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Title: A Fragment of Autobiography
Author: Henry Lawson
eBook No.: 2200461h.html
Date first posted: 2022
Most recent update: 2022
This eBook was produced by:
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1. The Tent and the
2. The Old Bark School
3. The Selection and a Sketch of Grandfather
4. Loneliness and a Trade
9. "The Republican"
10. Father's Death
I had a dreamy recollection of the place as a hut; some of my people said it was a tent, on a good frame—for Father was a carpenter, but Mother tells me that he built a little bark room in front, lined with "scrim" papered with newspapers, with a white-washed floor with mats, a fireplace in front, by the side of the door, and a glass door!—relic of the rush, I suppose. The tent was the same that I was born in, on the Grenfell goldfield, some three years before, and had been brought back to Pipeclay. There was a tree in front of the tent—or hut—a blue-gum I think, and I know it had a forked trunk; and on the ground between the tree and the hut had stood a big bark public house, one of seven in the gully in the palmy days of Pipeclay. Some of the post holes were there yet, and I used to fall into them, until Father filled them up. Pipeclay had petered out before my people went with the rush to Grenfell. Pipeclay was a stony barren ridge, two little gullies full of diggers' holes caving in, a little brown flat, a few tumble-down haunted huts, an old farm or two on the outskirts, blue-grey scrub, Scotch thistles, prickly pears, Bathurst burrs, rank weeds, goats, and utter dreariness and desolation. But the hills were still blue in the distance. I took screaming fits, they said, and would lie down and roll out of the tent, through the room and across the flat till I was tired; then I'd sleep. But this was before I became conscious of the World.
That tree haunted my early childhood. I had a childish dread that it would fall on the tent, I felt sure it would fall some day. Perhaps I looked up, and the white clouds flying over made the top of the tree seem to move. The tent and the tree are the first things I remember. They stood there back at the beginning of the World, and it was long before I could conceive of either having been removed.
There was Father and Mother and a baby brother, but I seemed to come into the world alone—they came into my life later on. Father said that I suggested throwing the baby down a digger's hole, or drowning him, like a surplus kitten. They say I got a tin of jam one day and obstinately denied it, though my mouth, hands, and pinny were covered with jam; which was strange, for I was painfully and unhappily conscientious and truthful for many long years.
When I was about three, or three and a half, I read the paper, they tell me—or at least I thought I did. I'd get it and stare at it hard, and rustle it as I'd heard it rustle when Father turned it. About this time I was butted by a billy-goat—and I carry the scar, and several others, on my head to this day—but I don't remember the goat. It belonged to Granny. Grandfather had bullock teams and a sawpit. Granny lived in an old weatherboard place, that had been a public house, about a hundred yards further along in the World. I used to go to Granny's and get coffee. I liked coffee. One day she told me that the blacks had come and drank up all the coffee and I didn't like the blacks after that. I don't remember that the old lady had any special points about her, except her nose and chin, but I was extremely fond of her until the day she died. When I was about four and my brother two we had a song about Aunty—Aunty to come. Sometimes Mother would tell us that if we sang that song Aunty would come, and we'd sing it, and sure enough she'd come while we were singing it, and rush in and kiss us. We thought it very wonderful.
Then a tremendous thing happened. Father built a two-roomed slab and bark hut over on the flat on the other side of the gully—and on the other side of the World as it was then; and Grandfather came with a load of stringy-bark slabs, and stringy-bark poles for a kitchen. And Granny and the rest were going to Mudgee (about five miles away) or to some other place away out of the World. The dining-room had a good pine floor, and there were two dogs, and a church with a double tower, and a sentry on the mantel-shelf, and the sofa tick had a holland cover—I remember this because we weren't allowed to get onto it. About this time I was put into knicker-bockers, and "come a man", and began to take an interest in lady visitors. I had two pair of pants, one of tweed and the other of holland I think, and one morning I tore the dark pair on a stump. Then a young lady came—a jolly, stylish girl whom I greatly admired. I was called but didn't show up for some time. I'd washed my face and damped my hair and combed it, but it was too wet and all in furrows. I'd dragged the holland pants on over the tweed ones. I shook hands with the young lady and hoped she'd excuse me for keeping her waiting, but the fact of the matter was, I said, that my trousers were broke in a rather awkward place. I told Mother later in confidence that I didn't think she was very ladylike or she wouldn't have laughed so. I was very hurt about it.
But we didn't seem to live in the new house any time before a more tremendous thing happened. We were in a cart with bedding and a goat and a cat in a basket and fowls in a box, and there were great trees all along, and teams with loads of bark and rafters, and tables upside down with bedding and things between the legs, and buckets and pots hanging round, and gold cradles, gold dishes, windlass boles and picks and shovels; and there were more drays and carts and children and women and goats—some tied behind the carts; and men on horses and men walking. All the world was shifting as fast as ever it could.
Gulgong, the last of the great alluvial or "poor man's" rushes, had broken out. And it seemed no time, but it must have been months, and may have been a year or so, before a still greater thing than ever happened. Father's party had bottomed on payable gold, and we went with Mother and some aunts on a trip to Sydney. We saw Grandfather at Mudgee—he was up with one of his teams, I suppose: it was in a public house and Grandfather was singing songs; and we saw Granny at Wallerawang, where the railway was, and where she'd gone to live. I remember little of the coach journey down, except that I felt smothered and squeezed once or twice, and it was jolly. I must have slept a lot. We went to sleep on chairs in the waiting room at the railway station, and when I woke up somebody said it was Sydney, and there was a lot of smoke, and it was raining.
I remember little of Sydney, except that we stayed at a place in Castlereagh Street and the woman's name was Mrs Kelly. We must have picnicked at Manly Beach or somewhere, for we had a picture at home of a Newfoundland dog with the sea behind him, and that picture meant Sydney to me for a long time afterwards. Mrs Kelly had a swing in her back yard, and one day I was swinging high and told Mrs Kelly's little girl that I was going right up to Heaven, and she said I was a very wicked little boy to say such a thing. I couldn't understand why. Mrs Kelly's little boy taught us to say: "Ally-looyer! I hardly knew yer!"
I must have seen and remembered Pinchgut, or else Mrs Kelly's little boy told me about it, for when I returned to Gulgong I informed a lady that I'd found out where babies came from—I was quite sure they came from Pinchgut. I had a new suit of velveteen knicker-bockers, but I don't remember what Charlie had. One day we got out in the street and the door shut behind us, and we got frightened, and lost, and knocked and hammered at the wrong door, and it opened and we went into the wrong house. It was awful, but they didn't hurt us. The girls took us up in their arms and kissed us and gave us cake, and one of them took us home. I remember that Mrs Kelly was very angry about it, because, she said, it was a bad house; but we couldn't see anything bad about it—they might have kept us there, or killed us, or given us to a policeman; we thought it was a good house.
But a more terrible thing happened. There was a hole in the fence, where some palings had fallen out, at the bottom of Mrs Kelly's yard, and through there there was a coach-builder's or wheelwright's shop—I worked there afterwards—with a big heap of chips and shavings at the bottom of their yard, against our fence. One day Charlie and I got through the hole and started to put shavings and chips back through into Mrs Kelly's yard for her to light her fire with. We thought it would be a pleasant surprise, I suppose. But all of a sudden a man came running down the yard with a saw in his hand, while another man shouted to him from the shop: "Cut their heads off, Bill! Cut both their heads off!" I don't know whether I got through the hole first, or Charlie, but there wasn't much time between us. When they soothed us and got us a little calmer we were both determined that we wanted to go straight back home to Gulgong at once.
I remembered even less of the journey home than I did of the journey down. There was an inn where we stayed for a night, so we must have taken the coach journey by van and not by Cobb & Co's. The landlady knocked at the door and asked if we'd take in another little boy to sleep there for the night, so the place must have been full. There was trouble in the morning about a bottle of smelling salts I broke and something I spilt on my knicker-bockers.
Then the hut on Gulgong, and Father had killed a pig. Mother asked us if we knew him again, and I said to him, "Ally-looyer—I—hardly-knew-yer, Father!" And Father seemed surprised.
He was always working, or going somewhere with an axe or a pick and shovel on his shoulder, and coming home late. I remember watching for the glint of his white moles in the dusk, and sometimes following him out again after tea, when it was moonlight, and he went a little way with the axe on his shoulder to split firewood from a log. He worked in a claim in the Happy Valley, and again on the Canadian Lead. I had childish fancies of Happy Valley, because of the name, but I saw it in after years, and a more dismal hole of a gully I'd seldom set eyes on.
Sometimes we'd go for a drive round the fields in a cart with Mother and one or two other diggers' wives and stop at a claim where one of their husbands worked. And if it was his shift below his mate would sing out, "Below there! Peter! (or Tom!) Here's someone wants to see you!" and he'd be drawn up all covered with yellow mullock. I have an idea that those diggers didn't want to be bothered by their families while they were digging for gold.
Strange to say, there were periods during my childhood when I seemed to live alone: when Mother and brothers, but not so often Father, seemed to go completely out of my life. Maybe I dreamed a lot, or perhaps they were away on visits. But I remember a cubby house and a boy they wouldn't let us play with afterwards because they said he was a bad boy. As I grew the feeling of loneliness and the desire to be alone increased. I had a fondness for dolls, especially wooden Judy dolls, and later on developed a weakness for cats—which last has clung to me to this day. My Aunts always said I should have been a girl.
Aunt Phoebe was living at Gulgong and she had a sewing machine and a parrot; and there were honeysuckles in front of her house (we called huts houses—or "places" when they had more than one room). I believed the parrot understood people and I used to talk to him a good deal. I used to be there often, and when I was about six I fell in love with an elderly married lady who kept a lolly shop next door to Aunt Phoebe's. Her husband was away and she seemed lonely. She was forty or fifty and she had moles and a moustache. I remember I went into her shop one day, to buy lollies; she was busy sewing, and she was worried, and she said "Oh bother!" and it hurt me so much that I cried. I'd come in the back way and so I went into the kitchen and dried my eyes on a tea towel. She seemed greatly affected and comforted me, and gave me a lot of lollies—and she wouldn't take the penny. I didn't go in to Aunt Phoebe's until I felt quite sure my eyes were all right. I kept big things like that locked up tight in my heart; but the lady told Aunt. I was a very sensitive child.
And there were the diggers, grand fellows—Harry Brentnal and Jack Ratcliffe and the rest of them, and we had money boxes. And there were circuses—and one day we were walking with Aunt and she sad, "Look quick! There's Maggie Oliver." And I locked and saw the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She was fixing up a vine round a verandah.
And one night, in a place they called a theatre, I heard another most beautiful woman sing:
Out in the wide world, out in the street;
Asking a penny from each one I meet.
Cheerless I wander about all the day,
Casting my young life in sorrow away!
That infernal song haunted me for years, especially the last line. There was a pretty woman, living in a hut near us, who used to sing "Love Amongst the Roses" and have a black eye. I said I wanted to go and fight her husband—but perhaps she loved him. About this time I used to tell people that I was going on for seven. I seemed to stay going on for seven for a long time, but I began to feel old.
They said that Gulgong was done, and one day Mother and Father packed up all the things. Next morning we were waked early; there was a dray at the door and we heard a great scraping overhead. Suddenly we saw the sky and next moment were nearly blinded by a shower of pungent stringy-bark dust. Father was taking off the roof of the hut—for we carried the house with us in those days.
We were back at Pipeclay again. There was someone living in the new house on the flat, so we camped for a night or so with the Spencers. They had also shifted onto the flat and built a slab house. They used to live in a hut near the tent by the tree, but I didn't remember them then. I wanted to go across the gully with some of the Spencers' children and see the tent we used to live in, but they told me it was gone. Anyway I wanted to see for myself, or see the place, and whether the tree was still standing, but it was getting dusk, and the gully was full of dangerous digger holes, so we weren't let go. We'd brought the lining of the Gulgong hut with us—"scrim" or bagging with the newspapers still pasted on it—and our table stood outside, where the dray had dumped it with the rest of the load; so we children pulled a big piece of the lining over the table, and let it hang down all round, to make a cubby house, and we all got under—Spencer had a big family and it was a tight squeeze. And we compared notes and got chummy and told stories. They were the first playmates we had, and we theirs, and we were chums until we were scattered.
