THE LAST BATTLE
IN the blue gum forest of Australia, Joseph Jefferson, the famous actor, sat on a fallen tree eating his lunch. He had left his home station and was making an excursion into the wilder and more unfrequented parts of the country. In the midst of the solitude he was startled by a large black dog that came bounding out of the bushes and suddenly stopped in front of him. The dog paused, eyed him keenly, approached slowly to lick the hand held out to him, and bounded away. Soon he returned wagging his tail. He was followed by the gaunt figure of a man, evidently a shepherd, thinly clad, barefooted, with a wide-brimmed, frayed straw hat on his head which he immediately removed with a dignified bow. As he stood bareheaded, with the long, thin, sandy hair blown about his brow, he gazed at Joseph Jefferson with a queer far-off look in his eyes. It was a look common to shepherds who live for months without seeing a human being, and who form the habit of straining their eyes across the plains in the hope that they will catch sight of someone to give them a little companionship.
The man sat down quickly and ate sparingly of the lunch offered him. At the end of the meal Jefferson took out a flask of whiskey and invited his guest to drink. The shepherd's eyes beamed with longing when he saw the liquor; then turning on Jefferson a strange, frightened look, he cried out almost fiercely: "No, none of that! Put it away, please!"
It then dawned on Jefferson that his friend was perhaps a reformed drunkard, who, like others he had heard of, had chosen this life of a shepherd, the most isolated that could be found, in order to avoid temptation.
As Jefferson rose to go, the man begged him to spend the night in his hut adding, "It's so long since I have seen a human face; over three months." At first the actor declined, but the shepherd looked so despairing that he finally consented. The dog, barking joyfully, led the way to a crude little mud hut about a mile away.
After the sun had gone down and the two men had drunk tea together, Jefferson heard the story of the stranger's life. There was no sound except the distant tinkle of the sheep's bell and the crackling of the little fire that had boiled the tea; and Jefferson thought as he listened that the loneliness, bad enough with two men, must be crushing for only one. The man had been well educated and had practised law successfully in London. After two years of married life he lost his wife and child, and in despair began to drink. Rapidly he lost his money and position, and with a broken spirit left England for Australia, where he thought that by putting liquor far out of his reach he could escape the temptation that gripped him. Then Jefferson realized what he had done when he carelessly offered this poor soul a drink of whiskey, and had thus stirred within him all the old appetite and longing that he had come so far to avoid.
"At last, as it was late, the two men went to bed, the guest upon the only cot, the host on the grass outside. But Joseph Jefferson could not sleep. After lying for perhaps an hour with his eyes closed, he heard something stirring. Opening his eyes, he saw the shepherd sitting in the doorway with his head resting on his hands. Then the shepherd became uneasy and began restlessly pacing up and down in front of the hut. Presently he stopped and came with a hesitating step toward the door. Entering, he stooped down on hands and knees and crawled stealthily to the chair on which Jefferson's coat was hanging. "With trembling eagerness he put his hand in the breast pocket and drew out the flask of whiskey. He gazed at it a moment bewildered, then some strange emotion seizing him, he fell upon his knees as though in prayer. Through several minutes of deathly silence Jefferson knew that there in the darkness a soul was struggling in agony, and that he had caused the conflict.
Suddenly the shepherd rose and with calm, unhurried movements, put the flask untouched back into the pocket of the coat; then stretching himself on the floor, he went peacefully to sleep.
In the morning the shepherd, with a glad look in his eyes where before there had been only lonely despair, explained it all to Jefferson.
"The old craving came upon me strong," he said, "and if ever I prayed for strength it was then. After a moment it was as though a hand were laid on my head and a calmness came over me that I had not felt for years. When I returned the flask to your pocket I knew that another drop of liquor will never pass my lips. It is all over now, thank Heaven, and I can return to the world again with safety."