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Title: Elder Man's Lane
Author: Henry Lawson
eBook No.: 2200441h.html
Date first posted: August 2022
Most recent update: August 2022
This eBook was produced by: Colin Choat
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1. Johnson's Jag
2. Ah Dam
3. The Lily of St Leonards
4. Benno and his Old 'Uns
5. The Kids
6. The Downfall of Little Willie
7. His Burden of Sorrow
8. His Unconquerable Soull
9. The Reformation of Johnson
10. I'll Bide
11. Dawgs and Co.
12. A Reconnoitre with Benno
13. The Horseshoe and the Clock
14. A Letter from Benno
15. The Passing of Elder Man's Lane
Within a slingshot of the Bulletin office, in a northerly direction, lies a waterside alley which I call Elder Man's Lane, because the one flagged footpath is so narrow that it is impossible for two ordinary men to pass each other on it, though two "slabs" might sidle past face to face (they might do it back to back, but that wouldn't be polite) and it seems the unwritten law of the lane that the younger wanderer therein should step off into the dust or mud and give way to the seemingly older one. The lane is unmade, as yet, and can be muddy or dusty when it likes.
The lane runs from George Street north to nowhere in particular. You can climb out of it by a green hill if you think you're wanted at the other end (there's an old pub on top of that hill and many ways of escape); but if you stick to it, it will lead you to a dingy North Shore Horse Ferry, and so may be said to lead to all the northern suburbs. For the matter of that, it might even be said to lead to Europe, Asia, Africa and America, and a good many of the South Sea Islands; for there's a short side-branch, or bottomless pocket, a step down to the wharves where the principal liners lie. A good deal of our raw material goes out of the country that way, so "bottomless pocket" fits the case. The Lane itself is boomerang-shaped, so you can't see what's at the end of it till you get there. It's like Middle Age Lane in this respect. I know of no other lane less frequented by ordinary folk, or the aristocracy, or the demi-monde; but the dead pass through it often. Also, the deadbeat, and those who wish they were dead—or drunk.
Occasionally, about nine o'clock on a fine morning, you'll see a fairly well-dressed and apparently respectable citizen and business man coming over on the Horse Ferry, or perhaps he has left the ferry and got into Elder Man's Lane. On the Ferry he holds himself aloof, paces up and down slowly, even nervously, or resolutely surveys the beautiful harbour with his back to the world and all its paltrinesses; yet he seems to have a definite immediate object in view. And you may be almost sure (1) that that man has been in very recent trouble, extending over breakfast this morning; (2) that he has eaten little or no breakfast; and (3) that the definite object is to get a good whisky and soda just as soon as he reaches a bar he knows. I'll tell you how it was.
There's my friend Johnson—or, rather, there was. Better put it all in the past tense. Johnson lived on the Shore, and was employed in a Government office where he was indispensable. Say, draughtsman or something. He was exceedingly clever in his profession, and so, of course, he drank too much. When his "week" came to him—generally at the end of the month—he'd leave the office with his screw, and have a few drinks with the fellows at the Exchange or Empire: then, as repeatedly instructed, right out to the gate that morning, he'd conscientiously take a tram back and down to Anthony Hordern's, with a finger and thumb constantly and anxiously feeling a half-sheet of cheap, closely-folded notepaper in his upper left-hand waistcoat pocket—a scrap of paper he had been constantly losing, and hunting for, and finding again all day, and which contained something as follows, written in a feminine hand that was characteristic:
1 yard Black Satin for Piping.
¾ yard Fancy Cream Lace for Yoke.
2 doz. Black Satin Buttons.
1 yard cream gipuirieging (it looks like that).
2 reels of silk to match material.
2 doz. Pat. Fasteners.
2 cards hooks and eyes.
1 set collar supports.
Be sure you go to Hordern's, and don't forget what I told you. And don't lose this.
Then Johnson would have another drink to clear his brain and brace him up; and then a hurried, blurred recollection of carved lifts, and vistas of varnish and everything a woman knows, and lovely, graceful, saint-like shop girls (or sales ladies), and a smiling, sympathetic shopwalker taken into his (Johnson's) confidence, and asked if he was a married man, and informed in return that he (Johnson) was a married man, too, and shaken hands with, with the exaggerated warmth of affected sympathy—and shown that list. Then various stairs and different departments. The shopwalkers and salesmen on different floors and behind different counters would stick to Johnson like a brother and see him through. Perhaps they were mostly married men, too. Then, after a friendly and jocular (on Johnson's part) interval, he'd be conducted gently to the right lift and bowed in, after the last shopwalker had smilingly declined an invitation to come out and have a drink. And Johnson would find himself on the level again, with his bag half full of very soft and perishable feminine rubbish in brown tissue paper parcels—and in urgent need of another whisky.
Then Johnson would charge two Circular Quay trams, catch a third, and cling to it tooth and nail, possibly with an instinctive idea of putting as much of the jumbled city behind him as he could in the shortest possible time, and regaining the beloved vicinity of Circular Quay, where he would feel safe. He'd drop off short of the Quay, have another drink, and then go into Jack Sotero's, the Greek hairdresser's, to have a shave and a shampoo, maybe, to freshen him up, and to collect his thoughts. (It's all right! We'll get back to the Horse Ferry and Elder Man's Lane soon enough.) And he'd get talking with Sotero about the Eastern Question, and maybe argue, and they'd both get excited. Sotero would, sure.
Then Johnson, partly sober, would retire to a private place and take stock of his finances. He'd abstract a few more shillings, for current expenses, from that portion of his monthly "screw" set apart earlier in the afternoon for the use of his wife, wrap the remainder up tight in another half-sheet of newspaper, and button it up in his hip pocket. Then he'd make for the Quay, and get another drink and more inspiration on the way. After which the world would begin to move.
Fate would have one (or, more likely, two; they mostly go by twos) of Johnson's deplorable acquaintances loitering on the footpath, opposite the Quay; and Johnson would stumble into their arms; and they'd go into one of the first-and-last hotels to see if they could keep another down. And, as likely as not, they'd find others of the Johnsonian school there.
The vicinity would remind Johnson of fish and another thing; so they'd adjourn, and maybe there'd be stewed oysters; and Johnson would make one or two purchases on his own account. But the fat, futile, vacuously smiling, oily faces of degenerate Italy would exasperate Johnson by-and-by, and the trouble in Southern Europe would come to the surface again, and Johnson would hold forth to the edification of the cropped and grinning Dagoes. He'd be all Turk now (he was always for the weaker side, was Johnson). But his friends would steer him out before Tripoli had a chance of being avenged.
Then they'd adjourn to keep another one down, and Johnson would buy a "parrot" (i.e. flask of whisky for the morning), with the fixed intention of going right across and straight home now. His friends would see him to the turnstiles, and he'd go through, informing an unresponsive public, in a loud voice and with curious inconsistency (considering the fish shop), that Her Naiad grace had brought him home. To the grandeur which was Greece, And the glory which was Rome. He had the choice of two ferry boats—Milson's Point and Lavender Bay—and he was known equally well on either; but his Fate would put him on the most crowded one of the evening, and the one with the greatest number of his acquaintances, friends, enemies, neighbours and those who knew him by sight. And, of course, he'd make a prize ass of himself. He'd surpass all previous efforts. He'd hold forth on politics, and he'd sing and recite revolutionary verses. He'd be "Wae's me for Prince Chairlie" till his friends were heartbroken, and he'd bellow while his enemies applauded. He was pro-Russ, pro-Boer, pro-Australia, pro-husband, pro-man, pro-beer—all Pro at this stage: and he'd arise on the upper deck and denounce the Antis with indignation and enthusiasm that brought him to the verge of tears. And he'd continue on the tram, only interrupted when he refused to pay a degenerate Government a fare, and one of his friends, the tram guards, took his name and address fir appearances' sake. They used to have their books full of Johnson's name and address. He wrote it himself sometimes.
At the last pub on the Heights, near his home, Johnson would pull himself together a bit and seek a private parlour (or still more private place) and once more review his finances. (Elder Man's Lane is very near now.) He'd carefully distribute threepences and sixpences through his pocket for his wife to find when he'd be asleep. Then, if short, he'd borrow another half-crown or 5s. from her share, to finish up the night with, and have something in hand for the morning; then he'd carefully wrap up the share again and button it down in his hip pocket; then he'd put one half-crown in one of the other pockets, take off his boot, put the other half-crown in his sock under the instep, put on his boot again, and seek the bar. Where, as likely as not, he'd meet yet another of the Johnsonian Brotherhood and they'd finish the night. Unless his Fate led him home through the main street, singing just as the majority of his fellow suburbanites were pouring out of the picture shows and down to the tram line. Anyway, he'd go his way, singing in the moonlight, with two bottles on top of his wife's forgotten vanities (all is vanity), and he'd arrive at his own gate, still singing and still flourishing the Crayfish of Confidence or the Lobster of Faith. (Those vain peace offerings!)
He knew, or thought he knew, his wife's tastes on all occasions. He'd tell her to put her hand in his coat pocket, and see what she'd find, and as like as not she'd find nothing there but dampness. Also, as like as not, she'd find It afterwards, under the bottles, and on top of her precious dress trimmings—a squashed and busted newspaper parcel of very damp and stringy prawns. But he's utterly hopeless now, lying on his back on the bed, and singing, or rather roaring, at the top of his voice, that He'll vote for Andy Fisher, No matter what he said! So she undresses him hastily, gives him a stiff nip, and puts him under cover. And silence reigneth.
Now you've already forgotten the fairly well dressed and apparently respectable citizen and man of business (or professional man, or artist), seen occasionally on the Horse Ferry, or in Elder Man's Lane, on a fine morning about nine. I said I'd tell you how it was. It was Johnson, the Morning After the Night Before. Clean-shirted, clean-collared and clean-socked; also cleaned out and tray-bitless. Remember the Sock of Precaution? The "half-caser" was in her stocking now, along with the rest.
His wife knew Johnson's ways. He would humbly accept the copper that she spared (at great personal inconvenience, according to herself) from that voracious little instrument of unblushing capitalism (though it is painted red) and demoraliser of good housewives, the accursed gas meter. Johnson had a season-ticket on the passenger ferry; but he'd be far too shaky and ashamed to face it, so he'd slip unobtrusively down by-streets and lanes, and along Blue's Point Road, and into the Horse Ferry. Then he'd get a couple of good whiskeys in the Bar that Knew Him, and feel his manhood returning, and go to work.
He'd slip out and have another during the forenoon and one or two during the lunch hour, and maybe one in midafternoon, to keep his deft right hand steady. Then, between four and five, several with bachelor mates or unprincipled husbands who still held a fair share of their salaries. The previous night would then be repeated, but on a grander scale and with trimmings. Johnson, with no shopping or shampooing to cut into his time, would make a more glorious ass of himself than ever. A patriot, an orator, a fine singer and reciter, and the only possible saviour of his country; and with loftier contempt for the alleged spirit of Sydney (and more especially that of North Sydney), he'd time himself to catch the most crowded ferry boat across.
Sometimes he'd insist on taking a stray mongrel home with him in premeditated defiance of Company and Government, even if he had to fight for it all the way. And rather earlier that night he'd be steered lovingly to his own gate by one or more of the brethren. And they'd utter words of caution in whispers that could be heard at the end of the street, and part with affection and difficulty. Then Johnson would pull himself together, creep in, shut the gate softly, and go down on his knees and hide two half-crowns in the dirt under a geranium bush, fixing the spot in his memory as only a drunk can, while his careful little wife watched him thoughtfully from the front room window.
Then, next morning, the Blast of Repentance on awakening, the Horse Ferry and Elder Man's Lane. And so the thing would be repeated to the end of Johnson's Jag, with perhaps an interval of a day or two at home to recuperate. It was bad judgment; for, whereas, the people of North Sydney might have seen him sober once a day during his week or fortnight, they never did. He should have gone home by the Horse Ferry. But, there! What's the use of arguing with a drunk? They don't see things as you do.
The horse ferry had its humorously exasperating side. The boats were high and flat and wouldn't steer. I have timed one to take three-quarters of an hour for the trip from Blue's Point to Dawes Point, a distance of a little less than half a mile. This included some half-dozen attempts to make land. When the steering gear or something went wrong, we'd have a trip round the harbour thrown in for our modest copper. The last time, I think, we went twice round the flagship; and the time before that I had a nice little run up the Parramatta River. I hadn't been there for years. On this occasion we came back on the other rudder, and went into dock wrong end first, with all the horses' heads turned back to Blue's Point. They had big meat and furniture vans and long timber trucks behind them, and couldn't turn. So the ferry had to crawl back to Blue's Point, where the carts and vans and trucks were driven ashore and turned round somehow, and brought aboard again for another shot at it. I didn't mind it much, only a big German training ship was lying at Blue's Point at the time, and officers and cadets could look down and smile on all this and on many other similar manoeuvres going on daily in a very narrow waterway, between Australia's greatest city and its nearest, wealthiest and most fashionable front-garden suburb. That's what galled me. Similar accidents occur frequently on the passenger ferries; but it doesn't seem to matter, and it won't till the big smash comes. And when that blows over, it will go on not mattering. Sydney people will stand anything. I remember the years when they wouldn't.
The Horse Ferry levels all, from the latest expensive motor car, with its load of veiled and tailored tolerant disgust, to the little turnout of Benno, the bottle-o, with his load of disgust, but untailored and intolerant; and so down to the derelict and the deadbeat, working their way over at the tail of a friendly cart, because they haven't the pennies to go through the turnstiles of the passenger ferries. Item: The black, covered, unobtrusive undertaker's cart, containing, in the cheapest of contract shells, the last-vacated earthly tenement—much damaged and dilapidated, no doubt—of some friendless outcast, or pauper dead.
But this is the chronicle of my acquaintance Ah Dam, a cousin (twice removed by law) of my friend Ah See, and the son of old Ah Soon, whose tale I have told before.
At least his name wasn't Ah Dam, but I could see he felt like it, and he sounded like it occasionally, while he was telling me the story, in spite of the humorously doleful smile, or grin, which is common to white, black, yellow, brown and brindle when they bump up against Australian law. They don't grin much when they bump up against Chinese law—at least not for long. Ah Dam told me that, and his father told him.
I might have to use Ah Dam again, so I will tell you a little about him. He's a Sydneyborn Chinaman with a pigtail, and a merchant in a small way. His father, a native of Old China, made Ah Dam grow the pigtail, with the intention of taking the boy to China some day, and he gave Ah Dam a fairly good Chinese and English education. The old man went to China first, to smooth over old matters, perhaps, but died there before he could send for Ah Dam and his mother. Whether the old 'un died of Chinese old age, or got mixed up in Chinese politics, or found that something that had happened in China in his youthful and pre-Australian days hadn't been forgotten, Ah Dam didn't tell me. Perhaps he didn't know. But, in spite of its inconvenience, and the time and trouble it cost, and the derision it inspired in the bosom of dying-out larrikinism, Ah Dam stuck to the pigtail, for the old man's sake.
And from what I know of Ah Dam, and in spite of his shortcomings in one respect, I don't believe that the spirit of his old man has ever had cause to complain of any failure on the part of his Australian-born son to do the right thing by his father's memory. Though for the sake of convenience in census returns and in other documents, and for personal reasons, and business purposes occasionally, Ah Dam was supposed to be C.E. (Church of England), he told me "Confucius".
His Chinese mother died—perhaps of a Chinese woman's broken Chinese heart—shortly after the news of the death of his father. And Ah Dam carried on the business, and prospered, and got the opium habit (his father and afterwards his mother had kept him carefully away from it—the manner of the getting of the habit is another story), and he married a half-caste woman and had children.
I meant to say further back (but there isn't room for it now between the lines) that Ah Dam met his Port Arthur by way of the Horse Ferry and Elder Man's Lane that leads up from it to George Street.
His opium "jag" was costing him 5s. a day, and 7s. 6d. a night. So he went aboard a boat from China, lying across the harbour, and manned by a Chinese crew. There had been preliminaries and arrangements, but this is making the story short. "There were fourteen of us," he said, with the aforesaid smile; but the rest were caught after he had got away. He blames himself for smoking that night. He should, on that occasion, of all occasions, have kept his senses unclouded. (How many of us have failed to do that same!) He seems to have got ashamed of his associates rather early—common Chinese forecastle coolies, and he a respectable and respected Sydney Chinese seed merchant, albeit in a small way. So he got one of the crew to row him ashore, unostentatiously (to avoid the bore and bother of farewells, perhaps), just about daylight, and land him in the scrubby, muddy, hulk-encumbered and nondescript little inlet between Neutral Bay and North Sydney. He should have gone round by Cammeray Park and loitered about in the safe vicinity of the Chinese gardens until a little more reasonable hour, and then have boldly walked up and taken the tram, like any decent vegetable or garden Chinaman going in on business, or to make purchases, or to consult his joss concerning the weather. But Ah Dam did none of these things. The spirit of the opium-cloud, in which he was enveloped, knew better than he did. Same as our drink fumes know better than we.
Perhaps Ah Dam shrank from a chance meeting with a Chinaman who knew him in the way of business, and might tell an acquaintance of his wife's or his friend's, or his creditors (innocently enough, perhaps) where he'd seen Ah Dam, and about what time of the day. Besides, opium-smoking was now an illegal offence, and severely punishable; and Ah Dam might have simply sought to cover up his immediate tracks for the sake of the fellow-smokers he had left behind on board, still smoking. Who can fathom the Oriental mind?
Anyway, Ah Dam went right round by devious ways to the Horse Ferry—the first across, as it happened—where no decent Chinaman was ever supposed to be without a cart or basket. He sat down and looked like nothing but a real Chinaman. There were two other alleged Chinamen aboard, with carts and baskets, but they were not countrymen of his father's; and they looked as bafflingly unconscious of his presence as he of anyone's. He gave up his ticket, and strolled leisurely along Elder Man's Lane and into George Street, and down round the corner to the Seamen's Home, looking as bland and innocent and as mildly, tolerantly and benevolently interested in the world around him as seven Chinamen. Then he was aware, across the street on the opposite corner, of my other friend, Detective O'Kye, looking also as bland and innocent and as mildly, tolerantly and benevolently interested in the world around him as seventeen Chinamen. It was a critical moment. Ah Dam knew O'Kye by sight (and also by sound and touch, for that matter), and the knowledge was mutual. And Ah Dam was as "dead cert" that O'Kye had noted him out of the corners of his innocent Irish eyes as O'Kye was that Ah Dam had spotted him out of the corners of his narrow, somewhat-slanting, dark, reddish-brown Asiatic eyes.
They had met before, twice. The last time was in Hobart, whither O'Kye had gone on some business with Ah Dam, who had preceded him, but with no appointment whatever. They had drifted in sight of each other on opposite sides of the street, just as now, a few minutes after O'Kye had left the boat. And they had returned to Sydney together on the same boat, and had been very friendly and pleasant coming across. Ah Dam's Society had fixed him up that time, and next Christmas he had sent O'Kye a present of a pair of the plumpest and tenderest young muscovy ducks to be had. But all this in parentheses.
It was a critical moment, I say, but Ah Dam's mind was made up. He dived across the street with the action and manner of an impulsive English schoolboy on sighting an old chum (it sounds impossible for a Chinaman, but I have seen it done). He came up on the opposite kerb with a glad hand for O'Kye. (Ah Dam tells me all this himself.)
"How do, Mr O'Kye!" he cried. "You remember me? Hobart! Five years ago!"
"Why, it's Ah Dam!" said O'Kye, in pleased surprise; and he shook hands heartily. "How do you do, Ah Dam? Where have you been all this time? Still in the garden-seed business?"
"Yes, worse luck," said Ah Dam. "Same shop. Why you never come?"
