I was carefully instructed by letter to take the train to Kanan, coach it to the Rabbit Trap, take horse from Whalan’s to the Cross Roads, ask someone at Old Poley’s on the hill to direct me to Sheep’s Eye; from there strike west on foot, keeping Bugle Point on my right, and “Chin Whiskers” would meet me at The Crossing. There was no accommodation at the mine for city visitors, but I was given to understand Mr. Larry Jeans would be happy to accommodate me at his homestead over the spur.
Casual references to Mr. Jeans in the correspondence gave me the impression that Jeans was an affluent gentleman of luxurious tastes and a hospitable disposition, and that a harmless eccentricity led him to follow agricultural and pastoral pursuits in the vicinity of Scrubby Gully instead of wasting his time in voluptuous ease in the city.
“Chin Whiskers” met me at The Crossing. “Chin Whiskers” was a meditative giant who exhausted his mental and physical energies chewing tobacco, and who bore about his person interesting and obvious evidence of the length and the severity of the local drought—he was, in fact, the drought incarnate. The Crossing was a mere indication of a track across a yellow, rock-strewn indentation between two hills, which indentation, “Chin Whiskers” informed me, was “The Creek.” That did not surprise me, because I knew that every second country township and district in Australia has a somewhat similar indentation which it always calls “The Creek.” Sometimes “The Creek” has moist places in it, sometimes it is quite damp for almost a dozen miles, but more often it is as hard and dry as a brick-kiln. When the indentation is really wet along its whole length it is invariably called “The River.”
I found the mine; it was a simple horizontal hole bored in a hill. The battery was there, and the water-wheel. The water-wheel stood disconsolate beside the dust-strewn creek, and looked as much at home as a water-wheel might be expected to look in the centre of the sandy wastes of Sahara. The working shareholders were unaffectedly glad to see me. They were sapless and drought-stricken, but they assured me, with great enthusiasm, that they lived in momentary expectation of a tremendous downfall. Leen had been mending the roof of his hut, he said, in readiness for the heavy rains which were due before morning. He examined the sky critically, and expressed a belief that I would be detained on Scrubby Gully a couple of weeks or so in consequence of the floods.
This spirit of unreasonable hopefulness and trust seemed to be shared by Cody, and Ellis, and MacMahon. I alone was dubious. The journey up had worn me out; the dry desolation all around and the flagrant unprofitableness of our spec. sickened me; but Jeans still remained—the prodigal Jeans, with his spacious homestead and profuse hospitality. I was heartfully grateful for Jeans. We met in due course. As I talked with Leen, a man came wearily down the hill, towing a meagre horse, which in turn was towing a log. This man delivered his log, unslung his animal, and approached us, heroically lugging behind him the miserable apology for a horse—a morbid brute manifestly without a hope or ambition left in life, and conveying mysteriously to the observer a knowledge of its fixed and unshakable determination to lie down and die the moment its owner’s attention was otherwise directed. But the proprietor seemed fully alive to the situation, and never allowed his thoughts to stray entirely from the horse, but was continually jerking its head up, and addressing towards it reproaches, expostulations, and curses—curses that had lost all their vigour and dignity. This man was Jeans, and if I had not seen his horse I would have said that Jeans was the most hopelessly heart-broken and utterly used-up animal breathing on the face of the earth. He was about 40, grey, hollow—cheeked, hollow—chested, bent, and apathetic with the dreadful apathy that comes of wasted effort, vain toil, and blasted hopes. Jeans had a face that had forgotten how to smile and never scowled—a face that took no exercise, but remained set in the one wooden expression of joyless, passionless indifference to whatever fate could offer henceforth and forever. My last hopes exploded at the sight of him.
Mr. Larry Jeans said I was welcome to camp in the spare room “up to” his place, and added dully that “proberly” his missus could scrape up grub enough for me “fer a day’r two.” “Proberly” did not sound very encouraging, but I had no option, and, being dead-beat, accepted the hospitality offered, and followed Mr. Jeans. Larry laboriously hauled his melancholy horse over a couple of low stony rises, and then we tackled the scrag end of the range, across which led a vague track that wound in and out amongst a forest of great rocks, and presented all the difficulties and dangers of mountaineering without its compensations. Jeans struggled on with dull patience, and in silence, saving when it was necessary to divert the old horse from his morbid thoughts, and when he briefly answered my questions. I gathered from him that the men at the mine had been expecting rain for four months.
