‘Oh, tell her a tale of the fairies bright—|
That only the Bushmen know—
Who guide the feet of the lost aright,
Or carry them up through the starry night,
Where the Bush-lost babies go.’
HE was one of those men who seldom smile. There are many in the Australian Bush, where drift wrecks and failures of all stations and professions (and of none), and from all the world. Or, if they do smile, the smile is either mechanical or bitter as a rule—cynical. They seldom talk. The sort of men who, as bosses, are set down by the majority—and without reason or evidence— as being proud, hard, and selfish,—‘too mean to live, and too big for their boots.’
But when the Boss did smile his expression was very, very gentle, and very sad. I have seen him smile down on a little child who persisted in sitting on his knee and prattling to him, in spite of his silence and gloom. He was tall and gaunt, with haggard grey eyes—haunted grey eyes sometimes— and hair and beard thick and strong, but grey. He was not above forty-five. He was of the type of men who die in harness, with their hair thick and strong, but grey or white when it should be brown. The opposite type, I fancy, would be the soft, dark-haired, blue-eyed men who grow bald sooner than they grow grey, and fat and contented, and die respectably in their beds.
His name was Head—Walter Head. He was a boss drover on the overland routes. I engaged with him at a place north of the Queensland border to travel down to Bathurst, on the Great Western Line in New South Wales, with something over a thousand head of store bullocks for the Sydney market. I am an Australian Bushman (with city experience)—a rover, of course, and a ne’er-do-well, I suppose. I was born with brains and a thin skin— worse luck! It was in the days before I was married, and I went by the name of ‘Jack Ellis’ this trip,—not because the police were after me, but because I used to tell yarns about a man named Jack Ellis— and so the chaps nicknamed me.
The Boss spoke little to the men: he’d sit at tucker or with his pipe by the camp-fire nearly as silently as he rode his night-watch round the big, restless, weird-looking mob of bullocks camped on the dusky starlit plain. I believe that from the first he spoke oftener and more confidentially to me than to any other of the droving party. There was a something of sympathy between us—I can’t explain what it was. It seemed as though it were an understood thing between us that we understood each other. He sometimes said things to me which would have needed a deal of explanation—so I thought— had he said them to any other of the party. He’d often, after brooding a long while, start a sentence, and break off with ‘You know, Jack.’ And somehow I understood, without being able to explain why. We had never met before I engaged with him for this trip. His men respected him, but he was not a popular boss: he was too gloomy, and never drank a glass nor ‘shouted’ on the trip: he was reckoned a ‘mean boss’, and rather a nigger-driver.
He was full of Adam Lindsay Gordon, the English-Australian poet who shot himself, and so was I. I lost an old copy of Gordon’s poems on the route, and the Boss overheard me inquiring about it; later on he asked me if I liked Gordon. We got to it rather sheepishly at first, but by-and-by we’d quote Gordon freely in turn when we were alone in camp. ‘Those are grand lines about Burke and Wills, the explorers, aren’t they, Jack?’ he’d say, after chewing his cud, or rather the stem of his briar, for a long while without a word. (He had his pipe in his mouth as often as any of us, but somehow I fancied he didn’t enjoy it: an empty pipe or a stick would have suited him just as well, it seemed to me.) ‘Those are great lines,’ he’d say—
‘“In Collins Street standeth a statue tall—|
A statue tall on a pillar of stone—
Telling its story to great and small
Of the dust reclaimed from the sand-waste lone.
Weary and wasted, worn and wan,|
Feeble and faint, and languid and low,
He lay on the desert a dying man,
Who has gone, my friends, where we all must go.”
That’s a grand thing, Jack. How does it go?—
“With a pistol clenched in his failing hand,|
And the film of death o’er his fading eyes,
He saw the sun go down on the sand,”’—
The Boss would straighten up with a sigh that might have been half a yawn—
|‘“And he slept and never saw it rise,”’|
—speaking with a sort of quiet force all the time. Then maybe he’d stand with his back to the fire roasting his dusty leggings, with his hands behind his back and looking out over the dusky plain.
‘“What mattered the sand or the whit’ning chalk,|
The blighted herbage or blackened log,
The crooked beak of the eagle-hawk,
Or the hot red tongue of the native dog?”
They don’t matter much, do they, Jack?’
‘Damned if I think they do, Boss!’ I’d say.
‘“The couch was rugged, those sextons rude,|
But, in spite of a leaden shroud, we know
That the bravest and fairest are earth-worms’ food
Where once they have gone where we all must go.”’
Once he repeated the poem containing the lines—
‘“Love, when we wandered here together,|
Hand in hand through the sparkling weather—
God surely loved us a little then.”