The tent and the tree were gone, and Spencer was making a garden there. But the tent and the tree still stand, in a sort of strange, unearthly half light—sadder than any twilight I know of—ever so far away back there at the other end of the past.
Notwithstanding our old trip to Sydney, which we had almost forgotten—and it's strange how boys forget things of their childhood which come back to them as men—notwithstanding our trip to Sydney, the World was encircled by the Mudgee Hills, with Pipeclay as a centre. Mudgee, the town, five miles away was inside the World: Sydney was somewhere on the edge of the World, or just behind. I used to describe Sydney as a place 170 miles from Pipeclay.
The World could not be flat because of the hills—we children settled that amongst ourselves. Later on we decided that it couldn't be round, for the same reason. But we took it for granted, what we saw of it. The sky was part of the World, of course, and a dome, just as we saw it, and it ended all round where it touched the hills or flats. The sun—this was my idea—went down behind the ridge across the Cudgegong River, and then all round, behind the Mudgee Mountains, and behind old Mount Buckaroo in the west and then rose again. It took him all night to go round. These conclusions of ours gave our first schoolmaster a lot of trouble later on. Heaven was up above, where the stars were; God was everywhere; and Satan and the other place were "down there". It was wicked to point at the moon or swear, or tell lies; it was also wicked to say "devil".
There was the ghost of old Robertson in his deserted slab hut: young Fred Spencer saw him one night through the cracks in the slabs. And there was the ghost of old Joe Swallow in an old stone hut at the foot of Sapling Gully; and the Chinaman's ghost at the Chinaman's grave in Golden Gully; and the Hairy Man in Long Gully. We wouldn't go through any of those gullies after dark. We children used to go out on the flat in the moonlight and sit in a circle, and talk about these spooks till we frightened each other, then one would start to run home and the rest would follow screaming.
Father worked at building and carpentering, round about the district and in the farming town: Spencer at fencing, clearing, etc. on surrounding runs, and, sometimes for wages in a claim. I have described such homes as ours many times in other books; some were better and some were worse. There was a period of tin plates and pint pots and brown ration-sugar, bread-and-treacle and bread and dripping. Cows, pigs, and fowls came later, and there was milk, butter, eggs and bacon. There were times when the Spencers lived on bread and tea and "punkin pie". Perhaps I couldn't realise the sordid hardship and poverty of it now. We couldn't then because we knew nothing better, and so we didn't feel it.
I hope, in another book, to go deeper into the lives of Bush people—there is no room here. There was hardship and poverty, squalor and misery, hatred and uncharitableness, and ignorance; there were many mistakes, but no one was t? blame: it was fate—it was fate. The misery and unhappiness that had to be and couldn't be helped. There were lonely foreign fathers, speaking broken English, and strangers to their wives and families till the day of their death. A friend, who knows me, writes: "Treated ruthlessly, Rousseau-like, without regard to your own or others' feelings, what a notable book yours would be!" Yes. But what good purpose would it serve, even if I could find a publisher? Looking back, from these, the dark days of my life, to my boyhood and childhood, I can find many things that were bright and happy and good and kind and beautiful and heroic—and sad and beautiful too.
I don't want to write a bitter line, if I can help it, except it be against my later self. I want to gather all the best things I can remember and put them in this book; and it will be none the less true. Perhaps it will be the truest I ever wrote. The dead of our family have rested for many long years, the living will rest in good time—and I have grown old in three years.
Shortly after we returned to Pipeclay my brother Peter was born. I spoke of my money box on Gulgong—I had two pounds ten and I was given to understand that it went to buy Peter. He was bought from a Chinaman—not the vegetable variety, but the sort that used to come round with boxes of drapery and fancy goods slung on their poles. I still stuck to the Pinchgut idea, but a Chinese hawker did call at the house on the morning of the day on which the new baby was sprung on us, and that settled it as far as we children were concerned. I didn't think that Peter was worth two pounds ten as a baby, and couldn't see why I should be called upon to pay for him. I thought it very unjust and brooded over it a bit. My sense of justice was always very keen. The Spencer children had been found in wombat holes and they said that was better than being bought off Chinamen, anyway. But we retorted to the effect that they hadn't been paid for.
There was an old camp for bullock teams on the flat. "Jimmy Nowlett" and "Billy Grimshaw" and others of my earlier characters used to camp there for quite a spell, sometimes in bad weather, or to spell their bullocks, which they'd put in a paddock or back in the ridges. And they'd patch up their wagons and make new yokes, etc. I've seen the great wool teams, with bales packed high, rolling along the rough road like ships in a gale; or bogged to the axle trees with two or three teams of bullocks yoked to one load and trying in vain to shift. It was cruel for the bullocks. I've seen them go down on their knees and bellow under the blows from the heavy handles of the bullock whips. When Jimmy or his mates were in trouble with their teams we'd be called in and shut up out of hearing. Great flocks of sheep went by in sections, and mobs of bullocks. "Wild cow! Wild cow! Keep yer bloody dogs inside!" "Dave Regan" and others of my drovers used to call with their dusty pack horses. I remember Jimmy Nowlett ground up some charcoal and mixed it with axle grease and rubbed it on my brother Charlie's face: he rubbed it well into his chin and cheeks with an extra layer under his nose and assured him that it was the very best whisker-seed—the only genuine article, and told him to be careful not to rub it off till the whiskers sprouted. Charlie was a sight, but he screamed and kicked and wouldn't be washed, and had to be put to bed with the whisker-seed still on.
Log Paddock had broken out, opposite the old Pipeclay rush, on the old, level, creek and river frontage land grant that had shoved the selections back into the barren stony ridges. I remember the claims being bid for. Down at the far corner of the other end of Log Paddock the old farmers had built a little slab and bark chapel. (See "Shall We Gather at the River?": Children of the Bush.) They got a schoolteacher to camp there and paid him sixpence or a shilling a head for the children. We went there first, in charge of some elder children. I told him that my name was Henery Lawson, and they say he spelled it that way. His was Hanks. I remember little or nothing of that school, except great spitting and hard rubbing on slates.
Hanks, they say, used to talk about "improving our moral minds". There was a hedge of roses—a most uncommon thing—round a lucerne paddock on the bank of the creek on a farm near the school, and one day, in lunch hour, some of us went to the farm and asked permission to pick some roses and were told to take as many as we liked. We came late back to school, each child with a big bunch of the flowers. Hanks was waiting for us, and as we came up, he took the roses, bunch by bunch, tore them to pieces, and scattered them on the ground, then he marshalled us in: "Mary Cooper, Elizabeth Cooper, Bertha Lambert, Henery Lawson, William Harvey, etc. etc. Stand up! You are guilty of the crime of stealing—stealing flowers from a neighbour." Then it occurred to little Bertha Lambert to say, in a meek voice, "Please Sir, Mrs Southwick said we could take them."
"Serve out slates," said Hanks, and he turned to the blackboard and started to set [the lesson].
About this time there was an incident which left a very painful impression on my mind for years. We had a quince tree at our place and were strictly forbidden to touch the fruit, which was not ripe at the time. One day my brother Charlie pulled a quince, and persuaded me to have a bite. I was always very fond of quinces. I believe that he gave me the bite out of pure good nature, but the theft was detected—there were few quinces on that tree—and Charlie blurted out in terror that I had taken a bite anyhow. I was stung by a sense of injustice and my indignation was roused, for I reckoned that he had only persuaded me to have a bite for fear I might tell on him—or that he wanted me to share the punishment in case of detection. Bursting with indignation, and a perverted sense of injustice, I denied that I had touched the quince at all. Charlie stuck to it, I was believed because I had always been truthful, and he was severely thrashed. He begged me to confess and save him ("Henry, you know you did it! You know you did it!"), but—I don't know what devil possessed me, save that I was horrified as a liar—but I stuck to the lie and he to the truth and he got a second dose and was sent supperless to bed. It was a miserable night and a miserable week for me. I don't think a boy was ever so conscience-stricken or a little soul so self-tortured. He forgave me next morning after breakfast, and might have forgotten all about it in a day or two, had I let him. I tried every way to "make it up to him"—he told me not to bother; I said I'd confess—he told me I'd be a fool if I did, and tried his best to persuade me out of it. But, months after I confessed. They didn't thrash me; better if they had and had done with it.
About this time—or I may have been a little younger—I began to be haunted by the dread of "growing up to be a man". Also I had an idea that I had lived before, and had grown up to be a man and grown old and died. I confided in Father and these ideas seemed to trouble him a lot. I slept in a cot beside the bed and I used to hold his horny hand until I went to sleep. And often I'd say to him: "Father! It'll be a long time before I grow up to be a man, won't it?" and he'd say, "Yes, Sonny. Now try and go to sleep." But I grew up to be a man in spite of lying awake worrying about it.
Father and a few others petitioned for a "provisional school" at Pipeclay—it was Eurunderee now, the black name had been restored. Father built the school. It was of bark. I remembered the dimensions for a long time, but have forgotten them now; anyway it was a mere hut. It was furnished with odds and ends thrown out of the public school in Mudgee, when the public school got new desks, stools, and things. Father made blackboards and easels and mended the rickety furniture. The books, slates, and things were all secondhand and old.
I believe the population of Pipeclay to have been obstinately, mulishly honest, whatever else they might have been; but Pipeclay, in common with many worse and some better places, disliked mounted troopers. The men and women were uneasy when one was around, the children were frightened and they hid, and every dog on Pipeclay hated a mounted trooper and would bark himself into convulsions when one appeared on the scene. Perhaps the people disliked the sight of the trooper and were embarrassed by his presence because they were honest and poor. Bush children are generally shy of strangers, but I can't account for the dogs—unless it was the uniform. Young Fred Spencer once told my brother and me, in strict confidence, that when he was about ten years old he caught a trooper, tied him to a tree, cut stringy-bark saplings and thrashed him. And when he was tired his father thrashed him. And when his father was tired his uncle thrashed him. And then they let him go. I doubted Fred, but Charlie believed every word. Fred's ambition was to become a jockey; he is now one of the best riders in the west and has ridden many races. Charlie was undecided as to whether he'd join the bushrangers or the mounted troopers—a state of indecision not uncommon amongst boys before our time, for both troopers and bushrangers came from the same class.
A selector, an Irishman named John Tierney, was selected as schoolmaster. He had served in some capacity in the Army in Africa, a paymaster or something. His strong points were penmanship, arithmetic, geography and the brogue; his weak ones were spelling, English grammar and singing. He was six feet something and very gaunt. He spent some months "training" in the public school in Mudgee, and had a skillion built onto the school, where he camped. I don't know whether he made his own bed, but his sister-in-law used to send his meals up to the school—one or other of us children used to carry them. I remember carrying a dinner of curried stew and rice in a cloth between two plates, and a lot of the gravy leaked out. I suppose the dignity of Pipeclay wouldn't have stood his cooking for himself.
The Spencers went a couple of miles over the ridges at the back of Pipeclay to a slab and shingle public school on Old Pipeclay. Maybe their father thought they would get a better education. We went there later on—on account of a difference, I suppose, between our people and Tierney. There were a good many Germans round; the majority of the farmers were Germans—all the successful ones were. There were a good many Irish and the yellow and green had not faded yet. So there was fierce sectarian and international bitterness on top of the usual narrow-minded, senseless and purposeless little local feuds and quarrels; but there is no room for these things in this book.
