Pahiatua was not the home of my god; and it rained for five weeks. While waiting for a remittance, from an Australian newspaper— which, I anxiously hoped, would arrive in time for enough of it to be left (after paying board) to take me away somewhere—I spent many hours in the little shop of a shoemaker who had been a digger; and he told me yarns of the old days on the West Coast of Middle Island. And, ever and anon, he returned to one, a hard-case from the West Coast, called ‘The Flour of Wheat’, and his cousin, and his mate, Dinny Murphy, dead. And ever and again the shoemaker (he was large, humorous, and good-natured) made me promise that, when I dropped across an old West Coast digger— no matter who or what he was, or whether he was drunk or sober— I’d ask him if he knew the ‘Flour of Wheat’, and hear what he had to say.
I make no attempt to give any one shade of the Irish brogue— it can’t be done in writing.
‘There’s the little red Irishman,’ said the shoemaker, who was Irish himself, ‘who always wants to fight when he has a glass in him; and there’s the big sarcastic dark Irishman who makes more trouble and fights at a spree than half-a-dozen little red ones put together; and there’s the cheerful easy-going Irishman. Now the Flour was a combination of all three and several other sorts. He was known from the first amongst the boys at Th’ Canary as the Flour o’ Wheat, but no one knew exactly why. Some said that the right name was the F-l-o-w-e-r, not F-l-o-u-r, and that he was called that because there was no flower on wheat. The name might have been a compliment paid to the man’s character by some one who understood and appreciated it—or appreciated it without understanding it. Or it might have come of some chance saying of the Flour himself, or his mates—or an accident with bags of flour. He might have worked in a mill. But we’ve had enough of that. It’s the man —not the name. He was just a big, dark, blue-eyed Irish digger. He worked hard, drank hard, fought hard—and didn’t swear. No man had ever heard him swear (except once); all things were ‘lovely’ with him. He was always lucky. He got gold and threw it away.
‘The Flour was sent out to Australia (by his friends) in connection with some trouble in Ireland in eighteen-something. The date doesn’t matter: there was mostly trouble in Ireland in those days; and nobody, that knew the man, could have the slightest doubt that he helped the trouble —provided he was there at the time. I heard all this from a man who knew him in Australia. The relatives that he was sent out to were soon very anxious to see the end of him. He was as wild as they made them in Ireland. When he had a few drinks, he’d walk restlessly to and fro outside the shanty, swinging his right arm across in front of him with elbow bent and hand closed, as if he had a head in chancery, and muttering, as though in explanation to himself—
‘“Oi must be walkin’ or foightin’!—Oi must be walkin’ or foightin’!— Oi must be walkin’ or foightin’!”
‘They say that he wanted to eat his Australian relatives before he was done; and the story goes that one night, while he was on the spree, they put their belongings into a cart and took to the Bush.
‘There’s no floury record for several years; then the Flour turned up on the west coast of New Zealand and was never very far from a pub, kept by a cousin (that he had tracked, unearthed, or discovered somehow) at a place called “Th’ Canary”. I remember the first time I saw the Flour.
‘I was on a bit of a spree myself, at Th’ Canary, and one evening I was standing outside Brady’s (the Flour’s cousin’s place) with Tom Lyons and Dinny Murphy, when I saw a big man coming across the flat with a swag on his back.
‘“B’ God, there’s the Flour o’ Wheat comin’ this minute,” says Dinny Murphy to Tom, “an’ no one else.”
‘“B’ God, ye’re right!” says Tom.
‘There were a lot of new chums in the big room at the back, drinking and dancing and singing, and Tom says to Dinny—
‘“Dinny, I’ll bet you a quid an’ the Flour’ll run against some of those new chums before he’s an hour on the spot.”
‘But Dinny wouldn’t take him up. He knew the Flour.
‘“Good day, Tom! Good day, Dinny!”
‘“Good day to you, Flour!”
‘I was introduced.
‘“Well, boys, come along,” says the Flour.
‘And so we went inside with him. The Flour had a few drinks, and then he went into the back-room where the new chums were. One of them was dancing a jig, and so the Flour stood up in front of him and commenced to dance too. And presently the new chum made a step that didn’t please the Flour, so he hit him between the eyes, and knocked him down—fair an’ flat on his back.
‘“Take that,” he says. “Take that, me lovely whipper-snapper, an’ lay there! You can’t dance. How dare ye stand up in front of me face to dance when ye can’t dance?”
‘He shouted, and drank, and gambled, and danced, and sang, and fought the new chums all night, and in the morning he said—
‘“Well, boys, we had a grand time last night. Come and have a drink with me.”
‘And of course they went in and had a drink with him.
‘Next morning the Flour was walking along the street, when he met a drunken, disreputable old hag, known among the boys as the “Nipper”.
‘“Good morning, me lovely Flour o’ Wheat!” says she.
‘“Good morning, me lovely Nipper!” says the Flour.
‘And with that she outs with a bottle she had in her dress, and smashed him across the face with it. Broke the bottle to smithereens!