Beautiful lines those, Jack.
“Then skies were fairer and shores were firmer,|
And the blue sea over the white sand rolled—
Babble and prattle, and prattle and murmur’—
How does it go, Jack?’ He stood up and turned his face to the light, but not before I had a glimpse of it. I think that the saddest eyes on earth are mostly women’s eyes, but I’ve seen few so sad as the Boss’s were just then.
It seemed strange that he, a Bushman, preferred Gordon’s sea poems to his horsey and bushy rhymes; but so he did. I fancy his favourite poem was that one of Gordon’s with the lines—
‘I would that with sleepy soft embraces|
The sea would fold me, would find me rest
In the luminous depths of its secret places,
Where the wealth of God’s marvels is manifest!’
He usually spoke quietly, in a tone as though death were in camp; but after we’d been on Gordon’s poetry for a while he’d end it abruptly with, ‘Well, it’s time to turn in,’ or, ‘It’s time to turn out,’ or he’d give me an order in connection with the cattle. He had been a well-to-do squatter on the Lachlan river-side, in New South Wales, and had been ruined by the drought, they said. One night in camp, and after smoking in silence for nearly an hour, he asked—
‘Do you know Fisher, Jack—the man that owns these bullocks?’
‘I’ve heard of him,’ I said. Fisher was a big squatter, with stations both in New South Wales and in Queensland.
‘Well, he came to my station on the Lachlan years ago without a penny in his pocket, or decent rag to his back, or a crust in his tucker-bag, and I gave him a job. He’s my boss now. Ah, well! it’s the way of Australia, you know, Jack.’
The Boss had one man who went on every droving trip with him; he was ‘bred’ on the Boss’s station, they said, and had been with him practically all his life. His name was ‘Andy’. I forget his other name, if he really had one. Andy had charge of the ‘droving-plant’ (a tilted two-horse waggonette, in which we carried the rations and horse-feed), and he did the cooking and kept accounts. The Boss had no head for figures. Andy might have been twenty-five or thirty-five, or anything in between. His hair stuck up like a well-made brush all round, and his big grey eyes also had an inquiring expression. His weakness was girls, or he theirs, I don’t know which (half-castes not barred). He was, I think, the most innocent, good-natured, and open-hearted scamp I ever met. Towards the middle of the trip Andy spoke to me one night alone in camp about the Boss.
‘The Boss seems to have taken to you, Jack, all right.’
‘Think so?’ I said. I thought I smelt jealousy and detected a sneer.
‘I’m sure of it. It’s very seldom he takes to any one.’
I said nothing.
Then after a while Andy said suddenly—
‘Look here, Jack, I’m glad of it. I’d like to see him make a chum of some one, if only for one trip. And don’t you make any mistake about the Boss. He’s a white man. There’s precious few that know him—precious few now; but I do, and it’ll do him a lot of good to have some one to yarn with.’ And Andy said no more on the subject for that trip.
The long, hot, dusty miles dragged by across the blazing plains—big clearings rather—and through the sweltering hot scrubs, and we reached Bathurst at last; and then the hot dusty days and weeks and months that we’d left behind us to the Great North-West seemed as nothing,—as I suppose life will seem when we come to the end of it.
The bullocks were going by rail from Bathurst to Sydney. We were all one long afternoon getting them into the trucks, and when we’d finished the boss said to me—
‘Look here, Jack, you’re going on to Sydney, aren’t you?’
‘Yes; I’m going down to have a fly round.’
‘Well, why not wait and go down with Andy in the morning? He’s going down in charge of the cattle. The cattle-train starts about daylight. It won’t be so comfortable as the passenger; but you’ll save your fare, and you can give Andy a hand with the cattle. You’ve only got to have a look at ’em every other station, and poke up any that fall down in the trucks. You and Andy are mates, aren’t you?’
I said it would just suit me. Somehow I fancied that the Boss seemed anxious to have my company for one more evening, and, to tell the truth, I felt really sorry to part with him. I’d had to work as hard as any of the other chaps; but I liked him, and I believed he liked me. He’d struck me as a man who’d been quietened down by some heavy trouble, and I felt sorry for him without knowing what the trouble was.
‘Come and have a drink, Boss,’ I said. The agent had paid us off during the day.
He turned into a hotel with me.
‘I don’t drink, Jack,’ he said; ‘but I’ll take a glass with you.’
‘I didn’t know you were a teetotaller, Boss,’ I said. I had not been surprised at his keeping so strictly from the drink on the trip; but now that it was over it was a different thing.
‘I’m not a teetotaller, Jack,’ he said. ‘I can take a glass or leave it.’ And he called for a long beer, and we drank ‘Here’s luck!’ to each other.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘I wish I could take a glass or leave it.’ And I meant it.