“And what do you think of the chances?” I asked.
“Oh, me, I never expect nothin’. Sometimes things happen. I don’t expect ’em, though.”
“Things happen—what, for instance?”
“Well, dry spells.”
I elicited that pleuro happened, and rabbits, and fires, and “this here new-fangled fever.” But whatever happened Jeans never fluctuated; he had struck an average of misery, and was bogged in the moral slough. It seemed as if his sensibilities above a certain capacity had been worn out by over-work, and refused to feel more than a fixed degree of trouble, so that whatever might come on top of his present woes, be it fever, or fire, or death, the man remained in his normal condition of grim apathy and spiritless obedience to fate.
The “homestead” stood upon the flat timbered country beyond the rise. It was just what Jeans’s homestead might have been expected to be—a low structure of bark and slabs, with a slab chimney at one end, and a door in the middle between two canvas “windows.” It stood in a small clearing; just beyond the house stood the skeleton of a shed, upon which, it being sundown, roosted a few gaunt fowls; a lank cow with one horn was deeply meditating by the front door. There were signs of bold raids upon the stubborn bush, pathetic ventures; and great butts lay about in evidence of much weary but unprofitable work. A dog-leg fence, starting at no particular point, straddled along in front of the house, and finished nowhere about a hundred yards off. Not a new fence either, but an old one, with much dry grass matted amongst the logs—that was the pathos of it. There had been a brave attempt at a garden, too; but the few fruit trees that stood had been stripped of the bark, and the hens had made dust-baths in all the beds. In this dust an army of children were wallowing—half-clad, bare�footed, dirt-encrusted children, but all hale and boisterous.
At the door we were met by Mrs. Larry Jeans, and after introducing me as “him from the city,” the master laboured away, dragging his shuffling horse, and leaving me in the centre of a wondering circle of youngsters of all sorts and sizes, from two dusty mites not yet properly balanced on their crooked little legs up to a shock-headed lubberly boy of thirteen, curiously embossed with large tan freckles, and a tall, gawky girl of the same age in preposterously short skirts, whom my presence afflicted with a most painful bashfulness. A peculiarity about Jeans’s children that struck me was the fact that they seemed to run in sets: there was a pair even for the sticky baby deftly hooked under its mother’s left arm, judging by the petulant wailing to be heard within.
The Jeans’s homestead consisted of two compartments. I looked about in vain for the “spare room,” and concluded it must be either the capacious fire-place or the skeleton shed on which the hens were roosting. The principal article of kitchen furniture was a long plank table built into the floor; between it and the wall was a bush-made form, also a fixture. A few crazy three-legged stools, a safe manufactured from a zinc-lined case, and an odd assortment of crockery and tin cups, saucers, and plates piled on slab shelves in one corner, completed the list of “fixings.”
Mrs. Larry Jeans was a short, bony, homely woman, very like her husband—strangely, pathetically like in face and demeanour; similarly bowed with labour, and with the same air of hopelessness and of accepting the toils and privations of their miserable existence as an inevitable lot. She was always working, and always had worked; her hands were hard and contorted in evidence of it, and her cheek was as brown and as dry as husks from labouring in the sun.
We had tea and bread and boiled onions and corned beef for tea that evening—a minimum of beef and a maximum of onions. The last onion crop had been a comparative success somewhere within half a day’s journey of Scrubby Gully. Tea served to introduce more children; they dangled over the arms of the unhappy mother, hung to her skirts, sprawled about her feet, squabbled in the corners, and overran the house. Jeans helped to feed the brood in his slow, patient way, and after tea he helped to pack away the younger in little bundles—here, there, and everywhere—where they slept peacefully, but in great apparent peril, whilst the bigger kids charged about the room and roared, and fought, and raised a very pandemonium of their own. Every now and again Mrs. Jeans would lift her tired head from her sewing or her insatiable twins, and say weakly, “Now, you Jinny, behave.” Or Larry would remark dispassionately, “Hi, you, Billy!” But otherwise the youngsters raged unchecked, their broken-spirited parents seeming to regard the noise and worry of them as the lightest trial in a world of struggling and trouble.