The first day, one day in the first week at the Bark School, was a great day in my life, for I was given a copy book and pen and ink for the first time. The master believed in children leaving slate and pencil and commencing with pen and paper as early as possible. While setting me my first copy he told me not to go back and try to "paint" the letters. I am following that rule in this book, with reference to sentences. Better to strike out than paint. We had learned our A B C—and about a Cat, a Bat, and a Fat Rat—somewhere in the dim past.
It was Robinson Crusoe, by the way, who taught us to read. Mother got a Robinson Crusoe and used to read to us of evenings, and when she'd get tired and leave off at a thrilling place, we'd get the book and try to spell our way ahead. By the time Robinson Crusoe was finished we could go back and read the book through from beginning to end. I wonder if Defoe had any influence on my style? Speaking of books, I was presented, at school break up, with a copy of a book called Self-taught Men, for "general proficiency". My people, for some reason, considered it a very appropriate present. But I wasn't a self-taught man; the world taught me—I wish it had taught me common sense and the business side of my trade.
Then the bother commenced. The master explained the hemispheres to us on the map, and doubled it back as far as he could to show us how they were intended to come together. We hadn't a globe. I thought the hemispheres should come round the other way; my idea was that the dome of the sky was part of the world and the whole world was shaped like half an orange with the base for the earth, but I couldn't account for the other half. The master explained that the world was round. I thought it must have something to rest on, but I was willing to let that stand over for a while, and wanted the hill question cleared up. The master got an india-rubber ball and stuck a pin in it up to the head and told us that the highest mountain in the world would not have the ten thousandth (or somethingth) effect on the roundness of the earth that the head of that pin would on the roundness of the ball. That seemed satisfactory. He it was, I think, who tied a string to the neck of a stone ink bottle, and swung it round to illustrate the power of gravitation and the course of the earth round the sun. And the string broke and the bottle went through a window pane. But there was no string from the earth to the sun that we could see. Later on I got some vague ideas of astronomy, but could never realise boundless space or infinity. I can't now. That's the main thing that makes me believe in a supreme being. But infinity goes further than the supreme.
A favourite fad of the master's was that the school, being built of old material and standing on an exposed siding, might be blown down at any moment, and he trained the children to dive under the desks at a given signal so that they might have a chance of escaping the falling beams and rafters when the crash came. Most of us, I believe, were privately resolved to dive for the door at the first crack. These things pleased Father when he heard them, for he didn't build things to come down. When the new school was built, the old bark school was used by the master as a stable and may be standing still for all I know.
Our school books were published for use in the National Schools of Ireland, and the reading books dealt with Athlone and surrounding places, and little pauper boys and the lady at the great house. The geography said, "The inhabitants of New Holland are amongst the lowest and most degraded to be found on the surface of the earth." Also: "When you go out to play at one o'clock the sun will be in the south part of the sky." The master explained this and we had to take his word for it—but then it was in the book. The geography also stated that in bad seasons the "inhabitants" of Norway made flour from the inner bark of a kind of tree—which used to make Father wild, for he was a Norwegian. Our name, of course, is Larsen by rights.
There was a M'liss in the school, and a reckless tomboy—a she-devil who chaffed the master and made his life a misery to him—and a bright boy, and a galoot—a hopeless dunce—a joker, and a sneak, and a sweet, gentle, affectionate girl, a couple of show scholars—model pupils the master called 'em—and one who was always in trouble and mischief and always late, and one who always wanted to fight, and the rest of them in between. The children of the Germans were Australians—and children are children all over the world. There was Cornelius Lyons who rolled his is like a cock dove and had a brogue which made the master smile. And there was the obstinate boy, Johnny B, who seemed insensible to physical pain. The master called him out one day. "Johnny B, stand out!" Johnny stood out. "Hold out your hand!" Johnny held out his hand, the master struck it, Johnny placed it behind his back and held out the other, the master struck that and Johnny put that hand behind and held out the first; the master set his teeth, so did Johnny—and so on for half a dozen strokes. Then suddenly the master threw down the cane, laid his hand on the boy's shoulder and spoke gently to him—and Johnny broke down. Looking back, I don't think it was fair—Johnny could have claimed a foul.
And there was Jim Bullock whose "eddication was finished" at the Old Bark School. "Oh, yes," he said to me, years later, while giving me a lift in his dray, "John Tierney finished me nicely."
Amongst the scholars was a black goanna. He lived in a dead hollow tree near the school and was under the master's immediate protection. On summer days he'd lay along a beam over the girls' seats, and improve his mind a little, and doze a lot. The drone of the school seemed good for his nerves. They say a black goanna haunted the tent I was born in, and I remember one in the house on the flat—I used to see the impression of his toes on the calico ceiling when he slithered along overhead. It may have been the same goanna and he might have been looking after me, but I had always a horror of reptiles.
Sometimes, when the master's back was turned for a minute or so, one of the boys would cry suddenly: "Girls, the goanna's fallin'." And then you'd hear the girls squawk. One form of alleged punishment in the Old Bark School was to make a bad boy go and sit with the girls. I was sent there once, by mistake. I felt the punishment, or the injustice of it, keenly; but I don't remember that I minded the girls. I grew extremely and most painfully shy of girls later on, but I've quite grown out of that now. In fact, I rather like sitting with them.
I was slow at arithmetic—it was Father who had the mathematical head—but I stuck to it. I was, I think, going into compound fractions when I left school. In '97 when I went to teach a native school in Maoriland I could scarcely add a column of figures. I had to practise nights and fake up sums with answers on the back of the board and bluff for all I was worth; for there was a Maori girl there, about twenty, as big as I am and further advanced in arithmetic, and she'd watch me like a cat watches a mouse until she caught me in a mistake. I was required to give the average attendance to two points of decimals, and I had to study, and study hard, before I could do it.
My handwriting was always wretched, stiff and cramped and slow and painful, and it used to worry me a lot. I changed it many times, and it was only after I went to England, about three years ago, that I struck a sort of running round hand which enabled me to keep within a dozen paragraphs or so of my rate of composition.
The master used to spell anxiety with a "c": i.e. "anxciety"—and many other words to match. I spelled Friday with a "y" for many years, was always in doubt as to whether the "i" or the "e" came first in words like recieve [sic] or believe; I spelled separate with two "e's" and blare "blair"—and so on, and so on. Mr Archibald said I used to be a whale at spelling, and some of my early copy should be interesting reading. A comp. who used to set my work up on the Boomerang used to complain that my spelling was demoralising him. It worried me a great deal, I was very sensitive about it; I'm not now—not a little bit—I leave it to the comps. Strange to say, my punctuation was good—that must have "come natural". It's a good plan to get rid of as many stops as you can.
I was fond of grammar at the Old Bark School, and made rapid progress in "parsing" or analysis. I don't bother much about grammar now—it used to worry and cramp me and keep me back too much when I started to write. My composition was always good.
Until I was seventeen and went for a few months to a night school in Sydney, I knew of no monarch of England other than Queen Victoria—except for a very vague idea of a King William the Fourth.
I shared the average healthy boy's aversion to school; in fact it developed into a positive dread, and before I left I had almost a horror of going to school. Yet I was a "show scholar" or "model pupil", as the master put it. There were two of us, and I can't decide now whether we were the makings of noble men or simply little involuntary and unconscious sneaks, but am rather inclined to the latter opinion. It seems hard to reconcile the fact that I hated, or rather dreaded, school, with the fact that I was a model scholar. Perhaps the last fact accounted for the first. I dreaded school because I was sensitive, conscientious, and a model scholar, and I had never yet been punished, and it was a strain to keep up the reputation. I was always restless, fond of walking, and I hated confinement. Perhaps that is why, when I started to write, I used to do most of my work after midnight.
The boys went kangarooing and possum hunting and had their games and superstitions and a contempt for girls, as boys have all over the world. Some played the wag and stole fruit, and told lies and went swimming. I was too conscientious to play truant, and I had a horror of lying or stealing. I might have been happier had it been otherwise. But I couldn't resist the swimming. The water-holes in the creek were full of snags and treacherous, and we were strictly forbidden to bathe there unless one of the elders was with us. After a swim we used to rub our faces, necks and hands with dust lest unwanted cleanliness should betray us.
I was extremely, painfully sensitive, and almost, if not quite, developed a religious mania at one time (when I was about fourteen). The mother was very highly strung and had religious spells. (We went to the other extreme later on in Sydney, during the free-thought craze of the eighties, and became free-thinkers—or thought we did.) Father always professed to be a free-thinker, and he studied the Bible. He was one of the hardest working, kindest hearted men I ever knew. I have known him, after a hard day's work, to sit up all night watching a neighbour's dying child.
I was painfully, unhappily "good", a self-torturer and a nuisance to my playmates. I remember one day the master, with woeful want of tact, gave me a note to take home, informing my people that my brother had played truant from school that day. Charlie was waiting for me outside the school paddock and begged me not to take the note home—to save him and tell the master a fib. He pleaded very hard, but I had to deliver the note. I suffered a great deal more than he did.
I was strong, as proved in school games, and no coward, as was also proved, but I wouldn't fight under any provocation, because I thought it was wrong. Charlie would, on the slightest excuse, and he often wanted to fight for me and gave me a great deal of anxiety on that account. Years later, when we were grown to men, Charlie, who had learned to use his hands, backed me in a fight (girl the indirect cause, of course) and I lost, after spraining my ankle. He was very proud of me on account of my pluck, but he bitterly cursed my lack of science.
I began to be a lonely, unhappy boy, and to be considered a little mad, or at least idiotic, by some—my relatives included. My aunts said it was a pity I hadn't been born a girl.
Father built a new sawn-timber hardwood house on the flat, with a galvanised iron roof and a brick chimney, which last was the envy of neighbours who had only slab and clay chimneys.
The mother went to Mudgee for a while, and when she came back she brought a little stranger and foreigner into the family. We were tall and dark on Mother's side and generally supposed to have descended from gipsies. We were hot-headed, impulsive, blindly generous, and open-hearted and suspicious by turns. Father was short, nuggety, very fair, with blue eyes; he was domestic, methodical and practical. The little stranger, one of twins, was the first and last creamy-skinned blue-eyed baby in our family. She only stayed a little while—long enough for us to call her Nettie, short for Henrietta (Granny's name). When the baby fell ill Mother took her to Mudgee and she died in the room she was born in. (I was born in a tent, Charlie in a bark hut, Peter in a slab house, and Nettie and her sister in a brick one.) When Nettie was dying they sent Mother out of the room, and she sat on a log in the yard—sat very still, they said, staring up at the stars. Father was walking fast along the lonely road to Mudgee, but he was too late. About midnight they called Mother in. The old watchman, passing just then, cried, "Twelve o'clock and all's well!" I have often thought how well it was, for there has ever hung a cloud over our family.
Early in the morning after the funeral, Father took his maul and wedges and crosscut and went up into the ridges to split rails. I heard the maul and wedges and the song of the saw until dusk. He was trying to work it out of him. After tea he walked to and fro, to and fro in the starlight, with his arms folded and his head down, but now and again he'd put his hands behind him and take a few turns looking up at the stars. I pace the room or the yard a lot nowadays.
When I was nine years old there happened a thing which was to cloud my whole life, to drive me into myself, and to be, perhaps, in a great measure responsible for my writing. I remember we children were playing in the dust one evening and all that night I had an excruciating ear-ache and was unspeakably sick on my stomach. Father kept giving me butter and sugar, "to bring it up", which it eventually did. It was the first and last time I had the earache. Next day I was noticeably deaf, and remained slightly so till I was fourteen, when I became as deaf as I am now. Before that my eyes were bad but my hearing was always very keen. I remember, one night, when I was in bed, Mother was telling a very pathetic story to some visitors three rooms away; when she came in she found me sobbing. I'd heard every word.