Then the Boss spoke as I’d never heard him speak before. I thought for the moment that the one drink had affected him; but I understood before the night was over. He laid his hand on my shoulder with a grip like a man who has suddenly made up his mind to lend you five pounds. ‘Jack!’ he said, ‘there’s worse things than drinking, and there’s worse things than heavy smoking. When a man who smokes gets such a load of trouble on him that he can find no comfort in his pipe, then it’s a heavy load. And when a man who drinks gets so deep into trouble that he can find no comfort in liquor, then it’s deep trouble. Take my tip for it, Jack.’
He broke off, and half turned away with a jerk of his head, as if impatient with himself; then presently he spoke in his usual quiet tone—
‘But you’re only a boy yet, Jack. Never mind me. I won’t ask you to take the second drink. You don’t want it; and, besides, I know the signs.’
He paused, leaning with both hands on the edge of the counter, and looking down between his arms at the floor. He stood that way thinking for a while; then he suddenly straightened up, like a man who’d made up his mind to something.
‘I want you to come along home with me, Jack,’ he said; ‘we’ll fix you a shake-down.’
I forgot to tell you that he was married and lived in Bathurst.
‘But won’t it put Mrs Head about?’
‘Not at all. She’s expecting you. Come along; there’s nothing to see in Bathurst, and you’ll have plenty of knocking round in Sydney. Come on, we’ll just be in time for tea.’
He lived in a brick cottage on the outskirts of the town—an old-fashioned cottage, with ivy and climbing roses, like you see in some of those old settled districts. There was, I remember, the stump of a tree in front, covered with ivy till it looked like a giant’s club with the thick end up.
When we got to the house the Boss paused a minute with his hand on the gate. He’d been home a couple of days, having ridden in ahead of the bullocks.
‘Jack,’ he said, ‘I must tell you that Mrs Head had a great trouble at one time. We—we lost our two children. It does her good to talk to a stranger now and again—she’s always better afterwards; but there’s very few I care to bring. You—you needn’t notice anything strange. And agree with her, Jack. You know, Jack.’
‘That’s all right, Boss,’ I said. I’d knocked about the Bush too long, and run against too many strange characters and things, to be surprised at anything much.
The door opened, and he took a little woman in his arms. I saw by the light of a lamp in the room behind that the woman’s hair was grey, and I reckoned that he had his mother living with him. And—we do have odd thoughts at odd times in a flash—and I wondered how Mrs Head and her mother-in-law got on together. But the next minute I was in the room, and introduced to ‘My wife, Mrs Head,’ and staring at her with both eyes.
It was his wife. I don’t think I can describe her. For the first minute or two, coming in out of the dark and before my eyes got used to the lamp-light, I had an impression as of a little old woman—one of those fresh-faced, well-preserved, little old ladies— who dressed young, wore false teeth, and aped the giddy girl. But this was because of Mrs Head’s impulsive welcome of me, and her grey hair. The hair was not so grey as I thought at first, seeing it with the lamp-light behind it: it was like dull-brown hair lightly dusted with flour. She wore it short, and it became her that way. There was something aristocratic about her face—her nose and chin—I fancied, and something that you couldn’t describe. She had big dark eyes—dark-brown, I thought, though they might have been hazel: they were a bit too big and bright for me, and now and again, when she got excited, the white showed all round the pupils—just a little, but a little was enough.
She seemed extra glad to see me. I thought at first that she was a bit of a gusher.
‘Oh, I’m so glad you’ve come, Mr Ellis,’ she said, giving my hand a grip. ‘Walter—Mr Head—has been speaking to me about you. I’ve been expecting you. Sit down by the fire, Mr Ellis; tea will be ready presently. Don’t you find it a bit chilly?’ She shivered. It was a bit chilly now at night on the Bathurst plains. The table was set for tea, and set rather in swell style. The cottage was too well furnished even for a lucky boss drover’s home; the furniture looked as if it had belonged to a tony homestead at one time. I felt a bit strange at first, sitting down to tea, and almost wished that I was having a comfortable tuck-in at a restaurant or in a pub. dining-room. But she knew a lot about the Bush, and chatted away, and asked questions about the trip, and soon put me at my ease. You see, for the last year or two I’d taken my tucker in my hands,—hunk of damper and meat and a clasp-knife mostly,—sitting on my heel in the dust, or on a log or a tucker-box.
There was a hard, brown, wrinkled old woman that the Heads called ‘Auntie’. She waited at the table; but Mrs Head kept bustling round herself most of the time, helping us. Andy came in to tea.
