‘Hulloo! so it’s you?’ he says, shaking hands as if my wrist was a hide rope that wanted stretching. ‘So you’ve cut Yugildah? How’s that; couldn’t hit it off with Roper? I expected that—wonder you stood him as long as you did.’
‘Yes,’ I told him. ‘I’d fell out with Roper.’ I didn’t say what for. ‘He’d bullied me and I wouldn’t stand it. That was all.’
Quite right too. What was I going to do? Going back to Bandra, after staying with him for a month?
‘No; I was not going back. I had a great respect for Mr. Buffray; but there was nothing for me to do there that any weekly man couldn’t manage. Of course if he wanted me, it was different. But I was going to strike out a new line for myself, if I could, or see a bit more of the country. Had a mind to go to Queensland.’
‘That’s the idea,’ says he, rubbing his hands; ‘there’s nothing to be got by sticking about old settled districts like where Bandra is. A young man might as well stay in England, and so I’ve told a many of ’em. But tea’s a—coming in. We’ll have a yarn by and by.’
I told him about my sending Talgai to tell Thoresby about his calves. Then by degrees he picked out the story about Roper being wild with me for not bringing them home to the yard.
‘Roper’s two ends of a d—d scoundrel,’ he bursts out; ‘that’s the long and short of it. He’ll get straightened yet, smart as he thinks himself. I wonder Buffray keeps such a fellow about him, but he’s had him this years, and he serves him well. Devil take him! It don’t pay in the end though—cross work—and that he’ll find. Did the black boy come with you. I thought I saw a darkie at Bottrell’s. What’s he doing there?’
‘He went to see about his horse that I lent to a swagman we overtook. He was lame and done up. He was coming here to work, he said.’
‘What’s he want there then?’ he says. ‘What’s his name?’
‘Jack Leighton he called himself. He said you knew him; he comes from my part of the country.’
‘Jack Leighton,’ says he; ‘of course I do; he ain’t a bad feller to work, but the greatest swiper in the country. Of course you didn’t lend him money. If you did you won’t see him till it’s gone.’
‘It wasn’t much. A couple of pounds,’ says I. ‘He wanted boots and a shirt or two. Does he drink hard then?’
Burdock laughed. ‘You’re not colonised yet. How the mischief could an eddicated chap like him get down that low unless he drank like a fish. Why of course he drinks. He’d sell his shirt for drink, and his soul after his shirt if any one would buy it these days.’
Here there was a knock at the door.
‘Come in,’ says Burdock, and in walks Talgai.
‘Mine bin fetchum yarraman, Mahmee.’
‘Where that one Massa,’ I says.
‘That one Bottrell put him alonga dead-house,’ says Talgai.
‘He’s not dead! surely,’ I said, regular stunned.
‘Big one drinkum grog, that one massa, mine thinkit. All right one fella day. Me let go yarraman.’
‘You let him go alonga paddock, Talgai,’ says Burdock, ‘and as it is pretty late, you get your supper in the kitchen here, yabba that our white Mary gib it tea. You yan men’s hut by and by.’
‘You’ll know Jack another time,’ he went on. ‘You’d better have chucked that two pound into the creek. He’ll turn up here some time to-morrow. Bottrell will give him a last nobbler and show him the door after breakfast. He ain’t a bad chap when he’s regular at work.’
‘His name’s not Jack at all,’ I said right out, ‘but Mr. Reginald Leighton, of King’s Leighton, East Kent. They’ve been there since King Harold’s time. He stopped there before the battle of Hastings.’
‘He may be Lord Reginald, for all I know or care either,’ says the old man, filling his pipe again. ‘He’s been a sheep washer and knock-about man at Wallanbah these three or four shearings; been splitting or fencing and doing odd jobs in the slack time of the year. That’s about all he’s fit for now. He can earn his pound a week easy enough when he’s at it, and generally has a middling good cheque to take after shearing; but he knocks it all down in one burst, and then has to hunt for a job like many another. Of course any one can know that he’s been eddicated and seen better days. But once they take to the drink, that don’t make a bit of difference. The well-bred ’uns are a turn worse than the others, it’s my belief.’
