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- Children of the Bush - 30/48 -
coach journey along this road to visit some relatives in Sydney. We passed this place, and the women in the coach began to talk of the fine house that was going to be built there. The ground was being levelled for the foundations, and young pines had been planted, with stakes round them to protect them from the cattle. I remembered being mightily interested in the place, for the women said that the house was to be a two-storied one. I thought it would be a wonderful thing to see a two-storied house there in the bush. The height of my ambition was to live in a house with stairs in it. The women said that this house was being built for young Brassington, the son of the biggest squatter then in the district, who was going to marry the daughter of the next biggest squatter. That was all I remember hearing the women say.
Three or four miles along the road was a public-house, with a post office, general store, and blacksmith shop attached, as is usual in such places--all that was left of the old pastoral and coaching town of Ilford. I "shouted" for the driver at the shanty, but got nothing further out of him concerning the fate of the house that was never built. I wanted that house for a story.
However, while yarning with some old residents at Solong, I mentioned the Brassingtons, and picked up a few first links in the story. The young couple were married and went to Sydney for their honeymoon. The story went that they intended to take a trip to the old country and Paris, to be away a twelve-month, and the house was to be finished and ready for them on their return. Young Brassington himself had a big sheep-run round there. The railway wasn't thought of in those days, or if it was, no Brassington could have dreamed that the line could have been brought to Solong in any other direction than through the property of the "Big Brassingtons," as they were called. Well, the young couple went to Sydney, but whether they went farther the old residents did not know. All they knew was that within a few weeks, and before the stone foundations for the brick walls of the house were completed, the building contract was cancelled, the workmen were dismissed, and the place was left as I last saw it; only the ornamental pines had now grown to trees. The Brassingtons and the bride's people were English families and reserved. They kept the story, if there was a story, to themselves. The girl's people left the district and squatted on new stations up-country. The Big Brassingtons came down in the world and drifted to the city, as many smaller people do, more and more every year. Neither young Brassington nor his wife was ever again seen or heard of in the district.
I attended my relative's funeral, and next day started back for Sydney.
Just as we reached Ilford, as it happened, the pin of the fore under-carriage of the coach broke, and it took the blacksmith several hours to set it right. The place was dull, the publican was not communicative--or else he harped on the old local grievance of the railway not having come that way--so about half an hour before I thought the coach would be ready, I walked on along the road to stretch by legs. I walked on and on until I came, almost unaware, to the site of the house that was never built. The tent was still there, in fact, it was a permanent camp, and I was rather surprised to see the man working with a trowel on a corner of the unfinished foundations of the house. At first I thought he was going to build a stone hut in the corner, but when I got close to him I saw that he was working carefully on the original plan of the building: he was building the unfinished parts of the foundation walls up to the required height. He had bricklayer's tools, a bag of lime, and a heap of sand, and had worked up a considerable quantity of mortar. It was a rubble foundation: he was knocking off the thin end of a piece of stone to make it fit, and the clanging of the trowel prevented his hearing my footsteps.
"Good day, mate," I said, close beside him.
I half expected he'd start when I spoke, but he didn't: he looked round slowly, but with a haunted look in his eyes as if I might have been one of his ghosts. He was a tall man, gaunt and haggard-eyed, as many men are in the bush; he may have been but little past middle age, and grey before his time.
"Good day," he said, and he set the stone in its place, carefully flush with the outer edge of the wall, before he spoke again. Then he looked at the sun, which was low, laid down his trowel, and asked me to come to the tent-fire. "It's turning chilly," he said. It was a model camp, everything clean and neat both inside the tent and out; he had made a stone fireplace with a bark shelter over it, and a table and bench under another little shed, with shelves for his tin cups and plates and cooking utensils. He put a box in front of the fire and folded a flour-bag on top of it for a seat for me, and hung the billy over the fire. He sat on his heels and poked the burning sticks, abstractedly I thought, or to keep his hands and thoughts steady.