Mrs Head bustled round like a girl of twenty instead of a woman of thirty-seven, as Andy afterwards told me she was. She had the figure and movements of a girl, and the impulsiveness and expression too—a womanly girl; but sometimes I fancied there was something very childish about her face and talk. After tea she and the Boss sat on one side of the fire and Andy and I on the other— Andy a little behind me at the corner of the table.
‘Walter—Mr Head—tells me you’ve been out on the Lachlan river, Mr Ellis?’ she said as soon as she’d settled down, and she leaned forward, as if eager to hear that I’d been there.
‘Yes, Mrs Head. I’ve knocked round all about out there.’
She sat up straight, and put the tips of her fingers to the side of her forehead and knitted her brows. This was a trick she had—she often did it during the evening. And when she did that she seemed to forget what she’d said last.
She smoothed her forehead, and clasped her hands in her lap.
‘Oh, I’m so glad to meet somebody from the back country, Mr Ellis,’ she said. ‘Walter so seldom brings a stranger here, and I get tired of talking to the same people about the same things, and seeing the same faces. You don’t know what a relief it is, Mr Ellis, to see a new face and talk to a stranger.’
‘I can quite understand that, Mrs Head,’ I said. And so I could. I never stayed more than three months in one place if I could help it.
She looked into the fire and seemed to try to think. The Boss straightened up and stroked her head with his big sun-browned hand, and then put his arm round her shoulders. This brought her back.
‘You know we had a station out on the Lachlan, Mr Ellis. Did Walter ever tell you about the time we lived there?’
‘No,’ I said, glancing at the Boss. ‘I know you had a station there; but, you know, the Boss doesn’t talk much.’
‘Tell Jack, Maggie,’ said the Boss; ‘I don’t mind.’
She smiled. ‘You know Walter, Mr Ellis,’ she said. ‘You won’t mind him. He doesn’t like me to talk about the children; he thinks it upsets me, but that’s foolish: it always relieves me to talk to a stranger.’ She leaned forward, eagerly it seemed, and went on quickly: ‘I’ve been wanting to tell you about the children ever since Walter spoke to me about you. I knew you would understand directly I saw your face. These town people don’t understand. I like to talk to a Bushman. You know we lost our children out on the station. The fairies took them. Did Walter ever tell you about the fairies taking the children away?’
This was a facer. ‘I—I beg pardon,’ I commenced, when Andy gave me a dig in the back. Then I saw it all.
‘No, Mrs Head. The Boss didn’t tell me about that.’
‘You surely know about the Bush Fairies, Mr Ellis,’ she said, her big eyes fixed on my face—‘the Bush Fairies that look after the little ones that are lost in the Bush, and take them away from the Bush if they are not found? You’ve surely heard of them, Mr Ellis? Most Bushmen have that I’ve spoken to. Maybe you’ve seen them? Andy there has?’ Andy gave me another dig.
‘Of course I’ve heard of them, Mrs Head,’ I said; ‘but I can’t swear that I’ve seen one.’
‘Andy has. Haven’t you, Andy?’
‘Of course I have, Mrs Head. Didn’t I tell you all about it the last time we were home?’
‘And didn’t you ever tell Mr Ellis, Andy?’
‘Of course he did!’ I said, coming to Andy’s rescue; ‘I remember it now. You told me that night we camped on the Bogan river, Andy.’
‘Of course!’ said Andy.
‘Did he tell you about finding a lost child and the fairy with it?’
‘Yes,’ said Andy; ‘I told him all about that.’
‘And the fairy was just going to take the child away when Andy found it, and when the fairy saw Andy she flew away.’
‘Yes,’ I said; ‘that’s what Andy told me.’
‘And what did you say the fairy was like, Andy?’ asked Mrs Head, fixing her eyes on his face.
‘Like. It was like one of them angels you see in Bible pictures, Mrs Head,’ said Andy promptly, sitting bolt upright, and keeping his big innocent grey eyes fixed on hers lest she might think he was telling lies. ‘It was just like the angel in that Christ-in-the-stable picture we had at home on the station—the right-hand one in blue.’
She smiled. You couldn’t call it an idiotic smile, nor the foolish smile you see sometimes in melancholy mad people. It was more of a happy childish smile.
‘I was so foolish at first, and gave poor Walter and the doctors a lot of trouble,’ she said. ‘Of course it never struck me, until afterwards, that the fairies had taken the children.’
She pressed the tips of the fingers of both hands to her forehead, and sat so for a while; then she roused herself again—
‘But what am I thinking about? I haven’t started to tell you about the children at all yet. Auntie! bring the children’s portraits, will you, please? You’ll find them on my dressing-table.’
The old woman seemed to hesitate.