‘I should be so glad if you’d give him some work,’ I said. ‘I should like to try and get him to alter his ways.’
‘You may try till you’re black in the face,’ says he, filling his glass; ‘it won’t do no good. Many a time I’ve thought I could help a man out of that ditch, but never saw one that didn’t slip back. Work? of course I’ll give him work. I’ve got some as wants doing, and when he’s right no man can do it better. He’ll be as well in a few days as ever he was. He’ll tackle a six months’ job, work like a horse, and never drink anything stronger than tea all the time. He’ll get no grog, for he won’t have any money—I’ll see to that; and Bottrell dursn’t give one of my hands grog on tick. He’ll have boots out of the store, and good clothes, and borrow the newspaper regular. He’ll be that clean and respectable-looking you won’t hardly know him.’
‘And what then?’
‘What then? Why, I’ll have to settle up with him some time or other, and he’ll get his cheque—twenty pound or more. He won’t spend it here. He’ll go away, telling all the people he’s going to Melbourne to take his passage for England to see his friends. That means he’ll pull up at some pub about thirty or forty miles off, where he’ll spend every shilling in a week, and then make off to another part of the country to begin over again.’
‘What a dreadful thing,’ says I; ‘I can hardly bear to think of it. And you’re sure there’s no way of curing him of this—this—disease?’
‘You may say that. It’s the right name for it, Claythorpe,’ the old chap answers, wiring into his second glass of grog. ‘When it gets to that stage it’s a real disease, just like scarlet fever or typhus. You might as well say to a chap with one of them things burning his life out, “What a fool you was to catch these ’ere; why don’t you get well? You can, if you like, you know,” and all that. Of course they can—if they’re about ten men rolled into one, with ten men’s strength. But being as they’re made—only one at a time—with the work, and the climate, and the ways of the country being all agin ’em, and their own heart, why, they never do get well—and that’s all about it. And now let’s have a talk about something else. You’ll see Jack to—morrow, and we’ll find a box for him somewhere.’
There was no use, as he said, saying any more about the matter. Nothing could be done till next morning, when he would most likely come over. I hardly reckoned on it myself, but Burdock knew him better than I did.
‘You come into this other room,’ says the old man, after a long smoke, ‘and I’ll show you something.’
So we went into a large half-furnished room, where there were two or three rough-looking tables, besides shelves with books and newspapers and Government Gazettes. I knew what these last were for; I’d seen Roper look over them for impounding notices, lists of brands, and things of that sort.
He lighted a lamp, and set it on one of the tables. Then he brings over a big map, and lays it on the table before us.
‘Now you see what this is. It’s a map with tracings of all the runs in this part, from the Survey Office, with their boundaries, roads, creeks, and all the rest, besides the outside blocks. There’s a lot of them only part surveyed. There’s the points of the compass. We’re in the north-west division as they call it. Here’s Wallanbah, you see, and Yugildah, and Mindorah, and Boree, and the whole lot of ’em. You can make that out easy, can’t you?’
‘Oh yes; that’s plain enough.’
‘Well—but look here. This isn’t quite so plain. Do you see that run they call Banya, next to another called Gol Gol. That boundary looks all right, don’t it?’
‘Yes, it does.’
‘Well, it’s all wrong. They don’t join. The boundary’s never been surveyed, and there’s a bit of country in between, seven miles by five, or thereabouts, as they’ve no right to. Then there’s those Yantara blocks—five of ’em—beyond. They’re open for tender till the first of next month. There’s a fortune starin’ any man in the face, just where you’re lookin’.’
‘How do you make that out?’
‘It’s to be done this way. You or any one else can send in a tender for all unoccupied land between the boundaries of Banya and Gol Gol, Lower Warroo. D’ye see that?’
