeared to consist of lopping odd branches off the bushes and laying them down to make a course. He carried a police revolver at his knee, and asked if we could give him some flour and tobacco. It appeared that, quite unjustifiably, the district was expecting the Police Commissioner to daringly pioneer this track ; hence the road-making activity.
Travelling still another 110 miles, we found two white men at once living on Tanumbirini station in a sea of black labour. They were so delighted to see us that they took us to the store and invited
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us to help ourselves to all its luxuries, whatever, short of flour. They also suggested that we might camp for a week or a month or any time we liked as their guests, and when we said we must push on, they loaded us with kindness and fresh meat.
They assured us that Tanumbirini was a salubrious spot, a desirable property for any purchaser, if we knew one, free of wild blacks, snakes, ticks and buffalo ily. It was certainly a splendidly—managed property, but lying on the edge of the Limmen
River country, there seemed some doubt about its salubrity. Its every veranda post and every bed leg seemed to be decorated with a large, vicious and altogether unsociable bull terrier, while other more trusted animals wandered round the Tanumbirini landscape, at large, looking, in the words of the manager, " for lash." These precautions and the presence of a rifle in the dining-room, seemed to suggest that there might still be a glimmer of the bad, old black days left.
Seventy miles from Tanumbirini we met another white man; a few miles farther, still another who accidentally happened to be on his station, usually managed by a very clever half-caste, with the help of some Chinamen.
Forty miles on, again, two wayfarers were camped with a team. Seventy miles more brought us to the overland telegraph line and a Government survey party which represented, in numbers, exactly five times the obvious population along the 350 miles
of road which we had just traversed.
After another hundred miles, civilisation reasserted itself in the persons of two officials and
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three white women, living at Maranboy, but as we did not call at the township, we saw our first white woman in 1,200 miles of travel from the Queensland border at the Katherine.
In 720 miles of travel, including one town and three birds of passage, we made contact with exactly twenty-two white people, and the road was so ill-developed for ten miles at a time that it could safely be said not to exist at all.
On the way from Boorooloola to Tanumbirini, the only wheeled traffic in two years had been one station wagon which had laboriously tried to make its way to the port for stores, and the only horse traffic consisted of the road marker, whose blazes we did not follow, frequently taking short cuts, the mailman who, as I have said, rides across from Darwin once every six weeks, and one other casual traveller.
His pad, when it comes within fifty miles of a station homestead, is a precarious thing to hang one's faith on. It dives into deserted cattle camps and out again and, coming to light once more, looks exactly like the steady flow of cattle paths which
radiate from each and every camp.
Sometimes we followed him; sometimes we did not.
For the best part of 100 miles at one stretch we had only two ways of identifying his pad. Firstly, being in more regular use, it was deeper than the cattle pads.
Secondly, an obliging horseman, easily identifiable,
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had passed over the track a week ahead of us, accompanied by two dogs and a black boy and his lubra, the latter, of course, carrying her lord-and-master's luggage.
Sometimes, when we got away from the long grass, these tracks were so plain for a little way that we
could pick them up from the car travelling four or five miles an hour.
At others, in long grass, " devil devil " and stone country, we lost them for miles on end; but the best fun of all was at the deserted cattle camps where the only possible procedure was to climb out of the car and make a minute and thorough inspection of each departing track.
Generally, we found that we had to travel a mile or two to discover the real path. And then, it would sometimes prove that the wretched cavalcade which we were following was on the wrong road and would leave it just as we had our confidence in its judgment established, and cross to some other route through the timber and long grass.
The comedy following on that would have been amusing to an independent onlooker; but to us, tired out and full of fever, it was anything but humorous. We would return immediately to the cattle camp. A cattle camp is a broad, open space, perhaps three-quarters of a mile wide with a bough shed in the middle of it. Its whole surface is trampled into fine pulver by the cattle, so that it is difficult to find anything in it.
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One occasion, particularly, I remember, when we both had fever and, to boot, had been, the day before, in porcupine grass, from the punctures of which our feet were festering in spite of iodine and gum leaf poultices.
Having thoroughly explored the camp without finding a sign of the passage of our guides, Francis took his rifle and his fever and went one way. I took mine and went another. Both of us were nose to earth.
After a short examination of several tracks, I suddenly came upon the spoor of the travellers, deeply indented.
There were the foot imprints of the gaily trotting horseman and his lightly laden pack-horse and of his two dogs cavorting on and off the road or hanging cunningly in the shade of the travelling horse as their fancy took them. Here would be the jovial
footsteps of the happy blackboy, dancing along without a care, ever and anon departing into the Bush on some private errand, and of his lady love, the weight of the load on her affectionate head pushing her feet deeply into the dust. I followed them for a mile, and then fired my rifle as a signal for the car and Francis to join me.