‘Go on, Auntie, and do what I ask you,’ said Mrs Head. ‘Don’t be foolish. You know I’m all right now.’
‘You mustn’t take any notice of Auntie, Mr Ellis,’ she said with a smile, while the old woman’s back was turned. ‘Poor old body, she’s a bit crotchety at times, as old women are. She doesn’t like me to get talking about the children. She’s got an idea that if I do I’ll start talking nonsense, as I used to do the first year after the children were lost. I was very foolish then, wasn’t I, Walter?’
‘You were, Maggie,’ said the Boss. ‘But that’s all past. You mustn’t think of that time any more.’
‘You see,’ said Mrs Head, in explanation to me, ’at first nothing would drive it out of my head that the children had wandered about until they perished of hunger and thirst in the Bush. As if the Bush Fairies would let them do that.’
‘You were very foolish, Maggie,’ said the Boss; ‘but don’t think about that.’
The old woman brought the portraits, a little boy and a little girl: they must have been very pretty children.
‘You see,’ said Mrs Head, taking the portraits eagerly, and giving them to me one by one, ‘we had these taken in Sydney some years before the children were lost; they were much younger then. Wally’s is not a good portrait; he was teething then, and very thin. That’s him standing on the chair. Isn’t the pose good? See, he’s got one hand and one little foot forward, and an eager look in his eyes. The portrait is very dark, and you’ve got to look close to see the foot. He wants a toy rabbit that the photographer is tossing up to make him laugh. In the next portrait he’s sitting on the chair—he’s just settled himself to enjoy the fun. But see how happy little Maggie looks! You can see my arm where I was holding her in the chair. She was six months old then, and little Wally had just turned two.’
She put the portraits up on the mantel-shelf.
‘Let me see; Wally (that’s little Walter, you know)—Wally was five and little Maggie three and a half when we lost them. Weren’t they, Walter?’
‘Yes, Maggie,’ said the Boss.
‘You were away, Walter, when it happened.’
‘Yes, Maggie,’ said the Boss—cheerfully, it seemed to me—‘I was away.’
‘And we couldn’t find you, Walter. You see,’ she said to me, ‘Walter—Mr Head—was away in Sydney on business, and we couldn’t find his address. It was a beautiful morning, though rather warm, and just after the break-up of the drought. The grass was knee-high all over the run. It was a lonely place; there wasn’t much bush cleared round the homestead, just a hundred yards or so, and the great awful scrubs ran back from the edges of the clearing all round for miles and miles—fifty or a hundred miles in some directions without a break; didn’t they, Walter?’
‘I was alone at the house except for Mary, a half-caste girl we had, who used to help me with the housework and the children. Andy was out on the run with the men, mustering sheep; weren’t you, Andy?’
‘Yes, Mrs Head.’
‘I used to watch the children close as they got to run about, because if they once got into the edge of the scrub they’d be lost; but this morning little Wally begged hard to be let take his little sister down under a clump of blue-gums in a corner of the home paddock to gather buttercups. You remember that clump of gums, Walter?’
‘I remember, Maggie.’
‘“I won’t go through the fence a step, mumma,” little Wally said. I could see Old Peter—an old shepherd and station-hand we had—I could see him working on a dam we were making across a creek that ran down there. You remember Old Peter, Walter?’
‘Of course I do, Maggie.’
‘I knew that Old Peter would keep an eye to the children; so I told little Wally to keep tight hold of his sister’s hand and go straight down to Old Peter and tell him I sent them.’
She was leaning forward with her hands clasping her knee, and telling me all this with a strange sort of eagerness.
‘The little ones toddled off hand in hand, with their other hands holding fast their straw hats. “In case a bad wind blowed,” as little Maggie said. I saw them stoop under the first fence, and that was the last that any one saw of them.’
‘Except the fairies, Maggie,’ said the Boss quickly.
‘Of course, Walter, except the fairies.’
She pressed her fingers to her temples again for a minute.
‘It seems that Old Peter was going to ride out to the musterers’ camp that morning with bread for the men, and he left his work at the dam and started into the Bush after his horse just as I turned back into the house, and before the children got near him. They either followed him for some distance or wandered into the Bush after flowers or butterflies——’ She broke off, and then suddenly asked me, ‘Do you think the Bush Fairies would entice children away, Mr Ellis?’
The Boss caught my eye, and frowned and shook his head slightly.
‘No. I’m sure they wouldn’t, Mrs Head,’ I said—’at least not from what I know of them.’
She thought, or tried to think, again for a while, in her helpless puzzled way. Then she went on, speaking rapidly, and rather mechanically, it seemed to me—
‘The first I knew of it was when Peter came to the house about an hour afterwards, leading his horse, and without the children. I said—I said, “O my God! where’s the children?”’ Her fingers fluttered up to her temples.