"I see you're doing a bit of building," I said.
"Yes," he said, keeping his eyes on the fire; "I'm getting on with it slowly."
I don't suppose he looked at me half a dozen times the whole while I was in his camp. When he spoke he talked just as if he were sitting yarning in a row of half a dozen of us. Presently he said suddenly, and giving the fire a vicious dig with his poker:
"That house must be finished by Christmas."
"Why?" I asked, taken by surprise. "What's the hurry?"
"Because," he said, "I'm going to be married in the New Year--to the best and dearest girl in the bush."
There was an awkward pause on my part, but presently I pulled myself together.
"You'll never finish it by yourself," I said. "Why don't you put on some men?"
"Because," he said, "I can't trust them. Besides, how am I to get bricklayers and carpenters in a place like this?"
I noticed all through that his madness or the past in his mind was mixed up with the real and the present.
"Couldn't you postpone the marriage?" I asked.
"No!" he exclaimed, starting to his feet. "No!" and he looked round wildly on the darkening bush. There was madness in his tone that time, the last "No!" sounding as if from a man who was begging for his life.
"Couldn't you run up a shanty then, to live in until the house is ready?" I suggested, to soothe him.
He gave his arm an impatient swing. "Do you think I'd ask that girl to live in a hut?" he said. "She ought to live in a palace!"
There seemed no way out of it, so I said nothing: he turned his back and stood looking away over the dark, low-lying sweep of bush towards sunset. He folded his arms tight, and seemed to me to be holding himself. After a while he let fall his arms and turned and blinked at me and the fire like a man just woke from a doze or rousing himself out of a deep reverie.
"Oh, I almost forgot the billy!" he said. "I'll make some tea--you must be hungry."
He made the tea and fried a couple of slices of ham; he laid the biggest slice on a thick slice of white baker's bread on a tin plate, and put it and a pint-pot full of tea on a box by my side. "Have it here, by the fire," he said; "it's warmer and more comfortable."
I took the plate on my knee, and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed that meal. The bracing mountain air and the walk had made me hungry. The hatter had his meal standing up, cutting his ham on a slice of bread with a clasp-knife. It was bush fashion, and set me thinking of some old times. He ate very little, and, as far as I saw, he didn't smoke. Non-smokers are very scarce in the bush.
I saw by the way his tent was pitched and his camp arranged generally, and by the way he managed the cooking, that he must have knocked about the bush for some years.
He put the plates and things away and came and sat down on the other empty gin-case by my side, and fell to poking the fire again. He never showed the least curiosity as to who I was, or where I came from, or what I was doing on this deserted track: he seemed to take me as a matter of course--but all this was in keeping with bush life in general.
Presently he got up and stood looking upwards over the place where the house should have been.
"I think now," he said slowly, "I made a mistake in not having the verandas carried all round the house."
"I--I beg pardon!"
"I should have had the balcony all round instead of on two sides only, as the man who made the plan suggested; it would have looked better and made the house cooler in summer."
I thought as I listened, and presently I saw that it was a case of madness within madness, so to speak: he was mad on the idea that he could build the house himself, and then he had moods when he imagined that the house had been built and he had been married and had reared a family.
"You could easily get the balcony carried round," I said; "it wouldn't cost much--you can get good carpenters at Solong."
"Yes," he said. "I'll have it done after Christmas." Then he turned from the house and blinked down at me. "I am sorry," he said, "that there's no one at home. I sent the wife and family to Sydney for a change. I've got the two boys at the Sydney Grammar School. I think I'll send the eldest to King's School at Parramatta. The girls will have to get along with a governess at home and learn to help their mother--"
And so he went on talking away just as a man who has made money in the bush, and is married and settled down, might yarn to an old bachelor bush mate.
"I suppose I'll have to get a good piano," he went on. "The girls must have some amusement: there'll be no end of balls and parties. I suppose the boys will soon be talking of getting `fivers' and `tenners' out of the `guvner' or `old man.' It's the way of the
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