A moment later there were two protesting shots from Francis. I waited a little and not hearing the car on the move, I retraced my steps to the cattle camp. Francis was there. He greeted me with the news that he had found the track. I told him that he had not. Then, since it was a hot day and the damper ration was lower than usual, and there had been a bit of wood in his couch the night
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before to heighten his fever, Francis said his equivalent of " Bosh ! " with a vehemence which called for reprisal. I told him that he had made a mistake ; that his eyesight seemed to be getting bad ; that his days as an overlander were numbered, and that he had better retire to the asphalt pavements of the city where there were plenty of signposts, and go into some safe and certain trade like the millinery business.
Francis, thereupon, said that he would immediately unload his swag and forsake the company and forswear the friendship for ever of an abominable and profane nonentity who was so misguided as to have mistaken wallaby tracks for human
I said, sarcastically: " All right. W'll see who is right. We'll go on your track and see where it ends."
We strode to the car. The Engineer innocently asked if we had found the way, and we both turned on him so suddenly that he bit his cigarette in halves. Then we all took our seats in high dudgeon and drove out on Francis's track.
It ended, after two miles, in a dried-up water, hole, amid loud applause from the expedition's main fountain of authority. We turned back and tried my track. That also ended in a billabong.
Then we returned to the cattle camp and, after two hours' walking, found that the real track climbed over a sort of rocky precipice in the most unlikely corner of the landscape. Whereupon the Engineer gave an exhibition of real British pluck, and remarked that it was a wonder we had not
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found the road before, and that it had been very hot sitting in the sun on the car.
We made him a chopping-block for our wrath for quite half an hour afterwards.
Certainly the most trying part of our whole 6,ooo-mile journey was from Boorooloola to Mataranka. Francis drove the whole way, my part being navigation. He had a serious mechanical trouble in the form of a cross steering rod which he concocted himself out of a bedstead upright found on a deserted station, a wire shark line and the two ends of the original rod (which had been broken in an accident which should have smashed the car in halves and broken our necks) packed into the ends of a box spanner and held in place with melted photographic film containers. And he had to contend with a road which was, mainly, a blind man's alley of long grass, stumps, ant-heaps and wash-outs in which six inches of deviation through
faulty steering might easily have meant death to all of us.
The strain of keeping the car just moving, hour after hour, and day after day, was alone quite enough to wreck a man in normal health, and sometimes it must have been a terrible temptation to open up and reach such dizzy speeds as ten miles
He added to his other work, jointly with me, the task of road-finding, and not infrequently we walked fifteen to twenty miles a day in the broiling
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sun, a good deal of the way over stony ranges, through grass up to our necks, or over pointed spinifex in this process.
We were glad to see the end of the rough country - and a broad road again, but when the Engineer took over the wheel just beyond Mataranka, Francis grumbled about it.
" Mucking up the trip," he muttered, when I issued the edict. " just as a feller gets used to driving, he has to stop. This isn't a journey. It's a picnic."
And he rolled himself up in his tarpaulin (carefully arranging his feet to exclude even the most intrusive snake which might take a fancy to him) and went to sleep with his fever.
A SHORT INTERLUDE DEVOTED TO THE JOYS OF FEVER, AND INTRODUCING SOME MAD INHABITANTS OF NORTHERN AUSTRALIA AND THEIR DELUSIONS.
THERE are more difficulties than distance, more obstacles than timber or rivers, more poison to be guarded against than that of the much—maligned Australian snake in the career of every overlander. Perhaps the worst of all is human nature, which
is an uncertain thing, and when you add illness, there is trouble beyond a doubt.
More graves line the great Overland because of fever than because of thirst or any other cause; more murder has been done through it; more friendships broken, more lives ruined.
Sometimes it comes in severe form which lays its adversary low and kills him out of hand, but that is generally in the wet season when it joins forces with dysentery. In the dry - which means April to October - it creeps upon you like a shadow of terror and anger, bringing loathing and distrust with it. It makes your best friend anathema, the landscape unstable, your food nauseation, and fills your whole existence with an angry poison of unsettlement and vague, unnameable fear. And, if you let it get a thorough grip of you, you lie for nights, dry skinned, aching boned, a sort of human furnace, good for
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an excursion into the realms of mental instability or, perhaps, even keyed up to murder, if the excuse makes itself for its commission.
With three men living together, as we were, fever was a thing to be constantly watched for and guarded against. There is an old joke about seeing the same face opposite one every morning at break-fast time, but seeing the same face day in and day out for months in a motor-car is something too grave for jesting. Hour after hour, hot or cold, wet or dry, there were we together, not only prisoners to our duties, but unclean and unshaven prisoners, often overworked under conditions which made for the utmost fatigue and irritation.