"Oh, I'll drop in some day," said O'Kye. "How's the wife and kids? Quite well? How's business? You look quite like a man of leisure, Ah Dam. Taking a mornin' stroll before breakfast?"
"No damn fear!" said Ah Dam. "I was trying to catch a damn vegetable Chinaman from North Sydney. He owes me money. No use trying to catch him at home. He comes over 'bout this time with his cart on Friday mornings, but I suppose he's gone by the other horse ferry and dodged me again. Well, so long, Mr O'Kye. I must go back and open shop."
But O'Kye was not the man to let an old friend go like that, after not seeing him for years. He passed his arm through Ah Dam's in an affectionate, brotherly sort of way, and strolled back with him down George Street, and paused opposite a small place built in the Graeco-Roman-Moorish-Italian-Arabesque-Elizabethan-Egyptian-Chinese-Eskimo-American style of architecture, so much affected in Australia. He patted Ah Dam on the back and gently steered him in, as if he were going to treat his old friend to a good drink in a private bar, in defiance of Australian public or anti-Chinese opinion. It was No. 4 Police Station.
Ah Dam sighed a Chinese sigh, and handed over nine tins of opium from his inside coat pocket, and four from his pants—thirteen in all—and asked O'Kye to get him some Chinese tobacco. O'Kye nodded in a brotherly way, and went to get it, and Ah Dam retired to a cell.
I don't see any particular end or moral to this story, except, as Ah Dam put it to me himself: "You should always keep sober and your brains clear when you have any particular business on hand, and for some time before it."
The horse ferry—or, as the crews call it, the Punt—is, as I have shown in another sketch, the morning refuge of certain known and notorious citizens of the suburbs of North Sydney, whose daily work, or daily loaf, lies in the city, and who have made consummate asses of themselves going across home on the passenger ferry the night before—generally at the end of the month. As witness the case of my deplorable artistic acquaintance, Johnson. Not that these citizens care much for the spirit of North Sydney—nor it for them, for that matter, seeing that North Sydney has even less spirit than Sydney itself (and that's saying a good deal); but they're generally sick and shaky and sorry and ashamed, and haven't the needful for the two drinks that will remedy those failings; and so they're anxious to escape the observation of any chance members of their audience of the previous evening.
There is horse nature on the vehicular ferry, as well as human—only one is always sober. When the punt bumps the side of the landing they all waltz involuntarily, and wake up simultaneously with expressions of surprise, from mild to startled. I remember one big old draught horse that always went to sleep comfortably as soon as he came aboard; and, when the bump came, he always reminded me, in his winkers, of Granny, when she'd nodded too far over her knitting, and brought up with a jerk, and thought she'd dropped her specs.
But this is the story of the Lily of St Leonards; and I don't know what the horses have to do with it, except that, without doubt, there was or had been a Granny in the case, and perhaps Lily had often perched on her knee or sat beside her while she nodded over her knitting or her Bible; or even said her prayers at her knee. Or nodded over her gin—But, no! I prefer the knitting and Bible and prayers. It sounds better and it costs nothing. Besides, I used to say my prayers when I was a child.
She was a slip of a girl, half Jewish, and Jewish by name, with dark brown eyes and blue-black hair. She had the face as well as the figure that the artist looks for; and she also had brains. A rare combination in any man's experience. Why she was called the Lily of St Leonards I've either forgotten or never knew. Perhaps because she was born and lived there, and her heart and soul and character were considered spotless in those days. She was an artist's model and a Venus of Milo. At least I think that is the name. She was known in all the studios and a favourite there—was warmly and uproariously welcomed at artists' diggings and artists' suppers, for her wit and humour, philosophy and laughter. She had common sense, too. The most enjoyable holiday trips, picnics, theatre-evenings and oyster suppers I ever spent were with the Lily of St Leonards, and a few chosen spirits (dead or lost or respectable now) in the days ere Bohemia died in Sydney and was buried with Victor Daley.
The last time I heard her laugh was at a send-off supper given to a writer and an artist. And, a few days later, I, John Lawrence, went to the world away to seek the living my own land begrudged me; and Lily went her way rejoicing and to bring joy of life and laughter into the hearts of others. But there was a writer, and he was a scoundrel. He is doing well in two nations now, and I hope he'll come across this poor sketch and read it to the end when he isn't feeling too good.
A few months after my return from foreign lands I had occasion to go across to North Sydney. I had left all my chances in foreign lands—no matter why. I wanted to hunt up a member of that vanished send-off supper party of the near, dear departed days, and maybe inquire after the Lily and some of the other boys; but he had departed also. So I came back on the vehicular ferry, because an uncle or cousin or something of mine was then skipper of the old punt, and I wanted to save the penny. I had five other coins, and they represented two pints of beer.
It was getting late one day in the summer of our year and the winter of mine, and nearing the time for the last Horse Ferry across. There was the usual little collection of honest and weary carters and draymen and draught horses going home. There was also an early taxicab (of its kind), with a veiled and slouch-hatted and silent mystery inside the shade. Perhaps it, too, wanted to avoid the glare and stare of the passenger ferry. Likewise there was a belated bottle-o cart; and I recognised the driver as none other than my old friend Benno. We greeted each other in silence. He never asked where I came from—Benno never wondered at anything. I attached myself to Benno's cart, and so was at once independent of ticket collectors—and of relatives, too, in a financial way of speaking.
There had been a blue-black pall overhead, but it had risen in a great arch over a broad sunset, and in that light I saw a woman standing by the bulwark, for'ard the wheel, on the other side of the deck. She had her back towards us, and was looking up the Parramatta River. Over her was a long, brownish jacket, of the style affected by the English servant girl of ten or twelve years ago, or by 'Arriet of East End and London North at an earlier date; and her hat was of the modified style of the Liz of our own Billo. But neither seemed to suit her, somehow, even though seen from the rear in the gathering gloom. The jacket was worn and frayed, and hung loosely on her figure. As she sort of side-stepped quickly and decisively, and moved further up the deck and away, something struck me in a flash as familiar. But it might have been a trick of sunset lights and shadows.
"Who's she?" I asked Benno; then added quickly, to save a mistake, "Is she the missus?"
"Noh!" snorted Benno (but in a whispering snort), not that he held her or any woman in particular contempt, or women in general, but at the bare idea of his ever marrying one of them. "My old 'un's good enough for me. But I know her," he said, still in a hoarse whisper. "She's got a old mother or grandmother or something, up back here on the Shore, off Blue's Point Road. I git bottles there, sometimes. She's been goin' it strong this last year or two, that one. Just done a month on the Island for her last drunk and disorderly, an' I s'gose she's ashamed to be seen on the passenger (ferry). She's well known on the Shore. I seen her comin' over on the punt this mornin', an' I met her night before last." And Benno went to the little shelter behind the wheel to light his "lamp"—a bottle with the bottom knocked out and a piece of pared candle dropped into the neck of it.
I looked at the girl—or woman—again. The breeze pressed the old cloak, and it clung to her figure, showing girlishly—outlined by a sunset that was reddening now, and growing glorious. And again was conscious of the something familiar. That irritating, on-the-tip-of-the-tongue sort of consciousness of a forgotten memory that makes a man, when in company, hold up his finger for silence, and put that finger to his lips, or wrinkle his forehead and consult the ground, while consulting the back of his head with the palm of his left hand.
Benno came back. Benno misses nothing without seeming to see anything.
"You seem interested," he said. "I'd call it a mash; but I wouldn't if I was you. Yeh don't know her."
Benno is very slow and deliberate with his information, and gives it with long pauses between the pieces. The longer you can't seem to wait, the more Benno can. He fixed his bottle in its socket.
"She used to be a hartist's model once." said Benno. "They call her the Lily of St Leonards. The boys shout it after her when she's shickered. Gorblime, it's a bleedin' shame."
Blue's Point Road, that runs down to the Horse Ferry on the other side of the water—and up from it for that matter—is about the cruellest hill in Australia for horses. The heaviest goods, the vans laden with furniture, the carts laden with machinery, drainpipes, etc., for the Northern Suburbs, go across and up there. And there are Government ballast and blue-metal wharves, and sawmills and timber-yards at the bottom of that hill. Time was, when sensitive residents would draw their blinds and shut their doors rather than witness the torture of horses struggling up there on a blazing summer's day. Time was, when angry men in shirt sleeves went down into that road and expostulated with angry, overwrought or brutal drivers till they were cowed. But there are jibbing brutes of horses to be considered, and callous brutes of employers, and—ah! well, you can't take everything into consideration. Time was when my old friend, Benno the bottle-o, drew his turn-out into the shade of the big old fig-trees under the church at the top of the hill, and went back and thrashed the most notoriously brutal driver well and good. Later, Benno paid his fine, with his mouth shut close as to the cause of his disorderly conduct.
"Gorblimy! I dealt it out to the bloke," said Benno to me, outside the court (where I had business, too, unfortunately—connected with a chronic contempt of Civil Process) "but I ain't no informer. That's the p'lices' look out."
"But he's been fined, too," I said, "and he'll probably treat that horse worse when he gets him home, if he didn't do it before."
"No, he won't," said Benno. "I've got friends in a business way out where he lives; an' I tole him if he does I'll hear of it, an' I'll meet him on the punt some quiet day."
Now, I wonder if Benno was ever inside a church in his life? Since his christening, I mean.
The poorer people seem kinder to their beasts in the aforesaid overburdened world than the rich. Perhaps it's because they bear the burdens, too; and feel it, when they chock the wheels behind, on a steep hill, and rub old Geddup's nose and rumple his mane, and slap the old fellow sympathetically and encouragingly on the withers. The man that Benno partly slew had jabbed his horse with the little blade of his penknife when he thought no one was looking, but the Angels of Mercy, maybe, and also a Sussex Street bottle-o were on the look out, and caught him at it. Yes, Benno is a "peaceful sort o' cove," as a rule; but he was an angry bottle-o that day.
Most bottle-o horses I have noticed on the Horse Ferry and in Elder Man's Lane seem sleek and well treated, and Benno's is a shining example. "Gorblimy!" he said, in depreciation of ill-judged and tactless commendation, "any bloke can treat a horse like a horse!"
Benno's chief care is for his "Old 'Uns". They live in a neat and well-kept little weatherboard box, in a little mean street on the edge of Slum Land. There are vines on the verandah and wooden arrangements painted green under it, with plants in kerosene tins (also painted green) that Benno has picked up on his rounds. The verandah is bricked and scrubbed; the stone step at its whitest; and the two little "plots", on each side of the gate in front (that Benno might have covered with four of his handkerchiefs—if he kept so many) are well grassed. Nothing comes amiss to Benno—a few fancy tiles or bricks for the back yard; or a likely "rock" or two for a "bit er rockery" the old man was makin'; or a box, or bit er wire nettin'—the "Old 'Uns" keep pigeons and a hen or two—or a old paint brush an 'a bit er paint or lime from the buildin's. "An', maybe a handful o' nails or bit er hoilcloth or any blamed thing like that," says Benno. "They all comes in handy for the Old 'Un. He's allus potterin' round and tinkerin' at somethin'. No matter what you bring him he'll make something of it, if he has to stay awake all night studyin' it out. He's got a bit of a shed in the yard, an' he's hard at work makin' a easy chair out of two cement barrels for the kitchen. I wouldn't like to sit in it long when it's finished. If I was to hire a team and fetch home that old engine boiler in Berry's Bay it 'ud shorten his days, because he couldn't get it in an' make something of it. Gorblimy, I think the Old 'Un would tackle it in the street with cold chisels!"
The Old 'Uns' crib never seems to be troubled with heat or dust on the hottest and dustiest days. It always smells, as well as feels, cool and clean. The parlour is furnished in ancient fashion with everything too large for it and too much of everything. There are the usual old pictures and portraits on the walls with, of course, the crude plain and coloured prints in vandyked brown oilcloth and fancy paper frames. And so on. And the big lamp with a shade. And of course, the slippery black horsehair, and more slippery "antimacassars"; and all those penitential things with which our grandmothers used to make our grandfathers, our fathers and ourselves supremely uncomfortable and miserably unhappy. But Benno has a crib of his own over "the stables"—his town bachelor apartments, so to speak.
Benno's male Old 'Un looks as if he might have been a "Tough 'Un" in his time. He is a big, old man, bent very much at an angle from the hips, very clean, and mostly in washed pants, waistcoat and shirt sleeves. He walks with hands clasped behind, in a manner suggestive of carrying an imaginary sheet of bark on his back, when he goes down to the corner for his morning or evening pint-o'-beer. Perhaps he carried many a sheet of red stringy-bark on his back in other days. He has a square face, clean shaven but for his grey frill beard. He has a great fund of early-days humour and anecdote. "The Old 'Un's gettin' a bit shaky on his pins," says Benno. Benno always reckons that it is up to a bloke to stick to his Old 'Uns when their pins go back on them. "I remember the day," he says, reminiscently, "when the Old 'Un was spry on them old pins of his—and handy with his props, too."
The maternal Old 'Un is the usual little, rusty, best-bib-an'-tucker-for-company, old labouring-class mother of the small family. She is hospitable, wonderfully clear and keen and bright, and with all the quaint, quizzical humour of her type. Her son is known to her as "Ernest", spoken with that pathetic sort of indescribable quaver of half compassion (or is there an undertone of self-reproach?) of a mother whose heart is away in the past (and in other lands perhaps) with another boy who went wrong. Benno calls her simply "Mother"; but she is referred to me affectionately and familiarly as "The Old Gal", and known to one or two other privileged friends as "Benno's Old Gal".
Both the Old 'Uns remember a great deal of Old Sydney, and corroborate—or correct—each other. They remember the first locomotives being drawn up King Street from the ship by horses (or was it bullocks?) on rails temporarily laid, and shifted ahead in sections; and drawn thus down George Street and up to old Redfern railway station. They remember the "Bells on Campbell's Wharf", and how long they lay there—and why. I wonder whether those bells are ringing now, and if so where?
"They've got a bit saved up for a rainy day, and it makes 'em feel independent," says Benno. "But the rainy day won't come in my time if I can help it. They've had enough rainy days. An' the Old Gal's got a bit saved up special, an'—I know what that's for. That's the sort of Old 'Un mine is. There's allers someone dyin' or gettin' born, or gettin' the measles, in our lane, and it keeps the Old Gal goin' an' happy an' contented. An' the Old 'Un is handy an' can potter round an' help in trouble amongst the neighbours."
Benno may be anything between twenty-five and fifty. He is clean shaven, and is square-featured, too. Head well shaped, face with a hint of haggardness, and eyes with a glint at times. Nothing in his appearance that would suggest his speech. He looks as if he should have been fairly well-educated, and married fairly young and well. Has a strictly fatherly way with "kids", and they respect and seem to like him. Hair thick and straight up round in front like a well-made brush, but greying fast and seeming to be greyer at some times—and in some lights—than at others. Now, where is the tragedy?
Benno hinted to me one evening, in a softened mood, that there had been a "bit o' skirt once". She worked in a factory, and was a tidy piece. Her Old 'Un "shickered" till he got "mucked" every pay day. He was fond of the girl, and sorry for her; but he couldn't keep two homes then, and she would never have hit it with the Old 'Uns. "Ah, well! Let 'er go," said Benno. "She done all the better for me turnin' her down, anyway; so there was no harm done." He added in justification. "She married a bloke in a good line and with no Old 'Uns. Gorblimy! the Old 'Uns saw me into the world an' on my pins, an' I've gotter see them out."
He has two married sisters and one married brother, and a younger brother away somewheres. The younger sister has married badly. "The blanker won't work," said Benno. "I suppose someone's got to help her, too?" I hinted.
"I s'pose so!" he snorted, and I saw there was no more thoroughfare in that direction.
Then, one evening, I got the key. We were coming on to the Horse Ferry after sunset, and I noticed that Benno pointedly ignored the salutation of a rather mean-looking little workman in his Sunday clothes.
"Did you see that bloke?" he said to me, scowling back blokeward as he drew up for'ard. "He's a blacksmith 'way back up Crow's Nest way. There's a big family of 'em on the Shore doin' well. His Old 'Un was the best blacksmith on the Shore. The old bloke only left the forge three months ago, an' ever since they've been tryin' to get him the pension, but they bungled it up somehow. So now they've got him into an institution—the Salvation Army or the Wowser Brethren, or some other d—d home: I forgit where it is. They reckon the Home people will get the pension—an' I reckon they will, too. There's too many well-off people in this country that do mean things with their Old 'Uns. They want blanky well showin' up; an' some of you writin' coves orter do it." And here Benno relapsed into the unwritten language. But I understood, and was glad that I had never suggested the pension in connection with the Old 'Uns, to Benno.
There's a good deal of humanity and charity, and not a little consideration and pride in Gorblimy circles. For instance, my friend once reckoned, to me, while on his hobby, that no Old 'Uns should be reminded that they're old and past work.
And, as we passed off the Horse Ferry that evening, and up Elder Man's Lane, I on the narrow footpath and Benno on the front of his well-laden cart, with his hair at its greyest in the fading light of after-sunset, I realised that we both were in Elder Man's Lane and well past Middle Age Corner.
And up at the end of the Lane I fancied, as in a circle of dream-light, two old figures—one tall and bent and one prim and wiry—passing out. Passing out, independent of Government or public or private charity, independent of daughter-in-law or son-in-law, and untroubled and unhumiliated by these, or by the possible tyranny of possibly spoilt grandchildren.
The Old 'Uns are passing out! And Benno follows them protectingly—with none to follow him.
Other vehicles go down Blue's Point Road to the Horse Ferry and the Government Wharf. They are made of boxes, and have two little cast-iron wheels fastened on underneath; and roughly shaped strips of packing-case nailed to the sides and slanting well upwards, for shafts. But some have a board projection in front from underneath, with other little wheels, the bar attached with a sort of swivel, or kingpin—or pivot; a sort of fore under carriage—they might be called driving wheels. The latter build, with clothesline traces reversed, and used as tiller-ropes (only the tiller is for'ard) are admirably adapted to "coasting". Going down they invariably contain a "kid"; and, when not in actual legitimate use by their serious-minded and practical proprietors, they may be seen cruising round, in charge of a still younger brother, or sister, maybe—with the family baby aboard; said baby always clean and contented, and often asleep. The careful conductor's attention, on such occasions, is divided between guarding against a runaway, and pushing up baby's ridiculous little white woollen cap, which is always getting down over its eyes.
But in workin' hours the carts are pushed or dragged by little gentlemen of two-footodd and upwards; and in times of extra wreckage and spoil they often go up hill tandem; a mate, who is not the proprietor of a cart, being sometimes pressed into service and paid in shares. The carts are dragged up the steep hill with surprising loads of lumps of coal and odds and ends of lumber. And I have seen several large pumpkins—a mighty load for a little man—that were jolted off a produce cart going on to the landing. My friend, Benno, the bottle merchant, and others, often give the early youngsters a hitch on coming up in the morning before school hours. Everything is extremely businesslike, and preternaturally solemn.
Besides road, wharf, jetty and landing place, there is a little sandy beach, round by the shipsmith's shop, where is driftwood on a tiny scale; and flotsam in the shape of butter boxes, fruit cases, occasional bottles, etc., from ocean-going craft. This is accessible by means of a tiny punt and ditto dinghy, belonging to the shipsmith's boys. There is cooperation, and Socialism, and a system of barter in kind and for services rendered.
