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The Exciseman
by [?]

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.

“Yes, Harry.”

“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.

“It’s me.”

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.