The Race of Life - Guy Boothby - ebook

The Race of Life ebook

Guy Boothby

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It was almost night when this melancholy little party appeared at the main station. Dick, with great foresight, sent the food cart several miles to meet them, so my mother was relieved of pain when her husband’s body was brought to his horse. Rude and rude, Dick was a thoughtful guy, and I firmly believe that he would go through fire and water to serve my mother, whom he greatly admired.

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Liczba stron: 424

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Contents

I. "A BOY'S WILL IS THE WIND'S WILL."

II. "A BIT OF A 'SCRAP.'"

III. LOSES A MOTHER: GAINS A FRIEND

IV. OLD FRIENDS MEET

V. MAKING A HOME

VI. A FATEFUL MEETING

VII. WHEN EVE ENTERS EDEN

VIII. "OH! BEWARE OF JEALOUSY."

IX. GATHERING CLOUDS

X. "CAN FRIENDS PART SO?"

XI. MOIRA IN PERIL

XII. UNRAVELLING A CONSPIRACY

XIII. FLAXMAN HAS A PRESENTIMENT

XIV. THE BUSHMAN'S YARN

XV. THE HOME-COMING!

XVI. AFTER THE STORM, PEACE

I. “A BOY’S WILL IS THE WIND’S WILL.”

IF any man had told me a year ago that I should start out to write a book, I give you my word I should not have believed him. It would have been the very last job I should have thought of undertaking. Somehow I’ve never been much of a fist with the pen. The branding iron and stockwhip have always been more in my line, and the saddle a much more familiar seat than the author’s chair. However, fate is always at hand to arrange matters for us, whether we like it or not, and so it comes about that I find myself at this present moment seated at my table–pen in hand, with a small mountain of virgin foolscap in front of me, waiting to be covered with my sprawling penmanship. What the story will be like when I have finished it, and whether those who do me the honour of reading it will find it worthy of their consideration, is more than I can say. I have made up my mind to tell it, however, and that being so, we’ll “chance it,” as we say in the Bush. Should it not turn out to be to your taste, well, my advice to you is to put it down at once and turn your attention to the work of somebody else who has had greater experience in this line of business than your humble servant. Give me a three-year old as green as grass, and I’ll sit him until the cows come home; let me have a long day’s shearing, even when the wool is damp or there’s grass seed in the fleece; a hut to be built, or a tank to be sunk, and it’s all the same to me; but to sit down in cold blood and try to describe your past life, with all its good deeds (not very many of them in my case) and bad, successes and failures, hopes and fears, requires more cleverness, I’m afraid, than I possess. However, I’ll imitate the old single-stick players in the West of England, and toss my hat on the stage as a sign that, no matter whether I’m successful or not, I intend doing my best, and I can’t say more than that. Here goes then.

To begin with, I must tell you who I am, and whence I hail. First and foremost, my name is George Tregaskis–my father was also a George Tregaskis, as, I believe, was his father before him. The old dad used to say that we came of good Cornish stock, and I’m not quite sure that I did not once hear him tell somebody that there was a title in the family. But that did not interest me; for the reason, I suppose, that I was too young to understand the meaning of such things. My father was born in England, but my mother was Colonial, Ballarat being her native place. As for me, their only child, I first saw the light of day at a small station on the Murray River, which my father managed for a gentleman who lived in Melbourne, and whom I regarded as the greatest man in all the world, not even my own paternal parent excepted. Fortunately he did not trouble us much with visits, but when he did I trembled before him like a gum leaf in a storm. Even the fact that on one occasion he gave me half-a-crown on his departure could not altogether convince me that he was a creature of flesh and blood like my own father or the hands upon the run. I can see him now, tall, burly, and the possessor of an enormous beard that reached almost to his waist. His face was broad and red and his voice deep and sonorous as a bell. When he laughed he seemed to shake all over like a jelly; taken all round, he was a jovial, good-natured man, and proved a good friend to my mother and myself when my poor father was thrown from his horse and killed while out mustering in our back country. How well I remember that day! It seems to me as if I can even smell the hot earth, and hear the chirrup of the cicadas in the gum trees by the river bank. Then came the arrival of Dick Bennet, the overseer, with a grave face, and as nervous as a plain turkey when you’re after him on foot. His horse was all in a lather and so played out that I doubt if he could have travelled another couple of miles.

