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THE STORYTELLER.

(WRITTEN FOR THE 'WESTERN MAIL') THE SHANTY KEEPER'S

WIFE

By Henry Lawson,

Author of " When the World was Wide,"

"While the Billy Boils " &c, &c.  

There were about a dozen of us jammed into the coach and on the box seat, and hanging on to the roof and tailboard as best we could. We were shearers, bag- men and agents, a squatter, a cockatoo, the usual joker, and one or two profes-   sional spielers, perhaps. We were tired and stiff and nearly frozen-too cold to talk and too irritable to risk the inevi- table argument which an interchange of ideaa would have led up to. We had been looking forward to the pub, where we were to change horses, for hours it seemed. For the last hour or two all our united efforts had been able to get out of the driver was a grunt to the effect that   it was " 'bout a couple o' miles." Then he said, or grunted, " 'Taint fur now," a couple of times, and refused to commit himself any further; and he seemed grumpy about having committed himself

thus far.

He was one of those men who take

everything in dead earnest ; who regard any expression of ideas outside their own sphere of life as trivial, or, indeed, if addressed directly to them, as offensive ; who, in fact, are darkly suspicious of any- thing in the shape of a joke or laugh on the part of an outsider, in their own particnlar dust hole. He seemed to be always thinking, and thinking a lot; and, when his hands were not both engaged, he would tilt his hat forward and scratch the base of his skull with his little finger to assist his muse, perhaps-and let his jaw hang. But his intellectual powers were mostly concentrated on a doubtful swingle-tree, a misfitting collar, or that there bay or piebalt (on the off on near side) with the sore shoulder.

Casual letters or papers, to be delivered on the road, were matters which troubled hm vaguely, but constantly-like the abstract ideas of his passengers.

The joker of our party was a humourist of the dry order, and had been slyly tak- ing rises out of the driver for the last two or three stages. But the driver only brooded. He wasn't the one to tell you straight if you offended him, or if he fancied you offended him, and thus gain your respect, or prevent a misunderstand- ing which would result in life long enmity.

He might meet you in after years, when you had forgotten all about your trespass -if indeed you had ever been conscious of it-and " stoush " you unexpectedly on

the ear.

Also you might regard him as your friend, on occasion, and yet he would stand by and hear a perfect stranger tell you the most outrageous liws, to your hurt, and know that the stranger was tel- ling lies, and never think to put you up to it. It would never enter his head to do

so. It wouldn't be any affair of his-only an abstract question.

It grew darker and colder. Then the rain came as if the frozen south were

spitting at your face and neck and hands,

and our feet grew as big as camels', and went dead, and we might as well have stamped the footboards with wooden legs for all the feeling we got into ours. But they were more comfortable that way, for the toes didn't curl up and pain so much, nor our corns stick out so hard against the leather-and shoot.

We looked ont eagerly for some clear- ing, or fence, or light-some sign of the shanty where we were to change horses but there was nothing save blackness all round. The long, straight, cleared road was no longer relieved by the ghostly patch of light, far ahead, where the

ordering tree-walls came together in perspective and framed the ether. We were down in the bed of the bush.

We pictured a haven of rest with a suspended lamp burning in the frosty air outside and a big log fire in a cosy parlour off the bar-and a long table set for supper. But this is a land of contra-

dictions, and wayside shanties turn up. unexpectedly and in the most unreason- able places, and are, as likely as not, pre- pared for a banquet when yon are not hungry and can't wait, and as cold and

dark as a bushman's grave when you are ,

and can.

Suddenly the driver said : " We're   there now." He said this as if he had driven us to the scaffold to be hanged, and was fiercely glad that he'd got us there safely at last. We looked but saw nothing, then a light appeared ahead and seemed to come towards us and presently we saw that it was a lantern held up by a man in a slouch hat, dark bushy heard, and with a three bushel bag around bis shoulders. He held up his other hand and said something to the driver in a tone that might have been used by the leader of a search party who had just found the body The driver stopped and then went on slowly.

" What's up?" we asked, "What's the  

trouble?"  

" Oh it's alright," said the driver.

