His life and books
THE BEST OF THE BARGAIN
By Nat Gould
Some curious transactions took place in Victoria In the early seventies. Men were not over particular In these days, and had not learned the true meaning of the rights of ownership of property - if they considered they possessed any rights at all.
Get money - honestly if you can, but get it - was a maxim much thought of, honesty, however, being at a discount. Horse stealing and cattle-lifting were rife, and many an owner woke up in the morning to find his best steed gone, or his finest cattle missing. Bushrangers relieved travellers of their superfluous cash, and sometimes took their lives in addition. It was not safe to travel in lonely parts of the country, and a man seldom ventured abroad alone.
There were numerous receivers of stolen property, and even station managers and owners where not too particular as to where a horse came from, so long as they got what they considered a good bargain. FosterFlinders owned a station about five and twenty miles from Euroa, a township about ninety miles from Melbourne, and he was somewhat of a character in the neighbourhood. Foster Flinders was an old settler, and report had it that at one time the various transactions in which he had been engaged could not be termed legitimate.
“Can't understand old Flinders,” said one of his neighbours; “He always has horses and cattle to sell, but I'm blest If he ever buys any stock. Where they cone from is a mystery; but there they are, and he's always open for a deal.”
Foster Flinders' neighbour was wrong, for the “old hand” dearly loved to purchase what he called “contraband goods.” Flinders lived a lonely life, but didn't appear to mind it. He was a bachelor, and had a housekeeper whose appearance was not calculated to inspire any male visitors with a desire to annex her. Flinders considered her a perfect treasure. He knew she was moderately honest, and had she been thoroughly honest he would have had his doubts about her. Foster Flinders had a horror of the honest man. It was the most honest man he had over known who had taken Foster Flinders down, and in consequence he had put a black mark against honest men ever since.
Bush parsons are not half bad fellows. They appreciate a joke, likewise hospitality. There were very few parsons about the country in those days. One day old Flinders saw a man in dark tweed clothes with a soft black hat on his head, riding towards his house.
“Parson!” he ejaculated. “Haven't seen one of 'em for ages. Wonder what he's like ? Some of 'em are decent fellows. He's riding a good horse, too. Might manage a swop with him.”
When the visitor was within easy distance he hailed Foster Flinders, and bade him good day in a hearty voice.
“That sounds well,' said Flinders. 'He's one of the right sort. I hate those melancholy chaps with faces longer than their coats, and looks blacker than their clothes.”
The stranger dismounted and tied his horse to a rail. He stepped on to the verandah and said:
'My name is James Gibbs, the Rev. James Gibbs, I have been appointed to Euroa as assistant to the Rev. Mr. - . This is my first tour in your district. I have had a lovely ride, and this is a glorious country. Makes a man hungry and thirsty, a brisk ride in the early morning. Have something to eat? Thanks, I don't mind if I do. And drink? Well, yes, a glass of ale, or anything you have handy.”
“No humbug about him,” said Flinders to himself as he watched the reverend gentleman making a hearty meal. “Knows how to use his knife and fork, likewise how to drink ale. He's one of them muscular Christians - must be.
“'Smoke? Yes, thank you, I do smoke; it soothes the nerves, and is an aid to thought. I always smoke when I compose sermons,” said James Gibbs.
“Elegant discourses, I’ve no doubt,” said Foster Flinders.
“Possibly so,” was the reply. “I am not an eloquent man, Mr. -ah, Flinders, Foster Flinders - very good name. No, Mr. Flinders, I am not eloquent, but I hope I am honest.”
“Honest men are rare, sir,” said Flinders. “I'm glad you’re something out of the common.”
“I am honest according to my lights,” said James Gibbs. “I do not pretend to be better than my neighbours. We are all more or less honest, I hope.”
“Certainly; quite so,” replied Flinders. “Only a good deal less than more.”
They talked for some time; and Foster Flinders, who had been assisting himself liberally to the strong ale, became more and more pleased with his unexpected guest.
He went out to replenish the jug, and his housekeeper said:
“That's the fourth time you have filled that jug. The parson must be dry.”
“Parsons are human, Judith,”said Flinders. “Parsons have thirsts to be quenched. It's not this man's fault that his thirst happens to be of the unquenchable kind.”
“Maybe he's a freethinker,” said Judith. “Anyway, he's a free drinker.”
“That's a decent sort of horse you’ve got,” said Foster Flinders, on his return to the room.
“Is he?” said his visitor. “I'm not much of a judge of horses, but I have no doubt you are. This animal was presented to me before I left Melbourne as a slight token of regard and esteem.”
“We'll go and have a look at him,” said Flinders.
They went outside, and Foster Flinders saw at a glance the horse was an uncommon good animal.
“He must have been a popular chap for them to give him a horse like that,”he thought. “I'd like to get that animal. There's money in him.”
“He's a fair horse,” he said aloud. “Not so good as he looked at a distance, but a fair horse. He's hardly up to your work. Now I have a horse would just suit you. We might do a swop.”
“A swop - an exchange. I take your horse, you take mine. See?”