I don't know whether Father took up the selection because he had a liking for farming and believed in the chances or because the ground was on an old goldfield and he was a digger. He had been a sailor and had passed in navigation, he had also served in a shipbuilding yard, and was a good all round carpenter: he was clever at anything where tools were concerned. I know he had always a fancy for a vegetable garden and a few fruit trees, but our land was about the poorest round there, where selectors were shoved back amongst barren, stony ridges because of old land grants, or because the good land was needed to carry sheep. Our selection, about three hundred acres, lay round a little rocky, stony, scrubby, useless ridge, fronting the main road; the soil of the narrow sidings, that were not too steep for the plough, was grey and poor, and the gullies were full of waste heaps of clay from the diggers' holes. It was hopeless—only a lifetime of incessant bullocking might have made a farm of the place. I suppose it was the digger's instinct in Father—for a long time he was always "putting down a shaft" about the place in spare times, or thinking about putting it down. (He had two men on prospecting when he died.)
I'm not going to enter into details of grubbin', clearin', burnin' off, fencin', ploughin', etc. See "Settling on the Land" and "A Day on a Selection" in While the Billy Boils; and, for a description of the poorer class selection, see "Past Carin'" in Joe Wilson and His Mates. In addition to grubbin', etc., we had to reclaim land for ploughing by filling up the diggers' holes. The shafts were driven underneath, of course, so the whole of the waste heaps wouldn't go down. We used to "spread" the lighter dirt—and it didn't improve the poor land; and we carted the hard lumpy clay away to the boundary in barrows; some of it we used for making a dam. When I left the Old Bark School, I used to tail the cattle in the gullies and do a bit of ring-barkin'. The cattle were a few weedy stunted cows—one of them barren—and some steers, and were always straying. The elders were mischievous and demoralised the rest; some of them could get through, over or under our scraggy two-rail fence. Ditto the old grey horse—he'd get his fore-quarters over and slide. Then, when we got new cows one or two of them would be sure to fall down a digger's hole if we didn't watch sharp. A cow, and sometimes a horse, would be cropping the grass round the edge of the shaft, and sometimes, in wet weather, the shaft would fall in, or else the beast, turning round, would miscalculate and slide down. Then the cry of "cow in a hole" (it was "man in a hole" once or twice) and we'd run in all directions and scare up the male population of Pipeclay; and, provided the beast hadn't fallen head first and broken its neck or smothered, they'd rig a Spanish windlass and get it out, little the worse.
It was very scratchy farming as far as I was concerned, but then I was only a child. I had no heart in it—perhaps I realised by instinct that the case was hopeless. But Father stuck to it between building contracts. He used to walk from five to seven miles to work at first, work twelve hours and walk home again. He'd insult anyone who offered him the loan of a riding horse—I never knew a man so obstinately independent as he was in those days. Then, between jobs, he made a spring cart, wheels and all—except the iron work. He could make anything in wood. Then he bought our old grey horse, "Prince"—used to run in Cobb and Co.'s—I must tell you about Prince some day, and how he pulled up an hour on the Gulgong road with a heavy spring-cart load of mails in bad weather, when the coach broke down, but was never the same horse afterwards. Then, when Father worked in town, he carted home a load of manure every night and spread it on the barren ground. And sometimes at night he'd burn off, and dig in the dam by moonlight. There had been a bullock camp on the level, and several acres where the old road had been were so hard that even a bullock plough, which Father hired for the day, couldn't break up the ground. He broke it later on with charges of blasting powder! He trenched deep round the house and built frames and planted grape vines behind, and in front a rose bush and a slip of an ivy plant that had come from England in the early days. The last time I saw the place the house was a mass of vines. The mater talked of christening the farm "Arundel" after Father's birthplace in Norway, as soon as we got it ship-shape.
I remember the last questions at night would be, "Are you quite sure all the calves are in the pen? Are you quite sure the slip-rails are pegged?" And often at daylight the mater would cry, "Get up quick, the cows are getting away!" and one of us boys would turn out and run across the hard-baked sods barefoot, or the frosty flats in winter—running hard so that the cold and the burrs wouldn't hurt so much—and head off the cows which had broken through the fence and were hurrying down the lanes after Spot, their old wall-eyed ringleader, in the direction of a neighbour's wheat or lucerne paddock. Prince got very fat one drought and we couldn't make it out, until one morning a neighbour, getting up earlier than usual, saw Prince's rump sticking out of his haystack and hit it hard with a paling. Prince was very much surprised, and his condition and the mysterious hole in the stack were accounted for at the same time. I remember, often, on a bitter cold frosty morning, rooting up a camping cow and squatting with my bare, perishing feet on the warm spot where she'd been lying.
After we left the Old Bark School we went for a month or so to the Old Pipeclay School across the ridges. Curtis was the master. His first idea was to unlearn the Old Bark School scholars all that Tierney had taught them. I suppose the mater had fallen out with Tierney, but I used to go to him at night later on and get lessons in arithmetic and grammar. He'd improved in that branch.
At the Old Pipeclay School I worshipped pretty Lucy W. We were both going into the fourth class when I left, but she used to go home in a different direction. My old sweetheart was Mary B the tomboy of the Old Bark School, but one day we quarrelled and she said she wouldn't be my sweetheart any more. I think she made up to Fred Spencer for a while. Fred, by the way, was the Tom Sawyer of our school. Mary's sister Bertha, a prettier girl, began to look kindly on me, but I'd had enough of women. Childish recollections begin to crowd—recollections of child life and character—but there is no room for them here. It was Curtis, by the way, who first noticed that I was a solitary child. There were days, during play hour, when I liked to get away by myself; and once or twice he tried to draw me out, and asked me whether my schoolmates had been annoying me. But it wasn't that—I couldn't explain what it was. Sometimes I'd run home ahead of the rest, and once or twice Mary came running after me to try to find out what was the matter, but she soon gave it up. It was while at this school that my companions first began to say I was "barmy".
The mother was ambitious. She used to scribble a lot of poetry and publish some in the local paper. There were nine or ten daughters in her family, most of them big women and all naturally intelligent and refined. Almost any one of them might have made a mark under other conditions. Their lots were cast in the rough early days, in big bark humpies where all things were rough and ready and mean and sordid and gipsy-like, and they were brought up surrounded by the roughest of rough crowds on the goldfields. (My diggers are idealised, or drawn from a few better class diggers, as my Bushmen are sketched from better class Bushmen.) Then amongst those left on the abandoned goldfields, the most unspeakably dreary, narrow and paltry minded of all communities.
The girls used to try to establish little schools, singing classes, etc, and humanise the place, but the horizon was altogether too narrow and hopeless, and, as they grew up, they became embittered. But they had humour, a keen sense of the ridiculous, and that saved them to a great extent. Grandfather was a big, strong man, who came from Kent with his family. Wavy black hair, worn long, and profile Roman. His people were supposed to have been gipsies, and he was very gipsy-like in his habits. He had sight like a blackfellow and was a first class Bushman of the old school. He was a humourist of the loud-voiced order. When he was sixty he could handle timber and knock out palings and shingles with any young man. He had the head of an intellectual man, a strong man, a leader of men, and he couldn't read or write—a fact which he hid successfully from many. He liked to camp by himself in the bush. He "never had no eddication", he'd say, and he didn't see what his children wanted with it. He drank. At home he had been known to smash all the crockery and bring home a string of pint pots and a pile of tin plates and dump them on the table. He was very mysterious and seldom did things like other men. For instance, he'd go to Mudgee and buy a string of boots for the family, but he wouldn't bring them home. No—not he. He'd roar at one of the girls: "D'yer see that shaller digger's hole up there on the sidin'?" "Yes, Father." "Then go up there, yer'll find a piece of bark in the bottom—lift it up and see what yer'll find." And the girls would find the boots. Again, when they were all married and had families, he'd visit them in turn, and most unexpectedly of course, once in years. But he wouldn't come up to the door and knock. No. In the morning the daughter or one of the children would look out and see a big man standing at the gate with his back to the house, or, more likely, leaning on a fence across the road. Then, "Why, there's father", or "Why, there's Grandfather", and he'd be brought in. He'd be very clean and have on a full new suit of tweed, with maybe a dandy pair of shoes and a little curl at the bottom of his pants—but his old greasy hat.
"Father, why don't you get another hat?"
"What do I want with another hat? I hain't got two heads, have I?"
He'd leave as unexpectedly as he came.
He nearly always shouted at the top of his voice, and it was a big voice.
"Mr Albury, why do you speak so loud?"
Grandfather, roaring: "Because I want people to hear me!"
I've seen a man roll on the ground and shriek at something Grandfather said, and heard him, with a face as solemn as a judge's, tell that man to get up and not be a thundrin' jumpt-up fool.
Save for "thundrin'" or "jumpt-up" I never heard Grandfather swear. There's a legend to the effect that one day, in his young days, he swore so badly at his bullocks that he frightened himself; but I don't believe that.
I worked with him now and again in the mountains in the eighties, humping palings and rails out of gullies. He was taking care of an empty house and camping there. He "had the writin's" (a letter from the owner, authorising him as caretaker). He had great faith in "writin's". (See "Uncle Abe", in "Buckolt's Gate", Children of the Bush.) An ordinary fire wouldn't do Grandfather, he'd pile on logs till he roasted us to the back of the room, and sometimes outside altogether. He was a good cook and very clean in camp; he'd polish up his tinware till he could shave in it. Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning he'd clean up. The furniture and things would be chucked out with great noise and clatter—the furniture was home-made and strong and could stand it. Then Grandfather would take off his boots, tuck up his trousers and arm himself with a broom and a mop. My business was to run to the tank and back as fast as I could with two buckets. We camped in an outhouse, and when the house was let he was asked to clean it out for the new tenant. It was a great cleaning—I'll never forget it. They say the house was damp all summer, but it was clean. He couldn't do things like an ordinary man. He was fond of dogs, little mongrel dogs, and he'd talk to them, and they seemed to understand. But if a strange dog came sneaking round Grandfather would lay for him. He wouldn't attack that dog in the ordinary way; he'd heave a chair, or table or something equally handy. I remember a big hairy thievish dog used to come sneaking round. Grandfather laid for him. He had just finished making a picket gate and it stood inside the door. It was dark inside and broad moonlight in the yard, and when the dog sneaked into the yard he didn't see us. Suddenly Grandfather jumped up, seized the gate and hove it. It missed the dog by a hair, struck on one corner and smashed to smithereens. I never saw that dog again.
He was a great man in Mudgee in the early days. He cleared the main street and owned blocks of land in town. He lost them—drink of course. Amongst other things he was an undertaker. He buried many, and under all sorts of conditions—some in sheets of bark—and he was in great demand at burials. He usually had a coffin cut out roughly and stuck up over the tie-beams of the kitchen to season, and wait. The family hated this sort of thing. They say he generally had an eye on the prospective client too, and cut his coffin accordingly.
Jones, the legitimate undertaker, made a palisading for a child's grave, gave it a coat of paint and stood it outside his shop to dry. Grandfather, coming along, vaulted into the palisading, took hold of each side, lifted it, and ran, with Jones out and after him. Grandfather ran up a blind lane, dropped the palisading and jumped the fence. Jones took his palisading back in a dray and nothing would convince him that Grandfather didn't want to steal it. The old man would suddenly go down on his knees in the middle of the street and stare hard at a stone till the floating population gathered round and put its hands on its knees and stared too. Then he'd get up and go away. And they'd stare harder after him than they had at the stone.
The last time I saw him in Sydney, he'd bought some tools and a new carpenter's bag to carry them in. He put the handle of an adze through the loops of the bag and carried it across his back. Out of one side stuck an auger and out of the other the blade of a saw. He walked straight down the middle of George Street, towards Redfern railway station—the tram wasn't there then—and he walked fast. It was Saturday evening and the street was pretty full. Every few yards a passenger, coming in the opposite direction, would catch sight of the point of the saw or auger and duck just in time to save an eye or an ear. Heads were bobbing to right or left all the way. I saw no traces of anger on any of their faces—just mild, startled surprise. Just such an expression as a man might wear who has nearly stumbled against a cart coming out of a lane. An uncle and I walked behind the old man all the way and enjoyed the show. One would have thought that he was absolutely unconscious of the mild sensation he was creating, but we knew the old man better than that.