‘Yes; but how am I to know that I should get it, or what could I do with it if I did?’
‘You could do this as easy as falling off a log. You tender £12:10s. a year for each block. The others ‘ll most likely only tender £10 or £11. If your tender’s accepted by the Lands Office, you can sell one or two of the blocks. They’ll soon rise in value when it’s known that somebody’s got ’em. You make a start with a flock of sheep on one of ’em, then you can borrow a tidy bit of money from the banks “to make improvements with.”’
‘That seems a risk—to borrow money,’ says I.
‘You can’t get on without some,’ says he, ‘unless you’ve got a goodish nest-egg. I’ll put you up to the way they do it. But we’ll go into it regular ship-shape to-morrow. You study over it a bit, and do as I tell you.’
Next morning we’d finished breakfast when we saw a man come through the outer gate. He carried a swag, and walked lame. It was Mr. Leighton safe enough.
‘There comes Jack,’ says the old man. ‘I knew he’d turn up. He’s got a head on him this morning, I’ll be bound. But he’s a plucky beggar; you couldn’t kill him with an axe. There! he’s stopped at the kitchen door. I’ll go out to him. You’d better come too, and have it over.’
I didn’t want to go, you may be sure. He would feel so ashamed at having degraded himself in my eyes, remembering what he had been and what I was. But I should meet him afterwards; perhaps it was best to have it over, as Burdock said.
He walked over when he saw us coming, loosened his swag from his shoulder, and put it on the ground. His face was pale and his eyes had a glazed appearance, but he held up his head and looked us both in the face. On his feet were the same identical broken boots—not a sign of anything new about him in the shape of clothes.
‘Well, Jack, old man!’ says Burdock, in a loud cheery voice. ‘The old story, eh? Thought you was going to take to the blue ribbon this time. So you and Mr. Claythorpe’s met afore, he tells me. Have you had your breakfast?’
‘Well, no; I had a dip in the creek, and Bottrell gave me a pick-up, so I came straight away. Hang the place! If it hadn’t been stuck right across the track, I should have come here all right.’
‘Not you; you’d have found another shop, Jack, with them two notes in your pocket, if you’d had to swim the Murray for it. You’d better go into the kitchen and get your breakfast, and then toddle off to the men’s hut, and lie down for a bit.’
‘All right. I suppose you’ve got some work that you can put me on.’
‘Any quantity. You can take a week’s digging in the garden to begin with. Them weeds has been growing tremendious. And see here—come up at tea-time, and I’ll give you a nobbler of “three star.” It’s the only one you’ll get till you’re settled with, so make much of it.’
‘All right, sir,’ he says. I heard him say sir, and it made me groan again. He said it as if he was used to it, too. After all, he was right. They had changed places. Burdock was the gentleman now—the squire, if you like—with his big house, his thousands in the bank, his freehold estates, his sheep and cattle and horses and carriage, fields and gardens, stables and coach-house.
All these things he had made and bought with his own shrewd brain and strong hands. This was the position of Samuel Burdock—once a shepherd—a ship’s boy—a station hand. And Reginald Leighton, now called ‘Jack,’ whose youth was surrounded by luxury, was this man’s labourer, a hewer of wood, a drawer of water, thankful to take his weekly wages, his beef and bread, a meal in his kitchen, a glass of brandy from his hand to ease the torments of the recovering drunkard.
‘Here,’ I thought to myself, ‘is another Gurth; the thrall of a tyrant vice, and no smith may strike off his fetters.’
He stopped as he was going into the kitchen, and looked up at me with a bitter smile.
‘A bad business, Claythorpe,’ says he, ‘but it’s no use whining. You guess how it happened, I suppose; or Burdock told you. I can’t resist the infernal grog, and that’s the truth. It’s been my ruin in this country, and will be the death of me yet. Your money will be all right. I will send you an order as soon as I’ve been here a month, and I’m likely to stop six.’
