11 Nov The Exciseman
The Exciseman by Henry Lawson (1867-1922)
HARRY CHATSWOOD, mail contractor (and several other things), was driving out from, say, Georgeville to Croydon, with mails, parcels, and only one passenger—a commercial traveller, who had shown himself unsociable, and close in several other ways. Nearly half-way to a place that was half-way between the halfway house and the town, Harry overhauled “Old Jack,” a local character (there are many well-known characters named “Old Jack”), and gave him a lift as a matter of course. “Hello! Is that you, Jack?” in the gathering dusk.
“Then jump up here.”
Harry was good-natured and would give anybody a lift if he could.
Old Jack climbed up on the box-seat, between Harry and the traveller, who grew rather more stand- (or rather sit-) offish, wrapped himself closer in his overcoat, and buttoned his cloak of silence and general disgust to the chin button. Old Jack got his pipe to work and grunted, and chatted, and exchanged bush compliments with Harry comfortably. And so on to where they saw the light of a fire outside a hut ahead.
“Let me down here, Harry,” said Old Jack uneasily, “I owe Mother Mac fourteen shillings for drinks, and I haven’t got it on me, and I’ve been on the spree back yonder, and she’ll know it, an’ I don’t want to face her. I’ll cut across through the paddock and you can pick me up on the other side.”
Harry thought a moment.
“Sit still, Jack,” he said. “I’ll fix that all right.” He twisted and went down into his trouser-pocket, the reins in one hand, and brought up a handful of silver. He held his hand down to the coach lamp, separated some of the silver from the rest by a sort of sleight of hand—or rather sleight of fingers—and handed the fourteen shillings over to Old Jack.
“Here y’are, Jack. Pay me some other time.”
“Thanks, Harry!” grunted Old Jack, as he twisted for his pocket.
It was a cold night, the hint of a possible shanty thawed the traveller a bit, and he relaxed with a couple of grunts about the weather and the road, which were received in a brotherly spirit. Harry’s horses stopped of their own accord in front of the house, an old bark-and-slab whitewashed humpy of the early settlers’ farmhouse type, with a plank door in the middle, one bleary-lighted window on one side, and one forbiddingly blind one, as if death were there, on the other. It might have been. The door opened, letting out a flood of lamp-light and firelight which blindly showed the sides of the coach and the near pole horse and threw the coach lamps and the rest into the outer darkness of the opposing bush.
“Is that you, Harry?” called a voice and tone like Mrs Warren’s of the Profession.
A stoutly aggressive woman appeared. She was rather florid, and looked, moved and spoke as if she had been something in the city in other years, and had been dumped down in the bush to make money in mysterious ways; had married, mated—or got herself to be supposed to be married—for convenience, and continued to make money by mysterious means. Anyway, she was “Mother Mac” to the bush, but, in the bank in the “town,” and in the stores where she dealt, she was Mrs Mac, and there was always a promptly propped chair for her. She was, indeed, the missus of no other than old Mac, the teamster of hypnotic fame, and late opposition to Harry Chatswood. Hence, perhaps, part of Harry’s hesitation to pull up, farther back, and his generosity to Old Jack.
Mrs or Mother Mac sold refreshments, from a rough bush dinner at eighteenpence a head to passengers, to a fly-blown bottle of ginger-ale or lemonade, hot in hot weather from a sunny fly-specked window. In between there was cold corned beef, bread and butter, and tea, and (best of all if they only knew it) a good bush billy of coffee on the coals before the fire on cold wet nights. And outside of it all, there was cold tea, which, when confidence was established, or they knew one of the party, she served hushedly in cups without saucers; for which she sometimes apologized, and which she took into her murderous bedroom to fill, and replenish, in its darkest and most felonious corner from homicidal-looking pots, by candle-light. You’d think you were in a cheap place, where you shouldn’t be, in the city.
Harry and his passengers got down and stretched their legs, and while Old Jack was guardedly answering a hurriedly whispered inquiry of the traveller, Harry took the opportunity to nudge Mrs Mac, and whisper in her ear
“Look out, Mrs Mac!—Exciseman!”
“The devil he is!” whispered she.
“Ye-e-es!” whispered Harry.
“All right, Harry!” she whispered. “Never a word! I’ll take care of him, bless his soul.”
