The afternoon was wearing out, and I began to think of home and tea. I stopped working, straightened my back, ran moist fingers through my hair, and sat down on the log. The axe went tumbling to the ground. “Watch-and-pray” and “Wait-and-see” got up from the fallen gum suckers, and trotted forward with waving tails and glistening, slippery tongues. I made haste to get rid of them. They began to play, biting ears and growling, but went back at last, laid keen black heads on narrow paws and watched me out of grave brown eyes.
To Gippsland spring had come. The day had been a day of spring until evening beckoned afternoon away. Now a little breeze—gentle, but rather cold—came out of the west and wandered through the tops of the gum suckers. The scent of eucalyptus came with it; and behind it followed the voices of countless rustling leaves.
It moved among the wattle tops where they wound along the river; it moved across the rape crops and over the grassy flats beyond. It bent the sedges in the lagoons where the first black ducks were feeding, and where, on warmer nights, big eels bubbled below the sunken logs. I raised my forehead to the cool; and, lo! the breeze had gone!
Through the rape crop sheep were streaming. Anxious ewes pulled hurriedly at the broad green leaves or watched with care their frolicking youngsters. On the flats, round the salt trough, the bullocks chewed and meditated. Smoke climbed up by the river bend; and outside her cottage moved Mrs. Pigg, bringing in the washing, pulling vegetables, feeding the fowls. Small and busy the distance showed her.
Behind me, and on either side, the suckers pushed up their heads. High over them leaned spectral trees: blackened, leafless, stripped of bark, weary with long waiting. About the ground great trees had fallen: grim logs—knotted logs—logs scarred with the breath of summer fires. Here and there showed feeding sheep; and this way and that way ran well-worn pads leading to the waterholes in the wattles. Over the hillside spread a faint green carpet where was shooting the young grass.
Out from hidden gullies floated cries of sheep. Mournfully they travelled across the hillside—now the voice of a ewe whose lamb had strayed, now a lamb hungry and alone. Other sights and sounds began to fill the evening. Small finches
came hopping into the suckers, dodging and peeping and swinging through the boughs, and preening themselves between the leaves. Gay was the twittering as the hunt for supper went forward. Then a jackass swooped into a tree top, threw up tail, raised high head and pealed out frenzied laughter. Other tree tops joined the madman chorus. Next a magpie hopped upon the big log and glinted an evil eye at me; and then forgot me to ruffle sombre shoulders, and join the evening hymn.
The sun was on the horizon, and shadows moved quickly across the lower lands. First they filled the reedy lagoons, the big wattle groves, the belts of scrub. They moved from bramble bush to grass tussock, from fallen log to waterhole. Faint wisps of fog rose about the river. It was late; I was hungry; it was time for home.
I put out a hand for my coat, picking up the axe as well; and “Watch-and-pray” and “Wait-and-see” sprang forward with glad barks. I pushed them off and got up.
“Hullo there, Guv’nor,” a harsh voice shouted from the ruined gate, and old Scottie came through the gap on his ancient chestnut mare. The long sunbeams shone upon his weather-beaten face, with its broken yellow teeth and small hard beard. He wore an ulster, with a sugar-bag hanging out of the pocket. In the bag he had dived a horny hand, and now it came out filled with letters and papers. “Here you are, Guv’nor,” he shouted again.
I went forward and took the packet, picking
out all that belonged to me. What was left I handed back. “There are one or two for the Piggs,” I said. “You might take them over.”
“Right-o, sir,” he answered, and pulled the old mare round, and started away at a jog-trot. Through the suckers man and beast disappeared—an elderly man and a very elderly beast.
I leaned against the gateway and opened the letters. There was news from home, telling of weather five weeks old, and a garden party older yet. Still I read it all twice. An agent had written of some bullocks, and there was a third note about sheep. I pushed everything into my coat pocket, and picked up the papers. Four were there—I had not been to the township for a day or two. I opened the oldest of them, dated four days ago, and turned the pages in a hurry—I was hungry and thinking of tea.
But I forgot tea. Across the middle leaves ran staring headlines. Austria was at the throat of Servia, and war was a matter of hours. All Europe was arming.
I opened another paper. Events had gone forward. Austria had begun the journey of chastisement. From East to West of Europe sounded the clamour of war. I scanned the pages, and threw the paper down. The next I opened, and again the next. No line of hope!
I leaned and read.