I don't remember ever hearing Grandfather laugh. Little Jimmy Howlett (Nowlett in my books) the bullock-driver could throw some light on the subject. One day he was out looking for a bullock in the scrub just outside Mudgee, and had sat down to rest and smoke on a log on the edge of a little clearing about fifty yards from the road, when he saw Grandfather coming along. The old man seemed rather more mysterious than usual, and Jimmy watched him—he thought perhaps he had come to look for some timber. Grandfather glanced round, very cautiously, like a blackfellow, but he didn't see Jimmy. Then he started to laugh. He laughed till the tears ran down his cheeks. He put his hands on his hips and roared till he doubled up; then, when he recovered, he straightened himself, composed his face and went back whence he'd come. And thereafter it worried Jimmy a good deal at times, for he could never find out what Harry Albury was laughing at that day.
I have moods now, sometimes, when I feel inclined to go out of the world apiece and laugh. But then I am growing old. Father used to work with Grandfather as a young man, and there are many anecdotes. Father got on with him famously and I never met two characters more opposite in every way. Add to this the fact that Father was a total abstainer. Father used to say that the one thing he liked and admired the old man for above all else was that he'd never harp on a string—he'd say a thing and have done with it. Father, you must bear in mind, was married when he used to say this. I never heard the old man say an ill word of anybody. The worst things I remember of him were: first, he drank—but I drink too; second, he would seldom sack a man for whom he had no further use—he'd wait for an excuse to have a row with him, and the man would leave bursting with indignation, and burning with a sense of injustice: but that was, in a way, in keeping with the old man's character; third, he got nearly all his stringy-bark palings out of mountain ash: but that was due to: (a) the prejudice of his clients (who could never hope to live as long as that timber) in favour of stringy-bark, (b) the extreme scarcity of stringy-bark, (c) the prevalence of mountain ash; fourth, hens used to come round our camp for what they could pick up, and were encouraged, and often picked up more than they came for and left but the head: but then I was fond of poultry too, and the blame, if any, was on our gipsy ancestry. The old man usually had an old horse, bony and angular past description, popularly believed to be as old as himself, and locally known as "Old Albury" too. The old man fed the old horse well, but no power on earth could ever fatten him. (I've noticed that bosses who are extra fond of animals are usually hardest on their men.) I remember seeing the old man throwing out some corn he kept for the horse to a stray fowl. He explained that he was fattening that fowl up for Christmas. I asked if the hen belonged to him, and he said, "No, not exactly," but he thought it would about Christmas time. He bought a fowl occasionally, for the sake of appearances and to provide against accidents.
He had, as I said, the sight of a blackfellow, and would bring his heavy eyebrows together and peer at something in the distance, standing and looking for the moment just like a blackfellow and seeing as far.
I got on well with him and was, I think, the only one in the family could get him to sing. He had a good voice and I used to read old songs to him and he'd get them line by line. Like most illiterate men he remembered nearly all he had ever seen or heard.
Supposed to be without sentiment, I discovered him to be a dumb poet, a poet of the trees, "the timber", and all living things amongst or in them. Supposed to be without affection, I know that in his old age, when the family was scattered and he alone, he made a long and useless journey just to have a look at the ruins of the church he was married in.
Granny was the daughter of an English clergyman; she came out to Australia as an immigrant and went into domestic service Penrith way, where she met Grandfather, who looked like a young god then, and married him for his looks. She went with him over the mountains and went through forty years of a rougher Bush life than you could imagine. She was good and well-meaning and old-fashioned—and helpless. The diggers on Pipeclay in its flush days once proposed subscribing to send my mother to England to have her voice trained, but Granny would not hear of it, for she had a horror of any of her children "becoming public".
I was eleven or twelve when I first began to talk about being a writer some day; but I may have cherished the idea earlier. It exasperated Father, but Mother encouraged. Mother had a copy of Edgar Allan Poe's poetical works. I often heard her read "The Raven" aloud, and the other short poems, and I read them myself later on, over and over again. Not very healthy reading for a child, was it?
Home life, I might as well say here, was miserably unhappy, but it was fate—there was no one to blame. It was the result of one of those impossible matches so common in Australia. I remember a child who, after a violent and painful scene, used to slip out in the dark and crouch down behind the pig-sty and sob as if his heart would break. And a big black mongrel dog who'd come round with slobbery sympathy. And the child would put his arms round the dog's neck and bury his wet white face in the shaggy hair. But that child had a stubborn spirit and would not kiss the rod.
Spencer had given up his selection to a man who was mining mad, and taken in exchange a little two-acre freehold, up near the Old Bark School at the foot of Sapling Gully—a piece of land which the man had prospected exhaustively and had sunk a good deal of money in. The tenant on Spencer's old selection was an Irishman named Page, and there was a feud between him and our family until we left. It was about a boundary fence, of course, with a stray bull thrown in. Page "didn't want to be onneighbourly", but "he'd be aven wud 'em some day". We bought a small secondhand harmonium, and Page got a barrel-organ next week. Both houses were close to the fence, and so sure as we started the organ of an evening Page would grind his hurdy-gurdy, and a digger across the road a concertina, and Fred Spencer would thump a kerosene tin in the still moonlight, and there would be music on Pipeclay. Page said that the hurdy-gurdy would go "rippin" wid him if he only had the "noats".
One day, after our rooster and Page's rooster had crowed defiance at each other—each on the top of his own haystack—for several days, our bird went down, and got on Page's haystack and tackled the other fowl. We watched the fight until both birds fell down on the other side of the stack. We dared not go through the fence, but some half-hour later we heard Page's familiar "Insoide there—come out!" He had our rooster and was handling him gently. "Ye're cock beat my cock!" he said, "but I bear no malice—'twas a grand fight. There he is." And he set him down carefully.
We boys—the Spencers and we—used to annoy Page a good deal. "I'll tell the masther on ye!" he'd say. We used to like to run barefoot along the moonlit road and plough up the thick white dust with boughs until we were enveloped in a dense cloud. Page had a score or so of turkeys and they roosted along the top rail of the fence in front of his place; and sometimes, as late as possible, we'd slip down and brush those turkeys from end to end with a bough, and they'd gobble, gobble, gobble, all down the line like a new musical instrument. And Page would come out, sometimes in his shirt, and then we'd vanish. In my memory my childhood, or boyhood, if I had any, went out with the gobble of those turkeys. There was a flicker when I got a horse of my own, and again when I got a gun, but it went dead out.
Page found our cattle in his wheat one morning, and I met him taking them to pound. I don't remember what I said to him, but he gave the cattle to me. He was at feud with all his neighbours, English, Irish, German, and Father, but the morning we were leaving the selection for good, he came up to the gate and shouted: "Insoide there, come out." We came out. "Here's some fruit," he said. "'Tis a hand worrld and it's little we have to be foightin' for. Shake hands and let bygones be bygones between us." The last time I heard of Page he was doing pick and shovel work at Prospect.
'Twas a hard world and it was little we had to be fighting each other for. There was Harry Spencer; few men worked harder and longer than he did, unless it was Father. He was a stern father, was Harry Spencer, but all his children turned out well; and he was a very kind husband. There was a split between the two families, by the way—over something a woman said another woman said—and we were forbidden to play with the Spencer children and they with us, so we had to meet privately, and if caught both sides were punished. The mother reckoned that the Spencer children led us astray. And Mrs Spencer said that Charlie led Fred into mischief, and neighbours repeated. Well, Harry Spencer strained himself rolling heavy logs on a clearing contract on a neighbouring run, and was never quite well afterwards. Then he worked for wages in a claim in the petered-out Log Paddock, opposite our place. One morning he had breakfast, kissed his wife and the younger children, as was his custom when leaving home, and went to work. He sat down at a water-hole to wash a prospect—a dish of "wash-dirt" or gold-bearing clay—but had scarcely wetted the clay when he suddenly exclaimed, "Oh! my heart!" and fell backwards. A few minutes later Harry O'Brien came running up to our place and said, "Harry Spencer's just dead!"
I saw them bring him out of the paddock. Four of them carried him on a sheet of bark with two sticks under it to lift it. They took out the bottom rail of the slip-rails, but the top rail jammed, so the bearers stooped through with the bier. Away up the hot white road Mother was running through the dust like a mad woman to Mrs Spencer. 'Twas a hard little world and 'twas little we had to be fighting for.
I went for a few months to a Catholic school in Mudgee. I don't know why I was sent there; but probably because my mater had become disgusted with our own churchmen as they were then. I remember one day, Pat Tovey, the coach driver, who was taking the mails out on a packhorse because of the bad weather and flooded creeks, gave me a lift home on the packhorse. He stayed to deliver a bag at a post office near our place kept by a bigoted Protestant family with whom our family were at feud.
"What are they sending that boy to a Catholic school for?" asked the postmistress. "Sure he's bein' educated for a priesht," said Pat: and a little further on he said, half to himself and half to me: "Let her put that in her pipe and shmoke it." Then he added with a chuckle, "It'll be all round the dishtrick be tomorrer mornin'."
I was given a weedy riding hack and used to ride to school. I usually milked six or sever cows and had to catch the horse before riding to school, and was never late that I remember. Some children had to rise before daylight and milk ten or fifteen cows in the bitter cold frosty morning before starting for school. I don't suppose there was ever such collection of young fiends as were in the Catholic school in Mudgee when I went there One had thrown a slate at the last master, who broke a blood vessel and died. Severs masters had resigned, but the present one, Mr Kevan, was a strong man and kept the young devils well in hand without the assistance of Father O'Donovan. His successor, z better scholar, a younger and cleverer man (who nevertheless said things like "Don't do that no more") had a tough fight but got the school under after using up two or three cane: a day for a week or so. I got a sharp cut once by mistake, but somehow I didn't seem to mind. Of course, there were no girls in this school.
Father O'Donovan was a character and I liked him. He didn't mind the young men and boys of his flock touching their hats to him, but he discouraged the habit in old men: "Oh don't bother about that!" he'd say to a tottering ancient who'd suddenly recollect himself and take off his hat to the Father. Father O'Donovan would come into the yard, go softly behind a kneeling boy playing marbles, stoop, and take that boy by the shoulders. The boy would start to swear and blaspheme like a shearer in a rough shed, and the Father would lay him gently on his back and the nipper, still testifying, would look up into the Father': face. Then he'd stop swearing.
At other times the Father would come into school, make eyes at the boys behind the master's back, and one or two would laugh and be called out for punishment. Then the Father, with a face as solemn as a priest's, would beg them off. One day a boy said, "Please Sir, Father O'Donovan was makin' eyes at me"—and he got it hot.
Father O'Donovan attended the Mudgee races, all three days, to look after the big "bhoys" of his flock, whom he corrected on occasion with a buggy whip. They say bi always had a horse or two running, but this didn't prevent him from taking care of the boys.
The few Protestant pupils were sent out during prayers in the morning, but woe betide the Catholic boy who threw the Protestant boys' religion in [their faces], whether he fel into the hands of the schoolmaster afterwards or Father O'Donovan. "I'll have none of that sort of thing," said Father O'Donovan, with no softness in his voice. "I want that understood once for all."
Once or twice Mr Kevan came and sat beside me as I sat, lonely and unhappy, by myself on a stool in the corner of the yard, and drew me out of myself and talked to me about poetry and Edgar Allan Poe. He'd heard something of Mother, I suppose.
I was tormented a good deal by the town boys after school hours, and used to get to the paddock where I'd left my horse, and get off home as quickly as possible. I was called "Chummy" by some, and by others "Barmy Harry". Years before there had been another Barmy Henry in Sydney, a pale, delicate, shy and sensitive boy, carrying a tray of pastry on his head to customers for his master, a fancy baker, and mumbling verses to himself. It was his habit of "talkin' to hisself", as his companions thought he did, that won him the nickname and the reputation of being mad. Henry Kendall.