I asked Jeans how many children he thought he had. He didn’t seem certain, but after due deliberation said there might be thirteen in all. He had probably lost count, for I am certain I tallied fifteen—seven sets and one odd one.
When the washing-up was done, and half of the family were bedded down, Larry dragged a tangle of old harness from the other room, and sat for two hours painfully piecing it up with cord, and his wife sat opposite him, silent and blank of face, mending one set of rags with another—I perched upon a stool watching the pair, studying one face after the other, irritated at length by the sheeplike immobility of both, thinking it would be a relief if Jeans would suddenly break out and do something desperate, something to show that he had not, in spite of appearances, got beyond the possibility of sanguinary revolt; but he worked on steadily, uncomplainingly, till the boy with the unique freckles came hurrying in with the intelligence that the old horse was “havin’ a fit’r somethin’.” Jeans did not swear. He said “Is he but?” and put aside his harness, and went out, like a man for whom life has no surprises.
The selector was over an hour struggling with his hypochondriac horse, whilst I exchanged fragments of conversation with Mrs. Jeans, and went upon various mental excursions after that spare room. It appeared that the Jeanses had neighbours. There was another family settled seven miles up the gully, but Mrs. Jeans informed me that the Dicksons, being quiet and sort of down-hearted, were not very good company, consequently she and Jeans rarely visited them. I was indulging in a mental prospect of the jubilation at a reunion of the down-hearted Dicksons and the gay and frivolous Jeanses when Larry returned from his struggle with the horse. He resumed his work upon the harness without any complaint. His remark that “Them skewball horses is alwis onreasonable” was not spoken in a carping spirit; it was given as conveying valuable information to a stranger.
At 11 o’clock my host “s’posed that p’r’aps maybe” I was ready to turn in. I was, and we went forth together in quest of the spare room. The room in question proved to be a hastily-constructed lean-to on the far corner of the house, at the back. Inside, one wall was six feet high and the other was merely a tree-butt. My bunk was built against the butt, and between the bunk and the roof there were about eighteen inches of space. That bunk had not been run up for a fat man. After establishing me in the spare room Jeans turned to go.
“Best bar the door with a log, case o’ the cow,” he said. “If she comes bumpin’ round in the night, don’t mind. She walks in her sleep moonlight nights.”
It only needed this to convince me that I was usurping the customary domicile of the meditative cow.
The room had been carefully furbished up and deeply carpeted with scrub ferns. But the cow was not to be denied.
Weary as I was, I got little sleep that night. I had fallen off comfortably about half an hour after turning in, when I was awakened again by some commotion in the house. Half a dozen of the children were blubbering, and I could hear the heavy tread of Larry, and the equally heavy tread of his wife, moving about the house. Presently both passed by the lean-to, and away in the direction of the range. For another half-hour or so there was silence, and then the one-horned cow came along and tried my door. Failing to open it, she tried the walls and the roof, but could not break her way in, so she camped under the lee of the structure, and lowed dismally at intervals till day-break.
When I arose a scantily-attired small boy generously provided me with a pint pannikin three-parts full of water. The water was for my morning bath, and the small boy was careful to warn me not to throw it away when I was through with it. This youngster told me that “Dad, an’ mum, an’ Jimmy ” had been out all night hunting Steve. Steve, I gathered, was the one enterprising child in the household, and was in the habit of going alone upon voyages of exploration along the range, where, being a very little fellow, he usually lost himself, and provided his parents with a night’s entertainment searching for him in the barren gorges and about the boulder-strewn spurs of the range. How it happened that he was not missed till nearly midnight on this occasion I cannot say, unless the father and mother were really as ignorant of the extent and character of their family as they appeared to be.