“Very good. Ha, ha!” laughed Gibbs. “But I cannot part with my horse. He was a present, a token of affection; and really I do not think it would be honest to part with him.”
“Blow me, but he's an honest man,”thought Flinders. “I wonder If he's too honest,” and he looked hard at the Rev. James Gibbs.
The worthy man underwent the scrutiny well, and Flinders appeared satisfied.
“Come and have a look at some of my horses,”said Flinders, and they passed round the end of the house to the stables. Here half a dozen horses were haltered in stalls, and Flinders, undoing one of them, led it out.
“Now that's more the horse for your work,” said Flinders.
There was no comparison between the two horses; but Gibbs said: “Not a bad horse, I should say. I will look at the others.”
The remainder were brought out for inspection.
“I like this best,” said Gibbs, pointing to a dark bay.
“Hang me, if he hasn't hit on the best of the lot,” thought Flinders; “but his own horse is a much better animal.”
“Come inside and talk it over,” said Flinders.
After some conversation, Gibbs said: “I really must be going. I do not care to part with my horse, but you appear to have set your heart on having him.”
“I'll give you the dark bay and ten pounds to boot for your horse,” said Flinders, “and you'll have the best of the bargain.”
“My dear sir, if I accept the money I shall not devote it to my own use. That would not be honest. It would seem like making a profit out of the gift of one's friends. I will tell you what I will do. Give me your horse and fifteen pounds in exchange for mine, and when I return to Euroa I will hand my vicar the money and tell him it is your subscription to the church funds.”
Foster Flinders was amused at the idea. He imagined the surprise it would cause many people when his name appeared in the church list for fifteen pounds.
“I'll get a heap of credit for it,” he thought, “and I shall have made a good bargain as well. My horse is none too sound, although he's a good-looking one. He's good enough, though, to carry the parson for many a day.”
The bargain was concluded, and the Rev. James Gibbs mounted his newly-acquired steed and rode away, profuse in his thanks for the hospitality he had received.
“Shall be glad to see you again,” shouted Flinders. “Don't forget to send me the church list with that fifteen pounds in.”
Foster Flinders was on good terms with himself over his bargain. He considered he had done a good day's work. Next morning he was surprised to see two mounted constables ride up to his house.
“What are they here for?” he thought; thank goodness there's nothing 'contraband' on the premises.”
The constables knew Foster Flinders well. He treated the police admirably, and seldom got into trouble with them.
They dismounted, and Flinders invited them inside.
“What's the game, sergeant ? Been any more robberies?”
“Why, yes,” said Sergeant Brown. “There was a daring robbery yesterday at Euroa. Some smart chap got into the parson's house and made sad work. He gagged the housekeeper and the parson and tied them to the bedposts. Then he put on a suit of the parson's clothes and took his horse. He managed to secure about thirty pounds in cash and two watches, besides the horse, which is a valuable one. We fancy he made in this direction from what we have heard on the road.”
Foster Flinders' face was a study. He saw at once he had been sold.
“What's up, Foster?” asked the sergeant, noticing Flinders' face. “Have you seen him?”
“Have I seen him!” growled Foster Flinders, “The Rev James Gibbs, that's his name. He called here yesterday. Had dinner with me, and no end of old ale. Said he was the newly-appointed assistant to the Rev. - , of Euroa. I swopped horses with him, and gave him fifteen pounds to boot.”
Sergeant Brown roared with laughter. 'What a joke!' he said. “Foster Flinders done by a bush parson. Ha, ha, ha!”
They went to see Flinders' newly acquired horse, and Sergeant Brown said “That's the horse we want sure enough, I know it well.”
“He said he was an honest man,” said Flinders. “I had doubts about him when he said that, but he carried it off well. Said he'd not use the money I gave him, but would hand it over to the vicar and have it put down as a donation from me to the church fund.”
The constables were convulsed with laughter. Foster Flinders they knew was a very old hand in all matters connected with 'chopping' horses. Sergeant Brown thought what a good tale it would be to tell when he returned to Euroa.
“You're wasting time,' said Flinders. 'After the beggar and catch him. You can have the parson's horse, but get mine back and the fifteen pounds. Hang it, Sergeant, if you lay that rogue by the heels you can divide the money between you.”
The constables rode away in search of James Gibbs, leaving the stolen horse at Flinders' until their return. Two days later Foster Flinders saw them returning with his friend the 'parson' between them. Flinders shook his fist at the culprit, and roared out: “So you've come back, Mr. Honestman! I hope you'll get ten years for this job!”
James Gibbs smiled as he replied: “My only regret, Mr. Flinders, is that I cannot repay you for your hospitality by giving that fifteen pounds to the church funds. These gentlemen have already taken possession of all my spare cash.”
Foster Flinders could not help laughing at the rogue's impudence, more especially when he thought of the vicar and his housekeeper being tied to the bedposts.
The story of how Foster Flinders was 'had' by a spurious bush parson caused much amusement in the district; and Sergeant Brown generally concluded the tale by saying: “For once in his life Foster Flinders did not got the best of the bargain.”
The Best of the Bargain by Nat Gould was published in The Arrow (Sydney, Australia) on 16 March 1901.