But for the chartering of the aforesaid craft, belonging to the "shipsmith's kids", there must be "browns" or "coppers", of which more hereafter. Of course, there is a bloated capitalist and financier amongst my youngsters. And, for the rest, the strand is fairly portioned, and spoils are fairly sold. Anything that comes ashore on the strip of sand between the floating jetty and a line projected from the further wall of the shipsmith's shop belongs to my friend and neighbour, "Georgie", and his immediate friends; anything cast up between that line and the line of the first row of the piles of the Fresh Food Co.'s jetty is the exclusive property of my acquaintance, "Stinker", and his pals. Stinker, by the way, was nicknamed thusly on account of a mistaken maternal parent having christened him Cecil Percival Reginald. The expanse between the piles is the happy hunting-ground of one "Bugs", Stinker's protégé, a boy with a club foot. He was so called in a hurry, and for the want of a more expressive nickname, on the occasion of the unpremeditated arrival in the lane of Bugs' family, with their worldly belongings in a hired bottle-o's cart. "By Gee!" exclaimed Stinker, to the Lords in Convention, on that occasion—and with a flash of inspiration during a hurried conference on the question of appropriately naming the newcomer: "By Gee, we'll call him Bugs!" And Bugs he became. Disputed floatage, that is on the lines of demarcation, is tossed for. The strip of sand is called Drowned Pup Beach.
Speaking of flotsam and drift, I remember, in bygone years, a younger cousin of mine who had canvas dinghy. His mother seldom, if ever, had to buy wood or coal, summer and winter; and besides, Harry kept himself well supplied in pocket money from the proceeds of the sale of bits of brass, and copper, and copper nails, and other strange flotsam. Strikes me that tides were far more erratic along the water frontages in those old days, than they are now; and the water of far greater floating power.
The youngsters recognise a woman's rights—in their proper place and under certain proper circumstances—to a small extent. There are little ladies, neat and clean but sometimes barefoot, who hump surprising armfuls of soft wood scraps up that road and round into by-lanes, for mother's copper, pretty much as they hump big baby brothers round. Stinker and his brethren will, on special occasions, and with a sort of good-natured contempt, throw out a few sticks from their loads for the girls to pick up. (Contributions received disdainfully, and after a due, and nose-in-the-air allowance of time for "them fellers" to get past—but picked up, all the same.)
Round in the byways and lanes from Blue's Point Road, and above Berry's Bay—though blind for the most part, unfortunately, and so not overlooking the bay and the surprisingly wild bit of bush and cliff scenery of Ball's Head beyond—round up there, I say, in an unexplored region, are rows of the usual mean and shabby little weatherboard boxes that depress, dishearten and disgrace our further suburbs nearly as much as the horrid little new brick two-storey terraces and twin "villas" do. I've been betrayed into being damned wild over this awful man-made dreariness; but, the lanes above Berry's Bay are saved from utter, flat, abandon-hope monotony—from the ghastly horror of Western and South-Western suburbs—because the said lanes are on a height, and a few steps give you views of the most beautiful harbour in the world, and quaint old houses perched on rocks and points. But here mostly live—or exist—the mothers of the youngsters who toilfully and dutifully drag their little truckloads of coal and firewood up and round "home", before and after school-hours. And the help means much to those mothers.
My haggard women! Whose lives are one eternal round of washing and mending and worrying. Of child-birth trouble, sickness and death. Of stinting and scraping and calculating, penny by penny—of everlasting planning and studying, knitted-browed, when their housework is done and they should be resting awhile—how to lay aside for Monday the money for the Rent that Must be Paid! Of groping with poor, thin, fleshless hands, on dusty ledges and under the newspaper on the mean little kitchen shelves, for the sixpences, threepenny bits or pennies to send Johnnie, or Lizzie, to the pitiful, dusty, little corner grocery for half-pounds of butter and quarter-pounds of tea. And all this in the widest, most careless and carefree, sport-loving, wealthiest and most prosperous country in the world! My haggard women, in whose natures little is left save the harsh and fierce concern for husbands and children in their trouble or sickness; the hard, practical kindness and sympathy for neighbours of their kind—in their trouble; and the unconquerable wit and humour when occasion calls for it—and even these qualities pathetic in their undercurrent of bitterness. Their very tears have long since ceased to "gush", and "scald" and relieve; they only fall helplessly—like brackish water. Haggard women! I have written long years for these and their husbands and children; and if I have done any good, and if I deserve it of my country, I would rather have carved on my tombstone, not the figure of an angel—but one of these.
But other youngsters have better-class homes, though still wooden, in two-storey terraces and little cottages with flower-plots on the top of the hill and with a view of the harbour. Of such is my friend and neighbour, "Georgie". Georgie has a brother named Willie, and Willie has small, closely-set eyes inclined to be red and red-rimmed. Also, he is loose and shambling, and uncertain in his comings and goings. So it goes without saying that little Willie is shifty, sneaky, cruel, treacherous and cunning, and, of course, a chronic liar; the exact opposite of Georgie, and the reverse of all that good little Willie ought to be. (But perhaps not—considering the conventional little Willie.)
Georgie's bosom pal is a boy who lives on the other side of us, and is known to his mother as "You Charley", and You Charley has a brother who is known to their mother as "That Jimmy" or "That Jimmy of Mine", or "That there Jimmy of mine". No further descriptions are necessary, I think. Brothers in pairs often go like these four.
Fuel is yet a consideration up here, and Georgie accumulates much—with the most unwilling assistance of his brother Willie but the cheerful and active co-operation of You Charley. When Georgie is overstocked (he needs room for his pigeons in the little yard) he often does a little trading with less fortunate mothers in the terrace—especially on washing day. My landlady is a willing customer of Charley's on those days. Our copper furnace swallows more fuel with less result in warmth to the water than any copper of my experience or acquaintance, past or present. And so Charley finds the wherewithal for the chartering of the fleet belonging to the shipsmith's boys aforesaid; and for the picture-show for himself and a few deserving pals. Also, I take the longest bits of scantling, etc., off Charley for the building of my fowlhouses, and the making of bits of lattice work for the flower garden. Thus cometh it that You Charley and I are fast friends, and I am under his immediate and powerful protection. To wit, my fowls go unstoned by the Little Willie's of the neighbourhood (there are two or three); my deafness goeth untaken advantage of; and my door un-runaway-knocked at. In like wise, my parrot, "Cocky", whose services (which mainly consist in screeching or else in silent, persistent and surreptitious attempts to ringbark the landlady's laburnum tree) I could dispense with for ever, and who leaves periodically in a towering scot, is as often brought back, in a tearing temper and a schoolboy's cap.
One of the greatest disadvantages of deafness, and the cause of the loss of the most enjoyment and amusement, in this life, I think, is the not being able to hear children, unless directly addressed by such of your young friends as are acquainted with your infirmity. Which reminds me that when I was teaching a native school down in the South Island (Maoriland) years ago, my little brownies used to shout out manfully—and girlfully. They called a spade a spade, though: and often, because of their expressions—or after listening, with the face of fourteen judges, to their anecdotes of visits from the Devil, and other things—I'd have to slip behind the blackboard on some pretence, to hide my expression and cough. Or slip outside to splutter.
Thus Sarah Barnett (enrolled name) wildly semaphoring—
"Please Mister (gasp). Mister Lawrence! (gasp) Charley Poharama called me a (gasp, gasp) a Half Cask Piccaninny!!!" Sarah, by the way, was about three shades darker than Charley.
It was Sarah, the "M'liss" of the school, and Charley Poharama who, one morning, had an excited argument (fiercely excited on Sarah's part) as to whether the devil who came the night before and gave Charley's mother a big fright and a bitten leg—which incidentally led to Charley's elder sister, Maria, being kept home from school—was a plain devil or a spotted one. Charley held out for the spotted devil all the time. I couldn't even get at the rights of it that afternoon from Mrs Poharama herself—but then, she hadn't quite recovered yet. I did understand, however, from old Mrs Poharama, through a grand-child interpreter, that the devil in question was neither plain nor spotted, but striped. So I pursued my investigations no further. Besides, our time was taken up just then—the old lady's and mine, I mean—pouring brine into big Maria Poharama and holding her upside down. It took us all our time. It seemed that Maria, having been in deadly fear all day of a second Visitation after dark, and being startled by the teacher's unexpected entrance, grabbed a bottle and swallowed about half a pint of sheep-dip in mistake for the holy water.
But back, through the years, to Blue's Point Road. The little girls of Kid Terrace are pirates, and, without the assistance of speech, or any sign intelligible to outsiders, they manage to leave me penniless whenever I heave in sight with any loose coppers on me. How they know, I don't know. There are two little chaps who pick me up at a corner some mornings and walk with me down to the ferry—one on each side. We walk in silence for the most part, for conversation is difficult on account of the great difference in our lengths. They're the sons of the shipsmith, in fact. But, now and then, they send up to me shrill little bits of local and topical information, which I find wonderfully correct, concise, and always useful—good material for "copy". They only expect sixpence occasionally. Another, an unattached pirate, who only departs after extracting a promise of a "tray bit" for nothing, next time; is always virtuously indignant if "that there present yer promised me" isn't forthcoming when next time comes.
There has been some slight friction between me and Stinker, too, but that's all past and gone. It was only a temporary misunderstanding anyhow, arising out of a well-meant mistaken idea of mine. Stinker set me right. You see, I used to hail him as "Percy" when I wished to have my ignorance enlightened as to some recent accident or happening on the Road or the Ferry. I'd heard his mother call him that. I suppose someone had been Percying him—from safe ground—at my expense. They're excellent mimics. At last he stuck me up, and in spite of past favours, he exploded: "Now look here! Mister—Mister—Deafun! No erfence—but don't yer go callin' me Percy no more! Spesherly when fellers is round. Blow Percy! My name ain't Percy! (D'y' 'ear!) At least not outside—er bloke can be called anything his people likes at home. He's gotter. But not outside. My name's Stinker! (pause). Not because I stinks, y' understan' ", he added, softening, "but it's the name the fellers giv me. I won't be Percyed outside me own home."
I apologised and promised not to do it again, and since then the relations between Stinker and myself have not been strained. He is Stinker to me, and I am Mr Lawrence to him.
I have hinted at "Little Willie" in another sketch. He wasn't Little Willie at all, but his mother always called him that from the first. He was taller than the other youngsters of Kid Terrace and their mates, and older. He was big-legged, narrow-shouldered and sloping from the hips upwards, like some old labouring men. But labour never threatened to be his vice, though a most precocious cunning in the pretence of always doing something useful—or being about to do it—was ingrained in his nature. He was freckled and sandy, and his eyes were small and reddish, and close together, and his features were screwed up with meanness and maliciousness. You see, he was a type. Naturally vicious from the cradle. He always made his appearance as if he didn't intend to make it; as if he were pursued by some spirit of evil; and evil always followed, in a small mean way, in Little Willie's footsteps. He always walked in the manner of something that was hunted, and yet hunting something much smaller and weaker than itself—sidling round, warily, in circumambulatory directions, with the object of his senseless cruelty (a kitten, maybe) or unreasoning vindictiveness in the foreground. He moved as if he were walking on dry grass amongst a lot of dead burrs. In the matter of stoning helpless and useful things, when he thought it was perfectly safe, he was Deputy, right out of "Edwin Drood". Dickens plainly intended to make Deputy a decent character, and an instrument in the hands of Justice; but no living writer could have made Little Willie anything except just what he was. All that was good and respectable and meritorious seemed evil to him. He was a small edition of the "Ugly Story"—personified—The Ugly Story, sired by Envy and darned by Uncharitableness—and fostered by the love of Sensationalism—that always gets whispered around, and blazoned on the posters of the cheap press, and hinted, in a cowardly manner, in the columns thereof. Besides such senseless annoyances as periodically spilling such of the neighbours' morning milk as he couldn't drink, and removing and destroying loaves left by the baker, his chief amusements consisted of knocking at doors, throwing stones at cats and fowls, and on roofs, mimicking the crippled and afflicted—and joining the jim-jams in league against any stray and harmless drunk that might be delivered into his hands. There was not the slightest hint, in the least harmful of that young fiend's monkey tricks, of the honest, rollicking, good-humoured and wholehearted pranks of that young rascal, "You Charley", or his brother, "That there Jimmy o' mine"; and how Little Willie came to be Georgie's brother, I don't know. I don't believe he was. Perhaps he was only an adopted brother—adopted by the parents in premature despair of there ever going to be a Georgie. Strange how often, when a married couple give up, and adopt a child, the real one hurries along; but the real one, as often as not, turns out to be the devil of the two.
It was during the Christmas holidays, and Georgie, Charley, Stinker and Bugs had gone out camping, after the independent manner of young Australians, with their swags and fishing tackle. Charley, by the way, used to take his father with him for a few days, Dad being a good fisherman and camp cook, and also handy for cricket when they were tired of fishing and short-handed in the field. Little Willie was left behind because of his qualities, and maybe his sullen preference. Jimmy stayed to look after mother. Mothers don't get many holidays in our streets; and, when they do, they don't enjoy them—they're always on the fidget to get back to what they call "home" for fear that something may be going wrong. They always feel quite certain that something is going wrong—if it is only a window allegedly left unfastened, or with the moulting rooster and three dusty draggled hens, left to the care of a neighbour.
But, during the boys' absence, the neighbours suffered annoyances and torment to the limit from the unnatural vindictiveness and fiendishness of Little Willie. He seemed to have me set, especially, though I had never spoken to him, and had always taken care to appear bliss fully unaware of his very existence. Perhaps, with the unerring instinct of his type, he read disgust and contempt in my manner. Suffice it that he seemed to take the keenest enjoyment in stealing a reel of cotton from his mother, tying one end of the cotton to the door and unwinding down to the cover of some bushes on a steep, triangular rocky piece of vacant ground opposite—from which he would pull double knocks. He could keenly enjoy this sort of thing strictly on his own—without a boy audience, I mean. Add to this, he aggravated matters by expressing, in passing, in every clumsy skip and movement, in every screwing up of his narrow shoulders in simulated silent laughter, and in every sidelong evil grin, his exquisite enjoyment of the situation. The police say, in such circumstances, that the only thing that might be done was to get hold of the boy and give him a good fright. But there was no catching Little Willie, and Jimmy—our only possible champion—was no match for him. It was beyond the limit of human endurance, so, in despair, I laid the whole case before Charley, when the boys came back. I had too much respect for the feelings of Georgie—with whom his brother was a sore subject—besides I'd a delicacy in talking to one brother about another.
Charley thought, and consulted the nape of his neck with his little finger, and scraped wisdom out of the dust with his toe. "Does he knock at their doors over there in—in watyer call Skull Terrace?" he asked at last.
"Yes," I said.
"At the middle 'un?" he asked again; "does he knock at their door?"
"At all the doors," I answered.
Charley thought some more. "All right," he said decisively. "We'll fix him. I'm thinkin' it out."
I've described Skull Terrace in another sketch—a mean little row of five two-storeyed houses, so called from the peculiar formation of its doors and windows and the general ghastliness of its dead-flat front in the light of after-sunset from full over Berry's Bay.
Skull Terrace is furtively and temporarily tenanted by sketches, shadows and outlines, who seem to appear (that expresses it) always on Saturday mornings, and put up apologies for blinds and curtains, in the lower windows at least; and apparently (or not apparently) go to bed in the dark. I've never seen any furniture go in, but perhaps some came in the night before. They depart, or rather vanish, or fade away, mostly on Saturday mornings, too. I've never seen any furniture come out; but perhaps some came out the night before, also. But I've seen bundles of what looked like bedding dropped from upper windows, and mysteriously removed in bottle-o-looking carts, together with a box of tinware and rubbish and some pots and pans, and a hag following with a clock and the looking-glass. The blinds mostly remained up; and on Monday morning the rent-collector would come round, knock, knock again, inquire next door, and depart—apparently unmoved.
But the new tenants in the middle house to which Charley referred, seemed in a better case. Anyway, they sent in some furniture which, if light, was new—perhaps it was hired. It was mainly of the spring stretcher complexion. You know house rents are very high, and houses hard to get over here. I caught several glimpses of a smallish woman, apparently young and pretty, in a kimono; or it might have been a different one each time—the girl and not the kimono; two or three of them. Also, one or two hefty-looking, clean-shaven, youngish fellows, seemed to go there, or come away from there, casual-like. There was also a big, fat, old woman who answered knocks in a very leisurely manner, interviewed tradesmen, and seemed to run the house generally. I formed my own opinions, and my own opinions were totally wrong, as usual. Most opinions that you form are wrong.
Running up at the end of our terrace, and communicating with our little back lane, and extending round a little paddock at the back, where are some tiny cottages in greenery, is a ten-foot lane called Isabella Avenue; and there were new tenants also in one of those cottages; and at least one of the new tenants in Skull Terrace was acquainted with them, for a trim little figure in black tripped up across the green occasionally, about dusk, and entered Isabel Avenue. This acquaintanceship came in handy later on. Make a note of it.
Charley's acquaintance with men and matters on the Point was extensive—and peculiar. It ranged from Sin Quick, mildest of vegetable Chinamen, to our Liberal member. Therefore, very early in the morning after our interview, I was not surprised to see him, with his go-cart, outside the window of the Middle House, and in apparently close and earnest conversation with somebody in pyjamas, who had raised the sash. I thought perhaps Charley was on business, but I had only time to be vaguely puzzled at the hour he chose, when the window and blind were drawn down, the door opened, and a hand and wrist beckoned Charley in—and nothing remained but his truck. I meant to tell you that Little Willie had paid particular attention to this house during the holidays, if only for the pleasure of catching a glimpse, from a safe distance, of a very white, kimonoed (or rather unkimonoed) arm, and a pretty but scared face. He used to watch the men folk out, I suppose, and I always ached to wring his scraggy young neck. That evening Charley had an interview with some of his friends down under the rock on the green. I noticed that neither Little Willie nor his brother was present at the conference.
Next afternoon was on a dull, dead, smothering, smoke-cloudy Saturday. The shops were closed on account of the Act. The trams were held up on account of an explosion in the powerhouse. The Shore was apparently depopulated, and the last policeman seemingly dead and buried. Once again Charley and his friends foregathered. This time Little Willie was present. Georgie had taken his mother and a little sister to Manly; so Little Willie had the house to himself. Charley gave quick and explicit instructions, and each man his allotted position. Then they dived down into the road as one, in extended order, and across to Skull Terrace, where each stood by a door. Little Willie had the door of Middle House; Charley the door of the upper end house; Jimmy the lowest door in the terrace; and Stinker and Bugs the doors in between. Then Charley, seeing that the firing-line was in position and ready, reached up for the knocker and gave a great double knock; and almost simultaneously with his second knock, they all knocked hard—and scooted. They slithered right and left, and round into a lane at the lower end of the terrace, and dived down under the rails of a vacant lot at the upper end; and scattered in all directions. Little Willie had the longest run, but his legs were the only good things about him—and there was plenty of time.
Seconds passed—a whole minute—then two. Then there was a sinister movement of the blind in the top window of the upper end house, the sash was slowly raised, and a furtive male in short sleeves laid first one, and then the other arm carefully on the sill, projected head and shoulders cautiously and glowered up and down the narrow pavement, the dirty green blind hanging down behind him. In somewhat similar wise another window opened at the lower end, and a hag-head appeared. Likewise, next door to Middle House opened gingerly; then wider, and another hag bent outwards hugging her flat breast with skinny, tightly-folded arms, screwing chin and nose together, and turning her head on a long scraggy neck, iguana-like, up and down the street. Then other doors and windows. They wanted to see if it was the rent-collector, perhaps, or maybe the police—or a previous landlord, time-payment man, or other creditors that had got on their track. Then the worms and maggots withdrew into their skull, doors and windows closed, and all was blank.
A quarter of an hour passed, twenty minutes, half an hour. Then the boys turned up singly and in quick succession from all directions, except across the green. Lastly, Little Willie, from some safe hole known to himself, his whole body writhing in impish malicious enjoyment. They gathered safe handy to the lower end of our Isabella Avenue. A short conference, and they separated into two detachments, up and down our street and round down into the road again. I was down on the front verandah this time, and, as Charley passed, he took his opportunity to whisper hoarsely:
"Now watch! Mr Lawrence! Go up inter yer balkenny en' watch." I went up.