I read Dickens. Got him at the School of Arts in Mudgee and read The Old Curiosity Shop first, I think. I have read Dickens over and over again and can read him now at any time. Next I read Marryat—Jacob Faithful and Peter Simple. I paid a visit to my mother's people at Wallerawang, and, on leaving, one of my aunts presented me with a volume of Bret Harte's, entitled Some Folks, and containing "Tennessee's Partner", "Mliss", etc. I read that book on the journey home and it fascinated me; it seemed to bring a new light, a new world into my life, and this with Dickens still fresh. But Dickens stayed by me and Bret Harte did not. I read Don Quixote before I was fourteen, but that was an accident—somebody had left the book at our place. I remember being greatly puzzled and worried about the loss and recovery of Sancho's ass. It was only the other day I read somewhere that Cervantes did not read his proofs and that it was doubtful if he had even read his copy, And oh! of course, we read Robbery Under Arms when it first appeared in the Sydney Mail—Browne, by the way, touched an Australian sore when he described the Marsden family as being, the girls Catholics and the boys Protestants. We read For the Term of His Natural Life (as Marcus Clarke wrote it) in the Australian journal. The introduction was, I think, equal to Dickens's style. The sight of the book with its mutilated chapters and melodramatic "prologue" exasperates me even now. And we read Jack Harkaway—I was going on for thirty before I read Deadwood Dick, and then I used to read him to put me to sleep. And Mother used to recite Gordon from the Australian Journal. I liked tailing the cows amongst the gullies, for it gave me opportunities for reading—though I was supposed to do some ring-barking. But when I was about thirteen I went to work with Father.
I cannot say much of the English side of my family. They were supposed to have come of English gipsies and were hop pickers in Kent, and chicken lifters, for aught I know, and, further back, the Lord knows what else besides they had or hadn't been. They were a queer tribe, tall, dark and eccentric. The women most certainly descended from Eve, but the majority of the females of late generations had and always held to their own opinions as to the origin of men. The old man, grandfather, in his later years, would always rather camp alone in the Bush and split palings and shingles for tucker and an occasional spree than live in comfort with one of his married daughters; he had ten and most of them married well. Grandchildren nine and ten on an average—as it was in his own days. He was a character, a hard case and a family mystery—he was too deep even for his own tribe. He went on a spree, few ever knew where, about once every six months, and never looked better than after a drinking bout. Maybe I was and am just as eccentric as he was.
Anyway, I was always restless and a rover and used to think for years that the roving star was my lucky star.
On the other side I go back further than England, for my father came from Norway. He was, as I have said, a Norwegian sailor, a quarter master with a mate's certificate. He had served in a shipbuilding yard at home; he was a master of navigation. His father was a schoolmaster, all his brothers sailors, and they were all lost at sea. He deserted his ship at Melbourne—on a voyage from New York, or 'Frisco, I forget which—and ran away to the goldfields in the days of Ballarat and Bendigo. He found gold and lost it speculating in puddling machines, crushing mills, and duffers. He drifted into New South Wales with the gold rushes, came to Old Pipeclay, and got married. He was well educated in his own language, could understand and appreciate German poetry, knew French well enough to understand a Frenchman, was a good penman, and wrote good English. He was clever at all sorts of mechanical work, and the terror in mathematics of all the school-teachers in the district in his time. I don't believe that a kinder man in trouble or a gentler nurse in sickness ever breathed. I've known him to work hard all day and then sit up all night by a neighbour's sick child. He was very independent then, and had a strange way of seeming to drop the acquaintanceship of people he had helped. He was short and nuggety and fair, with blue eyes, brown hair, and a short dark-red beard, which turned rapidly grey towards the end (he died at fifty-four of heart disease). I am tall and dark. He was said to have been a very natty, or "dapper" little fellow in his single days, and the best dancer in the district. (He grew very different as I knew him.) He had an ear for music—I have none, nor for much else. His camp was a model, they said, his tent as neat as a cabin, and he had a little vegetable garden in front fenced in with stakes to keep out the eternal goats that went with all rushes, in carts and on foot, and haunted the dreary old thistle and burr infested diggings for years afterwards. I just remember the site of Father's last digger's camp on the siding on Pipeclay. Two half buried logs were still there to mark where the sides of the tent had been.
Grandfather kept a public house—and also had a saw-mill and bullock teams—on Pipeclay. There was a rough crowd—Irish of both parties. One, a bully, used to start a row, ask for five minutes' grace, and then put up his mate, a big-limbed, hard-muscled softy, to fight for him. One day they were in the bar and started playing up, while the second eldest Miss Albury was there. The bully commenced pulling down the boards of a partition between the bar and the rest of the house—a sort of loose boards in slots arrangement—to get at some real or imaginary enemy whom he thought to be behind there, I suppose. At last Miss Albury called in little Peter Larsen, who happened to be passing; the bully bluffed to the end, then put up his big mate as usual. A few minutes later the girl was getting the little Norwegian sailor a dish of water at the back to wash the blood off his hands. That's how all the trouble commenced, and it will only end with my line, I suppose.
I first became dimly aware of Father on Pipeclay, going somewhere with an axe on his shoulder. It seems as if it was late afternoon. We passed a place where there was a lot of thistles, horehound, and such weeds as grow on the sites of old sheep-yards. The yard must have been there before the diggings broke out. I next became—less dimly—aware of Father walking away from the hut on Gulgong with an axe over his shoulder. He was going for firewood. I was following behind. It was twilight and I distinctly remember the gleam of his moleskins, which seemed to loom large in the gathering darkness—probably because I was so small. He seemed always going somewhere in the evening with an axe over his shoulder, after work; later on, back at Pipeclay, it was axe and cross-cut saw—the latter awkward to carry and flapping and clanging—or a maul and a bag of wedges. I got at the other end of that crosscut early, I remember (before I remember, it almost seems), but I do remember a big flinty white box log near "our house", that we had to cut up for firewood, and to get it out of the way. My brother was old enough for me to drag at the other end of the saw before that log ceased from troubling my Saturdays, holidays and evenings, and haunting my dreams. Father had done a bit at the other end of Grandfather's saw in his time.
Father had taken up a bit of land at Pipeclay before Gulgong, and built a slab-and-bark house, and, when Gulgong petered out, he returned to it and took up more selections—forty-acre blocks that we called "front", "top", and "back runs"; it was on the base of barren ridges back amongst which the farmers were shoved because every yard of the rich, black-soil river flats and red-soil slopes beyond were old land grants, or squatters' runs, and were needed to carry cattle and sheep. But I fancy that Father took up this land mainly because it was on the old goldfield—the fever never quite dies out of a digger's blood until the day of his death. He was always prospecting or fossicking round with a pick, shovel, and gold-dish on Sundays and in spare hours; and, when he died, he had two men putting down shafts for him on shares and rations. He worked at building and carpentering in the little farming town of Mudgee five miles away, and later on, when the new educational act of 1880 came into force, took contracts to build or repair the little schools which were dotted all over the Bush. And, between whiles, he'd work on the "farm", fencing, grubbing, and making a dam to catch the surface water, for there was no permanent water there, except in the deepest of the old shafts. The strip of possible land between the spur and the Government road was so narrow that every foot seemed precious, and the ground so hard where the old road had been that a big bullock plough failed to break it. Father tried blasting powder in it. I've seem him come home night after night after a hard day's work in town with a cart-load of stable manure to put on the "poor" grey soil; and after tea he'd drag or lever logs to burn out stumps, or dig in the tank by moonlight. ("Settling on the land"—While the Billy Boils.) Father would tackle a big brute of a dead, iron-bark stump, that wouldn't burn or split, and was like cast-iron to chop. He'd dig a big hole round it, in the hardened clay, that wasn't much softer than the stump, and kneeling in the hole, chop away at the flinty dead taproot that tapered down from nearly the thickness of the stump to somewhere nearer the other side of the world, I think. He had to cut it through to get the stump out—for there was no tree to give purchase—and afterwards dig trenches part of a mile to trace the great surface roots (that had roots going down from them too)—and all the branch roots were big and tough enough to snap the cheap cast-iron ploughshares we used in those days. In addition we had to reclaim ground from the old diggings—fill the shafts with the worst of the waste-heaps, "spread" the stuff that came from near the surface, and cart the rest away to the dam or the edge of the selection: not much more than half would go back into the holes, because it had come from the "drives" underneath. Part of my childhood was used to shepherd the cows to keep them on the selection and the new ones out of the holes—they mostly died of "ploorer" afterwards. It was miserable, wretched, hopeless "farming", like a great deal of the scratching called farming in the dusty stumpy patches amongst the scrubby ridges down there. Home-life was unspeakably wretched. There seemed ever a curse over Grandfather's tribe and all it came in contact with. And perhaps an old boomeranging curse that came down the generations from a gipsy girl and a careless white scamp, for all I know. And in our case the curse from a bad match which was ever too common in the Bush. I remember, as a child, slipping round in the dark behind the pigsty, or anywhere, to cry my heart out, and old Pedro, the dog, would come round with sympathetic nose and tail, and I'd put my arms round his neck and bury my face in his rough hair, and have my cry out.
Yes, Pipeclay was a miserable little hell to me to the bitter end, and a trip to Granny's at Wallerawang was the only glimpse of heaven my childhood ever knew. There was the railway line there, and water, and something more like God's country and scenery; and happy, sympathetic children's society. But such a trip left me worse and more hopelessly in my own little hell afterwards.
I was sent to Sydney when I was between thirteen and fourteen to see if I could get anything done to my hearing. The first impressions of the old coach road, the railway journey, and first living in brick and two-storey houses have been written elsewhere: "The House that was Never Built" in the London-published Children of the Bush, and in other stories and sketches. I stayed with my grandpeople at Granville, who had shifted down from Wallerawang, and I remember some of Granny's boarders, workmen at Clyde, expressing astonishment at the quiet way in which I took Sydney, my first trip on the harbour, and my first visit to the theatre; but I knew Sydney from childish recollections, descriptions, and pictures, and had got some idea of acting and scenery from a performance of The Pirates of Penzance by Charles Turner's company, I think, in the dilapidated old weatherboard theatre on Gulgong. The first play I saw in Sydney was old Romany Rye, and I always went to see it in after years while George Rignold's company played it. I say "see" because I never heard a play throughout and had to enquire beforehand—or after—and read the notices, or guess the plot and dialogue.
The boarders were a jolly lot, and one, Tom Punt, was the leading spirit. He used to gather the others round a fire outside of nights, and preside. He'd lead off in the perfect snuffle and whine, with "I know a boarding house—Not far away—etc."—or "I wish I had a few more bricks—To build my chimney higher—" and the rest of it, and get the choir in full swing, to Granny's great disgust. It was scandalous. He was always in mischief, or skylarking, when he wasn't working or sleeping. He used to hide when Father I'D passed, I don't know why, and seemed afraid of Grandfather—probably because he recognised, by some strange instinct of the tribe, a veteran devil of his own sort and a greater one than himself. Now, though Grandfather could still earn good money amongst the timber on the mountains, and was no man for home, it pleased him to buy an old horse and cart and go into the vegetable hawking line, to the breathless scandal of Granny and the girls and the unspeakable disgust of his youngest son. He used to start some time in the night and go to Sydney, Paddy's Market, once or twice a week for his "truck". One week he brought home several loads of pumpkins from somewhere close at hand in the scrub, but the source a mystery of course—he never went out nor returned twice in the same direction—and nowhere would suit him to stack those pumpkins save on the front verandah. He stacked them carefully in three or four piles, with the first rows of the square bases at the edge of the verandah and the apexes against the wall between the windows and doors, exactly like half pyramids cut by the wall. Grandfather finished on Saturday afternoon, while we were in Sydney, and he said it improved the look of the place—an oblong weatherboard house—and it certainly didn't add to its ugliness. Nothing can to that truly Australian style of architecture. He said the pumpkins would attract healthy, hard-working boarders. Well, he finished about dark, and was resting from his labours, with a pipe, when Torn Punt, skylarking round the house with one of the other boarders, stumbled on the first rows of pumpkins at the end of the verandah, and—Bump-bump-bump! Thump-thump-thump! Thump-bump-thump and bump-thump-bump!—You'd have thought the pumpkins would never stop. Pumpkins from the first pile started the second and so on to the end of the verandah. Tom was hiding in the scrub; there were sounds of strong men trying not to laugh, and over it all Grandfather's voice enquiring for the thunderin' jumpt-up jackass who started his pumpkins. The incident filled my uncle and me so full of laughter that we had to go into the scrub too, to avoid appearing ridiculous—where smothered guffaws from close at hand didn't help us much. The thing kept us coughing in bed till after midnight, and when the bad colds eased a little a reference, from the back room, to thunderin' jumpt-up idiots, would set the whole house coughing again. But my boy-uncle and I saw Torn Punt's wicked foolery in a right and proper and religious light very early next morning, which was a frosty one, when we turned out and set to work to help Grandfather re-stack those pumpkins before breakfast.