Mrs. Jeans was the first to return, and she brought Steve with her. The dear child had not been lost, after all. Incensed by some indignity that had been put upon him during the afternoon, he had “run away from home,” he said, and slept all night in a wombat’s hole about 200 yards from the house. There his mother found him, returning from her long, weary search. The incident did not appear to have affected her in any way; she looked as tired and as heart-sick as on the previous evening, but not more so.
“You know we lost one little one there”—she extended her hand towards the low, rambling repellent hills—“an’ found him dead a week after.”
Larry returned half an hour later, and his apathy under the circumstances was simply appalling.
We had fried onions and bread and tea for breakfast, and immediately the meal was over Larry, who I imagined would be going to bed for a few hours, appeared in front of the house leading his deplorable horse. He was bound for the mine, he said. I put in that day exploring the tunnel, examining the immovable mill, hunting for specimens in the quartz-tip, and listening to Leen’s cheerful weather prophesies; and Jeans and his soured quadruped dragged logs to the mine from a patch of timber about a mile off, which patch the men alluded to largely as The Gum Forest.
Returning to the homestead at sundown we found the children fighting in the dust and the one-horned cow meditating at the door as on the previous evening. I fancied I detected in the eye of the cow a look of pathetic reproach as I passed her. Tea that evening consisted mainly of roast onions. Jeans felt called upon to apologize because the boys had been unable to trap a rabbit for my benefit.
“Now’n agen, after a rainy spell, we’re ’most afraid the rabbits is a-goin’ to eat us, an’ then when we’d like a rabbit-stoo there ain’t a rabbit to be found within twenty mile,” said the settler impassively. “When there is rabbits, there ain’t onions,” he added as a further contribution to the curiosities of natural history.
The second night at Scrubby Gully was painfully like the first: Mrs. Jeans stitched, Mr. Jeans laboured over his tangle of harness, and the brood rolled and tumbled about the room, raising much dust and creating a deafening noise, to which Larry and Mary his wife gave little heed. When a section of the family had been parcelled up and put to sleep, I was tempted to ask Jeans why he continued to live in that unhallowed, out-of-the-way corner, and to waste his energies upon a parched and blasted holding instead of settling somewhere within reach of a market and beyond the blight of tangible and visible despair that hung over Scrubby Gully and its vicinity.
“Dunno,” said Jeans, without interest, “’pears t’me t’be pretty much as bad in other places. Evans is the same, so’s Calder.”
I did not know either Evans or Calder, but I pitied both from the bottom of my heart. Jeans admitted that he had given up hope of getting the timber off his land, though he “suspected” he might be able to handle it somehow “when the boys grew up.” He further admitted that he didn’t know “as the land was good for anythin’ much” when it was cleared but his pessimism was proof against all my arguments, and I went sadly to bunk, leaving the man and his wife working with slow, animal perseverance, apparently unconscious of the fact that they had not slept a wink for over thirty hours.
The cow raided my room shortly after midnight. She managed to break down the door this time, but as her intentions were peaceful, and as it was preferable rather to have her for a room-mate than to be kept awake by her pathetic complaints, I made no attempt to evict her, and we both passed an easy night.
I was up early next morning, but Mr. and Mrs. Jeans were before me. They were standing together down by the aimless dog-leg fence, and the hypochondriacal horse lay between them. I walked across, suspecting further “unreasonableness” on the part of the horse. The animal was dead.
“Old man, how’ll you manage to haul those logs in now?” As Mrs. Jeans said this I fancied I saw flicker in her face for a moment a look of spiritual agony, a hint of revolt that might manifest itself in tears and bitter complainings, but it passed in the instant.
Jeans merely shook his head, and answered something indicative of the complete destruction of his faith in “them skewbald horses.”
We had bread and onions for breakfast.
When I last saw Jeans, as I was leaving Scrubby Gully that day, he was coming down the hill from the direction of the gum forest, struggling in the blinding heat, with a rope over his shoulder, towing a nine-foot sluice leg.
We had a letter from Leen yesterday; he says the working shareholders are hurrying to get the sluice fixed over the wheel, and he (Leen) anticipates a heavy downfall of rain during the night.