" The publican's wife is sick," some- body said, " and he wants us to come quietly."  

The usual little slab and bark shanty   was suggested in the gloom, with a big bark stable looming in the back ground.

We climbed down like so many cripples, as soon as we began to feel our legs and be sure we had the right ones and the proper allowance of feet, as quietly as possible, helped to take the horses out

and round to the stable.

" Is she very bad?" we asked the   publican, showing as much concern as we

could.

" Yes," he said, in the subdued voice of a rough man who had spent several anxious, sleepless nights, by the sick bed of a dear one. " But, God willing, I think we'll pull her through."

Thus encouraged we said, sympathetic cally : " We're very sorry to trouble you, but, I suppose we could manage to get a drink and a bit to eat ?"

" Well," he said, " there's nothing to eat in the house, and I've only got rum and milk. You can have that if you like."

One of the pilgrims broke out here :

" Well of all the pubs," he began, " that I've ever-"

" Hnsh ish ish!" said the publican.  

The pilgrim scowled and retired to the rear. You can't express your feelings freely when there's a woman dying

round.

*. Well, who says rum and milkP" asked the joker, in a low voice.

" Wait here," said the publican, and disappeared into the little front passage.

Presently a light showed through a window, with a scratched and fly bitten B and A on two panes, and a mutilated Bon the third, which was broken. A   door opened there, and we sneaked into the bar. It was like having drinks after hours where the police are strict-and in- dependent.

When we came out the driver, was

scratching his bead aud looking at the   harness on the ground.

" Yon fellows 'ull have ter put in the time for an hour or so. The horses is out back somewheres," and he indicated the interior of Australia with a side jerk of this head, "aud the boy ain't back with  

'em yet."

"But dash it all," said the Pilgrim, "me and my mate-"  

" Hush !" said the publican.

" How long are the horses likely to be?"

we asked the driver.

"Dunno," he grunted. "Might be three or four hours. It's all accordin'."

" Now, look here," said tue Pilgrim, "me and my mate wanter catch the train."

" Hush-ish-ish !" from the publican in a fierce whisper.

"Well boss," said the joker, "can you let us have beds, then? I don't want to   freeze here all night anyway."    

" Yes," said the landlord, " I can do that, but some of you will havter sleep double and some of you'll havter take it out of the sofas, and one or two 'ill havter make a shake down on the floor. There is plenty of bags in the stable and you've got rugs and coats with yon. Fix it up amongst yourselves."      

"But look here!" interrupted the Pilgrim, desperately, " we can't afford to wait ! We're only battlers, me and my   mate, pickin' up crumbs by the wayside. We've got to catch the——"

" Hush !" said the publican, savagely. " You d-n fool didn't I tell yon my missus was bad. I won't have any noise."

" But look here," protested the Pilgrim, "we must catch the train at Dead Camel-"

" You'll catch my boot presently," said the publican, with a savage oath, " and go further than Dead Camel. I won't have my missus disturbed-for you or any other man ! Just you shut up or get out, and take your blooming mate with you."

We lost patience with the Pilgrim and sternly took him aside.

" Now, for God's sake, hold your jaw," we said. " Haven't you got any con- sideration at all? Can't you see the   man's wife is ill, dying perhaps, and he is nearly worried off his head ?"

The Pilgrim and his mate were scraggy little bipeds of the city push variety, so they were suppressed.

" Well," yawned tho Joker. " I'm not going to roost on a stump all night. I'm going, to tnrn in."

"It'll be eighteenpence each," hinted the landlord. " You can settle now if like, to save time."

We took the hint, and had another drink. I don't know how we fixed it   up amongst ourselves, but we got settled-down somehow. There was a lot of mysterious whispering - and scuffling round by the light of a couple of dirty greasy bits of candle. Fortunately we dared not speak loud enough to have a row, though most of ns were by this time in the humour to pick a quarrel with a long

lost brother.