I went to Dr Stanish, in Wynyard Square, on his pauper days, and he spoke to me and treated me like one, and did me no good—though, fortunately, no harm.
I got some house painting to do from Richie, the agricultural implement maker at Granville, at thirty shillings a week. Trade was booming then, and anyone who knew one end of a brush from another seemed sure of work. The slump came in the latter end of the eighties.
I took my first gun back to the Bush from Granville—a single, twist barrel, muzzle-loading shotgun, to kill at fifty yards, for twelve and six. I sold it afterwards to an old schoolmate for five shillings who took it out of twist (and me out of winding) with a piece of emery paper and found it a very serviceable old American army rifle for kangaroos if he aimed high enough.
I also had my first portrait taken, a "gem" of the while-you-wait variety. Here it is:
(Portrait if I can get it.)
Just before I went home Granny shifted into a larger cottage close by, and Grandfather took the thing on his hands and impressed us all one Saturday afternoon. It was a great shifting and couldn't have been done quicker if there'd have been a fire.
Back to Pipeclay in the height of the worst drought the district had ever suffered. Blazing heat that made Granite Ridge and the Peak seem molten masses turned out on the scrub. Blue-grey ragged bush and the ashes of a soil. We drove the few cows to the creek for water twice a day, through private property, and there was always trouble about alleged loitering and the slip-rails. The cows would lie in the shade for the rest of the day, and lived on the water, some wheaten chaff we had collected, and the native appletree boughs we lopped down in the "cool of the evening". Then—on the strength of the straw and wheaten chaff, I suppose—I was sent some miles to bring a walleyed steer and a barren heifer that were going for a gift to whosoever would come and fetch them. And they brought "the ploorer" amongst our cows. Then I used to bleed them by cutting their tails and ears in the sickening heat—and was often sick over the job—and inoculate them with a big needle and Berlin-wool dipped in calf lymph, and rouse them up and feed them, at the risk of my life, with slices of young pumpkin from a crop that had failed in Chinaman's garden (even Chinamen failed) and about half the cows, including the best milkers, died. At their last gasp they would often stagger up and charge.
Father got the contract to build the new school at Canadian Lead ("Th' Canadian" of the golden days), near Home Rule, between Mudgee and Gulgong, and I went there to work with him when I was about fourteen. It was "facing" and "shooting" stringy-bark flooring boards, rough from the mill, with saw-marks an eighth of an inch deep on the best sides of some of them. (No ready-faced tongued and grooved soft wood for us then.) I had to sharpen the smoothing plane every board or so; and I was always ready for Father's "Put the billy on, Sonny," or, "Ah well!—knock off, Sonny." And on that job I learned to handle a paint brush. I picked up things rapidly and the greatest praise was for Father to say, "Well. I didn't know it was in you." A favourite expression of his was, "Take notice", no matter if it was only a bullocky making a bullock yoke in camp. Father reckoned the "natives", as the Australian-born whites were always called, the best he had seen at rough and ready carpentry and makeshifts—and he had worked on old sailing ships. But the life! The stifling heat in summer till part of the building was up, then a rough bunk; and work from sunrise till dark, and the billy and the frying-pan—steak and chops, and bacon—bacon, and steak and chops—potatoes sometimes for dinner, milkless tea. Except on Sunday when we found time to wash our shirts and socks and cook a bit. And the terrible dreariness and weariness and loneliness of it all, for Father grew more silent and given to brooding over his pipe at night. (He never drank, though I've seen him so worried and upset that he couldn't smoke.) But the loneliness, even in company, that led in the end to extreme sensitiveness and shyness. Even home was a relief. And then the craving for love, affection, even consideration from a quarter where there was none, the sympathy, love, even worship, wasted in a quarter where there was none. The strange child (for I was little more) who had been misunderstood, mocked, and tormented at school the few months he went there until the time was a very hell he seldom cared to look back to—until he'd say, while yet a child himself, that he "thought boys were very brutal and heartless"; whereat his ignorant elders would consider him to be, if not as mad as his schoolmates said he was, at least very "queer" and idiotic.
I worked about with Father on various jobs—sometimes at schools where I'd be always glad when the boys—many of them older than I—were safe in school, or gone home. They respected me now as something of a workman, I suppose, but I seemed strange and apart and was shy of them and avoided them on every possible occasion. And, remember, my deafness was but newly come upon me.
I remember looking ahead half hopefully for a change in the scenery as I approached the site of each new job; but—and it seemed fate—there was never a change—each hole in the scrub we worked in seemed wretcheder than the last.
And speaking of scenery, I once went, on a memorable occasion, to witness an alleged performance called Dick Turpin and Tom King, given by, and in aid of, an "amateur dramatic society" in the School of Arts, Mudgee; a noble pile with "an upstairs in it" in our Bush childhood days, which boasted—on every possible occasion—one piece of scenery, about the size of a large school map—or a little larger—and representing a small lake with mountains. This was hung out on every possible occasion—in almost every act that wasn't supposed to be inside a house and always referred to by the hero (the local poet), either in soliloquy and with windmill business as "What a magnificent scene! ... Here, I, in the midst of lonely grandeur—" etc.; or, in a love scene, with one arm engaged and the other working, "Here at last, my darling—you and I alone with nature in all her soul-inspiring—" and the rest of it. But the first sight of that scene (it was my first "play") took my breath away and roused my emotions.
Again, while working with Father on Gulgong, he took me to see Charles Turner's company give The Pirates of Penzance. Well, you know how much scenery that opera needed—and they travelled by coach—not Cobb and Co.'s either on that road, for the diggings were done. There was a lot of knocking before the curtain went up, but when it did I gasped, and though generally far too shy and sensitive to express my emotions, especially to Father, who was practical, I said, "Father! Father!—look at the scenery!" Someone laughed and it covered me with confusion and almost spoilt my enjoyment of the performance.
I wonder now how the incident affected Father, who had seen some of the grandest scenes in the old world and the new, and some of the best-staged plays of his day. And did he think of the dapper little sailor ashore for a run in European ports, in New York, 'Frisco, and the Lord knows where else.
Then the break-up of the drought and several good seasons. But we had rust in the wheat one season and "smut" the next: I remember we washed the wheat in tubs, skimming off the smut as it rose to the surface of the water, and we dried the grain on borrowed tarpaulins. I put in the last crop, or most of it. I had an old carthorse and light pot-bellied mare, with a stunted colt and filly as reserves. I had a good seat and it was a district of riders, but I never had a horse you could call a horse to ride—it was misery down to the old patched borrowed saddle. I was lucky to get both "plough-horses" started at once. Usually the heavier horse stumbled forward first and jerked the lighter one back onto the gear; then, as often as not, something would break and I'd fix it up with wire and clothesline and try for another start. When both horses got off level they'd go at a sort of run, like two small boys with a tub of water, till one gave in. One day a clothesline rein broke, or came loose, and they went into the scrub and in and out amongst the stumps and saplings. The old plough-mark may be there yet: it looked like a piece of fancy steering by a very drunken ploughman.
The general result was plough-marks in the dust—I cannot call them furrows—but the crop grew that year. Reaping hooks were the fashion, but strippers were coming in—I don't remember the cradle.
The "break-up-of-the-drought" is as aggressively, resentfully, weirdly melancholy as anything else in the Bush—or in the world I think: as if it knew it wouldn't last and was useless. The dark grey blanket over all the world, apparently; the dark, dismal, dripping, rotting, scrubby gullies; the blue-grey bush flats, the dead, ring-barked white trees standing naked and ghastly, and the dark ragged boughs about them, and on the ridges, windswept in an agony of hopelessness and melancholy. A rainy day in England or New Zealand is nothing to it; an English country white fog is a bright and cheerful thing and London "pea-soup" comforting compared to rain in the Bush.
Then came sunny days, and waving grass, and produce went down to nothing in the market; eggs weren't worth carrying into town, and we melted down the last lot of butter.
Then we sold everything which went well—except the farm, which didn't go at all, but was let to a tenant for a nominal rental and only sold in recent years.
I went to Rylstone to work with Father on small building contracts—the rest of the family went to Sydney, and the railway was going on to Mudgee—to see what I could do.
Then the tent, the temporary galvanised iron shed to work under, the square boxes—of stone now—of four rooms and a passage with the corrugated iron roof, and days often so hot that you couldn't handle the snips if you left them on the roof in the sun: hot enough on the roads to raise blisters through your boots. And the smell of white lead and oil.
And the bag bunk, and the billy and frying-pan, and the blucher boots and cheap new stinking "moleskin" trousers for Sunday: and the loneliness and hopelessness until Father had only enough work to keep himself going and I was wanted in Sydney.
When work became slack at Kerridge's I went to Mount Victoria and worked with Father for a while, who built most of the town—save the few houses that were there in the old coaching days. Tent and hut and bunk and frying-pan and billy again. Poor Father had become closer and more "cantankerous"—though seldom so with me, and altogether careless of comfort and personal appearance. Steak, potatoes and bread and treacle. As far back as Canadian he had taken to working by candlelight and on Sunday when he could do it quietly, but now he had men working for him. I was told that he had an idea of going back to Norway before he died and taking at least his youngest son with him, leaving the rest provided for as well he could.
But now, in 'eighty-six, the dreaded age of twenty-one seemed rushing on me, all unprepared and unarmed to meet it and what was beyond. My deafness worried me more and more, so at last I managed to go to Melbourne to go to the eye and ear hospital there. And I managed to go saloon too, in little old Wendouree that left her weary rusty bones on the Oyster Bank years ago. It was glorious. We were a happy little party from the skipper down, and there was a nice natural girl who drew me out of myself a bit, and banished my shyness. The steward's surprising "Tea or coffee, Sir?" helped the good work and made an impression that I never forgot. I must have looked Bushy enough with my carpet bag and a few washed and mended clothes. I had a slop suit bought at a store on the mountains, and the cloth was like coarse corduroy dyed blue and the pants too bulky and short. I had a piece taken out of them somewhere, in Melbourne, and put onto the bottoms. I didn't know what to do with my hat, half the time, and used a knife for fish then and for years afterwards. But I never got seasick, either then or since.
I went to stay at Mrs Kelly's in West Melbourne, to whom I had a letter of recommendation from a young woman who boarded at our place in Sydney. I had about a week's board money left after I had done with the four-wheeler; it was my first experience with a cabman and it left me utterly demoralised, alone in a strange city at the door of my first boarding house. The rest was more or less a blank until I found myself in bed next morning at Mrs Kelly's.
