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- Cumner & South Sea Folk, v3 - 4/8 -


irritably, that Louis Bachelor was a "old fossil who didn't know when he'd got his dover in the dough," which, being interpreted into the slang of the old world, means, his knife into the official loaf. But the fossil went on as before, known by name to the merest handful of people in the colony, though they all profited, directly or indirectly, by his scientific services. He was as unknown to the dwellers at Wandenong as they were to him, or he again to the citizens of the moon.

It was the custom for Janet and Agnes Osgood to say that Barbara Golding had a history. On every occasion the sentiment was uttered with that fresh conviction in tone which made it appear to be born again. It seemed to have especially pregnant force one evening after Janet had been consulting Barbara on the mysteries of the garment in which she was to be married to Druce Stephens, part owner of Booldal Station. "Aggie," remarked the coming bride, "Barbara's face flushed up ever so pink when I said to her that she seemed to know exactly what a trousseau ought to be. I wonder! She is well-bred enough to have been anybody; and the Bishop of Adelaide recommended her, you know."

Soon after this Druce Stephens arrived at Wandenong and occupied the attention of Janet until suppertime, when he startled the company by the tale of his adventures on the previous evening with Roadmaster, the mysterious bushranger, whose name was now in every man's mouth; who apparently worked with no confederates--a perilous proceeding, though it reduced the chances of betrayal. Druce was about to camp on the plains for the night, in preference to riding on to a miserable bush-tavern a few miles away, when he was suddenly accosted in the scrub by a gallant- looking fellow on horseback, who, from behind his mask, asked him to give up what money he had about him, together with his watch and ring. The request was emphasised by the presence of a revolver held at an easy but suggestive angle. The disadvantage to the squatter was obvious. He merely asked that he should be permitted to keep the ring, as it had many associations, remarking at the same time that he would be pleased to give an equivalent for it if the bushranger would come to Wandenong. At the mention of Wandenong the highwayman asked his name. On being told, he handed back the money, the watch, and the ring, and politely requested a cigar, saying that the Osgoods merited consideration at his hands, and that their friends were safe from molestation. Then he added, with some grim humour, that if Druce had no objection to spending an hour with Roadmaster over a fire and a billy of tea, he would be glad of his company; for bushranging, according to his system, was but dull work. The young squatter consented, and together they sat for two hours, the highwayman, however, never removing his mask. They talked of many things, and at last Druce ventured to ask his companion about the death of Blood Finchley, the owner of Tarawan sheep-run. At this Roadmaster became weary, and rose to leave; but as if on second thought, he said that Finchley's companion, whom he allowed to go unrobbed and untouched, was both a coward and a liar; that the slain man had fired thrice needlessly, and had wounded him in the neck (the scar of which he showed) before he drew trigger. Druce then told him that besides a posse of police, a number of squatters and bushmen had banded to hunt him down, and advised him to make for the coast if he could, and leave the country. At this Roadmaster laughed, and said that his fancy was not sea-ward yet, though that might come; and then, with a courteous wave of his hand, he jumped on his horse and rode away.

The Osgoods speculated curiously and futilely on Roadmaster's identity, as indeed the whole colony had done. And here it may be said that people of any observation (though, of necessity, they were few, since Rahway attracted only busy sugar-planters and their workmen) were used to speak of Louis Bachelor as one who must certainly have a history. The person most likely to have the power of inquisition into his affairs was his faithful aboriginal servant, Gongi. But records and history were only understood by Gongi when they were restricted to the number of heads taken in tribal battle. At the same time he was a devoted slave to the man who, at the risk of his own life, had rescued him from the murderous spears of his aboriginal foes. That was a kind of record within Gongi's comprehension, from the contemplation of which he turned to speak of Louis Bachelor as "That fellow budgery marmi b'longin' to me," which, in civilised language, means "my good master." Gongi often dilated on this rescue, and he would, for purposes of illustration, take down from his master's wall an artillery officer's sabre and show how his assailants had been dispersed.

From the presence of this sword it was not unreasonably assumed that Louis Bachelor had at some time been in the army. He was not, however, communicative on this point, though he shrewdly commented on European wars and rumours of wars when they occurred. He also held strenuous opinions of the conduct of Government and the suppression of public evils, based obviously upon military views of things. . For bushrangers he would have a modern Tyburn, but this and other tragic suggestions lacked conviction when confronted with his verdicts given as Justice of the Peace. He pronounced judgments in a grand and airy fashion, but as if he were speaking by a card, the Don Quixote whose mercy would be vaster than his wrath. This was the impression he gave, to, John Osgood on the day when the young squatter introduced himself to Rahway, where he had come on a mission to its one official. The young man's father had a taste for many things; astronomy was his latest, and he had bought from the Government a telescope which, excellent in its day, had been superseded by others of later official purchase. He had brought it to Wandenong, had built a home for it, and had got it into trouble. He had then sent to Brisbane for assistance, and the astronomer of the Government had referred him to the postmaster at Rahway, "Prognosticator" of the meteorological column in The Courier, who would be instructed to give Mr. Osgood every help, especially as the occultation of Venus was near. Men do not send letters by post in a new country when personal communication is possible, and John Osgood was asked by his father to go to Rahway. When John wished for the name of this rare official, the astronomer's letter was handed over with a sarcastic request that the name might be deciphered; but the son was not more of an antiquary than his father, and he had to leave without it. He rode to the coast, and there took a passing steamer to Rahway. From the sea Rahway looked a tropical paradise. The bright green palisades of mangrove on the right crowded down to the water's edge; on the left was the luxuriance of a tropical jungle; in the centre was an are of opal shore fringed with cocoa-palms, and beyond the sea a handful of white dwellings. Behind was a sweeping monotony of verdure stretching back into the great valley of the Popri, and over all the heavy languor of the South.

