Story type: Literature
There were three of them in 1886, the big drought year: old Eversofar, Billy Marshall, and Bingong. I never was very jealous of them, not even when Billy gave undoubted ground for divorce by kissing her boldly in the front garden, with Eversofar and Bingong looking on–to say nothing of myself. So far as public opinion went it could not matter, because we were all living at Tilbar Station in the Tibbooburra country, and the nearest neighbour to us was Mulholland of Nimgi, a hundred miles away. Billy was the son of my manager, John Marshall, and, like his father, had an excellent reputation as a bushman, and, like his mother, was very good-looking. He was very much indeed about my house, suggesting improvements in household arrangements; making remarks on my wife’s personal appearance–with corresponding disparagement of myself; riding with my wife across the plains; shooting kangaroos with her by night; and secretly instructing her in the mysteries of a rabbit-trap, with which, he was sure, he could make “dead loads of metal” (he was proficient in the argot of the back-blocks); and with this he would buy her a beautiful diamond ring, and a horse that had won the Melbourne Cup, and an air-gun! Once when she was taken ill, and I was away in the South, he used to sit by her bedside, fanning her hour after hour, being scarcely willing to sleep at night; and was always on hand, smoothing her pillow, and issuing a bulletin to Eversofar and Bingong the first thing in the morning. I have no doubt that Eversofar and Bingong cared for her just as much as he did; but, from first to last, they never had his privileges, and were always subordinate to him in showing her devotion. He was sound and frank with them. He told Eversofar that, of course, she only was kind to him, and let him have a hut all to himself, because he was old and had had a bad time out on the farthest back-station (that was why he was called Eversofar), and had once carried Bingong with a broken leg, on his back, for twenty miles. As for Bingong, he was only a black fellow, aged fifteen, and height inconsiderable. So, of the three, Billy had his own way, and even shamelessly attempted to lord it over me.
Most husbands would consider my position painful, particularly when I say that my wife accepted the attention of all three lovers with calm pleasure, and that of Billy with a shocking indifference to my feelings. She never tried to explain away any circumstance, no matter how awkward it might look if put down in black and white. Billy never quailed before my look; he faced me down with his ingenuous smile; he patted me on the arms approvingly; or, with apparent malice, asked me questions difficult to answer, when I came back from a journey to Brisbane–for a man naturally finds it hard to lay bare how he spent all his time in town. Because he did it so suavely and naively, one could not be resentful. It might seem that matters had reached a climax, when, one day, Mulholland came over, and, seeing my wife and her lovers together watering the garden and teaching cockatoos, said to me that Billy had the advantage of me on my own ground. It may not be to my credit that I only grinned, and forbore even looking foolish. Yet I was very fond of my wife all the time. We stood pretty high on the Charwon Downs, and though it was terribly hot at times, it was healthy enough; and she never lost her prettiness, though, maybe, she lacked bloom.
I think I never saw her look better than she did that day when Mulholland was with me. She had on the lightest, softest kind of stuff, with sleeves reaching only a little below her elbow–her hands and arms never got sunburnt in the hottest weather–her face smiled out from under the coolest-looking hat imaginable, and her hair, though gathered, had a happy trick of always lying very loose and free about the head, saving her from any primness otherwise possible, she was so neat. Mulholland and I were sitting in the veranda. I glanced up at the thermometer, and it registered a hundred in the shade! Mechanically I pushed the lime-juice towards Mulholland, and pointed to the water-bag. There was nothing else to do except grumble at the drought. Yet there my wife was, a picture of coolness and delight; the intense heat seemed only to make her the more refreshing to the eye. Water was not abundant, but we still felt justified in trying to keep her bushes and flowers alive; and she stood there holding the hose and throwing the water in the cheerfulest shower upon the beds. Billy stood with his hands on his hips watching her, very hot, very self-contained. He was shining with perspiration; and he looked the better of it. Eversofar was camped beneath a sandal-tree teaching a cockatoo, also hot and panting, but laughing low through his white beard; and Bingong, black, hatless–less everything but a pair of trousers which only reached to his knees–was dividing his time between the cockatoo and my wife.
Presently Bingong sighted an iguana and caught it, and the three gathered about it in the shade of the sandal. After a time the interest in the iguana seemed to have shifted to something else; and they were all speaking very earnestly. At last I saw Billy and my wife only talking. Billy was excited, and apparently indignant. I could not hear what they were saying, but I saw he was pale, and his compatriots in worship rather frightened; for he suddenly got into a lofty rage. It was undoubtedly a quarrel. Mulholland saw, too, and said to me: “This looks as if there would be a chance for you yet.” He laughed. So did I.
Soon I saw by my wife’s face that she was saying something sarcastical. Then Billy drew himself up very proudly, and waving his hand in a grand way, said loudly, so that we could hear: “It’s as true as gospel; and you’ll be sorry for this-like anything and anything!” Then he stalked away from her, raising his hat proudly, but immediately turned, and beckoning to Eversofar and Bingong added: “Come on with me to barracks, you two.”