‘A policeman saw her do it, and took her up; and they had the Flour as a witness, whether he liked it or not. And a lovely sight he looked, with his face all done up in bloody bandages, and only one damaged eye and a corner of his mouth on duty.
‘“It’s nothing at all, your Honour,” he said to the S.M.; “only a pin-scratch—it’s nothing at all. Let it pass. I had no right to speak to the lovely woman at all.”
‘But they didn’t let it pass,—they fined her a quid.
‘And the Flour paid the fine.
‘But, alas for human nature! It was pretty much the same even in those days, and amongst those men, as it is now. A man couldn’t do a woman a good turn without the dirty-minded blackguards taking it for granted there was something between them. It was a great joke amongst the boys who knew the Flour, and who also knew the Nipper; but as it was carried too far in some quarters, it got to be no joke to the Flour—nor to those who laughed too loud or grinned too long.
‘The Flour’s cousin thought he was a sharp man. The Flour got “stiff”. He hadn’t any money, and his credit had run out, so he went and got a blank summons from one of the police he knew. He pretended that he wanted to frighten a man who owed him some money. Then he filled it up and took it to his cousin.
‘“What d’ye think of that?” he says, handing the summons across the bar. “What d’ye think of me lovely Dinny Murphy now?”
‘“Why, what’s this all about?”
‘“That’s what I want to know. I borrowed a five-pound-note off of him a fortnight ago when I was drunk, an’ now he sends me that.”
‘“Well, I never would have dream’d that of Dinny,” says the cousin, scratching his head and blinking. “What’s come over him at all?”
‘“That’s what I want to know.”
‘“What have you been doing to the man?”
‘“Divil a thing that I’m aware of.”
‘The cousin rubbed his chin-tuft between his forefinger and thumb.
‘“Well, what am I to do about it?” asked the Flour impatiently.
‘“Do? Pay the man, of course?”
‘“How can I pay the lovely man when I haven’t got the price of a drink about me?”
‘The cousin scratched his chin.
‘“Well—here, I’ll lend you a five-pound-note for a month or two. Go and pay the man, and get back to work.”
‘And the Flour went and found Dinny Murphy, and the pair of them had a howling spree together up at Brady’s, the opposition pub. And the cousin said he thought all the time he was being had.
‘He was nasty sometimes, when he was about half drunk. For instance, he’d come on the ground when the Orewell sports were in full swing and walk round, soliloquising just loud enough for you to hear; and just when a big event was coming off he’d pass within earshot of some committee men—who had been bursting themselves for weeks to work the thing up and make it a success—saying to himself—
‘“Where’s the Orewell sports that I hear so much about? I don’t see them! Can any one direct me to the Orewell sports?”
‘Or he’d pass a raffle, lottery, lucky-bag, or golden-barrel business of some sort,—
‘“No gamblin’ for the Flour. I don’t believe in their little shwindles. It ought to be shtopped. Leadin’ young people ashtray.”
‘Or he’d pass an Englishman he didn’t like,—
‘“Look at Jinneral Roberts! He’s a man! He’s an Irishman! England has to come to Ireland for its Jinnerals! Luk at Jinneral Roberts in the marshes of Candyhar!”
‘They always had sports at Orewell Creek on New Year’s Day—except once— and old Duncan was always there,—never missed it till the day he died. He was a digger, a humorous and good-hearted “hard-case”. They all knew “old Duncan”.
‘But one New Year’s Eve he didn’t turn up, and was missed at once. “Where’s old Duncan? Any one seen old Duncan?” “Oh, he’ll turn up alright.” They inquired, and argued, and waited, but Duncan didn’t come.
‘Duncan was working at Duffers. The boys inquired of fellows who came from Duffers, but they hadn’t seen him for two days. They had fully expected to find him at the creek. He wasn’t at Aliaura nor Notown. They inquired of men who came from Nelson Creek, but Duncan wasn’t there.
‘“There’s something happened to the lovely man,” said the Flour of Wheat at last. “Some of us had better see about it.”
‘Pretty soon this was the general opinion, and so a party started out over the hills to Duffers before daylight in the morning, headed by the Flour.
‘The door of Duncan’s “whare” was closed—but not padlocked. The Flour noticed this, gave his head a jerk, opened the door, and went in. The hut was tidied up and swept out—even the fireplace. Duncan had “lifted the boxes” and “cleaned up”, and his little bag of gold stood on a shelf by his side—all ready for his spree. On the table lay a clean neckerchief folded ready to tie on. The blankets had been folded neatly and laid on the bunk, and on them was stretched Old Duncan, with his arms lying crossed on his chest, and one foot—with a boot on—resting on the ground. He had his “clean things” on, and was dressed except for one boot, the necktie, and his hat. Heart disease.
‘“Take your hats off and come in quietly, lads,” said the Flour. “Here’s the lovely man lying dead in his bunk.”
‘There were no sports at Orewell that New Year. Some one said that the crowd from Nelson Creek might object to the sports being postponed on old Duncan’s account, but the Flour said he’d see to that.