‘Don’t mind about that, Maggie,’ said the Boss, hurriedly, stroking her head. ‘Tell Jack about the fairies.’
‘You were away at the time, Walter?’
‘And we couldn’t find you, Walter?’
‘No, Maggie,’ very gently. He rested his elbow on his knee and his chin on his hand, and looked into the fire.
‘It wasn’t your fault, Walter; but if you had been at home do you think the fairies would have taken the children?’
‘Of course they would, Maggie. They had to: the children were lost.’
‘And they’re bringing the children home next year?’
‘Yes, Maggie—next year.’
She lifted her hands to her head in a startled way, and it was some time before she went on again. There was no need to tell me about the lost children. I could see it all. She and the half-caste rushing towards where the children were seen last, with Old Peter after them. The hurried search in the nearer scrub. The mother calling all the time for Maggie and Wally, and growing wilder as the minutes flew past. Old Peter’s ride to the musterers’ camp. Horsemen seeming to turn up in no time and from nowhere, as they do in a case like this, and no matter how lonely the district. Bushmen galloping through the scrub in all directions. The hurried search the first day, and the mother mad with anxiety as night came on. Her long, hopeless, wild-eyed watch through the night; starting up at every sound of a horse’s hoof, and reading the worst in one glance at the rider’s face. The systematic work of the search-parties next day and the days following. How those days do fly past. The women from the next run or selection, and some from the town, driving from ten or twenty miles, perhaps, to stay with and try to comfort the mother. (‘Put the horse to the cart, Jim: I must go to that poor woman!’) Comforting her with improbable stories of children who had been lost for days, and were none the worse for it when they were found. The mounted policemen out with the black trackers. Search-parties cooeeing to each other about the Bush, and lighting signal-fires. The reckless break-neck rides for news or more help. And the Boss himself, wild-eyed and haggard, riding about the Bush with Andy and one or two others perhaps, and searching hopelessly, days after the rest had given up all hope of finding the children alive. All this passed before me as Mrs Head talked, her voice sounding the while as if she were in another room; and when I roused myself to listen, she was on to the fairies again.
‘It was very foolish of me, Mr Ellis. Weeks after—months after, I think—I’d insist on going out on the verandah at dusk and calling for the children. I’d stand there and call “Maggie!” and “Wally!” until Walter took me inside; sometimes he had to force me inside. Poor Walter! But of course I didn’t know about the fairies then, Mr Ellis. I was really out of my mind for a time.’
‘No wonder you were, Mrs Head,’ I said. ‘It was terrible trouble.’
‘Yes, and I made it worse. I was so selfish in my trouble. But it’s all right now, Walter,’ she said, rumpling the Boss’s hair. ‘I’ll never be so foolish again.’
‘Of course you won’t, Maggie.’
‘We’re very happy now, aren’t we, Walter?’
‘Of course we are, Maggie.’
‘And the children are coming back next year.’
‘Next year, Maggie.’
He leaned over the fire and stirred it up.
‘You mustn’t take any notice of us, Mr Ellis,’ she went on. ‘Poor Walter is away so much that I’m afraid I make a little too much of him when he does come home.’
She paused and pressed her fingers to her temples again. Then she said quickly—
‘They used to tell me that it was all nonsense about the fairies, but they were no friends of mine. I shouldn’t have listened to them, Walter. You told me not to. But then I was really not in my right mind.’
‘Who used to tell you that, Mrs Head?’ I asked.
‘The Voices,’ she said; ‘you know about the Voices, Walter?’
‘Yes, Maggie. But you don’t hear the Voices now, Maggie?’ he asked anxiously. ‘You haven’t heard them since I’ve been away this time, have you, Maggie?’
‘No, Walter. They’ve gone away a long time. I hear voices now sometimes, but they’re the Bush Fairies’ voices. I hear them calling Maggie and Wally to come with them.’ She paused again. ‘And sometimes I think I hear them call me. But of course I couldn’t go away without you, Walter. But I’m foolish again. I was going to ask you about the other voices, Mr Ellis. They used to say that it was madness about the fairies; but then, if the fairies hadn’t taken the children, Black Jimmy, or the black trackers with the police, could have tracked and found them at once.’
‘Of course they could, Mrs Head,’ I said.
‘They said that the trackers couldn’t track them because there was rain a few hours after the children were lost. But that was ridiculous. It was only a thunderstorm.’
‘Why!’ I said, ‘I’ve known the blacks to track a man after a week’s heavy rain.’
She had her head between her fingers again, and when she looked up it was in a scared way.