They started away towards him, looking sheepishly at my wife as they did so; but Billy finding occasion to give counter-orders, said: “But you needn’t come until you put the cockatoos away, and stuck the iguana in a barrel, and put the hose up for–for her.”
He watched them obey his orders, his head in the air the while, and when they had finished, and were come towards him, he again took off his hat, and they all left her standing alone in the garden.
Then she laughed a little oddly to herself, and stood picking to pieces the wet leaves of a geranium, looking after the three. After a little she came slowly over to us. “Well,” said I, feigning great irony, “all loves must have their day, both old and new. You see how they’ve deserted you. Yet you smile at it!”
“Indeed, my lord and master,” she said, “it is not a thing to laugh at. It’s very serious.”
“And what has broken the charm of your companionship?” I asked.
“The mere matter of the fabled Bunyip. He claimed that he had seen it, and I doubted his word. Had it been you it would not have mattered. You would have turned the other cheek, you are so tame. But he has fire and soul, and so we quarrelled.”
“And your other lovers turned tail,” I maliciously, said.
“Which only shows how superior he is,” was her reply. “If you had been in the case they would never have left me.”
“Oh, oh!” blurted Mulholland, “I am better out of this; for I little care to be called as a witness in divorce.” He rose from his chair, but I pushed him back, and he did not leave till “the cool of the evening.”
The next morning, at breakfast-time, a rouseabout brought us a piece of paper which had been nailed to the sandal-tree. On it was written:
“We have gone for the Bunyip. We travel on foot! Farewell and Farewell!”
We had scarcely read it, when John Marshall and his wife came in agitation, and said that Billy’s bed had not been slept in during the night. From the rouseabout we found that Eversofar and Bingong were also gone. They had not taken horses, doubtless because Billy thought it would hardly be valiant and adventurous enough, and because neither Bingong nor Eversofar owned one, and it might look criminal to go off with mine. We suspected that they had headed for the great Debil-devil Waterhole, where, it was said, the Bunyip appeared: that mysterious animal, or devil, or thing, which nobody has ever seen, but many have pretended to see. Now, this must be said of Billy, that he never had the feeling of fear–he was never even afraid of me. He had often said he had seen a Bunyip, and that he’d bring one home some day, but no one took him seriously. It showed what great influence he had over his companions, that he could induce them to go with him; for Bingong, being a native, must naturally have a constitutional fear of the Debil-debil, as the Bunyip is often called. The Debil-debil Waterhole was a long way off, and through a terrible country–quartz plains, ragged scrub, and little or no water all the way. Then, had they taken plenty of food with them? So far as we could see, they had taken some, but we could not tell how much.
My wife smiled at the business at first; then became worried as the day wore on, and she could see the danger and hardship of wandering about this forsaken country without a horse and with uncertain water. The day passed. They did not return. We determined on a search the next morning. At daybreak, Marshall and I and the rouseabout started on good horses, each going at different angles, but agreeing to meet at the Debil debil Waterhole, and to wait there for each other. If any one of us did not come after a certain time, we were to conclude that he had found the adventurers and was making his way back with them. After a day of painful travel and little water, Marshall and I arrived, almost within an hour of each other. We could see no sign of anybody having been at the lagoon. We waited twelve hours, and were about to go, leaving a mark behind us to show we had been there, when we saw the rouseabout and his exhausted horse coming slowly through the bluebush to us. He had suffered much for want of water.
We all started back again at different angles, our final rendezvous being arranged for the station homestead, the rouseabout taking a direct line, and making for the Little Black Billabong on the way. I saw no sign of the adventurers. I sickened with the heat, and my eyes became inflamed. I was glad enough when, at last, I drew rein in the home paddock. I couldn’t see any distance, though I was not far from the house. But when I got into the garden I saw that others had just arrived. It was the rouseabout with my wife’s lovers. He had found Billy nursing Eversofar in the shade of a stunted brigalow, while Bingong was away hunting for water. Billy himself had pushed his cause as bravely as possible, and had in fact visited the Little Black Billabong, where–he always maintains–he had seen the great Bunyip. But after watching one night, they tried to push on to the Debil-debil Waterhole. Old Eversofar, being weak and old, gave in, and Billy became a little delirious–he has denied it, but Bingong says it is so; yet he pulled himself together as became the leader of an expedition, and did what he could for Eversofar until the rouseabout came with food and water. Then he broke down and cried–he denies this also. They tied the sick man on the horse and trudged back to the station in a bad plight.
As I came near the group I heard my wife say to Billy, who looked sadly haggard and ill, that she was sure he would have got the Bunyip if it hadn’t been for the terrible drought; and at that, regardless of my presence, he took her by the arms and kissed her, and then she kissed him several times.
Perhaps I ought to have mentioned before that Billy was just nine years old.