After a warm at the wide wood fire, a gulp of coffee and a bite or two at the bread and meat, the traveller, now thoroughly thawed, stretched himself and said:
“Ah, well, Mrs Mac, haven’t you got anything else to offer us?”
“And what more would you be wanting?” she snapped. “Isn’t the bread and meat good enough for you?”
“But—but—you know——” he suggested lamely.
“Know?—I know!—What do I know?” A pause, then, with startling suddenness, “Phwat d’y’ mean?”
“No offence, Mrs Mac—no offence; but haven’t you got something in the way of—of a drink to offer us?”
“Dhrink! Isn’t the coffee good enough for ye? I paid two and six a pound for ut, and the milk new from the cow this very evenin’—an’ th’ water rain-water.”
“But—but—you know what I mean, Mrs Mac.”
“An’ I doan’t know what ye mean. Phwat do ye mean? I’ve asked ye that before. What are ye dhrivin’ at, man—out with it!”
“Well, I mean a little drop of the right stuff,” he said, nettled. Then he added: “No offence—no harm done.”
“O-o-oh!” she said, illumination bursting in upon her brain. “It’s the dirrty drink ye’re afther, is it? Well, I’ll tell ye, first for last, that we doan’t keep a little drop of the right stuff nor a little drop of the wrong stuff in this house. It’s a honest house, an’ me husband’s a honest harrd-worrkin’ carrier, as he’d soon let ye know if he was at home this cold night, poor man. No dirrty drink comes into this house, nor goes out of it, I’d have ye know.”
“Now, now, Mrs Mac, between friends, I meant no offence; but it’s a cold night, and I thought you might keep a bottle for medicine or in ease of accident—or snake-bite, you know—they mostly do in the bush.”
“Medicine! And phwat should we want with medicine? This isn’t a five-guinea private hospital. We’re clean, healthy people, I’d have ye know. There’s a bottle of painkiller, if that’s what ye want, and a packet of salts left—maybe they’d do ye some good. An’ a bottle of eye-water, an’ something to put in your ear for th’ earache—maybe ye’ll want ’em both before ye go much farther.”
“But, Mrs Mac——”
“No, no more of it!” she said. “I tell ye that if it’s a nip ye’re afther, t’e’ll have to go on fourteen miles to the pub in the town. Ye’re coffee’s gittin’ cowld, an’ it’s eighteenpence each to passengers I charge on a night like this; Harry Chatswood’s the driver an’ welcome, an’ Ould Jack’s an ould friend.” And she flounced round to clatter her feelings amongst the crockery on the dresser—just as men make a great show of filling and lighting their pipes in the middle of a barney. The table, by the way, was set on a brown holland cloth, with the brightest of tin plates for cold meals, and the brightest of tin pint-pots for the coffee (the crockery was in reserve for hot meals and special local occasions) and at one side of the wide fire-place hung an old-fashioned fountain, while in the other stood a camp-oven; and billies and a black kerosene-tin hung evermore over the fire from sooty chains. These, and a big bucket-handled frying-pan and a few rusty convict-time arms on the slab walls, were mostly to amuse jackeroos and jackerooesses, and let them think they were getting into the Australian-dontcherknow at last.
Harry Chatswood took the opportunity (he had a habit of taking opportunities of this sort) to whisper to Old Jack:
“Pay her the fourteen bob, Jack, and have done with it. She’s got the needle to-night all right, and damfiknow what for. But the sight of your fourteen bob might bring her round.” And Old Jack—as was his way—blundered obediently and promptly right into the hole that was shown him.
“Well, Mrs Mac,” he said, getting up from the table and slipping his hand into his pocket. “I don’t know what’s come over yer to-night, but, anyway——” Here he put the money down on the table. “There’s the money I owe yer for—for——”
“For what?” she demanded, turning on him with surprising swiftness for such a stout woman.
“The—the fourteen bob I owed for them drinks when Bill Hogan and me——”
“You don’t owe me no fourteen bob for dhrinks, you dirty blaggard! Are ye mad? You got no drink off of me. Phwat d’ye mean?”