Dusk was deepening, and slow grey fogs wended across the flats. “Watch-and-pray” and “Wait-and-see” sat erect upon their haunches, peering up to know why I delayed. The evening had
grown still again, birds and sheep alike were silent; but from the Piggs’ cottage smoke climbed in cheerful wreaths. Pigg and his wife were at tea now, old Scottie no doubt with them: they were talking of war and ruin, though half a world lay between.
I picked up the fallen papers and put the axe upon my shoulder. “Here, ‘Watch-and-pray,’ here, ‘Wait-and-see,’ we’re off at last!” I took the path through the ti-tree, though it was boggy still from the rains, and brought the dogs to heel as we passed beside the river through flocks of dozing sheep. Out of the calm skies first stars were coming. We reached the cattle-yards, and pushed a way through the loose barbed wire. The breath of honeysuckle was blown from Scottie’s cottage, but the place was dark and empty. Scottie had not come back.
We left the yards to go along the path which crossed the hillside; then dipped into the gully and climbed the opposite bank. The horses stood under the pepper trees in a lazy, drowsy circle. I glanced into the buggy-shed to see that all was secure. I pulled open the garden gate. It was evening now, full evening, grey and a trifle chill; and among the grasses crickets shrilled and from the waterhole by the lightwood tree rose the voices of amorous frogs.
A score of perfumes met me at the garden gate. The peaches, pears, and apples were a-flower; and the lemon trees and oranges budded. When we came to the house, I reached down the dogs’ meat from the shelf beside the window, and led
the way to the kennels, which were among piles below the flooring. The dogs began to bark again, and ran to their places, sitting down to be chained up. I chained them, gave them their meat and a goodnight pat, and went round to the back once more.
The house key came from its hiding-place, and I unlocked the door and went inside. In the kitchen it was nearly dark: in the front room it was darker; but there were matches by the lamp on the table. Then I opened the front door and went on to the verandah. Roses had climbed all above it, all round it, all across it; and on either side the flowering peaches leaned for support. I pushed aside the rose branches and stepped down into the garden. The stars were shining and, across the creek, lights had come out in every farmhouse. The milking was over at the Browns’, for a drowsy stream of cows returned to the paddock. I watched them a moment, and next went to the back of the house again. At the woodheap I picked up an armful of sticks to carry into the front room. Quite soon the fire was started, and it burned brightly. Then forwards and backwards I went into the kitchen, bringing the kettle to put on to the fire, carrying in plates and knives and forks, bread, butter. The table laid, out I went to the woodheap again, and this time chopped big logs. In the chill evening the axe blows sounded sharp and clear. It meant three journeys to the front room with the logs; but those made, I was ready for the night.
I took off boots and leggings, throwing the spurs into the corner. I went into the bedroom and washed, splashing water all over the place. Then I found the frying-pan and lard, and began a dish of eggs and bacon. The kettle boiled for the tea. Soon the bacon was cooked and the eggs were ready; all was there, and the fire shining. I drew in a chair and began to eat. Presently out of a pocket the papers came, one by one to be read through. Long after I had finished eating, by the light of the lamp and the fire I sat reading on.
At last I got up. A kettle of water boiled, and I carried into the kitchen the supper things and washed up. In ten minutes the business was over. I made the bed ready, and put more wood on the fire. By this time it was eight o’clock. For a moment I waited by the mantelpiece, looking into the flames; but they were too hot, and drove me on to the verandah. Once more the perfume of countless blossoms met me in the dark.
There was no moon; it was all starlight, and on the right hand the Southern Cross swung round. At the garden end, the big waterhole glimmered through gaps in a broken fence, and from it came love-songs of a thousand frogs, while in the overhanging branches of the lightwood two cranes kept mournful watch. Each night they stood there at this hour, peering down into the reeds below.
The hill climbed up behind the house and fell away before me. All over it tall, barkless trees
stood up—grimly some, some wearily—but each one a spectator of the endless procession of day and night. Across the ground other trees were lying. Bracken had closed round some and brambles had clambered over others. I heard the rippling of the river, and here and there caught the gleaming of waters: there beside the great white gums, there below the willows, there before the bridge; and farther off, upon the plains, showed there and there the farmhouse lights. Round all ran the distant hills. Now from afar a dog barked, now a bull bellowed; and ever, ever shrilled and croaked the crickets and the frogs.
