Dad opened his eyes. He guffawed excitedly and looked from one to the other. Dad could have slept in the Museum then—he could have died happily there. He spoke cheerfully to the kangaroos, hooted the dingo, looked down with a grin on the form of the native bear, and said, “Well, I’m d—d!”
Dad was always glad to meet anyone from the Bush.
A man came along—a man with long, ragged coat sleeves and boots with hardly any heels or soles to them—a man who trembled as though he were addicted to eating indigo—and stood beside Dad and looked at the kangaroos, too. Dad told him the sort they were, and explained how high they could jump, and showed him the toe they ripped dogs with.
“And which one do they rip men with?” the man asked in a harsh, unsympathetic voice.
“Oh, same one, same one!” Dad answered.
“Oh, they do!” the man shrieked. “I thought perhaps they stung them with their tails!” Dad laughed merrily.
“Y’r thinkin’ o’ death-adders,” he broke out; “they stings with th’ tail!”
“Same as bears?”—and the man made an effort to button his coat, but there were no buttons on it.
Dad laughed more.
“Bears?” he yelled, in an amused tone, “they haven’t got a tail. . . . Here’s a bear!”—turning and pointing to the one the hawk was standing guard over—“no tail—see?”
But the man didn’t pay any attention to Dad. He pointed triumphantly to the dingo and asked, “Hasn’t that one got a tail?”
The laugh Dad made went all over the Museum.
“That’s not a bear, man,” he cried, when he got his breath; “that’s-ha!—that’s-ha, ha-a-ha! ha! ha! a dingo—a nater dorg.”
An ancient official came along and asked Dad to be quiet.
“Or y’ll frighten the kangaroos,” the ragged man added, turning his back and slinking away a step.
“Well, thet chap,” Dad chuckled, “calls this”—(lifting his big boot and placing it against the glass case and indicating the dingo)—“a bear!”
The official smiled and disappeared.
Dad laughed some more to himself. Then the man returned and, stepping up to Dad, motioned him with his head as though he wished to confide something to him.
Dad ceased laughing and bent down and placed his ear close to the man’s mouth.
The man spoke in a low, reverent tone. He said:
“Have y’a bob about y’?”
Dad had. Then the man glided out like a ghost and disappeared too.
Dad and Mother struck the boarding-house for dinner. At the table Dad led the conversation.
He spoke enthusiastically of the ’roos and dingoes in the Museum, and, waving his fork with a potato on it, advised everyone to go and see them.
“Y’d split y’self laughin’,” he said, addressing the boarding-house keeper—“t’ see th’ ol men sittin’ there as if they was up in the bloomin’ Bush.”
“What about the young one?” Mother chirped, smiling shyly.
“Ah; I f’got”—and Dad chewed hurriedly—“Yes, an’ they’ve a big she there standin’ up starin’ at y’ ”—(Dad threw back his head, opened his eyes and mouth and displayed a lot of chewed meat and made himself wild-looking)—“an’ a big lump of a joey hanging out of ’er pooch and cockin’ its head all round the place, as cunnin’ lookin’ as y’ like!”
Most of the boarders burst out laughing. The lady of the house smiled, then got red in the face, and smiled again when the lawyer asked Dad whether kangaroos were better to eat than bears. But a young lady, a school teacher, sitting opposite Dad, asked to be excused, and bounced away from the table leaving her dinner almost untouched.
A dead silence followed. The lawyer grinned at O’Rourke.
“She don’t eat much,” Dad said, following the teacher with his eyes. “If she had nothin’ but kangaroo for a while she’d eat more than that!” The boarders roared some more, and when they left the table they collected in Jacob’s room, and yelled again, and the lawyer said Dad was “worth a quid.”
Afternoon. Mother rested herself, and Dad stalked out alone. He found Queen-street almost empty. The crowds of chattering, jawing females flaunting their frills and furbelows were gone. (Thank God!) And the “blokes” with their sticks hanging to their arms, and their panamas pushed up behind—and the contented-looking aldermen with their ponderous stomachs—and the politicians arguing at corners and waving umbrellas and folded newspapers about—and the long-coated divine tapping a book with his lean forefinger and interpreting Solomon to an anxious disciple—and the wildlooking, unshorn “man about town,” with the long stride and heavy boots—and the rowing men flying their colours in their coats and talking “clean blades” and “dirty oars” and “getting y’r hands away”—and the swaggering footballers with coloured handkerchiefs thrown about their necks—and the “toffs” and the “dudes” and the “Johnnies” and the straw-hat push—all were gone.
Dad stood on the kerbing and gazed down the almost deserted street. A ’bus drawn by four stiff, starved-looking horses, laden with footballers in caps and overcoats, went by . The footballers hung out of the ’bus and waved a flag, and clamoured and called derisively to Dad. Dad smiled.
“Pum! pum! pum!” Dad jumped round and stared up the street. A brass band burst violently upon the air. It blared out “Men of Harlech.” Behind it a regiment of foot volunteers, armed with rifles and waterbags and haversacks and helmets, marched fearlessly.