“Georgie, boy,” Dick began, as he got out of his saddle and threw his reins on the ground, “where’s your mother? Hurry up and tell me, for I’ve got something to say to her.”

“She’s in the house,” I answered, and asked him to put me up in the saddle. He paid no attention to me, however, but was making for the house door when my mother made her appearance on the verandah. Little chap though I was, I can well recall the look on her face as her eyes fell upon him. She became deadly pale, and for a moment neither of them spoke, but stood looking at each other for all the world as if they were struck dumb. My mother was the first to speak.

“What has happened?” she asked, and her voice seemed to come from deep down in her throat, while her hands were holding tight on to the rail before her as if to prevent herself from falling. “I can see there is something wrong, Mr. Bennet.”

Dick turned half round and looked at me. I suppose he did not want me to overhear what he had to say. My mother bade him come inside, and they went into the house together. It was nearly ten minutes before he came out again, and, though I had to look more than once to make sure of it, there were big tears rolling down his cheeks. I could scarcely believe the evidence of my eyes, for Dick was not a man given to the display of emotion, and I had always been told that it was unworthy of a man to cry. I admired Dick from the bottom of my heart, and this unexpected weakness on his part came to me as somewhat of a shock. He left the verandah and came over to where I was standing by poor old Bronzewing, whose wide-spread nostrils and heaving flanks were good evidence as to the pace at which he had lately been compelled to travel.

“Georgie, my poor little laddie,” he said, laying his hand upon my shoulder in a kindly way as he spoke, “run along into the house and find your mother. She’ll be wanting you badly, if I’m not mistaken, poor soul. Try and cheer her up, there’s a good boy, but don’t talk about your father unless she begins it.” And then, more to himself I fancy than to me, he added, “Poor little man, I wonder what will happen to you now that he’s gone? You’ll have to hoe your row for yourself, and that’s a fact.”

Having seen me depart, he slipped his rein over his arm and went off in the direction of his own quarters, Bronzewing trailing after him looking more like a worn-out working bullock than the smart animal that had left the station for the mustering camp three days before. I found my mother in her room, sitting beside her bed and looking straight before her as if she were turned to stone. Her eyes, in which there was no sign of a tear, were fixed upon a large photograph of my father hanging on the wall beside the window, and though I did not enter the room, I fear, any too quietly, she seemed quite unconscious of my presence.

“Mother,” I began, “Dick said you wanted me.” And then I added anxiously, “You don’t feel ill, do you, mother?”

“No, my boy, I’m not ill,” she answered. “No! not ill. Though, were it not for you, I could wish that I might die. Oh, God, why could You not have taken my life instead of his?” Then drawing me to her, she pressed me to her heart and kissed me again and again. Later she found relief in tears, and between her sobs I learnt all there was to know. My father was dead; his horse that morning had put his foot in a hole and had thrown his rider–breaking his neck and killing him upon the spot. Dick had immediately set off to acquaint my mother with the terrible tidings, with the result I have already described. The men who had accompanied him to the muster were now bringing the body into the head station, and it was necessary that preparations should be made to receive it. Never, if I live to be a hundred, shall I forget the dreariness, the utter and entire hopelessness of that day. Little boy though I was, and though I scarcely realised what my loss meant to me, I was deeply affected by the prevailing gloom. As for my mother, she entered upon her preparations and went about her housework like one in a dream. She and my father had been a devoted couple, and her loss was a wound that only that great healer Time could cure. Indeed, it has always been my firm belief that she never did really recover from the shock–at any rate, she was never again the same cheery, merry woman that she had once been. Poor mother, looking back on all I have gone through myself since then, I can sympathise with you from the bottom of my heart.