The evening was cold enough for an overcoat, and, putting one on, I sat down on the verandah step. Most nights this was my custom before turning into bed. On and off, for two years, I had come out in the same way—on starry nights, on moonlit nights; on nights of cloud, on nights of rain; on nights of mist, of warmth, of cold. I had lain back on stifling nights when the mosquito alone seemed abroad; and I had felt the breath of the frost come down and had fled beaten to the fireside. For two years I had watched the seasons come and go, and the stars swing round and round. Not a night but I could tell when the moon would sail up behind the hills. I had seen suns set in the West—and I had watched and watched until the East grew rosy.
Two years had I owned and lived upon these lands. I had challenged the wilderness, driving
it ever back. I had known days of hope and days of uncertainty; but victory was within sight. Where scrub had waved, now was open country; where logs mouldered, now passed the plough. The fight had cost two years—but I had won.
Over the silent meadowlands I looked, where rape and oats were growing. “Two years have you spent here,” they seemed to say, “and this third year is to be the year of your hopes. We shall repay your labours; wait but a while.”
I looked to the gap in the hills where the moon would climb forth, moving and mounting, presently to sail over lands where stalked sorrow and desolation.
A voice asked, “Will you stay here for your payment? Or will you leave it—to follow the moon?”
“Aye, but why should I follow the moon?” said I. “What hate have I to take me there? No; hard have I toiled; let me remain.”
“Stay with your plough, then,” said the voice. “Muster your cattle and count your sheep. But never more shall you dwell alone. A stranger shall sit in your heart. A stranger shall abide with you to taunt you of your choice.”
The dogs woke me up. Footsteps came slowly along the path behind the house, and old Scottie went by on his way across the hill. Crowbar, shovel, and axe were on his back, and laden thus he passed away into the gloom of trees and suckers.
Through the wet winter we had pulled together fallen logs for burning; and before a giant heap Scottie stopped, and laid down tools. He rested a moment on the pile, to get breath no doubt; but quite soon started a search among the standing trees and bracken. He was looking for kindling. It was so dark—often I could not follow him. Presently he was back again at the heap; and a tender flame crept up, changing gloom into fairyland. An army of shadows were born, and leaped about the magic circle. Old Scottie was plainly now to be seen, even his stumpy beard; and the axe flashed when the flames danced on the blade.
The light grew broader and bolder, and flames licked through the gathered logs, while on all sides moved Scottie, like a priest at the altar—chopping, levering, and digging with axe, crowbar, or shovel. Now he would hurry away with burning sticks to another pile, so that furnaces grew out of half the hillside. With each breeze crossing the river, flames leaped and logs roared; and flights of sparks raced up into the night. The smoke coils were caught to the treetops, and the lofty, leafy boughs, drawn into the maelstrom, were dashed about. From furnace to furnace passed Scottie, tending their needs as a doctor watches his patients.
The night was ageing; all but one farmhouse light had gone out; but I did not think of sleep. I realised the cold and, rising, went inside. The fire still burned. The alarm clock on the mantelpiece said a quarter past ten. I went into the
kitchen in search of cake, and next passed through the back door into the open, and took the track cut in the hillside, the track Scottie had taken. While I followed it, the light at the Smithsons’ disappeared. As I came up, Scottie peered at me through the smoke.
“Hallo, Guv’nor,” he shouted. Then he shouted again, waving a hand at the fires, “They’re going well! Have you come to help? It wull take two tae shift some of these!”
I nodded. He picked up the crowbar, I bent down for the shovel; and for the next hour we made the rounds. By that time all the fires had taken good hold and could be left until morning. We were hot, dry, and tired, and with one accord found seats on a log. I crossed hands on the shovel handle, laid my chin on them, and thus fell to watching the fog bands form over the river. I was surprised Scottie was so quiet: he stopped talking so seldom. Now he was content to spit and fill his pipe. This filling was slow of completion and only ended when he had blown and coughed and gurgled through the pipe stem.
“Guv’nor,” he said presently, and I stopped watching the river and looked round, “the papers say there wull be a lot doing at home. We wull be fighting Germany in a day or two. Don’t you say so, Guv’nor?”
“Yes,” I answered.
He smoked on, pressing a finger into the bowl of his pipe. “If it’s a big thing, men wull go frae this country. Don’t you think so?”
“I expect so,” I said.
He cocked his head on one side. “Maybe one or two frae down here wull be going.”
“I shall be going,” said I.