‘One or two did object, but the Flour reasoned with them and there were no sports.
‘And the Flour used to say, afterwards, “Ah, but it was a grand time we had at the funeral when Duncan died at Duffers.”
‘The Flour of Wheat carried his mate, Dinny Murphy, all the way in from Th’ Canary to the hospital on his back. Dinny was very bad— the man was dying of the dysentery or something. The Flour laid him down on a spare bunk in the reception-room, and hailed the staff.
‘“Inside there—come out!”
‘The doctor and some of the hospital people came to see what was the matter. The doctor was a heavy swell, with a big cigar, held up in front of him between two fat, soft, yellow-white fingers, and a dandy little pair of gold-rimmed eye-glasses nipped onto his nose with a spring.
‘“There’s me lovely mate lying there dying of the dysentry,” says the Flour, “and you’ve got to fix him up and bring him round.”
‘Then he shook his fist in the doctor’s face and said—
‘“If you let that lovely man die—look out!”
‘The doctor was startled. He backed off at first; then he took a puff at his cigar, stepped forward, had a careless look at Dinny, and gave some order to the attendants. The Flour went to the door, turned half round as he went out, and shook his fist at them again, and said—
‘“If you let that lovely man die—mind!”
‘In about twenty minutes he came back, wheeling a case of whisky in a barrow. He carried the case inside, and dumped it down on the floor.
‘“There,” he said, “pour that into the lovely man.”
‘Then he shook his fist at such members of the staff as were visible, and said—
‘“If you let that lovely man die—look out!”
‘They were used to hard-cases, and didn’t take much notice of him, but he had the hospital in an awful mess; he was there all hours of the day and night; he would go down town, have a few drinks and a fight maybe, and then he’d say, “Ah, well, I’ll have to go up and see how me lovely mate’s getting on.”
‘And every time he’d go up he’d shake his fist at the hospital in general and threaten to murder ’em all if they let Dinny Murphy die.
‘Well, Dinny Murphy died one night. The next morning the Flour met the doctor in the street, and hauled off and hit him between the eyes, and knocked him down before he had time to see who it was.
‘“Stay there, ye little whipper-snapper,” said the Flour of Wheat; “you let that lovely man die!”
‘The police happened to be out of town that day, and while they were waiting for them the Flour got a coffin and carried it up to the hospital, and stood it on end by the doorway.
‘“I’ve come for me lovely mate!” he said to the scared staff— or as much of it as he baled up and couldn’t escape him. “Hand him over. He’s going back to be buried with his friends at Th’ Canary. Now, don’t be sneaking round and sidling off, you there; you needn’t be frightened; I’ve settled with the doctor.”
‘But they called in a man who had some influence with the Flour, and between them—and with the assistance of the prettiest nurse on the premises—they persuaded him to wait. Dinny wasn’t ready yet; there were papers to sign; it wouldn’t be decent to the dead; he had to be prayed over; he had to be washed and shaved, and fixed up decent and comfortable. Anyway, they’d have him ready in an hour, or take the consequences.
‘The Flour objected on the ground that all this could be done equally as well and better by the boys at Th’ Canary. “However,” he said, “I’ll be round in an hour, and if you haven’t got me lovely mate ready— look out!” Then he shook his fist sternly at them once more and said—
‘“I know yer dirty tricks and dodges, and if there’s e’er a pin-scratch on me mate’s body—look out! If there’s a pairin’ of Dinny’s toe-nail missin’—look out!”
‘Then he went out—taking the coffin with him.
‘And when the police came to his lodgings to arrest him, they found the coffin on the floor by the side of the bed, and the Flour lying in it on his back, with his arms folded peacefully on his bosom. He was as dead drunk as any man could get to be and still be alive. They knocked air-holes in the coffin-lid, screwed it on, and carried the coffin, the Flour, and all to the local lock-up. They laid their burden down on the bare, cold floor of the prison-cell, and then went out, locked the door, and departed several ways to put the “boys” up to it. And about midnight the “boys” gathered round with a supply of liquor, and waited, and somewhere along in the small hours there was a howl, as of a strong Irishman in Purgatory, and presently the voice of the Flour was heard to plead in changed and awful tones—
‘“Pray for me soul, boys—pray for me soul! Let bygones be bygones between us, boys, and pray for me lovely soul! The lovely Flour’s in Purgatory!”
‘Then silence for a while; and then a sound like a dray-wheel passing over a packing-case. . . . That was the only time on record that the Flour was heard to swear. And he swore then.
‘They didn’t pray for him—they gave him a month. And, when he came out, he went half-way across the road to meet the doctor, and he— to his credit, perhaps—came the other half. They had a drink together, and the Flour presented the doctor with a fine specimen of coarse gold for a pin.
‘“It was the will o’ God, after all, doctor,” said the Flour. “It was the will o’ God. Let bygones be bygones between us; gimme your hand, doctor. . . . Good-bye.”
‘Then he left for Th’ Canary.’