They gathered opposite the ends of Skull Terrace, or a little higher up and lower down. Then they darted across, extending in open order as they ran; and, with military precision, ranged themselves alongside their respective doors. Little Willie was to give the signal knock this time. He wanted to, because he had a shrewd suspicion that at least one of the young men was at home. He had furthest to run and wanted more time. He claimed it as his right, as Charley told me afterwards, so they gave it to him.
He peered up and down the firing line to see if all were in position and ready, and, as one man, they raised their hands to their respective knockers. But none of them knocked. Neither did Little Willie. Just as he grabbed his knocker, that door was snatched open. It hadn't been on the latch! And Little Willie went in with it. There was a fearsome moment, and Little Willie shot out onto the pavement, and landed on his back, curled up like a hard kicked cur. Then, from that doorway swooped Good Mrs Brown. Yes, Good Mrs Brown—straight out of Dickens' "Dombey & Son"—beak, claws and all. She looked a fearsome hag. She swooped on Little Willie before Little Willie had time to recover himself and regain his feet. And Little Willie played the part of "Biler" to perfection. He held up his arms to shield his head and face, while she clawed and tore at him; and even I heard her screech. She took her claws out of him for one moment, and he sat up and glared at her in helpless, speechless, paralysed terror. He was trying to edge off on his hands and heels, when out from that doorway bundled the First Witch from "Macbeth"—none other. She had a kerosene bucket full of soapsuds. She was a wiry witch. With a sloosh! she washed Little Willie off the narrow pavement into the gutter. Then in that fateful doorway appeared Satan's own Mother-in-Law with another bucket of dirty water. The First Witch seized it and slooshed Little Willie some distance down the gutter. Then she pounced on him again, got her talons in his collar, wrenched him to his feet facing the house, clawed his chin and hooked his face upwards and battered him generally. Then one of the top windows went up with a bang, and Bill Sikes himself, in shirt sleeves, thrust out his head and shoulders. Or was it Gabbet? I couldn't be sure at that distance.
"'OLD 'IM!" he boomed. "'OLD IM, TILL—I GIT ME TROWSIS ON!"
That was the stimulant. There was no holding Little Willie then. He broke from the hag, and his legs ran away with him like those of a champion cyclist, training hard. It was all so quick that I couldn't be sure which way he went. I was dazedly wondering whether it was all a dream—or whether the new tenants had really vanished after the manner of others, and newer ones had taken their place in like manner.
A mighty pall of rain cloud had swooped over, the flood came down and ceased, the gutters emptied and the street was fresh and clean and cool, a clear arch rose over sunset, the doors and windows of Skull Terrace were closed, the front of Skull Terrace was blanker and ghastlier in the after-glare than ever.
A drenched and draggled something came sidling fearfully up our street, keeping close to the walls, and slipped into the house of Little Willie's parents. It was Little Willie himself, and Little Willie's people were not home from Manly yet. Two strange, over-coated, macintoshed and slouch-hatted figures came out of the shadows from somewhere and slipped into Isabella Avenue. And they had scarcely vanished when round the corner, out of the lane, slouched Bill Sikes and Gabbet, both—their own selves. They lifted the latch of the little gate and knocked at Little Willie's door. I suppose it was opened. I heard it bang. Messrs Sikes and Gabbet came out again. Their backs were to me and their shoulders were jerking suspiciously. They went round into the lane again. I went to my back window to see what might be going on out there. Outside Little Willie's back gate I saw Good Mrs Brown crouching, her witch chin fitted between two of the pickets, her evil eyes peering from each side of her beak nose into Little Willie's yard. She seemed to be waiting and watching for something.
Up to that yard I saw Little Willie come creeping. He was going to bolt. He kept well under cover of a small wooden erection at the top of the yard, until he reached it. Then he broke cover, made for the gate, and was confronted by the Visitation! With a yelp he fled inside, and the back door banged. Another second and he burst out at the front and ran right into Gabbet.
I dropped into the School of Arts that night to see a variety performance, and was surprised to see my friends, Charley, Jimmy, Stinker and likewise Bugs, in the best seats.
And next morning Little Willie was gone—bolted, cleared out, run away, to the great grief and consternation of his mother. But late that evening I saw his father sitting on the balcony, chair well tilted back and heels on the rail, contemplatively smoking the pipe of peace and contentment, and by these tokens I concluded that all was well—Little Willie hadn't returned. He fled to an uncle who had a small farm near Gosford, and that uncle wired down next day that Little Willie was there, and that he was either going to make a man or a cripple of Little Willie.
And verily, my friends, I wrote all that Sunday night, and looking forth from the balcony early on Monday morning, I saw You Charley delivering a truck load of kindling wood to a face and a big suit of pyjamas in the lower window of Middle House, Skull Terrace. And, when Charley was turning away, he seemed by his gesture to refuse money.
"Yes," said Charlie, some time after they'd gone, "those tenants was that Variety actor company. They travelled all over the suburbs an' to Manly 'n' Parramatta. They was saving up to go hong tore, so one of the jokers called it; an' it wouldn't run to hotels en boardin' houses. The big, old woman does the cookin' an' cleanin'. She's the mother of them—at least, she's the mother of most of them. She owns the fernicher. The other women all call theirselves 'misses', but they're all married to each other. So that's all right."
(Author's Note: Many and various persons have, for many and various years, persisted in identifying one or other of my characters with myself or someone belonging to me. They needn't fret. I haven't knowingly attempted to draw a born idiot yet. And, for the rest, my connections and myself are, and have for some years, been on the best possible terms, both with one another and our modest and individual selves—H.L.)
This is a rather darksome story; but, then, it is another dark, rainy day—and a darker night. We'll brighten up by and by.
I first met Jacky on the tram, out Gore Hill way, rather late one Sunday afternoon. He was a slight, small-featured negro—probably West Indian—with remarkably small feet and hands—as I noticed afterwards—like many of our blacks have. He had his two boys with him, one about fourteen or fifteen and the other some three years younger. They were remarkably well-dressed in new serge knickers, good stockings and shoes, and the elder had an overcoat and comforter. He seemed to be suffering from a cold. My attention was drawn to the three by the father tackling the guard for, as he said, giving the signal to start before he'd got his boy properly in. "The boy's sick," he said angrily. "You wouldn't have dared do that if he was a white boy." Which was very unjust; but, as Jacky told me afterwards, he was upset and worried, and very anxious about his boy.
"The mother died three weeks ago," he said. "Two doctors. Consultation. No good," with an outward fling of his hand, palm outwards. "We just been to the cemetery—Gore Hill. Boys fret a lot yet. But I want them to remember her when they grow up."
I looked at the two small, well-featured dark faces, with that strange, touchingly helpless, haunting and searching pathos of the dark in their eyes that you see in our own blacks, even while they jest. I saw it in the eyes of the father, too, while he was speaking. They search your eyes for a sign—a sign, say, of memory, sympathy, friendship, recollection or recognition, dislike, treachery, ridicule or danger—or what? But you might search there in vain. Few white men know what that sign might be (Kennedy, the explorer, and Kennedy's blackboy knew). But in the eyes of the younger I fancied I detected a look as of half-frightened appeal—as if he had a glimmer of hope in his dark little soul that the white gentleman sitting opposite, and seeming to show sympathy, might possibly be able to help bring his mammy back again—seeing that two other white gentlemen (the doctors in consultation) had been connected with the taking of her away.
The father sitting next the door suddenly turned his head and gazed out over the gully towards Gore Hill, and I moved along to the end of the seat and looked out the other way.
It was a bright, sunny, breezy morning on the harbour the next time I saw Jacky, and the scene was as beautiful as it could be. That fits it. It was on the Horse Punt, and Jacky had his younger son with him; the other was at home with one of his colds but was getting better, Jacky said, and Jacky was cheerful. He had a big load of good rags on his cart; they were done up in neat little bales with the best of them, old sheets, window curtains, skirts, bed quilts and tableclothes, etc., for covers; and bound tightly with all sorts of cordage from curtain cords (with tassels) to old clothesline and twisted strips of blankets and sheets. He was paying the council 30s. a week, I believe, for the right to turn over the rubbish tips. He was an employer and doing well. He told me the price per ton of broken plate-glass (there was a load aboard—from a fire, I suppose), and several things connected with his and Benno's trades that might come in useful to me to know. And all things were sunny, and "Sonny" was sunny, too.
Bump, bump. The landing-stage went down with a bump; the carts bumped cheerfully off, and they went up Elder Man's Lane to George Street.
It was months afterwards when I saw him again—and again on a sunny day. Sad sunlight on the harbour in early winter. He had drawn his cart well up for'ard, and was standing between it and the bulwark with his younger boy. Somehow, I didn't notice any of the rest; but there was a long, black-covered undertaker's trap drawn up, right behind Jacky's turnout, containing someone who had laid down her burden of sorrow—or left it behind on other shoulders, perhaps. "That girl, you know," the deckhand whispered hoarsely in my ear—referring to a North Shore tragedy of the day before. I sidled respectfully past the dead girl's carriage and round the nose of Jacky's old horse, and came back to him. He had a good load on again.
"How's business, Mr Harrison?" I said. "You seem to be doing well."
"No good, Mr Lawrence," said Jacky with the fling of his arm and hand, palm outwards, towards the load, as if to dispose of it and the business altogether. "No good to me any more. I not got the heart to work."
"But you're doing well," I said. "What's the trouble?"
To make it short, he'd lost the elder boy. He thought I knew. Perhaps he thought everybody knew. That's the way of it. I said: "Oh, I'm so sorry." That's what we all say. But the sorrows of others mostly only remind us that we're sorry for ourselves. Or not sorry for ourselves. Or used to be sorry for ourselves. Or ought to be sorry for ourselves—or ought not to be sorry for ourselves. Or—oh, damn it all! It's a mixed-up world! Let it go. If the sorrow or trouble of another is greater than our own it eases our burden; if less it gives us a sort of comfortable conceit (unless we're in quod); if unusual, like ours, well, we don't feel so much out of it. "Companions in misfortune", "Self-pity is only" etc. "It's a trite saying, but work is the only" etc. Well, fix it up the best way you can in your trouble.
"Fifteen year and eleven months," said Jacky.
"Was that his age?" I asked sympathetically—or absently—or hypocritically. As you will again. Say, "for want of something to say". That's mostly what we talk for.
"No," said Jacky. "But he would have been if he lived till today. Eighteen months ago. He died. Sixteen year old on the eleventh of next month. I got the cottage yet." Then with the backward fling of the hand up Blue's Point Road way, "No good to me, no good any more. I got no heart to work. I can't forget."
The punt bumped. The gangway bumped down. And I shook hands with him ('twas then I noticed how small and seeming frail his hands were) and went ashore. The old horse plodded on, the cart bumped dismally off. I went on ahead by the footpath, and the dead girl came along behind.
Next time I met Jacky going the other way. We chatted for a few minutes about nothing. Then, as he passed on, he said: "Sixteen today."
I threw up a forefinger understandingly. It was the 17th of June, and his dead boy's birthday. I wondered if he'd go on keeping count till that dead boy came of age.
About a month later I went aboard the old punt and saw Jacky for'ard, by his cart, with my old friend Benno, the bottle-o, talking to him. Benno seemed unusually in earnest about something. Benno's cart stood aft, to the right, loaded with bottles, and I noticed a new handsaw stuck in the side of the cart, covered with new rust. I suppose Benno had picked it up at some careless home—and I scented the "Old 'Un" again.
Why Ken—"cousin" of my departed Chinese friend and benefactor Ah See (alias "Vegerbuls"), and so, presumably, nephew of my dead father's old dead diggings acquaintance Ah Soon (whose story was chronicled elsewhere)—Why Ken came on board with his baskets and crouching trot. (By the way, have you ever tried the weight of a Chinaman's pair of loaded baskets?) He set his material burden down alongside a plank, with one end on a box and the other on the lower step on the wheel-box, to the left. He acknowledged my nod with the usual facial toothache spasm, as he sat down, but for the rest he sat with his wooden face looking straight in front of him, as if he'd "cut" the Occident for good except in the way of business, now that he knew his ground and enough English for his purpose. But yet there was something there, as if a Sphinx had come to life and was breathing. (His face and nose were something like the Sphinx's too, as it is now.) Perhaps he had his burden of sorrow, too; perhaps it had come from China—or maybe he had brought it with him.
A covered motor car drove on with a driver even more wooden of expression than Why Ken; and, inside, a thin-faced, white-faced elderly woman, and a thin-faced, white-faced elderly girl, in deep mourning with deep, black, frosty frills on it. Another burden of sorrow; or, maybe, two separate ones. And, of course, the deadbeat—two of him this time—at the tail of a friendly cart to escape the ticket-collector. Their burden was probably due to the absence of beer.
I was surprised to see Benno standing with one hand on little Harrison's shoulder and holding one of his in the other. Then he turned away and came round to his cart. "What's up with Harrison, Benno?" I asked.
"Better leave him alone," said Benno. "Don't go near him. Leave him to old Benno. He's lost that other boy of his."
Consumption or something of that sort, I suppose. Perhaps Jacky had picked it up early while delving in corporation rubbish-tips to make a home and a living for his family. "And what's he going to do now?" I asked rather foolishly.
"Howinel am I to know?" said Benno. "Work for the doctor's bill, perhaps, or headstones—or for the sake of their memory. You never can tell what's in a man by the outside or colour. Mebbe he's thinkin' of tryin' it agen."
I waited—I knew Benno's burden of sorrow—or regret rather. The girl he'd turned down for the sake of his Old 'Uns. But he bore, or seemed to bear, his burden lightly—for the sake of the Old 'Uns, too, no doubt. Presently it came. He looked towards the figure of the lonely black man by his loaded cart.
"Blime!" he said, "I might have been in the same position myself."
I looked, too, but didn't feel equal to it. I didn't want Jacky to see me about just then. I turned back at the last moment just as the tail-board of the punt rose, and carried my own burden of sorrow across by another ferry. I reckoned that old punt was loaded deep enough already.
In a dry, hot, dusty little soft-wood box which was being rapidly eaten by white ants, in a mean, sketchy little lane on the eastern height above Berry's Bay, there dwelt for a period one Alfred Ward, with a sketchy wife and family, and some sticks of very sketchy furniture. And all was drab, or a dead-timber grey. There was no space in front of the "cottage", and the yard was a dusthole. On the further rim of the dusthole an outhouse loomed painfully large against sunset, and seemed, from the back door, to dominate the entire surroundings—including the fading bay.
From a literary point of view, "Alf Ward" might seem a good name to tack on to a case of embezzlement or forgery, or illegally converting. And then, again, it mightn't. It all depends on circumstances—on the position in which the owner of the name is placed.
But Alfred was a bad case. And a hard case, too. I never came across anyone, in those days, who had a good word to say for him—except his wife. Come to think of it, I can't say I could find a good word to say for him myself in the days of his downfalls. But I kept that to myself. He was said to have "done time"—by chance acquaintances of mine who ought to have been doing time themselves, if only for being crawlers enough to say it. He was known to have the Humane Society's medal for five lives, three saved from the surf, and two from the harbour. But that was nothing in his favour, because in those days his life was mostly of no use to himself or anyone else—especially his wife and young children and it was up to him to risk it for a decent purpose.
Alfred said he was an "Eny Bright" (inebriate). That's the sort of humourist he was. I first made his acquaintance in a Home for Drunks, down at the bottom of the Domain, where we spent three or four supremely happy weeks. Alfred must have been going it pretty bad to come there at all, but come he did. I was brought. Perhaps he had done something extra that scared him. His wife may have threatened to go back to her mother "for good, this time". But I'm doubtful if Alfred was ever scared of anything much. When he woke up in the Home next morning, he spent the first quarter of an hour kicking up his heels and laughing at the situation. That might give the keynote of Alfred's character. The nurse had to come and subdue him at last.
He was a canvasser—canvassing hams at the time. He insisted on sticking to his billet, though it was against the rules for any patient to go out alone, or on any business whatsoever; but he kept his promise, and turned up sober at meal times and bed time. All this might have given me a hint of his Unconquerable Soul. But then, again, that mightn't have seemed anything to his credit either. Unconquerable souls like Alfred's are mostly of little use to the community, and generally end in disaster.
His little wife came to see him often. She was of the sad, greyish school, with a shadowy expression of permanent trouble and anxiety. There were fleeting shades of hope in her face (you couldn't call them "lights") that made it all the more pathetic. His "boss", a big, easy-going, lazy man, with a permanent quiet grin of anticipation, used to come to see him occasionally, and seemed to enjoy Alfred immensely.
It was pathetic, too, and sad—very sad—to see how those little wives of ours would come together on visiting days, and exchange confidences, and compare notes, and discuss the chances—always hopefully. I don't suppose that, according to them, and for their mutual comfort, there was one of us who hadn't been worse than another. That was while the "cure" was going on. When Alfred was through the course of treatment, he left one ham for the institution and took another home with him—to begin the new life on, I suppose. And we "Eny Brights" separated sadly and parted for years, one to cross the seas.
Alfred's was a peculiar face—a face that you couldn't remember. After a lapse of time you didn't know whether he wore a clipped moustache or was clean shaven. He had something of the expression of a bull terrier, or a pug dog. He had the watery eyes of the pug, certainly, after he had been drinking heavily. Whisky, brandy or rum—anything he could get. Imagine, if you can, a pug with a permanent doleful grin about its mouth, against which the rest of its expression fights incessantly and unavailingly. Then you'll have something of Alfred. It seemed as if all that had been, might have been, was, or might yet be good in Alfred, was embodied in his humour, and that was always at war with and constantly on watch against the vicious side of his nature, and always dolefully against himself. And then, at times, as it were, his whole expression would shift as though the sudden slipping of a mask momentarily betrayed agony of soul. Then a jerk of the body and a catch in the breath, and the mask, if mask it was, would be back again. Alfred would explain, abruptly, that it was a "stitch in the side", and go on with his jesting. But it did look to me like a flash of agony of soul.
On my return from England I found that Ward had refrained from being an "Eny Bright" for two years. I didn't believe in the cure, and I don't believe in any cure—itself alone. You see, when a man goes into an institution for the first time, he is presumably "a young man yet", or "quite young yet"; and he must have been kicking up pretty rough to be induced to go in at all. Perhaps he ended by smacking his wife for the first time—and it's just as likely that she deserved it. Anyway, he gets full before starting for the institution; and fuller on the way, else he mightn't go at all. Then, when the drink is dead within him (that's the next afternoon) he begins to realise his position—or thinks he does. He is full of remorse and humility. Also, he is very sick and shaky. Everything is black. He recognises the fact that he is lower than a brute beast, and his wife is a noble little woman. All our wives are noble women in certain stages of our drunkenness. Different stages with different men; as a nurse once said to me: "They all have their horrors different." But, in a day or two, as the horrible walking nightmare (to the effect, mainly, that his poor little wife may have been already "driven to the arms of another man") begins to wear off (especially when the said wife comes to him on the second day with no signs about her of the said arms), he begins to see some light. And the relief is blessed. Then, as he gets acquainted with the other Drunks, and finds out that his is not the worst case in the city, he begins to enjoy himself. He has peace and quiet for perhaps the first time in his married life, or his whole life; for mothers are not all angels. He has to keep regular hours, and learns to love it. The drink gets out of his system. Above all, he finds himself treated as a sick man; his disease is sympathised with; he leaves clear-headed and healthy, and with a new starting-point in life; and, if he doesn't go straight then, he never will.
The ultimate and awful reason why Alfred was persuaded to enter the institution was, as he told me, that his wife had sent for a parson. "Wrestlin' with the spirit", Alfred said it was, as he got better.
