The Shanty-Keeper's Wife
by Henry Lawson (1867-1922)
. . . the story continues . . .
It grew darker and colder. The rain came as if the frozen south were spitting at your face and neck and hands, and our feet grew as big as camel's, 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 did our corns stick out so hard against the leather, and shoot.
We looked out eagerly for some clearing, 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 bordering 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 contradictions; wayside shanties turn up unexpectedly and in the most unreasonable places, and are, as likely as not, prepared for a banquet when you 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, with a dark bushy beard, and a three-bushel bag around his 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 all right," said the driver.
"The publican's wife is sick," somebody 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 background. 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, we helped, as quietly as possible, 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 a 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, sympathetically: "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 –"
"Hush-sh-sh!" said the publican.
The pilgrim scowled and retired to the rear. You can't express your feelings freely when there's a woman dying close handy.
"Well, who says rum and milk?" asked the joker, in a low voice.
"Wait here," said the publican, and disappeared into the little front passage.
. . . the story continues . . .