But the beauty was a delusion. When John Osgood's small boat swept up the sands on the white crest of a league-long roller, how different was the scene! He saw a group of dilapidated huts, a tavern called The Angel's Rest, a blackfellow's hut, and the bareness of three Government offices, all built on piles, that the white ants should not humble them suddenly to the dust; a fever-making mangrove swamp, black at the base as the filthiest moat, and tenanted by reptiles; feeble palms, and a sickly breath creeping from the jungle to mingle with the heavy scent of the last consignment of augar from the Popri valley. It brought him to a melancholy standstill, disturbed at last by Gongi touching him on the arm and pointing towards the post-office. His language to Gongi was strong; he called the place by names that were not polite; and even on the threshold of the official domain said that the Devil would have his last big muster there. But from that instant his glibness declined. The squatters are the aristocracy of Australia, and rural postmasters are not always considered eligible for a dinner-party at Government House; but when Louis Bachelor came forward to meet his visitor the young fellow's fingers quickly caught his hat from his head, and an off-hand greeting became a respectful salute.

At first the young man was awed by the presence of the grizzled gentleman, and he struggled with his language to bring it up to the classic level of the old meteorologist's speech. Before they had spoken a dozen words John Osgood said to himself: "What a quaint team he and the Maid of Honour would make! It's the same kind of thing in both, with the difference of sex and circumstance." The nature of his visitor's business pleased the old man, and infused his courtesy with warmth. Yes, he would go to Wandenong with pleasure; the Government had communicated with him about it; a substitute had been offered; he was quite willing to take his first leave in four years; astronomy was a great subject, he had a very good and obedient telescope of his own, though not nearly so large as that at Wandenong; he would telegraph at once to Brisbane for the substitute to be sent on the following day, and would be ready to start in twenty-four hours. After visiting Wandenong he would go to Brisbane for some scientific necessaries--and so on through smooth parentheses of talk. Under all the bluntness of the Bush young Osgood had a refinement which now found expression in an attempt to make himself agreeable--not a difficult task, since, thanks to his father's tastes and a year or two at college, he had a smattering of physical science. He soon won his way to the old man's heart, and to his laboratory, which had been developed through years of patience and ingenious toil in this desolate spot.

Left alone that evening in Louis Bachelor's sitting-room, John Osgood's eyes were caught by a portrait on the wall, the likeness of a beautiful girl. Something about the face puzzled him. Where had he seen it? More than a little of an artist, he began to reproduce the head on paper. He put it in different poses; he added to it; he took away from it; he gave it a child's face, preserving the one striking expression; he made it that of a woman--of an elderly, grave woman. Why, what was this? Barbara Golding! He would not spoil the development of the drama, of which he now held the fluttering prologue, by any blunt treatment; he would touch this and that nerve gently to see what past connection there was between:

"These dim blown birds beneath an alien sky."

He mooned along in this fashion, a fashion in which his bushmen friends would not have known him, until his host entered. Then, in that auspicious moment when his own pipe and his companion's cigarette were being lighted, he said: "I've been amusing myself with drawing since you left, sir, and I've produced this," handing over the paper.

Louis Bachelor took the sketch, and, walking to the window for better light, said: "Believe me, I have a profound respect for the artistic talent. I myself once had--ah!" He sharply paused as he saw the pencilled head, and stood looking fixedly at it. Presently he turned slowly, came to the portrait on the wall, and compared it with that in his hand. Then, with a troubled face, he said: "You have much talent, but it is--it is too old--much too old--and very sorrowful."

"I intended the face to show age and sorrow, Mr. Bachelor. Would not the original of that have both?"

"She had sorrow--she had sorrow, but," and he looked sadly at the sketch again, "it is too old for her. Her face was very young--always very young."

"But has she not sorrow now, sir?" the other persisted gently.

The grey head was shaken sadly, and the unsteady voice meditatively murmured: "Such beauty, such presence! I was but five-and-thirty then." There was a slight pause, and then, with his hand touching the young man's shoulder, Louis Bachelor continued: "You are young; you have a good heart; I know men. You have the sympathy of the artist--why should I not speak to you? I have been silent about it so long. You have brought the past back, I know not how, so vividly! I dream here, I work here; men come with merchandise and go again; they only bind my tongue; I am not of them: but you are different, as it seems to me, and young. God gave me a happy youth. My eyes were bright as yours, my heart as fond. You love-- is it not so? Ah, you smile and blush like an honest man. Well, so much the more I can speak now. God gave me then strength and honour and love


Cumner & South Sea Folk, v3 - 4/8

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