It was nearly nightfall when that melancholy little party made their appearance at the head station. Dick, with great foresight, had sent the ration cart out some miles to meet them, so that my mother was spared the pain of seeing the body of her husband brought in upon his horse. Rough and rude as he was, Dick was a thoughtful fellow, and I firmly believe he would have gone through fire and water to serve my mother, for whom he had a boundless admiration. Poor fellow, he died of thirst many years after when looking for new country out on the far western border of Queensland. God rest him, for he was a good fellow, and did his duty as far as he could see it, which is more than most of us do, though, to be sure, we make a very fair pretence of it. However, I haven’t taken up my pen to moralise, so I’ll get along with my story and leave my reader to draw his or her own conclusions from what I have to set down, good, bad, or indifferent as the case may be.

As I have said, it was towards evening when my father’s body reached the homestead. My mother met it at the gate of the horse paddock and walked beside it up to the house, as she had so often done when what was now but poor, cold clay was vigorous, active flesh and blood. It had been her custom to meet him there on his from inspecting the run, when he would dismount, and placing his arm around her waist, stroll back with her to the house, myself as often as not occupying his place in the saddle. On reaching his old home he was carried reverently to his own room and placed upon the bed there. Then, for the first time, my mother looked upon her dead husband’s face. I stole in behind her and slipped my hand into hers. Together we stood and gazed at the pale, yet placid face of the man we had both loved so well. It was the first time I had met that grim sovereign, Death, and as yet I was unable to realise how great his power was. I could not understand that my father, the big, strong man, so fearless, so masterful, was gone from us beyond recall–that I should never hear his kindly voice again, or sit upon his knee while he told me tales of Bunyips and mysterious long-maned brumbies, who galloped across the moonlit plains, and of exploration journeys he had undertaken as a young man in the wilder and less known regions of the North and West. Even then I could not realise my loss. I asked my mother if he were asleep.

“Yes, dear,” she answered, very softly, “he is asleep–asleep with God!” Then she led me from the room and put me to bed as quietly and composedly as she had always done. Her grief was too deep, too thorough, to find vent in the omission of even the most trivial details. I learnt afterwards that when she left me, after kissing me and bidding me “good- night,” she returned to the death chamber and spent the night there, kneeling and praying beside the bed on which lay the body of the man she loved, and to whom she had always been so good and true a wife.

Realising how overwrought she was, Dick Bennet made all the necessary arrangements for the funeral, which took place two days later on a little knoll that over-looked the river, some two miles below the station house. There he was quietly laid to rest by the hands, who one and all mourned the loss they had sustained in him. Dick it was who read the service over him, and he, poor fellow, broke down in the middle of it. Then, after one final glance into the open grave, we, my mother and myself, took our places in the cart beside him and returned to the house that was destined to be our home for only a short time longer. As a matter of fact, a month later we had bade the old place “good-bye,” and were installed in a small house in the neighbourhood of Melbourne, where I was immediately put to school. My father had all his life been a saving, thrifty man, so that, with what he left her, my mother was able not only to live in a fairly comfortable way, but to give me an education by which, I can see now, I should have profited a great deal more than I did. I am afraid, however, that I had not the gift of application, as the schoolmasters express it. I could play cricket and football; in fact, I was fond of all outdoor sports–but book-learning, Euclid, Algebra, Latin, and Greek, interested me not at all. Among my many other faults I unfortunately possessed that of an exceedingly hot temper, but from whom I inherited it I am quite unable to say. At the least provocation I was wont to fly into fits of ungovernable rage, during which I would listen to no reason, and be pacified by nothing short of obtaining my own way. It was in vain that my mother argued with me and strove to make me conquer myself; I would promise to try, but the next time I was upset I was as bad as ever. To punish me was useless, it only strengthened my determination not to give in. I have often thought since, on looking back on it all, that it must have been a sad and anxious period of my poor mother’s life, for, after all, I was all she had left in the world to think of and to love. What would I not give now to be able to tell her that I was sorry for the many heartaches I must have caused her by my wilfulness and folly?