Alfred's life trouble was a mixed marriage and a mother-in-law. There was nothing extenuating in this. He shouldn't have gone in for a mixed marriage—nor a mother-in-law either, for that matter. His engaging type of ugliness was fascinating to many women; and there were plenty of likely girls without mothers. But when he had got her he should not have allowed his wife to leave her church and join the one to which he nominally belonged. They could have arranged about the children beforehand: the boys to belong to one church and the girls to the other—I've seen it working comfortably enough in the old German district I belonged to. There mightn't have been any girls, or there mightn't have been any boys; or there might have been more of one than the other. But that's where the sporting element would have come in; and, after all, the sporting element is the main thing in Australia. It would have made life more interesting for Alfred and his wife. They would have had something more than usual to look forward to every time the Stork was expected, and something to poke out their tongues at each other about, according to who won. Also, Father Dolan and the Rev. McKara—the wrestling parson, afore-mentioned—might have taken a still greater fatherly and brotherly interest in the happy couple. Maybe they'd have had a side wager.
I took Alfred and asked him why he wanted to bother about it, so long as she looked after the house and the children, it would make no difference to him, seeing that he had no religion at all, really. But Alfred couldn't see it. He reckoned that if a woman could quit her own church and then go secretly back to it, as she had done, and deceive her husband like that in one thing, she could deceive him in everything. And so he continued to drink.
His wife was forced to get a separation order against him. And he drank harder; and his wife's boarding-house people complained to the police about him; and he would rave in his room in his lonely lodgings all night, until one landlady after another had to shift him on.
I got him one day at Manly, where we all lived then, just in time to save his reason and his billet. I took him home, and got him to bed, after much trouble and some whisky, with a promise of having a flask or two in the house. I was a teetotaller yet. My wife sent for his wife, and we sat with him and watched him in turns till the last permissible sleeping draught had had effect; and his wife went home, to attend to the children, who would be frightened. She came in as Alfred woke, and we decided that she would better be left alone with him. And so their miserable, oft-broken married life was mended once more. And Alfred, drawing mighty breaths of relief, arose, went after his papers and samples, and set to work to get another home together.
Then a cottage by the sea, with some flowers and greenery, Alfred faced his troubles, domestic and business, like a man, and prospered. But, next corresponding season (there are only four in Australia—Racing, and Surfing, and Cricket, and Football), he had the misfortune to attempt to save another life, and partly succeeded. Others completed the rescue, and then rescued Alfred, after a roller had knocked the breath out of him as a warning to mind his own business. When the others had emptied the salt water out of him, and pumped air into him, they, in their ignorance of circumstances, administered brandy. He came blissfully to his senses and said, "Keep on pouring it in, boys." He kept on drinking all that night, and next morning, and for a fortnight afterwards. Then he went home and smote Father Dolan, whom he found there. After the Father had done with him he "went up" for a couple of months, "to git the dhrink out iv him, an' reflict".
Then the most miserable of miserable domestic lives again. The spasms of work between drinking bouts, the 10s. or 15s. brought home out of 60s. The pitiful story-telling and putting-off of the landlady on Monday mornings. The sending of the children to "borrow" or cadge from scarcely-known neighbours. The haunting sense of shame of it all.
Alfred Ward was a demon canvasser. His wife said he had been known to be hustled downstairs from the office of a businessman one day, and to go up and sell that same businessman the same new idea in typewriters or cash registers the next morning. Bosses whom Alfred had humbugged again and again, and whom he had "had" more than once (to say the least of it), would take him back once more, "for the last time", and trust him with "lines" and samples. "Now, this is your last chance, Ward, remember!" And Alfred would say he'd remember.
And so he drank himself into the Reception House, and his wife had to take the children home to mother. When he came out, he still hung about Blue's Point Road, the vicinity of his maintenance order, in any lodgings he could get. Oh, why do separated men do that? He got to dodging down the road, and slipping across on the Horse Ferry, and ghosting up Elder Man's Lane, avoiding creditors, taking down old and working up new bosses, and taking in exasperated clients or newcomers. Till at last he got into trouble over a typewriter he took out to deliver and Moscowed for drink.
His wife managed to get him a lawyer, in spite of mother and friends, and the lawyer got him off. And there was a fresh start.
He got a side-job collecting the rent of a row of cheap new brick suburban skillions—the kind that smell and taste of lime for months, where glimpses of youngish women, in red, pink or blue "dressing gowns", are caught mornings and afternoons.
The woman swore he did, and Alfred swore he didn't. His wife stuck to him all through, but he got twelve months—mainly for swearing he didn't. The woman's rent, by the way, was overdue, but she and her husband swore they had only wanted an apology in the first place.
Eight months later I met Alfred ghosting down Pitt Street. He seemed vague and grey all over; he seemed caught in an eddy for a moment, then drifted swiftly to the other side like a spook that wasn't particularly anxious to haunt me. I caught him and got his hand. He gave the old stitch-in-the-side and fish-in-the-throat signs; then the shade of his grin came back and materialised. I'm glad I didn't turn him down. He said he was going to Fiji on salary, expenses and commission.
Last Christmas Eve someone left a note at the door with my landlady. She said he was a stoutish, sunburned, jolly sort of gentleman, and he'd just come back from the Islands. The note contained all the compliments of the season from Alfred Ward, and mentioned that he had just landed from Fiji, and was well, happy and prosperous. Perhaps he had met his uncle there and taken him down.
Then a neat cottage, with a lawn, over the water, and steps down to a landing on one of the water-frontages of Mosman, and a cane table and basket chairs on the lawn, with whisky and soda.
O-o-oh! But I'm tired, and I wish I could finish right here. But I saw in the paper not many mornings later that one Alfred Ward had been brought up at the Central Police Court on a charge of obtaining £125 worth of furniture by false pretences. He had represented that he had a plantation in Fiji. He made a statement to the effect that he had been drinking heavily and remembered nothing clearly, but told where most of the goods were. Someone managed to get him bail.
It spoilt my story, but I've had my dream to end it with.
Days ago I took a trip down the South Coast line to recover from the holidays. Sitting by the window, watching the broad moonlight on the wild and rugged bush, I was aware of a voice I knew coming from the compartment ahead, singing a song I'd heard it sing before:
I'm sitting on the stile, Mary,
Where we sat side by side.
I forgot to tell you that Alf Ward could sing.
In the bright May morning, long ago,
When first you were my bride.
He couldn't be breaking bail—that wasn't Alfred Ward. Perhaps he was going down there on some business—connected with hams, maybe. But, no! It couldn't be hams, seeing this was the South Coast. I determined to bail Alf up at my station; but when I got out, he wasn't there. He must have dropped off at an intermediate.
Coming back, I'd made up my mind to put in a day or two at Muni Bay. I'd seen the place by moonlight coming down. A deep green basin in the mountains, with one side showing white sea beach, and silver surf and rugged rocks.
At the accommodation house I heard that a girl had been nearly drowned that morning, and one of her rescuers wholly drowned. His name was Ward—a Mr A. Ward. That was all they knew about him. The body was still down in the shed on the beach. He'd been drinking, they thought—spirits.
They let me see the body, of course. Anyone might know who he was. It lay on a board on trestles. They turned down the sheet and—This was my Alfred Ward.
Outside, in the moonlight, the infernal sea was singing, singing, singing that infernal song in my ears, while I wondered vacantly where his unconquerable soul could be.
'Tis but a step down yonder lane.
And that brings me back to Elder Man's Lane, for this was my dream. Poor Alf Ward is still in gaol, awaiting his trial.
You remember my deplorable acquaintance Johnson, with whose vagaries the stories of Elder Man's Lane were begun? Well, Johnson went from bad to better, and from better to best; but his friends as well as his enemies still had hopes. They said you'd see him in the gutter again before twelve months were over. And they did. They saw to it.
Johnson had once before realised the drunkard's dream of reformation. He was paying up for a cottage. He was pottering round happily making a kitchen-garden, which was sensible, for vegetables don't eat nor fly over into neighbours' gardens; and a flower-garden, which was pleasing; and he was raising hens for his wife and Muscovy ducks for himself—these at a dead loss. But at least the ducks were happy, for he made them a pond with flagstones and cement, and they were quaint to watch, going about their domestic duties; and they comforted his heart in the dark days that were to come.
For Johnson also realised something that he never dreamed of in his drinking days. He soon lost all his drunken ideals. He saw that his poor little wife (whom he had married in haste, on account of a tale of ill-treatment at home) was narrow-minded, and selfish; that she had a permanent tale of ill-treatment for anybody she happened to be talking to, and against everyone else, her husband especially; that she was, in short, a vindictive, picturesque and circumstantial liar. She had no soul.
There were frequent and violent wrangles, and much unhappiness. There had been little or none in his drinking days. He had taken most things good-naturedly then, and had not noticed others. As for the lying, especially in financial matters, he had reckoned it was mostly done for his sake, and that the nagging and the rest would all cease when he reformed. That was all part of his dream.
And yet Johnson was to blame. He should not have gone round listening to tales of ill-treatment before he was married; he should not have been drinking, and so not in a fit state to weigh such tales. If he had been what he should have been he wouldn't have taken the girl away from her home. Sympathisers with chronic tales of ill-treatment generally get their deserts; the misfortune is that, though chastened and repentant, they cannot give back the years, the reputations and the homes they ruin.
Johnson tried gentle persuasion, and even pleading, but that was worse than other measures might have been. He was a weak man. And in the end he went down on his knees to her and begged her not to make a Public Scandal. So she explained to the chamber-magistrate (or whoever it was) that Johnson had pulled her out of bed while in a delicate state of health, and jumped on her, and dragged her round the room by the hair of the head, and chased her with an axe, and called her vile names, and struck her with a bottle, and taken a carving knife to her. Also that he had threatened to do for her.
I got hold of Johnson and persuaded him to let it go by consent, without admissions, and he was still sane enough to take advice. Otherwise she would have sworn it all in open court—and she had "two neighbours ready to prove it, too".
Johnson's wife is not uncommon. There are hundreds of her in Australia waiting for a chance to fling themselves around and shriek. The English-speaking people, as a rule, put up with too much from their women, especially from their tongues; and the English-speaking people are going to suffer for it some day. If they are not now.
So Johnson drank again, and his friends lost sight of him. They reckoned he'd gone to the dogs at last, as they always said he would. He went down, as a matter of fact into the Underworld, and stayed there for a year or two. He managed to live without getting into gaol or the lunatic asylum; and he found a little to do in his own line now and again. There are kind hearts in the Underworld, and brother-wrecks who are often able to help by "puttin' a few bob in yer way". Layin' yer onter somethin'. For the rest, he had left the house and furniture and a few pounds with his wife, and managed to fix up the maintenance fairly regularly—or his friends did. He was a weak man, as I said before; and she a strong woman; and she seemed to get on infinitely better without him. I haven't brought the children in. They shouldn't be brought in at all.
There are sisters down in the Underworld, too. They are not like their sisters of the upper or superficial world who lie incessantly about each other and each other's people in a superficial way, and whose lives, minds, amusements and ambitions even are just as superficial. They are mostly true to each other, and to their—their males, this Sisterhood; they are ready to make any sacrifice for a brute, hate an injustice to another fiercely, and are intensely sympathetic. I believe it was such as they who crept in fear and trembling from their dens, and, in terror of their lives, took the body of the Christ from the cross and washed it hurriedly and hid it away where none might find His grave, that night on Calvary, long ago.
It was from a Bad Woman of my acquaintance that I next heard of Johnson; it happened one morning in a pub up Church Hill way—a sort of halfway house on the road to and from the Underworld. At least, she was only a semi-Bad Woman, and that only when she was drinking. A sort of half-sister to the Sisterhood. I remembered the days when she had been a Good Woman.
I was on the way down—or up: I didn't know which yet. "Why don't you take a tumble to yourself, Mr Lawrence, and build yer constitution up wid a little drop of broth?" she said; and so, being in a chastened mood, we got chatting. She'd just been down at the Central swearing a black lie to get a "frind" out of trouble. Every leaf of that Bible is—dare I say stained?—with such lies. Her name happened to be Mrs Johnson, too, and I thought of the lies the other Mrs Johnson would have sworn. She told me that our mutual friend Johnson was down at the pub we used to call the Lost Souls. He had been under the protection of the landlady, who regarded him as a "man of deep feeling".
"The Lily of St Leonards told me orl about it," said my Mrs Johnson. "She was down at the Lost Souls last night, an' Mr Johnson was recitin' the 'Bridge of Sighs' to a lot of girls in the parlour. They orl like him. He talks to them just like other women—about the world an' things."
But now it seemed that the landlady of the Lost Souls had had to turn Johnson out of his room: either because his deep feelings exploded or because she found it was the beer and not herself he was after; or, as Mrs Johnson suggested, mebbe because she saw she was doing him no good. "God hilp the woman that loves min!" she exclaimed. "He's sleepin' in a dosshouse now—you know what that means."
I knew. I saw in a flash a long, dark, dirty loft in a disused warehouse that stood in a dark, damp entry from under a covered way. The floors were black, and on either side ran a row of wire stretchers in various stages of breakdown, with rotten straw mattresses and horrible fragments of blankets, and coarse sheeting which even the whisky-sodden sweeper-out lifted off gingerly with finger and thumb when he "made the beds". A dim lamp, hung to a nail on the wall, was all the light, and it was enough. It showed nude forms, as in the shades of Hell, moving about the beds and putting rags of clothing under the pillows. Some were fine figures of men, and some fat—none looked starved. They slept in the buff for the most part—otherwise "you didn't get the good out of your clothes and socks in the morning". There were grades of gentility even here, same as in a better-class lodging-house where one man might sleep in his shirt and another in pyjamas. Here the man who slept in his shirt or socks was rather looked down on, and the dosser who slept in his clothes was "a regular mucker". There were soap and water and towels downstairs; and a bath. In the outside wall, where the lamp hung, were two sliding doors, and beyond them the narrow platform of a hoist, where the goods used to be handled. Above projected a beam with a pulley—from which a Lost Soul might have conveniently hanged himself. And with some dramatic effect, too; especially if he did it in the buff.
Sixpence a night, and a large cup of tea and two biscuits in the morning! For the proprietor was something of a philanthropist, too. His clients were all sorts—broken-down actors, writers, artists, singers, "gents"; crooks of all kinds; postcard, picture, and bootlace sellers; and, in and out among these, general bar-bummers. We called it the Abandon Hope Dosshouse.
"I wint there one time to see me husband whin he was dyin'," said Mrs Johnson, "and help get him into the hospital. 'Twas a quare objec' that came for me, too, I remember. But they're kind to each other down there. God forgive us all! He dodged across on the Horse Ferry an' walked all the way out to Willoughby to me. 'Twas then I lost me little place where I used to raise the eggs an' flowers to sell. The children are avid me brother-in-law—God be good to brothers-in-law! They don't know but I'm away charin', or nursin', when I do be away for a day or two drinkin'. They wouldn't believe the truth about their mother, anyway, God bless 'em! But I'm sorry for yer friend Mr Johnson. There's good in the man yet. He did me a good turn once, God be good to him!—an' so did yourself. God be good to us all! He's proud yet: he wouldn't take a bob, but he had a drink wid me this mornin'. He was tellin' the girls their fortunes"...
I thought hurriedly. I didn't like to go down to Johnson then: you see, the Underworld doesn't like to be visited by friends from even the intermediate world. They're proud in their way, the Underworldlings. So I slipped half-a-crown into Mrs Johnson's hand and told her to give it to Johnson, or leave it for him with the landlady of the Lost Souls "from an old friend".
"I will," she said, "and God be good to ye! Or I'll leave it, an' maybe a bob or two more, avid the Lily. Good-bye, and God be good to ye again!"
I shook hands with Mrs Johnson, and raised my hat; and she trotted away with her basket down in the direction of the Lost Souls.
There is faith and trust in the Underworld; and enough goodness to give a lot of it a fair chance of a better world—or even of salvation in this.
The trouble is the world can seldom let a man go straight when he is going straight. The next time I saw Johnson he was clean and healthy, and well-dressed and calm. He'd been rescued from the Abandon Hope and the Lost Souls by a friend—another drunk, but in a good position—and taken to the Receiving House, where he had been nursed back to fight and sanity. Then his friend had provided him with a good rigout, and paid for a couple of weeks' board and lodging with an old landlady of Johnson's premarital days. And, mark ye, a decent suit and clean linen and two weeks' clean board and lodging will do more for a man than all your exhorting and preaching and pledge-taking; more than all your talking about the different man he looks and is when he is sober. He knows all that too well, God help him! Now, Johnson's wife had been startled when he took that separation order seriously; and when the year passed away and no Johnson appeared she got uneasy and made advances. You never can tell what a woman will do. I've known many a wife to "separate" a husband when he was a moderate drinker and take him back when he was a howling drunk.
So a mysterious change was worked in Johnson's wife, and the next time I met him they were together. She started to prattle, and she smiled sweetly, and later she tripped away by his side. The children were waiting at the corner; the girl took her father's arm to cross, and the boy the mother's. But, on the Quay, I thought I saw a Fiend in the shape of an old acquaintance who didn't know when to leave well enough alone. Oh, these fussing, mischief-making busybodies! I believe they do almost as much harm as the old foolish friend who deliberately leads you back to the bar—"for just one".
The last time I met Johnson he was dirty, in rags, careless of buttons, and fearfully shaky. He wanted a dollar, for God's sake! He was down in the Abandon Hope once more. But he'd "get on his feet again". And perhaps he will and stay there, provided some ass doesn't give him a push into the gutter—all in the way of friendship.
This story, or sketch—or whatever it is—does not really run through Elder Man's Lane; and yet it does. It is a vague sketch of an Old Place back in a Garden, and a rainy day. At least it is written on a rainy day. An old place in a garden is generally vague, and sad, and faraway-like, however near—like rain on the Harbour hills.
Down across from my balcony window are the mean, brown, rusting roofs of Skull Terrace, and against them—and against the light green of some willows at the lower end of the "terrace"—the countless bright raindrops march steadily down the telegraph wires, like tears on the lines of Time, and every here and there one drops off—just like a tear. And, down below, again, in the hollow of Lavender Bay, are other old places in gardens. And on sunny mornings I like to lean on some railings (and sit on the rail of memory, so to speak) and look down on those old places. When a man is in the Elder Man's Lane of Life, and well past Middle Age Corner—say five or six years—he often begins to take a sad sort of comfort in looking at old places back in gardens. They remind of what has been, and might have been, or should have been, and, in many ways, of the best in the past. The age, and the philosophy that comes with it, helps you forget that there is just as likely to be a Family Hell in an old place back in a garden that the "de" or "le" Somethings have lived in for generations as there is in the brand new and unspeakably ugly "villa" built for the Bloggses at Mosman.
But my old place back in a garden was on a level, and well out beyond Ridge Street and round towards Neutral Bay. And I never saw it, because it had been more completely wiped out of existence than if it had been exterminated by fire, bombardment or earthquake before I even heard of its existence.
There were two old places in Sydney like the house of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. One was in Newtown, where the fittings of the carriage would come to pieces between your finger and thumb in the rotten-roofed old stable. The woman lived—and died—in her bedroom, the upper half of the door of which opened so that her old servant could attend to her. I believe there was a mouldy, dusty, cobwebby ghost of a wedding breakfast laid out in the dining-room, and they said her tragedy had happened before Dickens wrote Great Expectations. The other house was in Darlinghurst. Two sisters lived there, they said, much alike. The front was shut up, and the windows battened. They got their necessaries through a wicket in the back wall, or gate. They were never seen by outsiders until one died. They said that she was the one that had the money—or got the pension—and that she was buried under the name of the other. The other died a long year later. The baker found his loaves dried hard, or mouldy, in the box, and the police broke in and found her—like the bread.