‘Oh, Walter!’ she said, clutching the Boss’s arm; ‘whatever have I been talking about? What must Mr Ellis think of me? Oh! why did you let me talk like that?’
He put his arm round her. Andy nudged me and got up.
‘Where are you going, Mr Ellis?’ she asked hurriedly. ‘You’re not going to-night. Auntie’s made a bed for you in Andy’s room. You mustn’t mind me.’
‘Jack and Andy are going out for a little while,’ said the Boss. ‘They’ll be in to supper. We’ll have a yarn, Maggie.’
‘Be sure you come back to supper, Mr Ellis,’ she said. ‘I really don’t know what you must think of me,—I’ve been talking all the time.’
‘Oh, I’ve enjoyed myself, Mrs Head,’ I said; and Andy hooked me out.
‘She’ll have a good cry and be better now,’ said Andy when we got away from the house. ‘She might be better for months. She has been fairly reasonable for over a year, but the Boss found her pretty bad when he came back this time. It upset him a lot, I can tell you. She has turns now and again, and always ends up like she did just now. She gets a longing to talk about it to a Bushman and a stranger; it seems to do her good. The doctor’s against it, but doctors don’t know everything.’
‘It’s all true about the children, then?’ I asked.
‘It’s cruel true,’ said Andy.
‘And were the bodies never found?’
‘Yes;’ then, after a long pause, ‘I found them.’
‘Yes; in the scrub, and not so very far from home either—and in a fairly clear space. It’s a wonder the search-parties missed it; but it often happens that way. Perhaps the little ones wandered a long way and came round in a circle. I found them about two months after they were lost. They had to be found, if only for the Boss’s sake. You see, in a case like this, and when the bodies aren’t found, the parents never quite lose the idea that the little ones are wandering about the Bush to-night (it might be years after) and perishing from hunger, thirst, or cold. That mad idea haunts ’em all their lives. It’s the same, I believe, with friends drowned at sea. Friends ashore are haunted for a long while with the idea of the white sodden corpse tossing about and drifting round in the water.’
‘And you never told Mrs Head about the children being found?’
‘Not for a long time. It wouldn’t have done any good. She was raving mad for months. He took her to Sydney and then to Melbourne—to the best doctors he could find in Australia. They could do no good, so he sold the station—sacrificed everything, and took her to England.’
‘Yes; and then to Germany to a big German doctor there. He’d offer a thousand pounds where they only wanted fifty. It was no good. She got worse in England, and raved to go back to Australia and find the children. The doctors advised him to take her back, and he did. He spent all his money, travelling saloon, and with reserved cabins, and a nurse, and trying to get her cured; that’s why he’s droving now. She was restless in Sydney. She wanted to go back to the station and wait there till the fairies brought the children home. She’d been getting the fairy idea into her head slowly all the time. The Boss encouraged it. But the station was sold, and he couldn’t have lived there anyway without going mad himself. He’d married her from Bathurst. Both of them have got friends and relations here, so he thought best to bring her here. He persuaded her that the fairies were going to bring the children here. Everybody’s very kind to them. I think it’s a mistake to run away from a town where you’re known, in a case like this, though most people do it. It was years before he gave up hope. I think he has hopes yet—after she’s been fairly well for a longish time.’
‘And you never tried telling her that the children were found?’
‘Yes; the Boss did. The little ones were buried on the Lachlan river at first; but the Boss got a horror of having them buried in the Bush, so he had them brought to Sydney and buried in the Waverley Cemetery near the sea. He bought the ground, and room for himself and Maggie when they go out. It’s all the ground he owns in wide Australia, and once he had thousands of acres. He took her to the grave one day. The doctors were against it; but he couldn’t rest till he tried it. He took her out, and explained it all to her. She scarcely seemed interested. She read the names on the stone, and said it was a nice stone, and asked questions about how the children were found and brought here. She seemed quite sensible, and very cool about it. But when he got her home she was back on the fairy idea again. He tried another day, but it was no use; so then he let it be. I think it’s better as it is. Now and again, at her best, she seems to understand that the children were found dead, and buried, and she’ll talk sensibly about it, and ask questions in a quiet way, and make him promise to take her to Sydney to see the grave next time he’s down. But it doesn’t last long, and she’s always worse afterwards.’
We turned into a bar and had a beer. It was a very quiet drink. Andy ‘shouted’ in his turn, and while I was drinking the second beer a thought struck me.
‘The Boss was away when the children were lost?’
‘Yes,’ said Andy.
‘Strange you couldn’t find him.’
‘Yes, it was strange; but he’ll have to tell you about that. Very likely he will; it’s either all or nothing with him.’