Week after week, we woke to share the same freezing dawns, sometimes the same quart of water for washing, the same stale jokes repeated a thousand times (how small is man's repertoire of mirth !), eating the same kind of food together with the same
grumbles or humour, knowing the contact of each other in the seat, pushing with each other at the same wheel, striving at the same Spanish windlass, clawing at the same sand, drilling each other to observe the safeguards imposed by discipline against
loss and accident and, worst of all, eventually coming to know exactly how each would react to almost any situation.
There was never any escape. Sometimes the rolling plain or dense forest would show us no other sign of humanity for days together, but, as one looked round, there would be Francis, iron jawed, hollow cheeked and weather beaten, one eye fixed on the road, one ear cocked for strange sounds in
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the engine ; and there would be the Engineer perched on a drum of benzine, smoking his cigarette, and Dinkum, high on the luggage enjoying the grass seeds and the breeze. Immutable and unchangeable they seemed and sometimes you felt an almost fierce anger against them for being there at all, justified only in the fact that they most certainly shared your feelings.
Francis and I had been through it all before and we knew what to expect. But the Engineer, who had never been one hundred miles out of a town in his life, did not understand the meaning of proximity until experience taught him. Even then he did not know everything, not having fever already in his system and being guarded against it night and day by a rigidly enforced routine which we never allowed him to abandon.
We other two had both had fever for years. In cities, it is a thing you may forget for long periods of time. But cross the twentieth parallel above the Tropic of Capricorn and it welcomes you and perches on your shoulder until you return to milder climates.
Every man who is on long standing terms with the irritant of fever has his own recipe for dealing with it. The method varies from going into camp for three or four days and living on an exclusive diet of hot rum and quin. sulph. to walking up and down the landscape with an automatic, working off one's inner disturbances and loudly defying the police.
Some people have a profound faith in prayer and fasting. Some believe in whisky and gluttony. But the easiest and most reliable method is to stick to rum and quinine and to allow a complete relaxa-
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tion of all one's resisting powers at the moment of the attack. Generally, you recognise this by the change in the behaviour of the landscape and the urgings of your temper. When one feels that suddenly going, it is a safe rule to give it rein to gang its own gait. It is doubly wise and convenient because, almost invariably, the fever inflamed mind ,develops an obsession, none the better because it usually happens to be something not normally repugnant to the patient. He may find himself vehemently hating his wife, or the Government, or the thought of Heaven, or a particular kind of tree and, not infrequently, himself.
With Francis, for instance, the fever flag is the English Jew.
When he is at home in the bosom of his family, one of the best friends he has is a London jew. He therefore looks with affection upon British Judea and has had good reason to do so. Judea has been more than once kind to him in time of tribulation. But from the very fact that he has often said and thought this in his normal state, arises the unreasonable hate of the English jew when he is in fever.
Not any Jew, mark you. The Armenian jew and the Chinese jew, the jerusalem jew and the German jew, all excite his admiration. But the English Jew - he becomes, in Francis's inflamed imagination, a person to be loathed as a monster
who has placed Australia in financial bondage, mortgaged her future to the devil, polluted her politics and enslaved her Press.
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From often heard description, I can perfectly visualise Francis's friend of the City of London, though I have never seen him.
Behold him with his oily black hair, his greedy black eye, his broad white waistcoat and half a pound of watch chain as he jangles into the " Cheshire Cheese " (which Francis knows to be the centre of British financial criminality), and hangs his shining
topper beneath his favourite cobweb in Samuel Johnson's outraged corner.
" William," he says to the ancient servitor who blinks under the glare of his truly Oriental display of diamonds, " bring me a porterhouse, a pound of Gorgonzola and three magnums to tide me over till pudding time. Three, remember, William! I
desire to celebrate. I have had a good day again - bribed the Prime Minister of Australia, grabbed another million acres for nothing in the Northern Territory and had a telegram saying that six Australians have committed suicide because of my ruin of them."
" I congratulate you, sir," says old William, wheezing.
" Thank you, my good fellow," says Francis's Fever Shade, " the more of those Australians who die the better. A nation of coolies, William; a nation of coolies, Here, my lad, is threepence for you. Bring me twopence change."
Oft have I seen in my mind's eye this spook against the blue of a North Australian winter sky what time Francis, fresh from fourteen hours' driving, dilated upon his qualities.
"The greedy, grasping, miserable son of Judas
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Iscariot," he would yell, springing unexpectedly to his feet with his mouth full of tinned sausage.