‘Never mind the money,’ I said hastily. ‘If you only knew—’
‘How sorry you are? I do know. I’m infernally sorry for myself sometimes. But the devil’s too strong for me, and I have to give him best; and now we’ll drop the subject, if you please. I’m one of the hands on this place, and you’re a friend of the boss. That’s our position in the future, and we’d better keep to it. I feel as if a cup of tea would pick me up a bit. Good morning, Jesse, and thanks very much.’ He walked into the kitchen, where breakfast was ready for him on the deal table.
Next morning early I saw him digging away in the garden as if he’d been brought up to it, whistling and seemingly quite well and jolly again. He went to the men’s hut for his dinner, and came back again and dug till sundown—very quick and neat, too. It wasn’t his first job of the kind, I could see. He said good morning or afternoon to me, as the case might be; but he didn’t seem to care to talk much, so I didn’t press it on him.
I couldn’t help having another try with Burdock though. ‘Don’t you think if he could be got home to his friends that it might save him?’
‘Not a bit of it. More likely to kill him in a year, besides disgracing them all. He’s got the drink fever once and for all, and it won’t never leave him as long as he’s a living man.’
‘But if he was out of the country?’
‘Out of the country! That’s the very thing that would be the death of him, quick. What can a swell that drinks do in England? Get into some disreputable hole and die there! He can’t even turn billiard-marker. He can’t dig or sheep-wash or plough there. Labour’s dirt cheap, and the farmers don’t want broken-down swells. But this is the best country in the world for him, and the like of him. He get’s six months’ honest well-paid work at a time, in the fresh bush air—well fed too, he is. It gives his constitution a chance to pull up. He ain’t looked down on overmuch either, for people here understand his complaint, and he ain’t the only one by a good many. The chances are he’ll live longer, and do better “on the wallaby” here than in any other country in the world.’
‘And be a “station hand”—a “knock-about man”—to the end of his miserable life,’ says I.
‘He ain’t miserable, bless your heart!—far from it,’ says Burdock. ‘You can hear him whistling at his work now, as jolly as a sand-boy. They get used to it in time, and to the men’s hut, somehow. They ain’t comfortable nowhere else after carrying the swag for a year or two; and after their day’s work, when they’ve had their supper and settled down to a good square smoke, they’re as nigh happy as they know how to be.’
Burdock and I ciphered the thing out—as he called it—about the spare country between Banya and Gol Gol. The end of it was that I sent in tenders to the Lands Office for it, and the five Yantara blocks. He had printed forms and all that, and showed me how to fill them up, and send them off by post to the Department of Lands.
I was to stay there, of course, till I got an answer, and if the money came to more than I had in the bank, he’d advance me the rest. If I didn’t get the block, I shouldn’t want the money; and if I did, there was a ‘gentle fortune’ in it, as he said, which would be good security for a loan. Besides, there was a smart land agent in Sydney, who did all his work, that would push on matters at the Lands Office, and prevent their forgetting the case.
After a month or two’s waiting, the paper came up from the Lands Office. My tender had been accepted for whatever unoccupied land lay between the boundaries of Banya and Gol Gol runs. A Government surveyor had been instructed to proceed to the locality and run the line; and the rent would be so much, besides the expense of survey, which I was directed to pay into the Treasury within three months.
Also—and this was a great matter—my tender for Yantara Blocks, A B C D and E, had been accepted, as per notice in the Government Gazette of —— date.
‘You’ve made a dashed good start,’ Burdock sings out when I showed him the letter, ‘with your A B C blocks. There’s nothin’ to prevent your goin’ in for the whole bloomin’ alphabet by degrees. I knew them fellers at Wereboldra—that’s the next station—would only tender £10 each. They didn’t expect anybody knew about Yantara but themselves. They’ll be ready to bite their fingers off when they see as you’ve got ’em. You’re a made man, I consider. The next thing to see about is a flock or two of sheep. You can pick them up after Calyanbone Races.’