‘I feel damned sorry for the Boss,’ I said.
‘You’d be sorrier if you knew all,’ said Andy. ‘It’s the worst trouble that can happen to a man. It’s like living with the dead. It’s—it’s like a man living with his dead wife.’
When we went home supper was ready. We found Mrs Head, bright and cheerful, bustling round. You’d have thought her one of the happiest and brightest little women in Australia. Not a word about children or the fairies. She knew the Bush, and asked me all about my trips. She told some good Bush stories too. It was the pleasantest hour I’d spent for a long time.
‘Good night, Mr Ellis,’ she said brightly, shaking hands with me when Andy and I were going to turn in. ‘And don’t forget your pipe. Here it is! I know that Bushmen like to have a whiff or two when they turn in. Walter smokes in bed. I don’t mind. You can smoke all night if you like.’
‘She seems all right,’ I said to Andy when we were in our room.
He shook his head mournfully. We’d left the door ajar, and we could hear the Boss talking to her quietly. Then we heard her speak; she had a very clear voice.
‘Yes, I’ll tell you the truth, Walter. I’ve been deceiving you, Walter, all the time, but I did it for the best. Don’t be angry with me, Walter! The Voices did come back while you were away. Oh, how I longed for you to come back! They haven’t come since you’ve been home, Walter. You must stay with me a while now. Those awful Voices kept calling me, and telling me lies about the children, Walter! They told me to kill myself; they told me it was all my own fault—that I killed the children. They said I was a drag on you, and they’d laugh—Ha! ha! ha!—like that. They’d say, “Come on, Maggie; come on, Maggie.” They told me to come to the river, Walter.’
Andy closed the door. His face was very miserable.
We turned in, and I can tell you I enjoyed a soft white bed after months and months of sleeping out at night, between watches, on the hard ground or the sand, or at best on a few boughs when I wasn’t too tired to pull them down, and my saddle for a pillow.
But the story of the children haunted me for an hour or two. I’ve never since quite made up my mind as to why the Boss took me home. Probably he really did think it would do his wife good to talk to a stranger; perhaps he wanted me to understand—maybe he was weakening as he grew older, and craved for a new word or hand-grip of sympathy now and then.
When I did get to sleep I could have slept for three or four days, but Andy roused me out about four o’clock. The old woman that they called Auntie was up and had a good breakfast of eggs and bacon and coffee ready in the detached kitchen at the back. We moved about on tiptoe and had our breakfast quietly.
‘The wife made me promise to wake her to see to our breakfast and say Good-bye to you; but I want her to sleep this morning, Jack,’ said the Boss. ‘I’m going to walk down as far as the station with you. She made up a parcel of fruit and sandwiches for you and Andy. Don’t forget it.’
Andy went on ahead. The Boss and I walked down the wide silent street, which was also the main road; and we walked two or three hundred yards without speaking. He didn’t seem sociable this morning, or any way sentimental; when he did speak it was something about the cattle.
But I had to speak; I felt a swelling and rising up in my chest, and at last I made a swallow and blurted out—
‘Look here, Boss, old chap! I’m damned sorry!’
Our hands came together and gripped. The ghostly Australian daybreak was over the Bathurst plains.
We went on another hundred yards or so, and then the Boss said quietly—
‘I was away when the children were lost, Jack. I used to go on a howling spree every six or nine months. Maggie never knew. I’d tell her I had to go to Sydney on business, or Out-Back to look after some stock. When the children were lost, and for nearly a fortnight after, I was beastly drunk in an out-of-the-way shanty in the Bush— a sly grog-shop. The old brute that kept it was too true to me. He thought that the story of the lost children was a trick to get me home, and he swore that he hadn’t seen me. He never told me. I could have found those children, Jack. They were mostly new chums and fools about the run, and not one of the three policemen was a Bushman. I knew those scrubs better than any man in the country.’
I reached for his hand again, and gave it a grip. That was all I could do for him.
‘Good-bye, Jack!’ he said at the door of the brake-van. ‘Good-bye, Andy!— keep those bullocks on their feet.’
The cattle-train went on towards the Blue Mountains. Andy and I sat silent for a while, watching the guard fry three eggs on a plate over a coal-stove in the centre of the van.
‘Does the boss never go to Sydney?’ I asked.
‘Very seldom,’ said Andy, ’and then only when he has to, on business. When he finishes his business with the stock agents, he takes a run out to Waverley Cemetery perhaps, and comes home by the next train.’
After a while I said, ‘He told me about the drink, Andy— about his being on the spree when the children were lost.’
‘Well, Jack,’ said Andy, ‘that’s the thing that’s been killing him ever since, and it happened over ten years ago.’