The Joker got the best bed, as good humonred, good natured chaps generally do-without seeming to try for it. The growler of the party got the floor and chaff bags, as selfish men mostly do without seeming to try for it either; I took it out of one of the "sofas " or rather   that sofa took it out of me. It was short and narrow, and down by the head with a leaning to one corner on the outside and had more nails and bits of gin-case in it than on an original sofa.

I had been asleep for three seconds, it seemed, when somebody shook me by the shoulder and said :

" Take yer seats."

When I got out, the driver was on the box, and the others were getting rum and milk inside themselves (and in bottles) previous to taking their seats.    

It was colder , sud darker than before   and the South Pole seemed nearer, and   pretty soon, save for tho rum, we would

have been in a worse fix than we were

before we came to that pub.    

There was a spell of grumbling.

someone said :—    

" I don't bcliove them horses was lost   at all. I was round behind the stable   before I went to bed, and seen horses   there; and if they wasn't them same horses there, I'll eat 'em raw !"  

"Would yer?" said the driver, in a

disenterested tone.

"I would," said the passenger. Then,     with a sudden ferocity, " and you too !"  

The driver said nothing. It was an  

abstract question whicli didn't interest

him.

We saw that we were on delicate   ground, and changed the subject for a while. Then someone else said:

" I wonder where his missus was? I  

didn't see any signs of her about, or any  

other woman about the place, and we was pretty well all over it."  

"Must have kept her ia the stable," suggested the Joker.

"No, she wasn't, for Scotty and that    

chap on the roof was there after bags."

"She might have been in the loft," reflected the Joker.  

" There was no loft," put in a voice from the top of the coach.

"I say, Mister-Mister man," said the Joker suddenly to the driver, " Was his

missus sick at all ?'

" I dunno," replied the driver. " She might have been. He said so, anyway. I ain't got no call to call a man a liar."

" See here," said the cannibalistic in- dividual to the driver in the tone of a man who has made up his mind for a row, " Has that shanty keeper got a wife at

all ?"

" I believe he has."

" And is she living with him ?"

" No, she ain't-if yer wanter know."

. "Then where is she?"'

"I dunno. How am I to know ' She left him three or four years ago. She was in Sydney last time I heard of her. It ain't no affair of mine any ways."

"And is there auy woman about the place at all, driver ?" inquired a profes- sional wanderer reflectively."

"No-not that I knows on. There

uster be a old black gin come pottering  

round sometimes, but I aint seen her  

lately."

"And excuse me driver but is there anyone round there at all?' enquired the   professional wanderer, with the air of a conscientious writer, who is collecting material for an Australian novel from life, with an eye to detail.

" Naw," said the driver-and recollect- ing that he was expected to be civil and obliging to his employers' patrons, he added in surly spology. "Only the boss and the stableman that I knows

of." Then repenting of the apology, he asserted his manhood again, and asked, as in a tone calculated to risk a breach of the peace, " Any more ques- tions, gentleman-while the shop's open ?"

There was a long pause.

"Driver," asked the Pilgrim appeal- ingly, "was them horses lost at all?"

" I dunno," said the driver. " He said they was. He's got the looking after them. It was nothing to do with me."

* * *  

" Twelve drinks at sixpence a drink " said the Joker as if calculating to him- self-" that's six bob, and, say on an average, four shouts-that's one pound four. Twelve beds at eighteen pence a bed-that's eighteen shillings ; and say ten bob in various drinks and the stuff we brought with us, that's two pound twelve. That publican didn't do so bad ont of us in two hours."

We wondered how much the driver got out of it, but thought it best not to ask him.

* .* * *

We didn't say much for the rest of the   journey. There was the usual man who thought as much and knew all about it from the first, but he wasn't appreciated. We suppressed him. One or two wanted to go back and 'stoush' that landlord, and the driver stopped the coach cheerfully at their request; but they said they'd come across him again and allowed themselves to be per- suaded out of it. It made us feel bad to think how we had allowed ourselves to be delayed, and robbed, and had sneaked round on tiptoe, and how we had had sat on the inoffensive Pilgrim and his mate, and all on account of a sick wife who didn't exist. The coach arrived at Dead Camel in an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and distrust and we spread ourselves over the train and departed.

THE END  

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