But it was my esteemed acquaintance, Benno, dealer in dead marines, who first told me about the old house round towards Neutral Bay—during an unduly prolonged voyage from Blue's Point to Dawes Point on the Hors'n'Cart Ferry. The subject came up over an article in that morning's paper about another old house—probably the proposed demolition of the Rangers over there with its famous picture on the wall—that someone was reading.
"There useter be a ole place back in a garden round there above Ridge Street tords Neutral," Benno told me, "but I haven't seen it for years now" (remember Benno is anything from twenty-five to sixty-five)—and Benno described the exact locality.
"I remember it well," he said. "The funniest thing about it—or perhaps it wasn't funny—was that the back of it was tords the street. A very old stone wall, with broken glass in cement on top, an' a door-gate in it, 'n' two big, old coach-house gates at the side. They were choked with dirt and grass grown at the bottom, and the boards was dry rotted 'n' worn off a bit along the top. I reckoned they was hardwood. You could see the loft of the coach-house above, and a rotting, barricaded-up door in the gable-end. Blimy! I never could find the front of that house. P'raps it was on the rocks, with steps running down to the water, 'n' you could only get to it by water—or, maybe, on a bit of old, lorst road. There's bits of old, lorst roads at the back of them streets, an' along the rocks on the shore. I've dropped on one or two of them. (Didyer ever write about lorst roads? You might apply it to human nature—you seem to have lost yours more than once.) But I did catch a glimpse of the back of the house from streets higher up on the hill, once or twice before I saw it close. You know the sort I mean—stone verandah at back, with rooms in the end, an' long, high roof with gable windows—the sort that seems to turn its back on advancin' civilisation 'n' mordern progress, 'n' all that sort of thing—and bury its elbows, so to speak, in old garden greenery an' trees run wild; an' look—yer can't tell what it's lookin' at. The Blinded Parst, perhaps.
"They said there was two old maids living in the house, but they never showed themselves (it's always that way). The things were taken in at the gate an' the bills paid by a dried-up old woman, an' er little, withered ole cove, sometimes; an' sometimes a rusty old codger went in, that might have been the old lawyer or doctor. Just like one of them faked-up English novels.
"So at last," Benno went on, "I made up my mind to have a shot at that gate, in the way of business, and investigate—'n' see if there was anything cronk about the place; like a respectable citizen ought. You see, I went in more for old iron, an' lead, an' brass, an' whatnot, in those days, and often picked up bargains at them sorter places for nothing. I picked up a little, old harmonium once, an' the Old 'Un tinkered it up and scared all the neighbours' cats an' dogs out of their wits with it an' nearly drove the neighbours mad, too—till it busted up for good. Our cat left, too. You see the Old 'Un thought he could play. I never like to interfere with the ambitions of old people.—Blimy! it's cruel sad, I think.
"Well—so one day I pulls up outside that gate an' pulls the old bell. In a flash, it seemed to me, a trap-door in that gate was snatched open, and I saw a woman's face; 'n' I backed a bit. It was of the handsome kind of oldish face, but the colour had faded—'n' seemed to have run a bit, too, underneath—yer might know what I mean. A squarish face with one of them longish chins that come out, but with fine lines—one of them chins that are chins. And she had those blind-like grey eyes; they glared at me as if I was a ghost from the past, but she wasn't frightened. Of course I didn't notice all this in a flash, but thought some of it afterwards. (The sort of chin and eyes that take your attention away from everything else.)
"'Who are you?' she said after a minute, 'and what do you want?'
"I told her.
"'What's your name?' she said.
"I told her that, too.
"Presently she opened the gate, in a dazed sort of way, and looked at me.
"'Is that your name?' she said; 'n' I told her again it was.
"'Well,' she said, sharp-like, 'you'd better come in. I can't stand talking here in the full glare of the street.' And so she stood aside to let me pass, and I walks in an' she shuts the gate agen. She stood with her hand on the bolt, looking at me sideways; as if I was something in a shop that might suit her—say somethin' in the furniture or hardware line.
"She was tallish and broad in the shoulders and hips, an' she stood like—like—well, something said 'old opera singer!' to me, sudden-like. You see I judge people I don't know by instinct like, from someone I did—that they remind me strongly of. Not so old, neither, but old like a woman of her sort of 30 or so might be, that's been worn by trouble—or champagne—or some sort of divilment.
"'It's all right,' she said presently, 'you reminded me at first of someone I knew. Now, what do you want?' she said, and I saw her hand slowly shoot the bolt! 'It's grand opera now, all right!' I thought, 'an' in a bloomin' ole garden, too.' Only the garden wasn't bloomin'—just a wild tangle of briary stuff along the walls, an' an ole fig—'n' ole fruit trees rennin' up the sides, an' a hint of firs in front. The big stone-flagged back verandah was one of those that righter done for the front, with round pillars with mouldin's top 'n' bottom. Columns, I think you call 'em.
"So I tole her again what I wanted. 'I'm dealin' in bottles, mum,' I said, standing with me ole hat in one hand, and the chaff-bag in the other.
"She give a short laugh, more like a cough, without smiling, right in my face. 'Do I look like a woman that has bottles to sell?' she said.
"I begged her pardon, mum, an' said I was after any old iron, or lead, or brass, or broken furniture that was thrown aside. Just then another woman came on the verandah and give me a bran' new start. She was something like the other, but smaller, and withered, 'n' twenty years older, 'n' bent—and, oh! but her face was hard; and she was hugging herself in a shawl. I thought she might be the other one's sister.
"'Why, Ellen!' she squealed. 'Whatever are you doing there? And who's that?'
"'Never mind, Emma,' says my woman. 'It's only a dustman. Old Betty is doubled up with her rheumatism again, and Bob's out, so I answered the gate. You go inside, Emma, or you'll catch cold.' An' the other went inside. Then the Ellen one turned to me agen an' pointed to a boxed-in place in the end of the stable. (The stable was very high to the lofts, with great beams, an' a stone wall at the back.) 'Go in there,' she said, 'an' see if there's anything you want.'
"Blimy! but it was a find. There was all sorts of odds and ends when I shifted the curtain of cobwebs an' dust. There was chairs that must have had the toothache for twenty years, an' lookin'-glasses with only their shoulders out, an' broken wash-stands—you know, all sorts of things you'd find in a place like that. An' they was all good, an' big of their sort. There was boxes of nails, an' old chisels, an' screws, an' gimlets, an' screwdrivers, and brass hooks an' things. That was a find for my Old 'Un! It was a load, an' I had a good turnout then, an' I was empty, fur it was out at the end of my beat.
"It got darker of a sudden and I noticed there was a winder for the first time. I hadn't seen it before because of the cobweb curtains and dust 'frosting'. She was standing in the doorway and filled it, and blimy! she gave me another jump. 'Don't go poking round,' she said. 'Clear it all out if you want it.'
"Blimy! I took her at her word! There was a heavy, shallow, hardwood box in the road, lined with thick lead—an old sink of some kind—an' I dragged that out first, 'n' then some brass rods, an' the ironwork of a bed, for the bottom of the cart. There was any quantity of bottles stacked in a corner. There was an old underground cistern in the yard, with the brickwork about two feet above the surface and covered with hardwood, worn an' black with age, 'n' a old pump in the middle that might 'a' done for Lord Nelson's Victory, an' she sat herself down on the edge of this. She sat wide, this woman, with her elbows on her knees an' her chin on her palms, and seemed to watch me, in a way, carrying the things out.
"There was two ole, tall, oblong, shaller clocks on a dusty shelf in the corner; one had the works in, an' a picture of Edinburgh, or some place, on the glass door, but the other was empty an' had no glass—but I found the works on the end of the shelf. They'd have stopped for the cobwebs ennyhow. They was twins—and old 'uns at that. I thought they'd be just the thing for my Old 'Un to tinker with. Blimy!
"'D' yer want them clocks?' I said to her, more for the sake of something to say.
"'What clocks?' she said.
"I showed her one, and she gave a sort of jerk an' looked at it curiously.
"'I told you to take everything,' she said. 'But what do you want them for? They'll never go again.' She said that as if she was remembering the time when they did go.
"So I told her about the Old 'Un, and I said that he'd make 'em go; but I didn't know about keepin' time. But she didn't seem to be listening, so I carried them out. She never moved from her position on the tank top.
"When I come in agen she was singing to herself, 'The Irish Emigrant'. I heard some of it:
"'And the red was in your cheek, Mary,
An' the love light in your eye.'
"She sung it bitter-like, nasty-like—I didn't like it at all. Especially as she got up sudden, with that laugh and stage fling of hers. 'Wait a minute,' she said, and she went in, an' presently she comes out with a big cup o' tea (breakfast cups I think they call 'em) an' a plate of bread and butter on a tray; an' she set it down on the top of the tank. 'There you are,' she said. 'I know you don't drink.'
"Now how did she know that?
"'I'll keep an eye to your horse,' she said an' went 'n' set the gate a little ajar.
"Well, that woman mesmerised me. I know how to handle cups and saucers, an' bread an' butter in company, without botherin' about it; but how I know I never could tell—an' she watched me all the time. I told her all about the Old 'Un—and the Lord knows what else beside—without her seemin' to ask me. But she did ask me if I had an uncle (how'd she know I didn't have ten?). So I told her all I knew about Uncle Alf, that was a lot younger than the Old 'Un. He went away through the diggings to West Australia an' South Africa, an' the Lord knows where, an' dropped clear out o' sight.
"Every now an' agen she'd go to the gate an' stand with her hand on the stonework, looking out. Just like some bloomin' scene on the stage. At last she said, sudden, 'You'll be more like your uncle than your father!'
"Now, howin'ell did she know that? 'n' why did she say it? (Uncle Alf had been educated, though, so he wasn't like me in that.)
"We both seemed to know when it was time to part, so I got up, an' she opened the gate.
"'Now, what about the price?' I asked her.
"'What price?' she said.
"'For the things, mum,' I said. 'I want to pay yer. I'm a dealer.'
"She laughed that laugh of hers agen. 'Never mind that,' she said. 'I was paid long ago—'n' paid the price too. Here, take this for your Old 'Un to treat himself with.' An' she shoves a sovereign inter me hand. 'Now go,' she said. 'Good-bye! Don't come again.' An' she shoves me out and shuts the gate, and I stood staring at the blind side of it. Then there was a big policeman at my elbow, like they happen. 'What doin'?' he said, an' I told him. 'Well, I'm blowed!' he said. 'You're the first one I saw go in there. Did ye see her?' I said I did, an' he lifted his helmet 'n' scratched his head 'n' said he was blowed agen, an' marched off slow.
"I stared at that gate again. There'd been a slanting shower in the morning, and wetted it, an' then the sun had brought some black lettering out plainer, I suppose, on the damp wood in the perished grey paint. It was the name of the house: I'll Bide.
"'I'll wait,' yer know—like some old song that used to run: 'I'll bide; I'll bide my time.' But perhaps she only meant she'd wait—without any revenge in it.
"But," concluded Benno reflectively, "howin'ell did she know that the Old 'Un took his drop of shicker?"
That was Benno's story. This is mine. Benno's Old Place Back in a Garden haunted me in spare moments; so, one sad but sunny afternoon in early winter, and during a sober period, I (John Lawrence) took a run out that way. On the ferry I sat beside a man I took to be an old digger—and successful at that; and we got into conversation. He'd been in Westralia, after Coolgardie, where I had been—also Papua, South Africa, Klondyke and South America. Presently I could see he'd had a few and wanted somebody to talk to. He was bursting with health and philanthropy and life and good nature and success and love for dear old Australia, and champagne last night, and nips this morning. And he'd just got back after many years and was staying at the Metropole.
There was something about him that reminded me of someone long ago—or lately, if you understand; but when he lifted his hat to rub his head in growing enthusiasm, I saw what my memory was striving at. His eyes were grey with haunting memories hiding, and a hint of a glint in them; and his hair, iron grey, stood up round the front like a well-made brush. Greying hair makes little change in such faces. It was Benno, taller and older—or Benno's roving Uncle Alf. And Benno's manner began to come out strongly. But still there was something that reminded me of someone, long ago and lately, who was not like Benno. And now, I know, it was myself. Not a physical double—that would be abhorrent to me; I'd hate him. And a double all round! He'd give me the horrors; he'd be the horrors himself. But this was different—a sort of soul or life double.
"And now I'm going over to look up some dear old friends of mine on the Shore, that I haven't heard of for years," said the digger. "Fifteen years—fifteen years"—his voice seemed to lose a little of its confidence—"Maybe her letter went wrong at last—or mebbe mine," he went on, as to himself. "Putting off writing; putting off writing. Waiting for good or better news to send. New friends—and—newer friends—and so the years go by. Putting off writing! Never you do that, young man!" He spoke to me then as if I were a young man. It takes us a long while to forget we're not—the years steal by so carefully, no matter how careless or reckless we are: "You're quite a young man yet!" they say.
"Do you know where to find your friends?" I asked.
We'd landed and got on the same tram (and I hadn't thought that strange), and were passing Ridge Street.
"Know where to find them!" he said, rather loudly. "Sure—of course I do. They weren't of the shifting sort. And my friend—well, she was a woman who could wait." He added this in a lower tone.
A few stopping-places further on I prepared to get out, where Benno had told me—near the place where I'd find that old house back in a garden.
"Well, so long!" I said. "I get out here. I hope you'll find your friends all right," and I held out my hand. But he got up. "I get out here too," he said. "The lane I want is somewhere about here."
He stood on the kerb looking round in a dazed way.
"I know it's somewhere about here," he said. "By the park back there—but the place is changed. God! how it is changed. I don't know any of these new streets." Then his eyes lighted. "I'm on the right track, anyhow," he said. "There's that little old pub. I remember it."
There was a little old stone inn with a fig-tree up the road on the other side.
"What sort of a place are you looking for?" I asked.
"I'm looking for," he said, "for an old place back in a garden."
I caught my tongue in time.
"Come on," he said, "and have a nip before we part. I want one." He did, by the look of him. And I wanted one too, on general principles.
The landlord was one of those little, fat, round-headed, grey old boys. "Shall we ask him?" I asked my digger acquaintance, after nips. "No!" he said hurriedly. "Come along! I knew him," he said, when we got outside. "But he didn't recognise me."
"I'll see you to the gate," I said. He made no objection, and we went on. Up on the other side of the street was an elbow of new, mean, two-storeyed brick corner shops, with an allotment alongside and a couple of prematurely aged cottages going up.
"It will be somewhere round above those shops," he said. We went round and down.
He said there ought to be a lane along above the rocks down there, but there wasn't—only a new, broad sandstone street with a little gully filled in, and a retaining wall on the water frontage; and a row of new brick double cottages facing it along the back of the shops' allotment. And between them and the shop frontage nothing but bare ground, and a builder's litter, a rough iron contractor's shed, some cement barrels, and the stumps of one or two big old ornamental trees. And the choking breath and lip-cracking taste of new lime.
"What tricks our memory does play us!" said the digger. "I never had the bump of locality, anyhow. Get lost if I went down a gully. It must be up round the next damned new block."
"We'll ask at the shops first," I said.
There was a grocer's shop and a greengrocer's, of course—and of course a millinery. The milliner was a young, married Juno (and I wondered how she made ends meet in that locality). I asked her first, because of her appearance, and we saw her first at the door—calling a kid. But she'd never heard of any old place back in a garden; she'd only come there lately. So we went on up the street.
I caught a boy. He took us across the road to get a full view. "Do yer see them ther noo shops 'n' cottages on them allotments there?" he said.
"Well, then, on that piece er land where them buildin's stand there was an old place back in a garden. It was pulled down last year 'n' carted away, 'n' the big ole fig-trees cut down 'n' carted away too—'n' the land cut up inter allotments. There was two ole maids," he shrilled, "lived there alone for hever so long. Disserpointment in love, they said. They called their house I'll Bide, so they muster been ratty. One died years ergo, the oldest, Mother says; en' after a year of it alone the other come out of her hole en' went to the dorgs—shickered, or drownded or poisoned herself, I don't know which. The D's came to a harnt of mine to help 'dentify her."
"Clear out!" I said, and I threw the young devil a shilling. I turned to my digger acquaintance, and his face was dead. I took him by the arm and steered him towards the tramway stopping-place. He came to life a little. "Wait here for the trams," he said, reading it on the post. "Wait here for the trams."
"I'll see you into one," I said.
"No," he said. "Leave me—I want to think. Thank you! Good-bye!"
But I watched him from a little further up and saw him making over for the pub. Myself again!
I went on a mile or two farther out, feeling like one who had left himself behind in a way, to look up another but much smaller old place back in a garden, where someone once dear to me had been born, but had not died; and on my way back I called in at that little Figtree Inn again.
My digger was there, drinking and shouting for all hands. ("A hangel dropped out of a hairio-plane," said one of the bummers to me.) The digger was telling wild stories of Klondyke, and Johannesburg, and Papua, and South America. He'd renewed acquaintance with the landlord. He grabbed me and made me drink. I got him aside.
"Best come across home," I said.
"I've got no home—I'm home!" he said. "I'll send for my luggage in the morning. I'm staying here, and—and, damn you all! I'll bide!"
I got him into the parlour and he called in more drinks there.
"It's no use," he said, in a quietened tone, but with drunken obstinacy. "I must stay. It was a lie. She wasn't one of the sort to go to the dogs. She wasn't one of the drowning or poisoning sort. She'll wait, I told you. She's about here somewhere—she'll come back! I'm going to buy that ground and pull down those (hic!) blasted shops, and—and (hic!) build again—I'll bide!"
Our terrace hath what is called a "flat roof", as opposed to a hipped or ridged one, though it slopes to the rear; and the iron is rusty and lets the rain through on to the plaster in places. But it was well built of good Australian hardwood to withstand the high gales on the hills of North Sydney. You can't drive a nail into any of the studs, they are so hard and old. The terrace is very "convenient to tram and ferry", and that's why the tenants hang on to it like Grim Death. But, alas! it is also woefully convenient to the landlady, her married son and daughter, and her lawful agents. Our landlady's castle overlooketh us from the summit or peak behind, where she sitteth on her tower on a sunny day, to watch, like a hawk (the which bird she very greatly resembleth) over her numerous decaying possessions. The tenants are never more than a very few weeks behind with their rent. They can't be. The days of grace depend on their possessions.
About the only vice that afflicts the people of our terrace is fowls and wire-netting. It's wonderful how the fowl disease, and, as a consequence, the wire-netting habit, catches on. The wives catch it first, and then their husbands; and then you'll see—and hear—the men pottering round, Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings, with battens, slats and wire-netting. At least, in truth, it might be said that it's the men that get the wire-netting fever; and they get it worse than the women get the hen sickness. And the results are nil—except aggravation, worry and waste of time and shillings. A man might just as well be at the pub. Better! For I've known happy homes to be broken up by hens and wire-netting.
I've had a life-long hatred for hens. No need to explain the reasons to most peace-loving men. A hen—well, a hen is a hen. My immediate landlady, contrariwise, has loved hens since her girlhood. She'll set a hen—or, in fact, anything in feathers—and when the resultant clutch has gone, to the last miserable chick, to the cats and the rats and the warts (or chilblains) and the cold, she'll start saving all the new laid eggs from the breakfast-table and hiding them may to set again.
