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THE BUSTED BLUE DOLL.
DEEP in the Australian Alps is the little town of Omeo. The hills around are scored with workedout and long-forsaken gold mines; here and there the thud of the pick may still be heard issuing from some deep shaft; but most of the claims are deserted, and the men who worked them swept away towards other adventures, or lying quiet and ambitionless under the Gippsland sod.
Far up the mountain, where the sarsaparilla hangs from the gumtrees its ragged flame of blue, is a deserted mine; great heaps of yellow mullock line the shaft's mouth; above, the windlass rots out its broken existence; and farther in the shadow an uneven mound, a broad crack, a post with a piece of tin and the name "Battista" scrawled upon it, mark a grave.
One of the early rushes had brought Battista to Australia, and drifted him to the little mining camp among the Gippsland hills. The men had laughed at his highpointed hat with its flapping curves, and at his blue-and-gold image of the Madonna; but Battista had wandered under the gum - trees, and paid scant heed to them. Sometimes he had stooped to pick up a piece of quartz and rub it absently on his sleeve; and when the evening came he had taken up his shepherd's pipe and sounded once more the airs he had played in far off Abruzzi.
At dawn, as Battista stood and watched the sun flame up in the east, and fall in a broad yellow stream upon the Madonna's image, the thought came to him that there where the ray fell he would
dig for gold, and the idea comforted him it seemed as if the Blessed Virgin herself had deigned to point out a way of escape from this strange and homeless land. Many days he worked: the yellow mullock-heaps rose higher beside the rapidly deepening shaft, when a long-limbed brown-faced American "jumped" his claim. Battista had neglected to procure a licence.
At first he could not understand what had happened: afterwards, when he realised, he took his broad keen-edged knife, and laying it at the Madonna's feet, begged her to bless it, and having crossed himself, turned away and went down the mountain-side till he reached the camp. He touched the American on the arm and pointed to his knife; the man from the States laughed lightly; then they drew aside and fought together, and Battista's foot slipped so that his enemy escaped him; but that evening the American sold the mine to Termater Bill the storekeeper for three long drinks and a new swag, going away to try his luck elsewhere. As for Battista, he returned once more to his claim at the foot of the ragged-breasted gum-trees, and here it was that Termater Bill found him.
"I've jest cum," he said, sitting down on a great heap of mullock, "to talk over that blanky claim. I reckon meself there is gold in it."
But Battista answered that, gold or no gold, the mine was his, and he would kill any one who tried to take it from him.
Termater Bill was silent for a while, and spat meditatively down
the narrow shaft. At last he observed in an undertone
"The boys says that jumpt-up busted blue doll o' yers brings luck."
Battista did not understand the allusion to the Madonna, and made no reply.
Again there was a long silence : at last Termater Bill rose and stretched himself. "'Spose," he exclaimed, "I was ter give yer a fifteen years' lease, wi' a half share in the profits, twud be a blanky sight better than a poke in the eye with a burnt stick." But Battista went on digging, and paid no heed to him, till after a while the storekeeper went away.
Time passed by: the great mullock-heaps grew higher, but Battista did not find gold. Sometimes Termater Bill strolled up and asked him if he had "struck that blanky lead yet?" Then Battista shook his head, but added that he knew the gold was there, -the Blessed Madonna had said so. Termater Bill spat down the long shaft and exclaimed, "That ther jumpt-up busted blue doll gits me quite."
But when night fell and grotesque things moved in and out among the shadows, and the spirit of desolation crept through the bush, then had come into Battista's heart a great weariness of waiting, and he had flung himself down before the image of the Madonna and wept.
And the little blue-and-gold figure had stared out into the gathering darkness with its blank meaningless smile as vacant and as indifferent as before.
It happened that in one of these moments Termater Bill had come to the hut, and Battista, realising that another person was present, sprang to his feet.
"Ther's gold in that claim," he cried fiercely.
Termater Bill spat on the ground and said, "Thet's so."
"I tell you there is gold in that claim," Battista re- echoed with rising anger.
And Termater Bill spat on the ground once more and repeated, "Thet's so"; then had turned and gone down the mountain towards the camp. "If it warn't for that busted blue doll," he repeated to himself "the jumpt-up busted thing."
The next day he came again and sat down on an old hide bucket in front of Battista's hut. "I've bin fixin' things up a bit in my mind," he said; "I reckon last nite I was a bit ski-wift. Now 'spose," he continued, taking off his hat and placing it before him on the ground, "that thar 'at is the Brown Snake Mine; wall, us knows their main lead runs purty slick to the nor'east; say yer put in a drive by that tarnation bit o' grass bush," and he spat neatly into the centre of the spot indicated, "wots ter prevent yer dropping on gold?"
Battista's lips relaxed into a smile. Termater Bill rubbed the sleeve of his shirt across his rough red face, glancing as he did so at his companion.
"Luck is a thundering quare consarn," he exclaimed, after pause; "I niver bottomed it meself if yer don't git it, it gits yer, an' I reckon the darned thing is the smartest wi' the gloves."
He took his pipe out of his mouth and pressed his horny thumb down on the red-hot ashes.
"I wudn't lay too much on that jumpt-up blue doll, if I was yer," he said.
Battista smiled. "Yer don't understand," he answered.
And Termater Bill spat on the ground. "Eh, thet's so," he said, "thet's so."
There was a pause.
But," began Termater Bill. "Well," said the Italian.