They were a dashing lot of chaps—brave, formidable-looking fellows, too. A grand galaxy. Some were tall as gum trees; some just beginning to sprout; some old and hoary and hump-backed; some all stomach and head; others all helmet and no head or stomach at all; one without a uniform; one with two rifles; one with an eye-glass; and one dead lame—but he managed to keep up.
As the band approached him, belching music out of itself, Dad began to prance like an old horse. Dad had been a soldier himself. He nearly went to the Crimea—so he said. He often regretted not having gone, too. Sometimes we regretted too.
Just opposite Dad the officer in command—a heavily-medalled person—sitting cautiously astride a well-polished horse—lifted his voice and yelled: “Shoul-dah-UM!” And “Shoulder arms!” was yelled all along the line. Those who had been in engagements before manœuvred their rifles calmly—others dropped them in the street and excitedly groped for them again, and brought trouble and confusion to the ranks.
Dad was carried away with enthusiasm. He stepped from the pavement and joined the volunteers. He walked beside the band, carrying his hat in his hand. The volunteers marched down George-street and entered the Botanic Gardens. A crowd, composed mostly of girls and old women and noisy, ragged youngsters of the street, followed.
In the gardens there was great excitement. A lot of big guns were there mounted on wheels, all pointing steadily at the people on Kangaroo Point. And talk about soldiers! talk about Aldershot or the handful of men Bonaparte dropped returning from Moscow! The grounds were swarming with them. They were moving in all directions, marching in file, in line, in groups, and marching right at each other. And the generals, and majors, and sergeant-majors, and adjutants and lieutenant-colonels that were there! You’d wonder how they all found uniforms.
The generals careered round on horseback, flopping and bumping about in the saddle and shouting out orders. They were all in authority. Some yelled “Left batal-yarn!” at one end of the field, another “Compa-n aay lead-ahs!” at the other end. Several others—“Second di-visharn, r-right incline—for-r-ward—harlt—dress up!” Several score others—“R-rrightwhee-YEL!” And all at the same time. ’Twas a stirring scene—a memorable sight. Dad reckoned he would never forget it.
Finally the forces combined and formed a huge square, two deep. They prepared to fire a feu de joie. The majors and colonels and all the rest galloped about inside the square. You’d think word had just been received of an invasion.
After numerous warnings and words of advice from different officers, the order was given to “Pre-sent!”
Every rifle in the lines was instantly pointed at the clouds—except about half-a-dozen in the rear ranks. They were unconsciously levelled at the head of the man in front. Several youthful warriors, when their fingers felt the triggers, trembled with excitement, and one let his rifle go off before it was time and made a gorgeous officer swear and the spectators laugh.
“Fire!” was the next order, and the rifles went off like a lot of crackers—“bang!—bang!—bang!” all along the line. Some of the horses reared; several officers fell out of their saddles; a man in the front rank reeled about and fell down; the man behind had shot him in the ear, blowing it all away and blackening his neck and jaw with powder. Two others grew confused and couldn’t pull the triggers at all, but they persisted and got their weapons to go off when the rest had finished firing.
The wounded soldier was taken away by the ambulance, and Dad followed “to see what they were going to do to him.”
The forms of Dad and Mother became familiar to residents of Wickham Terrace. When they were passing people used to stare out at them and grin, and some would run out and lean over the garden fence and watch them going along. With the boys round there, too, Dad became a great favourite. They used to call him “Ironbark” and advise him to get his hair cut, and often they would follow him along and aim orange peel at him till he turned and glared. Then they would pretend to be frightened, and skedaddle.
One evening at dusk Dad and Mother, after spending an enjoyable day in Queen-street, were mooching along the Terrace making for the boarding-house. Dad was carrying a pair of glass vases Mother had purchased for Sarah, and was wondering how Dave and Joe were getting along at home. Mother had a new umbrella in one hand and a brown paper parcel in the other.
Suddenly a snake wriggled across the footpath, almost from under their feet. Dad got a great start. He jumped back, tugging Mother with him. “A snake!” he said in a surprised tone. Mother clutched Dad’s arm. But Dad never allowed a snake to escape him. He looked round for something to attack it with. Nothing was handy. Several men and a girl on a verandah near by watched interestedly. Dad placed his hand on a white fence and tried to move some of it, but all the palings were firmly nailed.
The snake glided slowly along. There was no time to lose. Dad snatched Mother’s new umbrella from her hand and pounced on the reptile. The snake didn’t take any notice of the blows Dad rained on it. It headed leisurely for the other side of the street, where there was some long grass and a park inside a fence. Dad jumped after it and walloped it all the way across, and smashed the umbrella into a lot of pieces, and didn’t hear the roar that came from the men on the verandah. The snake reached the grass, and as it disappeared Dad heaved the vases at it, which made a great crash.
Then a lot of small boys jumped up and fled with the snake on a string. Dad stared after them. They looked round, but kept running.
“Well, I’m damned!” Dad said, turning to Mother.