It was not until something like nine years after my father’s death, and when I was a tall, lanky youth of close upon eighteen, that I was called upon to make up my mind as to what profession I should adopt. My mother would have preferred me to enter the Government service, but a Civil Service clerkship was far from being to my taste. The promotion was slow and the life monotonous to the last degree. My own fancy was divided between the bush and the sea, both of which choices my mother opposed with all the strength and firmness of which she was capable. In either case she knew that she would lose me, and the thought cut her to the heart. Eventually it was decided that for the time being, at least, I should enter the office of an excellent firm of stock and station agents to whom my father had been well–known. Should I later on determine to go into the Bush, the training I should have received there would prove of real value to me. This compromise I accepted, and accordingly the next two years found me gracing a stool in the firm’s office in Collins Street, growing taller every day, and laying the flattering unction to my soul that since I could play a moderate game of billiards and had developed a taste for tobacco, I was every day becoming more and more a man of the world. All this time my mother looked on and waited to see what the end would be How many mothers have done the same! Alas, poor mothers, how little we understand you!

As I have said, I endured the agent’s office for two years, and during that time learnt more than I was really conscious of. There was but small chance of advancement, however, and in addition to that I was heartily sick and tired of the monotony. Bills of lading, the rise and decline in the price of wool and fat stock, the cost of wire netting and of station stores, interested me only in so far as they suggested, and formed part and parcel of, the life of the Bush. For me there was a curious fascination in the very names of the stations for which my employers transacted business. The names of the districts and the rivers rang in my ears like so much music–Murrumbidgee, Deniliquin, Riverina, Warrego, Snowy River, Gundagai, and half a hundred others, all spoke of that mysterious land, the Bush, which was as unlike the Metropolis of the South as chalk is unlike cheese. At last, so great did my craving become, I could wait no longer. Being perfectly well aware that my mother would endeavour to dissuade me from adopting such a course, I resolved to act on my own initiative. Accordingly, I took the bull by the horns and sent in my letter of resignation, which, needless to say, was accepted. Almost wondering at my own audacity, I left the office that evening and went home to break the news to my mother. On that score I am prepared to admit that I felt a little nervous. I knew her well enough to feel sure that in the end she would surrender, but I dreaded the arguments and attempts at persuasion that would lead up to it. I found her in our little garden at the back of the house, sitting in her cane chair, darning a pair of my socks. Nearly fifty though she was, it struck me that she scarcely looked more than forty. Her hair, it was true, was streaked with grey, but this was more the handiwork of sorrow than of time. On hearing my step upon the path, she looked up and greeted me with a smile of welcome.

“Come and sit down, dear boy,” she said, pushing a chair forward for me as she spoke. “You look tired and hot after your walk.”

I took a chair beside her and sat down. For some time we talked on commonplace subjects, while I stroked our old cat and tried to make up my mind to broach the matter that was uppermost in my mind. How to do it I did not quite know. She seemed so happy that it looked almost like a cowardly action to tell her what I knew only too well would cause her the keenest pain she had known since my father died. And yet there was nothing to be gained by beating about the bush or by putting off the evil moment. The news had to be told sooner or later, and I knew that it would be better in every way that she should hear it from my lips rather than from those of a stranger. That would only have the effect of increasing her pain.

“Mother,” I blurted out at last, “I’ve got something to say to you which I am very much afraid you will not be pleased to hear. I have been thinking it over for a long time, and have at last made up my mind. Can you guess what I mean?”

The happy light at once died out of her eyes, as I knew only too well it would do.

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