""Tis the tarnation grin on the thing that gits me," the storekeeper burst out, "jest as if her was kinder larfin' at yer: her ain't no mug that busted doll, I'll lay to that."
tista's grave beside his claim,—a
"Git up," he said, "an' I will
Battista frowned. "Yer don't note." understand," he reiterated.
Again Termater Bill spat on the ground. "Eh, thet's so," he said, "thet's so."
A few weeks later a big bushfire swept across the hills, and the storekeeper had enough to do without troubling himself about the mine; but when a sudden change of wind sent the fire raging and tearing through the Fainting Ranges and away in the direction of Mount Hopeless, he retraced his steps over the blackened ground till he reached Battista's hut. It was empty close by the hide rope dangled from the windlass; the woods were silent except for the crashing of some half-charred tree as it toppled over and fell with a great splutter of cinders and wide swirling clouds of soft grey ashes; and stretched face downwards, near the shaft's mouth, the Italian lay dead. Termater Bill turned the body over.
"Pegged out," he said softly, "the blanky cuss has pegged out." Then he turned to the door of the hut and stopped short. "No," he exclaimed, "I reckon I won't: I reckon I cudn't stumick thet God's cuss o' a grin jest yet."
That afternoon they dug Bat
But the dead man lay still and paid no heed to him.
Termater Bill said he reckoned the company wud 'low him to say a few words.
The company 'lowed him.
Some of the men sat down on the mullock-heaps and began to fill their pipes; others stood about; and one, a jackeroo, took off his hat and then rather sheepishly put it on again.
Termater Bill cleared his throat and spat into the open grave. "Life," he said, "was a jumpt-up quare thing: there was they who bottomed payable dirt 2 fust go off, an' thar wa' they who didn't." He was silent for a moment, and rubbed his face with his sleeve. "But," he continued, "maybe out thar," and he pointed vaguely towards a patch of sunset sky, "across the Divide, they finds colour." He ceased speaking, and the men puffed away at their pipes in silence: at last some one suggested that it was time for the corpse to turn in."
They lowered the dead man into the grave,-there was no coffin. His arms had stiffened spreadeagle fashion, and he lay sideways against the walls of the grave and
1 Jackeroo, a lately arrived colonist.
2 Bottom payable dirt, find sufficient gold to pay working expenses.
looked as if he were about to turn a wheel into eternity. They shovelled back the earth rather gingerly, avoiding the dead man's face; but, after all, it had to be covered the same as the rest. When they had finished their task they strolled off towards the camp, only Termater Bill remaining behind. He went to Battista's hut and peered through the half-shut door: there in the corner the little blue-and-gold image stared, smiling down inscrutable, indifferent. Long the man gazed back on it; then with sudden determination he entered the hut, and taking Bat
tista's coat from a bench, covered the small figure, then lifting it in his arms, carried it out and flung it down the deep shaft.
But under the gum-trees Battista lay still, silent, satisfied. The years went on, the bottom of the shaft filled with water, and the mullock slipped back into it with a heavy splash; the windlass rotted and grew green, and some one stole the bucket and hide rope; far, far below in the valley the sweetscented wattle burst into tufted yellow balls, and the blue mists lay on Omeo.
I TAKE to witness this westering light to which I look that all the grumbling I have ever been guilty of was official and for the public good. With me as with the rest of mankind there have been griefs upon the road, disappointments, hardship as well as error, and various kinds of wounding and robbery to endure, as well as too much matter of self-reproach. Yet never as boy or man have I been a grumbler, but only as journalist, and in performance of the natural duties of journalism. Even this I can say, that no one has ever heard me grumble at being so much a journalist, after determining to be in that line of life for only a little while and as a makeshift, the determination of so many young men whose real vocation is poesy and the writing of incomparable essays. And perhaps it would be ungrateful to repine at a perversion which carried the pervert into so many pleasures and advantages, and even to a place of power at least equal to half-adozen seats in Parliament: at least. half-a-dozen, and these free of the Whip, independent of the Speaker, and subject not at all to the gentlemen of the front benches. It would be ungrateful, too, because my long spell of journalism began at about the most fortunate time in the history of what is sometimes called a "profession," though it is not that any more than it is Cabinetministering, unless when calculation chooses to make it so.
It was a fortunate time--I speak of 1860 or thereabout-for almost every reason that the good journal ist should rejoice at. It was a time of emergence from small
credit and a poor wage to pay that was a good enough return for the commodity supplied, and to as much consideration in the world as modest worth should look for, whenever it cares about the world at all. I do not know what intellectual or artistic employment could be called flourishing in those dull years from the thirties to the fifties, unless in the hands of a few individuals not all very great. Mechanical invention and appliance, of course; but not painting, nor sculpture, nor music, nor literature, nor the stage, and certainly not journalism—which, with one or two exceptions, as in Printinghouse Square, seems rather to have fallen back from an already poor estate. I know of a London morning paper-rich enough in these days, and no doubt as liberal as wealthy-which even toward the end of that period filled its pages with leading articles, reviews, and other high critical matter, at the rate of ten shillings per yard-long column; and I also know of a great writer, already proved and popular, who jumped at a scale of pay which could not be offered now to scribes with half his reputation: there are none with half his charm, and few with all his fitness. Moreover, till those times journalism was hardly allowed to be respectable, even with writers like Coleridge and Hazlitt to ennoble its practice; and if in the third or fourth decades of the century it was less looked down upon, it was a poorer trade than ever, I fancy, for any but a few writers in one or two newspapers alone.
A business so ill paid, so ill thought of, and so limited in