“Beg—beg pardin, Mrs Mac,” stammered Old Jack, very much taken aback; “but the—yer know—the fourteen bob, anyway, I owed you when—that night when me an’ Bill Hogan an’ yer sister-in-law, Mary Don——”
“What? Well, I—Git out of me house, ye low blaggard! I’m a honest, respictable married woman, and so is me sister-in-law, Mary Donelly; and to think!—Git out of me door!” and she caught up the billy of coffee. “Git outside me door, or I’ll let ye have it in ye’r ugly face, ye low woolscourer—an’ it’s nearly bilin’.”
Old Jack stumbled dazedly out, and blind instinct got him on to the coach as the safest place. Harry Chatswood had stood with his long, gaunt figure hung by an elbow to the high mantelshelf, all the time, taking alternate gulps from his pint of coffee and puffs from his pipe, and very calmly and restfully regarding the scene.
“An’ now,” she said, “if the gentleman’s done, I’d thank him to pay—it’s eighteenpence—an’ git his overcoat on. I’ve had enough dirty insults this night to last me a lifetime. To think of it—the blaggard!” she said to the table, “an’ me a woman alone in a place like this on a night like this!”
The traveller calmly put down a two-shilling piece, as if the whole affair was the most ordinary thing in the world (for he was used to many bush things) and comfortably got into his overcoat.
“Well, Mrs Mac, I never thought Old Jack was mad before,” said Harry Chatswood. “And I hinted to him,” he added in a whisper. “Anyway” (out loudly), “you’ll lend me a light, Mrs Mac, to have a look at that there swingle-bar of mine?”
“With pleasure, Harry,” she said, “for you’re a white man, anyway. I’ll bring ye a light. An’ all the lights in heaven if I could, an’—an’ in the other place if they’d help ye.”
When he’d looked to the swingle-bar, and had mounted to his place and untwisted the reins from a side-bar, she cried:
“An’ as for them two, Harry, shpill them in the first creek you come to, an’ God be good to you! It’s all they’re fit for, the low blaggards, to insult an honest woman alone in the bush in a place like this.”
“All right, Mrs Mac,” said Harry, cheerfully. “Good night, Mrs Mac.”
“Good night, Harry, an’ God go with ye, for the creeks are risen after last night’s storm.” And Harry drove on and left her to think over it.
She thought over it in a way that would have been unexpected to Harry, and would have made him uneasy, for he was really good-natured. She sat down on a stool by the fire, and presently, after thinking over it a bit, two big, lonely tears rolled down the lonely woman’s fair, fat, blonde cheeks in the firelight.
“An’ to think of Old Jack,” she said. “The very last man in the world I’d dreamed of turning on me. But—but I always thought Old Jack was goin’ a bit ratty, an’ maybe I was a bit hard on him. God forgive us all!”
Had Harry Chatswood seen her then he would have been sorry he did it. Swagmen and broken-hearted new chums had met worse women than Mother Mac.
But she pulled herself together, got up and bustled round. She put on more wood, swept the hearth, put a parcel of fresh steak and sausages—brought by the coach—on to a clean plate on the table, and got some potatoes into a dish; for Chatswood had told her that her first and longest and favourite stepson was not far behind him with the bullock team. Before she had finished the potatoes she heard the clock-clock of heavy wheels and the crack of the bullock whip coming along the dark bush track.
But the very next morning a man riding back from Croydon called, and stuck his head under the veranda eaves with a bush greeting, and she told him all about it.
He straightened up, and tickled the back of his head with his little finger, and gaped at her for a minute.
“Why,” he said, “that wasn’t no excise officer. I know him well—I was drinking with him at the Royal last night afore we went to bed, an’ had a nip with him this morning afore we started. Why! that’s Bobby Howell, Burns and Bridges’ traveller, an’ a good sort when he wakes up, an’ willin’ with the money when he does good biz, especially when there’s a chanst of a drink on a long road on a dark night.”
“That Harry Chatswood again! The infernal villain,” she cried, with a jerk of her arm. “But I’ll be even with him, the dirrty blaggard. An’ to think—I always knew Old Jack was a white man an’—to think! There’s fourteen shillin’s gone that Old Jack would have paid me, an’ the traveller was good for three shillin’s f’r the nips, an’—but Old Jack will pay me next time, and I’ll be even with Harry Chatswood, the dirrty mail carter. I’ll take it out of him in parcels—I’ll be even with him.”
She never saw Old Jack again with fourteen shillings, but she got even with Harry Chatswood, and—— But I’ll tell you about that some other time. Time for a last smoke before we turn in.