On the other hand, I have a weakness for Muscovy ducks. Muscovies are gentle, sensible and considerate—like most foreigners in a foreign land—and I think I can fairly include mine amongst the People of Our Terrace. When Muscovies do get into your little bit of a garden they only get there on their way to the kitchen door, or on a short exploring trip into new country, to have a look round and, incidentally, keep an eye out for likely earth nests. And they'll waddle back obediently, one after the other, through the hole they came in through. Not as a hen does. She cackles and screeches, and runs and flaps frantically in every way but that of the wide open garden gate; and dashes herself against solid walls, and knocks down the rest of the flowerpots, and generally completes the ruin that her scratching has begun. You know how a hen—especially one with chickens—can uproot a garden, and undermine and bring down a rockery in no space of time? And see what a fuss she makes if you're fixing up round her nest when she's setting, in rainy weather while the water is getting at it; or in hot, scorching weather, when the sun is around! The silly, alleged nest she often chooses for herself, when you've made her half a dozen good ones to pick from! One of my landlady's hens would lay nowhere but in an old, disused washhouse copper; and she'd go through blazes to get there. Now, howinell did she think she was going to get her chickens out of that wash-boiler when they hatched? Another started in a box nailed halfway up a wall to hold ferns.
No, when Mrs Muscovy makes her own nest, which she prefers to do, it's generally a good one and in the best situation available. And you can fix up round her, and even move her when she's sitting, without her making a fuss about it—except to give you an admonitory dab when she thinks you're bothering round too much—like as if you were a troublesome child. And when she comes off her nest she doesn't fool round, like a hen does, if you don't happen to be there to feed her. No. She comes down to the house and flaps her wings and gibbers loudly, to let you know she's off and wants tucker. I've known her to half-flap, half-climb her way right over a tall back garden gate on such an occasion.
It used to amuse me, in another house, to watch Mrs Muscovy going back to her nest, by a side passage, after being attended to by my landlady. I feel quite sure that Mrs M (the duck, and not the landlady) was quite aware of me quizzing her over the side fence, but her mind was haunted by other and greater and, to me—and possibly to her—vague dangers to her eggs; and she moved with the instinct of some ancestress of a hundred years ago, or so, on Russian marshes. Her nest was close at hand, under some bushes and old timber against the dividing fence; but, to all appearances, she was making up to a little vegetable garden I had made at the top of the narrow "paddock". She would be getting along, ludicrously like some old Sairey Gamp, bound to an urgent case in her profession say, one of Mrs Harris's—somewhere just beyond the near horizon. In this case it was always Mrs Harris's; for, just exactly opposite her nest, Mrs Muscovy would shift her helm, with marvellous dexterity for a duck, at right angles to her alleged course, and, with a flip of first one foot and then the other—to kick off the dirt—and a flicker of her tail, she'd be on to her eggs. Of course you know her family goes for a swim the day after they come into the world. At first I call them "the Dils"; after that "the Wrigglers"; and later on "the Waddlers". Then comes that absurd stage when they are like sagged barges, always pitching, fore and aft, and seem to have been intended by nature to be quadrupeds. This, and onwards, is a great stuffing period, until at last nearly all of them who are drakes, and most of them who are ducks, become stuffed duck—and roasted. I appreciate them at that period also.
Then, again, Muscovy ducks, unlike the common hen family, are sociable amongst themselves. Did you ever see a Muscovy duck convention, or mothers' meeting (or Liberal Labour League)? Especially when some new members have been introduced to the duck yard! They talk with their necks, but not through them, as most other people do. They do it by jerking the said necks regularly backwards and forwards, slowly or more rapidly, according to their feelings—mutual indignation or approbation—or the heat of the argument.
Common fowls have no chance against Muscovies. We had a rooster; he's sold to a neighbour now, who calls him Henry. I used to call the rooster Grant. He'd make a fuss if a bantam laid an egg. Well, I never saw such a flabbergasted rooster as Grant the first time he tackled a Muscovy drake, and met a hurricane on one end coming at him. Muscovies stand up and spread their wings and fight with them, carrying all other fowls before them like dust. And the ram-beak is still in reserve.
There was a brown hen we called Browny. I had a soft spot in my heart for her, though she was a bigger fool in one way than all the other hens put together. She would sit on an egg anywhere she found it. Her favourite place would be on a dish of eggs on a corner of the kitchen dresser. But she wouldn't go insane and shriek round and hurt herself and smash half the crockery. She'd allow herself to be lifted down and carried firmly out and dropped over the fowlyard fence. But she'd be back again about the third time thereafter that you meandered into the kitchen in search of matches. Now, one day before Browny became hopelessly insane, and during a period while she was laying with another hen in a sensible nest in the fowlyard, one of the newly bought Muscovies came and laid an egg in Browny's nest in the night. She must have been a surprised, not to say a startled, hen when she went in to lay that morning. Anyway she got out again in a hurry, and said a lot about it. She'd never seen even an ordinary duck's egg before, and this was as big as two. She seemed to blame it on the other hen that was sharing the nest with her. She said it was po-si-tive-ly indecent! But I could see that she was awfully jealous all the same. Perhaps it was this upset that led to Browny's subsequent insanity.
It's a very easy transition from Muscovy to Turkey, but I haven't had sufficient experience with "Claras"—by which name all Turkey hens are known to me—to speak with confidence about their habits. However, I believe that Clara is of a lovable disposition. She's very light for her size, and feathery and springy on her legs, and she doesn't make a fuss when you pick her up; and I understand she'll sit anywhere, and at any time, and on any kind of egg—from a bantam's to an alligator's according to requirements.
I was acquainted with one gander—I call them "Barnet's". And Barney was a Goose with a capital G. Barney's solitary goose was sitting when we first shifted to his place which we rented, along with him, from his former landlady—and his days seemed wholly occupied in making futile charges at anything that appeared on his horizon; ourselves included. (The solitary result of these charges was the occasional squawk of one of the passing school children, whose bare legs seemed to be magnified to elephants' legs to Barney.) At the sight of the enemy Barney would get ready. He'd arch his neck to breaking point, with head and beak horizontal. Then he'd stretch his neck out, straight and stiff and almost on a level with the ground, give his war hiss and charge. But within a couple of feet of his enemy, if said enemy showed no sign of fleeing, Barney would sheer off and pretend he'd made a mistake, or that the enemy was harmless and beneath his contempt. Otherwise, say in the case of little school girls, Barney would follow up with a series of false alarms. The shutting and opening of an umbrella always demoralised him and put him to rout with great slaughter. You try it with fowls and chickens in the garden. They reckon it's the last word in hawks. You hang that umbrella open on the fence and they won't come back for quite a while.
The second day I brought my dog Friday to our new place, or rather to Barney's old place. Friday is a smooth-haired white mongrel of parts, with a tail immodestly short and a black eye. At the sight of him Barney formed for battle. It was a glorious episode. Friday just deigned a glance at the approaching torpedo and yawned. I never saw such a disgruntled bird in my life as that gander was then—and for the rest of the day.
And this brings me to dog Friday—but not just yet.
The parrot, Joseph, was dealt with in a previous sketch, as leaving home periodically in violent convulsions of temper, and being brought back as often in a towering rage and a schoolboy's cap. Cocky has been away from home about two years now (a hundred years, more or less, makes little difference to his species), so I may expect him home any day. And I won't be glad to see him. He will immediately proceed to scare fits out of the new cat; and then to ringbark any plants that have grown up in the yard since he was home last.
Dooly, the old cat, who was also immortalised some years ago (in an ode) in these pages, died before the fire in my study the other night. He was stiff and cold long before he ceased to breathe and to swear affectionately in a rasping purr—which was characteristic of Dooly. He was raised in a hay-and-corn store, where they starved him over Sundays and holidays, so's he'd kill mice—until rescued by a lady friend of mine. He had thrived on wheat, corn, pollard, etc., and his teeth were like chisels and his claws like schnapper hooks with tearing at wheat bags. His last years were peace, he having early discouraged all the other tom-asses (sometimes two at a time) in the neighbourhood. He was fond of corn and pollard to the last, and would burgle the fowls' supply. He was buried with honours, in the earth, in the middle of the rockery, with a sizeable rock over him to prevent the hens from scratching up his brave old warrior bones.
There remains dog Friday. He came as a lost dog to the front steps one day (at registration time, by the way), and after being fed and watered there for a day or two, surreptitiously by my landlady, was let in on probation. And that was the end of it. I'd like to know what Friday's previous master was. Perhaps an English village poacher, who smuggled his dog out in an immigrant's ship, and, finding no poaching in Sydney to speak of, came down in the world and had to desert his dawg. Friday learned—with my assistance—to leave the landlady's hens alone. He used to catch them and bring them to me in his mouth, alive, evidently paralysed into silence by terror. It interfered with their laying capacity. But Friday could never get over his unaccountable hatred for anything in uniform; and it gets his present master into bothers and causes him anxiety. Said hatred is not limited to policemen either; there is always trouble when a new postman comes—or when the old one is relieved at holiday time. Friday also intensely dislikes anything in clerical garb, especially that of the Anglican or Roman denomination. This is awkward for me in the public streets. The other sunny day, when I thought Friday was safe asleep in the back yard, and the front door shut, there came a knock, and Friday slipped through. The door was ajar, and there was a big, fresh, healthy, new policeman. At least he was fresh to Friday. He only wanted to find out if we were on the rolls. Young constable Muller had a three-cornered rent in his uniform pants, but I think we'll be able to fix the matter up, for Muller's elder brother and I were school-mates in the bush long ago.
It goes without saying that the children are fond of Friday, and can do anything with him; but I'm afraid I'll have to get rid of him before he runs down a mounted trooper and frightens his horse and breaks his (the trooper's) neck.
And now I find I've said nothing about the people of our terrace at all, unless the poultry and the animals be people. But never mind—I've described them more or less in other places. There's one character who is fairly common. That's the old grand-dad of the terrace. He knew my landlady's people, and it gives him great pleasure. "Ha-Ha! I knowed Joe" (her father) "and I knowed Will!"
Then, at the other end of life, there's my little friend, Primrose Chambers. "I'm goin' to school next week!" she shrilled into my ear yesterday, "to learn to wead and wite—and after that I'm going to be caned!"
I came across with our old friend Benno on the Horse Ferry from Blue's Point about nine o'clock yesterday morning. He wasn't surprised to see me there at that time, and I wasn't surprised to see him. He had a relic of the early 'seventies, from Narrabeen Lakes, towing behind his cart; also a full load of bottles, with some bags of old window-curtains, etc., on top of them, and a cart-wheel on top of all. He'd got his cargo mostly for nothing, for Benno has an agent out Middle Harbour way with a canvas, board, tin and tar dinghy, who visits picnic grounds and collects floating empty bottles from the harbour—thrown over from pleasure launches, etc. A sort of marine collector of dead marines, in fact. It must have been a two-days' round for Benno.
The ancient four-wheeled trap, towing behind, had been mended in so many ways with bar-iron, hoop-iron, fencing wire, Australian hardwood, etc., that it couldn't possibly be mended any more. And that's the limit. No two wheels were alike or the same height, and they went from a light dray-wheel to the hind wheel of a buggy. They were fixed on somehow. I could explain how—having been a coach-painter, among many other things—but you wouldn't understand. The "box" of the dray-wheel, for instance, was too long for the shaft of the original axle, so a "cup" was dispensed with and the wheel fastened on by bolts going through the hub and the inside revolving plate. And the wheels were of various degrees of "dishiness", and they all ran out of plumb and tried to run in different directions. But the old trap stuck to them with rickety tenaciousness—which is often the strongest and most lasting—and yanked the dray-wheel along like a tired working mother yanks a dragging, peevish, squalling child—one of those children about whom you can't say, "It isn't the child's fault," for they seem to have determined to come into the world, anyhow, and make it as miserable as themselves. The old shandradan looked like the Early Settlement of Australia, or the Deserted Farm. It had only one shaft, which Benno had tied under the back of his cart with a piece of clothesline; so Australia's Past came along like a last-stage drunk, with a policeman's hand on his wrist. But Benno remarked that it "had character", with a slight inimitable inflexion which left it to be inferred that that was more than I had.
I understood from him that the rag-and-old-iron branch of the bottle-o trade had looked up surprisingly since the war broke out, and I left him, reeling on his cart-wheel on top of the load, driving easily up Elder Man's Lane, and looking lazily into a brighter bottle-o future.
But Benno and his relic remind me of coaches, waggons, drays and lighter vehicles I have known in the country in the past, when Cobb & Co.'s coaches, with their three great lamps and teams of five or six, and their twelve-mile stages—shorter in some places—ran from Mudgee to Wallerawang nearly as fast as the miserable cow-cocky train on its cheap spiked line does now, and seemed to travel much faster—on the branch line that appears to serve no other purposes than to carry the eternal butter down to the junction, and the city spielers up to the "race week", which lasts a fortnight and occurs on every possible and impossible occasion throughout the year.
There was the great horse-team, with the driver asleep on the tarpaulin on top of the load, if it wasn't too hot, and the sleek and mighty horses, in well-kept leather and polished brasswork, stamping along the levels and up and down hill, with the shadows of the branches passing over horses, load and driver; mile after mile, hour after hour; the driver rousing himself instinctively from his drowsy day-dream to set the brakes. Groceries, drapery, ironmongery, crockery, glassware, hops, gin—almost everything but flour. The district grew its own wheat then, and made its own wine, beer and spirits. It grows nothing now save cows and rabbits, and breeds nothing save increasingly hateful and well-to-do cow-cockyism.
There were the bullock drays—cruellest of all to bullocks in blazing heat and smothering dust—lurching along on awful unmade further tracks, with their great loads of wool balanced on the necks of the two "polers"; the wheels turning so slowly that you'd almost think the tyres would have time to rust. You could count every spoke round to the same old spoke with the scar or split in it—and then start counting again to verify. But so Australia was "settled".
And the great bullock-waggons. Wool down and mostly fencing wire on the way up. Damn that fencing wire! It strangled a Nation at its birth.
Then there was the brave old "spring-cart", of good Australian hardwood in earlier years, and only redeemed by its springs from being a dray; but lighter and lighter later on with the introduction of hickory and steam-curved felloes, and the decay of the farming spirit. The dog cart and the gig were the aristocrats of the old days, and, later on, the single and double buggy. I remember the time when the becoming possessed of a trap like Benno's find, provided it had its original wheels and another shaft, would have been considered on the selections a sign of growing affluence and worldly pride, and all very well for "them as has it"—the "it" meaning the money.
The dog cart was a rather heavy affair, as light vehicles go nowadays, and very stiff, upright, confined and uncomfortable to look at. Such as Gabriel Varden might have used, or, later on, the willing Sarkis in his vanless trips, or Pecksniff, or Mrs Lupin of the Blue Dragon. But I believe she had a chair put in hers; she must have had the seat removed. You'll see the kind of cart described and illustrated in several places in Dickens.
The dog cart I have in mind had a basket or imitation basket panel let into each side and the back board. It belonged to an old Mrs Westwick, who used to drive her old blind chestnut horse into town twice a week with butter and eggs, and a little fruit in season from the already neglected and decaying farm. Not a sign of the farm remains now. The sons were already all gone. "They went into the Great North West, where all the rovers go"—with the exception of the inevitable school teacher—and the girls were married and may from home, and the old man was very feeble. She had a hedge of roses round the little lucerne field below the house. Mrs Westwick had gone over the Mountains, like the rest, when the trip from Sydney took a fortnight, at the least, by dray, the only conveyance for women then. She "went through it all", and she died as she had lived, and had always been, an English lady.
The gig—sometimes erroneously referred to as a "sulky"—had two seats with a common back, one facing the front and the other the rear, with (I think) the tailboard let down at an angle to form a comfortable footboard for those behind and leave more room for parcels under the seat. Say, in front the old couple; the old man (in his clean things) leaning comfortably forward, elbows on knees, reins in hands, and pipe in mouth, smoking meditatively; the old lady also rather relaxed—towards herself and him and the hard, new world they had fought together for forty-five years or so. And both pairs of old eyes looking bravely, hopefully, but none the less carefully, into the future. The two youngest unmarried daughters on the back seat, with the youngest boy—the "baby" of the family and probably spoilt—between them for safety. (The elder young fellows of the district preferred to ride, and looked with contempt on anything on wheels, except a dray or waggon, and were ill at ease in cart or gig or buggy.) The three on the back seat are looking sullenly, resentfully and sulkily into their past. The old horse is falling along sleepily, and looking at nothing at all till he puts his foot into a rut. He stumbles and props to save himself; the old people are jerked more forward and sit up smartly to save themselves, or their noses, from the dashboard; the young people are also jerked forward—which is backward to them—against the hard back of the seat. The old horse opens his eyes to see what woke him. He remembers where he is, and lurches forward suddenly as a sort of equine apology to those behind. The old people are jambed harder against the back of the seat; and the young people thrust backward (which is forward to them), clawing painfully at the seat-back to save themselves. Then they all settle down as they were before, and the old horse, after one or two attempts to keep awake, goes to sleep again, and his legs and the wheels take them all on into town. And so they vanish in the summer haze of years; the girls to drift discontentedly to the city, perhaps, and drag out their lives, like other city women, as workmen's wives in mean streets; the spoilt boy to drift in the end to where most spoilt boys drift—the gaol, or wowserism, or both. And the old people to whatever reward awaits those who give up a lifetime of unending toil, hardship and trouble in an endeavour to make homes and gardens in one of God's countries.
And last comes old Mrs Porter ("Mrs Porterwick", of my childhood, which confounded her name with that of Mrs Westwick) in her quarter-acre dray, with her several fathoms of clothesline reins, and her bony old hammer-headed, harelipped, coffin-shaped, flea-bitten grey horse that was halfway between a draught and a light cart horse, halfway between a plough-horse and a packhorse, halfway between any two opposite kinds in the equine world. Halfway, too, between a walleyed old working bullock and a ghostly old, grey-rotted native appletree bark humpy sticking out of the scrub at daybreak. With what Ould Rage used to call "her bit of projuce" on the floor of the dray; butter and eggs—the butter covered with thick layers of wetted butter-cloths, and clean, well-soaked three-bushel bags over the box, all of which she wetted again, from a sheoak-shaded pool, when she came to the "crick". All this to keep the butter cool; for the days were hot and the ways were long and the drays were slow. And maybe a bag of wheat to change at the mill for flour, pollard and bran, the whole of which seemed surprisingly to exceed the bulk of the original bag. Then old Mrs Porter went home again, late in the summer's afternoon, with the flour and the bran and the pollard and a box of groceries on the floor of the dray behind her, and in the box a generous packet of what we used to call "fish lollies" on account of their shape—as hard as granite and about as sweet. For old Mrs Porter had grandchildren. She had been, and remained to the end, like Mrs Westwick, an English lady. There were many of them round there. Like Mrs Westwick, she always dressed to go to town in a decent old black silk or alpaca, with a black bonnet. She had a box in the dray for a seat, with a pillow on it for a cushion, and always a clean slip on the pillow, in spite of the dust. They say that the old man's temper had driven the boys away from home. 'Twas a common enough saying around there, where I was brought up. I think if some of us had been a little less hot-blooded and headstrong, and a little older, we might have reflected that the "old man" had had a much harder, sterner bringing-up than we, in a colder country, and often a foreign one. We might have tried to imagine his early manhood, the awful homesickness, the high hopes and black disappointments, the long brave fight to make a home in the wilds of a strange land. And the old man's dreams of the land of his youth, which was a foreign land to us. We might have tried to understand him better. We might at least, in our free democracy, and with our greater cleverness, have tried to be a little more forbearing with the old man, and put up with him just a little longer. I wish one of us had.
"They" said worse things of one of Mrs Porter's daughters, and bad things of one of Mrs Porter's sons-in-law, who was supposed to have gone to the dogs. "They" used to say many things, as they do now. They might have broken old Mrs Porter's heart, but they couldn't break old Mrs Porter's spirit. The old black bonnet never went down—except perhaps in private. And so she goes past in the heat and the dust, with her apple-dried old face and her shrewd old eyes, always looking bravely and hopefully ahead, and vanishes behind the curtain of forty years.