Then, surveying the wide horizon within which nothing lived but the dingoes and desert rats and where nothing moved but ourselves and the planets, he would cry in an outraged voice, which would have done credit to a Hungarian patriot :
" Stealing a man's country, the cows . . ." And after that the fun would really begin. Dinkum would slink away into outer darkness to escape the torrent of words and, as I could generally be depended upon to have a little fever about me, the
opening of the attack would, as like as not, find me rushing to the defence of jerusalem with all the enthusiasm of a native inhabitant or more.
The Engineer would, perhaps, put some cartridges into his automatic against emergency - for fever, bandits, noises in the dark, suspicious motors near towns and suspicious animal eyes away from them ; for donkeys afar on a clear night or approaching black fellows, the Engineer's invariable panacea was that wretched fire-arm.
Generally, the whole dispute would be over in five minutes and its end would be as sudden and insane as its beginning had been precipitate.
Finishing a torrent of words, Francis would say calmly: "Well, that's that. I feel better," and
would roll himself in his blankets. Dinkum would appear from nowhere and put a pleading paw on his master's arm and a few moments afterwards we would hear these two old comrades at their usual gentle, half intelligible dog talk about the game of
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"Cock-cocks and woop woops," Francis would say tenderly, as if he had never hated anything in his life. " And squark, squark, squark—we'll have some of those buffalo people presently. And ump, ump, ump. Somebody come, I think ! Hist, some-body come ! "
" Somebody come ! " we would all repeat and the next minute Dinkum, head at gaze, would be back on duty, and we would find ourselves talking animatedly about the stars.
Only the Engineer would look uncertain for the rest of the evening and on more than one night, I have crawled and manoeuvred to get his loaded automatic away lest, waking, he should begin to defend himself against evil dreams at the expense
of our hides.
He was never at ease when fever was about and I think he devoutly believed that one day or another he would be found tomahawked as the ultimate reward of his hardihood in accompanying two mad " Colonials." More particularly was he disturbed when there were strangers present, for generally when we had fever the strangers, also, would be likely to have fever.
There was, I remember, one bleary dawn when we drove to a public well on the Overland Telegraph line which we had just reached. It was one of those mornings which well deserve to be described as tropic—dank, cold and hot at once, full of unease. We had had a bad night, sleeping in long grass, and when we drove to the well none of us thought to
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meet any life there. If Francis and I were thinking anything, it was about an oily and bilious landscape which swayed and slithered across our uncertain field of vision, of strange, delusive roads which opened up where no roads actually were, and of
red spots which danced in front of our aching eyes.
Then we barged suddenly into the clearing to find it full of life and protest. A dozen packhorses, which probably had never seen a motor-car in their lives scurried for tall timber. We saw a high and angry camel walking firmly backwards with his driver. Donkeys brayed and cavorted. Team horses scampered round in a cloud of dust. Aborigines yelled and cursed, rushing about in a vain endeavour to try and capture their utterly frightened charges. And, oh joy, there were two big, beautiful, profane teamsters, fever stricken, shaking and angry, and about twice our own size, giving vent to their unqualified opinion of ourselves
and all our relations.
" What the Government struck iniquity do you mean by bringing your poison cart in here without
warning, while we were watering our horses ? " they asked with some elaboration.
" Do you own this country? " yelled Francis, jumping from the car, a terrifying and unshaven spectacle. He and the teamsters told each other what they thought of each other. An Afghan camel driver came and joined in the fray and was cursed
from Peshawar to Herat. Murder appeared to be without doubt in the wind to anybody not initiated.
Suddenly, into the ruck of the squabble came the voice of the second teamster.
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" Come on, let's help you get your water," he said quietly. "Don't undo your tins. We have some buckets here."
In an instant firing ceased along the battle line. In three minutes Francis and his principal adversary were filling our tins side by side, what time I joined in the donkey hunt. In twenty, in a perfectly steady and unspotted world, we were sitting round
a breakfast of beef and johnny cakes, Francis talking with his foe of automatics, while the other teamster and I shared recollections of a delectable Queensland station of my boyhood where wire netting protected the verandas against spears and
the goodwife went to her work in the kitchen with a revolver swung at her waist. In half an hour we had told each other the story of our lives and had shared up our tobacco.
The camels and the ponies came home in protesting instalments. We fed the blackboys on raisins and said " So long " and went off travelling light-heartedly.
Only, for the remainder of the day, the Engineer was not quite easy. I am sure that he had come to the conclusion that the whole country was quite mad. But we didn't mind what he thought for we knew that, given a few seasons in the tropics, given
a few weeks sleeping in the rain, given a few dozen dank, sweltering summer nights, he would probably become worse than ourselves. Fever is something which you acquire easily through experience and only really lose - science notwithstanding - when the undertaker comes for you.