There is nothing there now but the ruins of an old house with blackened shingles caving in, uncultivated fields, barbed wire and wire netting, rabbit burrows and "kyows". There are three classes now in the narrow little township; and the cow cockies have trans or "sulkies" in which to drive Mother and married daughter into church on Sunday morning, and in which the young fellows drive to the World, the Flesh and the Devil in the evening. And on race days.
Those brave old black bonnets! I've just seen one of them bobbing past our back gate on its way to church; and I can imagine the horror and indignation of "Granny" were it possible for the old lady to catch me now, in my shirt sleeves, with bottle, glass and pipe on the table at this time on Sunday morning—writing Poetry and Such.
Benno was making down the hill to the Horse Ferry rather early this fresh June morning with, apparently, no load; but, with a glance at the set of the horse—holding back, with hindquarters well hunched, and carefully picking his steps—the experienced eye could detect that Benno did have a load, and a heavy one at that. And a look over the tailboard showed the bottom of the cart covered with old blacksmith's ironmongery of every description, from half an axle to the biggest horseshoe I'd ever seen. It was plainly a find and a bargain in some dead old smithy; for the metal had a damp rustiness about it that you'd never find in any living shop.
Benno turned in under the rock by the shipsmith's, unhitched the nosebag from under the tail of his turnout, and hitched it on at the other end, where it would do most good, putting the string up over his horse's ears with unconscious gentleness and giving the coarse black tuft of mane a tug down under the forehead strap of the winkers—as is Benno's way. Then he got a billy and a packet of tea and sugar out of the little "boot" on the step of his cart, and took them into the shipsmith's forge, while I annexed the big horseshoe to hang it in the shop till I'd be coming back that way. I wanted to take it home to make a "cradle" for my alarm clock—heels up, so's the luck won't spill out, which is the way with our tribe of gypsies.
Benno got two tots, a parcel of good cornbeef sandwiches and a bag of bananas out of the "boot", and we sat down on a baulk of timber, with our backs to the sunny side of the shipsmith's shop.
I remarked to Benno what I wanted the horseshoe for.
"An ounce of luck is worth a ton of judgment," says Benno.
We both scratched our heads to find out the application, and then reached for our tots and tea in mutual self-defence.
And then I inadvertently committed an unpardonable breach of camp etiquette by dipping my tot in the billy; whereupon Benno slowly, carefully and thoughtfully decanted the tea into his tot, and so regained all the ground he had lost—and something more. He seemed so aggressively, dreamily satisfied and contented about the turn of affairs that I was forced to ask abruptly: "Well! What do you think about the war?"
I couldn't help it.
"I don't believe there's no war," said Benno very deliberately. "It's only a fake. At least," he added guardedly and with unnecessarily bad grammar, "I ain't seen no war. But I had me own opinions all through the Boer war, while you was in England; and I nearly got me head knocked off half a dozen times—only I half-knocked the other bloke's off first. We can't help it—the wrongs and rights of it will sort themselves out in the end; just the same as they did. And the atrocities too."
Then there was a long silence.
"I was walking down George Street the other night," said Benno, brightening up at the recollection, "when I saw a winder with 'Help!' written up alongside in tall letters, and a big red cross pasted on it, with a pretty nurse—leastways she was more like a housemaid, her hands held out in front as if she was explaining that little Willie had broken the big dinner-dish. Alongside on a dummy was about the most jim-jam suit of clothes I ever seen. Made out of a length of blue blanketing and cut gaolbird fashion, and built for a man eight foot high too. The card said it was one of a consignment for the poor Belgian soldiers, and it was booked to reach 'em just before the hot weather in those parts. Slime, when our brave little Belgian soldiers open those parcels they'll laugh for the first time since the war broke out!
"But it isn't all like that," continued Benno. "There's a little girl I know. She's been making one-legged pyjamas. They're for the wounded soldiers. You see, the only wounded soldier she ever saw was old John the Frenchman, and he was one-legged. I hope they'll understand when they open that parcel. Old John died towards the end of last year in St Vincent's Hospital—on the night when the news came in of the retreat of the Germans from Paris. Did I tell you about that?"
"But they'd read him the news first," said Benno, triumphant.
"No. I don't hold with this rattling of boxes in the streets, an' simperin' and grinnin', and mean, paltry backbiting. There's more decent ways. When the South African war was ending the Old 'Un didn't say anything. He just set to work and built a little room out of packing-cases and odds and ends against the fence on the sunny side of the back yard, and roofed it with some old nine-foot sheets of iron I'd brought home. He floored it with corrugated iron cases, laid upside down. He told us he wanted a little place where he could get a bit of peace in his old age. Inside he rigged up two old wire stretchers that I'd brought home, and we mended a rickety little old table and put it in the place. And then we found out what it was for—months after our boys came home he always had one, and often two, of them camped in the hut till they got jobs in the place of the old ones that had been taken from them. They managed about tucker between themselves and the Old Girl and people of Our Lane. Somehow—I don't know.
"Long ago the Old 'Un used to tell us about two young fellers that went to the Crimea, and about the night someone put his head into the tent and called them out to join a burying party. And both the boys sat down on the muddy clay, in the rain and dark and cold, on the edge of that pit—and howled. You see, they were the Old 'Un and Uncle Ned.
"He goes up and draws his Imperial pension now, the first of every three months, at the old place near the top of Lower George that was built three years before the Battle of Waterloo. He's been doing it ever since the Boer war. Somebody fixed it up for him. He had his papers and medals all right in a little brass-bound cedar box he kept locked up at home. Yes, I let him draw that—it isn't like the Old Age Pension. The Old 'Un has his 'identification disc' all right. Sometimes I wish to God I had mine.
"Me and the Old 'Un often sit aside the fire of nights now, thinkin'—him storming the heights of Alma, or Sebastopol, or something; me stormin' the depths of Bottle-O-Land. We don't look at each other such times, and don't speak; but we see each other without looking and speak to each other without talking. The Old 'Un and me are pretty lonely now—since the Old Girl went up country.
"One night, only a week or two before she died—just at the beginning of the war I went down to spend the evening at the old place. Just as I was going to open the door I heard a voice I hadn't heard since I was a kid, and I tiptoed to the winder. Slime, if there wasn't the Old 'Un sitting at the old harmonium waking her up! And mother standing by his side, with her old shawl on, and her little, withered hand on his shoulder, singing 'When Johnny Comes Marching Home!' They were back in the Crimean days.
"I went away for a while, and when I came back the old folks were sitting very close together, holding each other's hand and looking into the fire. I thought of something I'd forgot to do, and didn't go in that night."
Benno stood up and stretched himself.
"Yes, I've got my dreams as well as you. But you can write yours down and print 'em, and get rid of 'em, or drown 'em, for awhile. I've got to keep mine. They're printed where they won't do anybody any good. Branded, rather.
"Yes—dreams of doin' great things and bein' a hero. But, then, I've got no Past to be wiped out (I sometimes wish to God I had), and no missus for the Victoria Cross to be sent to, and the Old Girl's dead, and the Old 'Un wouldn't last long enough. I don't think he'll put this winter through, and the doctor doesn't either. I've got a woman looking after him now—Mick the Rabbo's mother. When he goes I suppose I'll get to the Front, too, and pigstick somebody in baggy breeches that never tried to queer my pitch or trespass on my beat in all his life."
He put the billy and tots back.
"Here's Rabbo Mick coming across on the punt now. Give him a nod and he'll leave all the heads you want for your dog. Now, then, old Geddup!"
And he took the nose-bag off.
Rabbo Mick told me this morning that Benno's "Old 'Un" died three weeks ago, the very night of the day of our conversation; and Benno had had him buried alongside mother at Rookwood: and Benno had left everything to his brother-in-law to fix up—and had enlisted!
It surely must be more than midnight! I didn't expect to finish before daylight. I take my clock from its horseshoe stand and put it to my head to hear if it's going; and it says: "Benno's gone for a soldier!—Benno's gone for a soldier!—Benno's gone for a soldier!..."
[It is written "On the Way to the Blanky Front" from "Marine Terrace, Any Old Date". You know Benno, our old friend whom we met in Elder Man's Lane.]
"I can't tell you much, because, in the first place, I don't know much, and, in the second place, I'm not allowed to tell the little I do know. You've often complained that you've been like that yourself in days of peace, so you know what it is in days of war.
"I might be able to tell you more when I land. And then, agen, I mightn't. You see, there's always some risk in landing in a foreign country with unfriendly intentions. There's often some risk in landing in a foreign country even with friendly intentions; and, as far as I can make out, our intentions are most unfriendly. No, considering the reception the fellows ahead of us got, and the way they responded to it, we're not likely to be met by the Mayor and Aldermen with an Address of Welcome and a free feed afterwards.
"Something similar—or not similar—to being at home in times of peace. For instance, I once went into the back yard of an old pal with the fixed intention of stoushing him, and his pretty sister gave me as many empty bottles as I could hump to the cart in one load for nothing. She didn't know that anything had come between us. And the very next day I went into the back yard of a new pal I liked (you, in fact) with the friendliest intentions imaginable, combatable with business, and his fool-dog nearly et me. He was as big as the ass he was. Dogs are mostly conservative about their own back yards—especially mongrel dogs—and their front gardens, too, when they've got one. They don't take the slightest notice of intentions. In fact, signs of friendship will often make them madder than the sight of a stick. It's just the same with the Front, as far as I can make out.
"The only difference between soldiers on a transport and passengers on another transport is that one lot do things because they don't have to do them, and the other lot do things because they do have to do them. And I think the passengers are the worst off.
"After you're three or four days out there's nothing doing. One wave looks just like another, except when one, bigger than the rest, slaps you in the ear, and then it's just like the third one behind it, or the third one in front of it. They seem to go by threes. And in the flat, lazy, hazy days—you know them—Sydney's thousands of millions of miles away, and in another world, and there never was no Blue's Point Road. And"—here Benno lapses into his half-pathetic, half-comical bad grammar—"and it seems as if the Old 'Uns never was.
"The ship is rolling lazy-like, and I lean back comfortable against something, and look sleepy and half stupid into the haze, and doze off"—there's Benno trying sleepily to reconstruct the Old 'Uns, and being overpowered by the tropical languor of the sea, and dozing off—"and I wake, with a jerk like, when the ship rolls over a bit extra, and reach for old Geddup's reins; for I think I'm coming down Blue's Point Road with a load of empty bottles, on a sleepy September day, and just struck the steep place below the butcher's shop.
"I left some of my pay to be drawn by old Geddup. You see, I had no one to draw it after the Old 'Uns was gone. And, anyway, it was up to me to pension off old Geddup. He's with my brother-in-law, Jack Parker—the contractor I told you about—who's got a bit of land and a little place of his own out Middle Harbour way. He's a good, easy-going fellow, Jack is, like most brothers-in-law, but, like most easy-going chaps of his sort, he ain't easy-going when it comes to sticking to his word. He'll look after old Geddup, and just give him as much exercise, under pretence of work, as is good for his health; and Geddup'll wonder, perhaps, what's become of Benno. No, I've got no Arab-to-his-Steed ideas about horses. It was just a sort of friendly partnership arrangement between me and old Geddup, though we got along a lot smoother than any other two partners I ever knew.
"Well, and what do we think about, and what do we do? Well, there's this difference between us and ordinary steerage passengers: we've got no anxiety about dropping into work when we land. So we've got nothing much to think about.
"The chaps talk about almost anything except the war. Two or three of those long, loose, lanky, easy-going, freckled Outbackers of yours will drift together on deck, and find out that they've been at some place called Bungaroo, shearing or droving or something, and though it's been at different times they'll get excited about it. With this kind of Australian, lankiness and loose-builtness and freckles and easy-goingness all seem to go together. And something else. Their great bony shoulders and arms and hands, and their loose, nobby joints and wrists, and their big, loose hips—and their freckles—seem to me to be held together by nothing but good nature. But I don't suppose they'd be extra-easy-going—and perhaps they'd lose a lot of their good nature—if they were raked up a bit too much. You can't call them boys; nor yet grown-up boys. They're just—well, they're just men-boys. With all the manliness of men and none of the littleness, and all the boyishness of boys and none of the 'bigness'.
"Well, and then they'll talk about Jack Wilson the storekeeper, and his calico signs on the trees along the tracks for miles out; and 'Ratty Bob'—he's the town crank—and his politics; and how they sent letters to him inviting him to stand for the next elections. And 'Dick the Devil', who was always in trouble with the police; and 'Mad Mick' Martin the shearer; and they'll wonder where poor 'Dick the Devil' and 'Mad Mick' are now, and whether they've enlisted or are already at the Front. And Mary Jane Hill, or Mary Ann McKay, who kept the Post Office Hotel on the bank of the river. I always think of Mary Jane Hill or Mary Ann McKay as a big, bony, grindstone-faced woman with a sore about her face somewhere. But she must be a real good sort underneath. And they'll talk about fights and practical jokes and horse-racing, and get excited and joyful, till you'd think they were on their way back to Bungaroo to see some life and excitement, instead of being on the way to the biggest and blazingest war that ever was in this world.
"Ah well, these hazy, lazy, sleepy days! Sometimes the Old 'Uns seem deader than ever they were—just as if they'd never been, I mean. And sometimes it seems as if I'll wake up out of this dream and find myself on some bags and rags on top of the load going across on the old Blue's Point Horse Ferry, to find the Old 'Uns well and hearty.
"Ah well, again—I suppose this dream will end up, like all others; and I suppose it'll end up suddenly, shortly after we land. Perhaps shortly before. Anyway, I'll do my best to keep alive. I'm used to this world, but I ain't used to any of the others. So good luck, Harry Lawson.
Elder Man's Lane, which I once wrote a series of sketches about, has vanished since then. Scarce a vestige of it remains. The old track has been widened, and the ancient landmarks have been removed—most of them altogether, the rest of them in part. An old prison-like wharf warehouse, built of stones that might have been cut for the Pyramids, and mighty hardwood beams that might have been squared for bridges, has been crow-barred and craned and lorried and lightered away. But there is left an old cottage with flower-garden space in front and a little side plot with a garden chair, long since hopelessly coated with thick, hot, greasy dust. And other little old blind sheds. And, last, propped back flat against a high bank on spidery balcony posts, an old, two-storeyed dwelling, with windows boarded up, that has been deserted for years—except by ghosts. It reminds one of a withered spider in a dry, dusty, cobwebbed vine. Perhaps sailors stumbled into its parlour in days gone by, and, maybe, more than one was carried out and down in the small hours, and gently slipped into the harbour. Yes. That old lane, leading darkly to darker landing-places, saw things, and heard things whispered—maybe, on occasion, heard them thudded and groaned and shrieked.
Elder Man's Lane has disappeared. In place of a crooked, dusty (or muddy) gutter that ended at an old horse-and-cart punt, there is a broad curving street—one of the best in Sydney—with a deep foundation, and two wide kerbed footways, where once there was room for only one lone wayfarer at a time. It sweeps down round Dawes Point (scornfully unconscious now of the horse-punt and all its old humble usefulness), round between a steeply-sloping grassy park and a solidly ornamental sandstone sea-wall with a very ornamental railing on top, to where the latest liners of the world lie alongside up-to-date landings, with windows and balconies, so that flapper trippers may say good-bye to their friends and run no danger of having their frocks soiled by contact with dirty hand-truckmen and other grimy toilers. I may be prejudiced, but to my mind half the romance in sailing away to foreign lands consisted in your cab being forced jerkily and anxiously and at what you thought the last moment, down through crowded and strenuous lanes, between jammed lorries, to narrow, blind waterways, and long, dark, tarry, greasy, wharf-smelling sheds, packed high with all sorts of merchandise; where you had to run the gauntlet of charging hand-trucks, and friends perched on cases and bales; where you ran across to frowsy little sailors' pubs and had farewell drinks with pals. What a wide world of pathos, partings, hope, despair and throat-swelling heart-break there was about those old wharves and sheds! Now taxicabs sweep down round the Appian Way where Elder Man's Lane was, and motor cars loaded with wealth and dressing-cases and golf-clubs; and rows of cabs line the sea wall by the blue harbour. Very different from my Elder Man's Lane—and very different people.
They are to go by Table Mountain and cloudy Tenerife ("to avoid the heat and discomfort of the Red Sea"); or by the broad Pacific; maybe by our own mysterious straits, and so to Colombo, with its tropical avenues, and its queer impression of coolness and darkness in tropic heat; and molten Aden, with its glistening bronze statues come aboard with papers, and nothing much else except a loincloth; and so by Suez and Port Said; and Naples, with its long straight lines of lights, and its great Casino aglow; and old Vesuvius smoking uneasily, uncomfortably and discontentedly by night, as if his bed was too hard and knobby and he was troubled by heat and mosquitoes; and smoking impatiently and fretfully by day, as if he was tortured by the troubles of Europe. And Genoa—pronounce the G as softly and lingeringly as you can—Genoa where mules go up streets too steep for anything else, and trams run through ornamented tunnels and archways. The deep, cool streets of Genoa, where I—but never mind about that.
You'd be surprised at the people you meet now on Elder Man's Lane. One day recently it was an ex-constable, with his wife and a motor car and a lot of new luggage. Going Home. I fancy I knew how he felt about it. The end of his lane had nearly come. It was a long lane, some sixty years or so, with bushrangers' rifles in the rocks at one side of it more than once, when the old officer was a trim young mounted-trooper, and revolvers in dark city byways in later years. (I was reminded a little further back of the pathetic way in which some old ex-policemen, in neat sac suits of grey, haunt the vicinity of their last beats.) My old friend brought me round to his side of the car with a sideways jerk of his head.
"Good-bye, Mrs Holloway: I wish you a pleasant voyage."
"Tha-ank you, Mr Lawrence! Good-bye. I hope you are keeping well." (This one for me!)
And maybe she, too, has in her time faced a gang of roughs and sent them about their business with nothing more than the uncanny nerve of the Englishwoman of her type.
But Holloway stealthily slips down by the wheel a flask of whisky. And then I remember the tale of a friend of mine who, poor devil! fell into trouble and was facing the ordeal in front of him badly. It was Holloway who was looking after him, and there was something suspiciously like a strong nip in the tot of water he passed into the cell that morning. The Force is full of very human Holloways.
So they run off the punt and swing round out of Elder Man's Lane towards where the liner lies in her pride at Dawes Point.
Elder Man's Lane has gone, but my own shadowy people seem to go up there still. The ghost of Benno, noblest of bottle-os, and his horse and cart, are making home to the Old 'Uns. I haven't seen Benno in the flesh for a year or two. Perhaps the Old 'Uns have gone up country and Benno is looking after some young 'uns somewhere—a sister's or a brother's, maybe—with no young Benno growing up to look after him; the possibility of such a young Benno having been sacrificed long ago for the sake of the aforesaid Old 'Uns. He'll be all right when he gets to the end of life's Elder Man's Lane. And the Mystery of Asia slips past in the spirit of Ah Dam, with his pockets full of opium, to be absorbed by an equally drifting, shadowy but friendly jim-jam. I can't say what will become of Ah Dam in the end. His is a different Heaven. And the wraith of the poor, bruised and stained Lily of St Leonards, slipping back to her earthly hell, after the manner of Martha in David Copperfield. She'll be all right hereafter. That'll be our lookout. And the shamed shade of Johnson—won't some sober soul who knew him plead the good resolutions, the brave battles, the fierce remorse, the generosity, sympathy and Christian charity of this drunkard?
And—oh, yes!—the spook of Henry Lawson, bound for the Lord knows where; with a couple of old magazines carefully rolled in brown paper and carried down Blue's Point Road to give his creditors the impression that he is taking some new stuff over to The Bulletin and will presently return with a cheque. Let me see! It used to be: "I plead guilty, your Worship; and I want to make a statement." How will it be? "I plead guilty, Lord, and I want to make a statement." No, no statement will be necessary then. Or: "I want time to pay, Lord"? But then it will be too late.
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