Mrs Kelly kept a dingy little boarding house for superior tradesmen (mechanics) and inferior clerks and shopkeeper's assistants, with a precarious "traveller" in difficulties sandwiched in at times, a gentleman with a business in the city, and a young lady in a dress-makery—both permanent—and an occasional windfall. It was in a shabby dusty street of two-storeyed "terraces", the house one room and a passage wide and two deep, with a kitchen behind where Mrs Kelly was supposed to sleep—if she slept at all—and a room over it sacred to the lady lodgers. Mrs Kelly was a little elderly Irish woman, with one rusty, black best dress and shawl, a bonnet like an old cobweb in a corner, a pair of cloth "larstens", and a face like a small apple that had been left for a long time in the sunny window of a little lolly shop that was to let but never seemed to go. A seamed and smoked little old Judy doll, and she kept her boarding house very genteel to the bitter end.
The head boarder was a stout gentleman in a rusty walking coat with a mysterious business in town. He was a sort of combination of country newspaper proprietor, schoolmaster, and storekeeper, with the hoggish throat of a Yankee lecturer or quack medicine seller and showman, and he had the balcony room to himself. He was manager in the storeroom of a modest ironmongery, over the entire clerical staff—himself—and the lumper or storeman and the vanman.
Next was a stout lady, fair, fat and forty and decidedly haughty, a schoolmaster's wife or something, down on a holiday or something, whom they called "the Queen", and who used to sit on the paper at breakfast, and walk out of the room whenever a gentleman's clothes or laundry was mentioned. She monopolised the bathroom for an hour or so every Sunday morning, when the "gentlemen" wanted to use it. There was a rumour that she never had a bath at all in chilly weather, only made a splash, and wetted her hair so that she might have an excuse to sit in the sun in a dressing gown at the back window and dry it in public and for the rest that she only held the bathroom to aggravate her enemies, with whom were included all in the house save poor Mrs Kelly—or else that she drank and smoked in there. At last, to get out of that (and to get her out of this) two choice spirits put cayenne pepper on a piece of wadding one Sunday morning, and lighted it softly and slipped it under the bathroom door.
Next there was the Queen's archenemy, Mr Heckler, canvasser—or "commercial traveller", as Mrs Kelly put it, who was always behind with her—who was doing nothing just then but trying his hand at everything and anything that looked hopeless enough and didn't require capital; he had a decent extra pair of pants and boots, a cheerful sanguine disposition, and a solid English portmanteau he wanted to sell for thirty shillings and advertised whenever he had one to spare. Both boots and pants went in advertising and cigarette tobacco before he sold that portmanteau. He pawned them.
There was a careless, easy-going young fellow named Tom Punt, who worked on the railway, and he, Heckler and I were room-mates in the room behind the ironmongery gentleman's. Heckler was keen on advertisements that offered him a means of making a livelihood in his spare time for nothing, and untiring in his hunting up of advertisers who had certainties or taught everything in three lessons of an hour each—and squeezing their intellects dry. In plain words, pumping them for all they were worth. And, from his advertisement reading and answering he got an idea, one of many to make his fortune. I was too young and green and unfinancial, so he took Punt into his confidence, convinced him, and took him into partnership, putting his name first in the firm for euphony. They swore me to secrecy and Punt bought and brought home some packets of hops and other things, according to Heckler's directions. Then they started to make something that would look and taste like Warner's Safe Cure. Bob—that was Heckler—argued and proved that Warner and many other great men rose from such small beginnings, till they, Punt and Heckler, saw world-spreading advertisements, posters, "branches", and fortunes in the future. They worked surreptitiously, and with closed door, and long after the shabby, genteel establishment was supposed to have retired to rest—for Heckler was jealous of guarding his secret, and also sensitive on Mrs Kelly's account. He surrounded the business with such an atmosphere of mystery that even the Queen was caught peeping and listening and hinting darkly to Mrs Kelly. They brewed the stuff in a saucepan, kept it in bulk in the water jug, cooled it in the wash basin, and stored it in bottles, until they broke the jug—and something else—and the bottles began to go off in the small hours like a desperately resisted burglar arrest. Then Mrs Kelly interfered. She said it wasn't genteel and Mr Walker—the ironmonger—might object. And who was going to pay her for the bedroom things? Enthusiasm waned—at least as far as Tom was concerned, which was everything; he had a girl to take to amusements who couldn't wait for fortunes; so, in the end, Punt and Heckler's Only Cure went down the sink by night.
There was a decent young fellow from the country who was serving his time to the coach-building, and nearly out of it, and whose father paid his board. And last—she should have been first—there was a Miss Smith who worked in the dressmakery, and who, being rather left on her own hands, took me on, and tried to teach me how to walk with a woman, without getting in her way or my own, and to lift my hat to her friends when we met them, and see her chum into a bus when they parted on Saturday night, and other useful things. But I avoided fish in public for years.
I went to the Eye and Ear Hospital, then under Dr Grey, for a while, but they did little or no good. They said it was chronic catarrh or something and used to put an instrument shaped like a gas-blower's pipe up my nose, and turn it round inside my head with the point towards my ear and blow into it with an india-rubber bulb. I remember the students asking me which instruments the Doctors used and I'd show them.
But, whether it was the Eye and Ear Hospital, the change, the healthier and happier life, I went to the Theatre one night and heard the play better than any I'd ever been to. But then I got close, there was standing room only, and I edged down to the end of the first row of stalls. It was The Silver King, with Titheradge the King of Silver Kings, Maggie Knight, poor Phil Day, Sass (or Williamson) the "Spider", Olly Deering, Combs' friend, "Mis-s-ter Hen-ery Kaw-w-kitt".
I got work at a railway truck factory close at hand and then at the tramway car and omnibus works way out miles beyond the Exhibition Buildings. I got thirty shillings there, or maybe thirty-five; I have no recollection of the place, except of a would-be bully I put down and a mighty buck nigger night watchman with awful rolling eyes, a dark lantern, a step like a cat's and a sudden guffaw like a graveyard eruption which, coming unexpectedly and out of place, might have scared anybody out of his wits. The sudden apparition would have been enough for any burglar, I reckon.
I had to get up very early again, but Mrs Kelly was always up before me with a "bit-o'-breakfast" ready. When I worked nearer home she always asked in the hearing of the others: "Ar-re ye goin' to beesnis this mornin', Mr Lawson?" and "Will ye take yere loonch wid ye to beesnis this mornin', Mr Lawson?" I was slinging sludge on railway trucks then, and doing some house-painting and kalsomining for the boss between whiles. "Sludge" was the contents of all the paint pots, emptied and scraped out into a drum, "boxed" and strained through coarse scrim.
She had an old basket perambulator, with a list to port, that went in circles if let go, like a lost bushman or a man in the dark, and she used to wheel it to the market on Saturday night for supplies.
"It belonged to me daughter, Mr Lawson—Her little boy, me grandson that died of diptheery. Dead an' gone—dead an' gone. An' miny's the time I've wheeled thim in it."
"So you had children, Mrs Kelly?"
"Yes, Yes—long years agone—long years agone."
"Dead, Mrs Kelly?"
"Yes, save wan, an' grandchildren; father an' grandfather. An' the old perambulator reminds me of him; it goes just like him o' Saturday nights if he wasn't steered, especially whin it's loaded—an' it steered about the same. But—God bless you, an' God rest him—barrin' that I had no more trouble with him that I do wid the ould perambulator."
I used often t? go with Mrs Kelly to market on Saturday, in company with Miss Smith and the old perambulator, and wheel it home.
But I still "longed to rise" even when I was getting thirty or thirty-five shillings a week at the tramway and omnibus works—and I did rise, and this is how it came about:
I had long had an idea of learning to draw and sketch and being an artist, and I used to practise a bit now. I remember trying to make an enlarged drawing of a portrait of a gentleman Miss Smith said she was engaged to at one time, and who died, or went away, I forget which. Perhaps he went away and died, for he wasn't expected back. I used to say that I'd practise, and study, and go on and on, till I got paid for my work, and some day I'd go to Italy and Paris, and study there, and be a great artist.
Now Bob Heckler, who still kept his eye out for likely advertisements, was greatly interested—he was my artistic adviser and critic, ready made and self elected, as most of my critics are to this day—in an advertisement offering any person with an artistic eye a certain and immediate opportunity of adding to their income by a few hours' easy work of an evening. This was just the thing Bob wanted, for he was an art critic now with no income at all, and all day to add to it. He wanted some evenings off. So he went out after dinner and returned at tea-time greatly excited. It seemed that he had made my fortune and his too, for I was going to do the work and he to canvass—we were going to take the business off the advertiser's hands altogether just as soon as we had got the full strength of it. So I had to go with him after tea.
It was a little weatherboard hutch in a mean street behind Collingwood, and a worried canvasser—with a baby under his arm, held just as he might hold a loose and awkward portfolio while getting into a tram—opened the door. He was tidy, in a washed tweed suit, and had the mechanic's lines across his forehead. He said "Take the child!" to a draggled, anxious woman—his poor, stale and unprofitable wife—and she took it and shooed a warren of other clamorous little canvassers out into the kitchen. Then he got two chairs and told us what he wanted. He was travelling for a firm of photographers, and their artist, who was an invalid, wanted someone to help touch up the enlargements. He gave me some, to try my hand on the coat lapels and edges, buttons, buttonholes, trouser creases and seams, etc. with a camel-hair brush and India ink.
My work was a dead failure—the artist had to wash it all off, in fact. But it turned out that the photographer was a gentleman's son, at Windsor, a sort of amateur photographer and mechanic, the artist, his friend, a cripple, also a gentleman, and a widow's son; and they had an idea of starting a business. The gentleman's son's father advanced some money. They made their own frames, and, knowing I was a carpenter and painter, they took me on at thirty shillings a week and rented a little empty produce store near the railway station, and I fitted it up. I was a natural born carpenter and should have stuck to it. I was always great at makeshifts and inventing ways and means on the spur of the moment and could see a way to do a thing while a mechanic with practical and technical training might be getting out the mechanical drawing implements. I might have made a first-class military engineer, provided I was never superintended.
Well, I made the counter and darkroom, fitted the troughs, made trays or dishes with kauri sides and ends and glass bottoms, and even a camera for enlargements—sort of sliding or telescopic box arrangement of cedar and brass. And I painted, stained, and varnished the shop. But though I had an eye for invention, at fine work I never had the hand. I never could cut the mitres of the frames so neatly as the canvasser could. For the same reason I never could learn lining, fine decorating or signwriting in my trade. I think the mechanical genius helps and develops the poetical one, but the latter most certainly interferes with the former.
By the way there's a dinner wagon of my make in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, England, also a new kind of wardrobe, a hat-rack, and other things, polished, stained and varnished, and not a nail in 'em, and likely to last longer than any of my other works.
I batched on the business premises at Windsor and we had a big vermilion sign with the firm's name in white letters. But N.S.F. loomed larger in the end, and I took twenty-five shillings, then a pound, and then fifteen. I did odd jobs round the gentleman's house, to help things along, but the children, little fairies, got awfully interested and addressed me as "man", and it pained me—though twenty-one was three years off yet—so I gave it best and came back to Sydney steerage to try to rise in something else.
But I don't want you to hold Bob Heckler too cheaply. Men like him have struck roads to fortune over and over and over again.
I don't want to linger long over this chapter. We came to Sydney and I went to work at Hudson Brothers, railway carriage works, at Clyde, near Granville, amongst a rough crowd. I must have worked hard and well, for I got twenty-five shillings a week to start with and thirty a few months later. I was seventeen then. We lived in Phillip Street and I had an alarm clock on a tray or a sheet of tin to wake me, for I had been very deaf since I was fourteen. That alarm clock haunted me for years afterwards. I wrote it up in "Arvie Aspinall's Alarm Clock" in While the Billy Boils, and mentioned it lately in "The Last Review" (When I was King). Sometimes I'd wake with a start, thinking it had gone and I had not heard it; and often I'd wake on Sunday or a holiday morning thinking it was too good to be true. That clock was the terror of my late boyhood—if I can be said to have had any boyhood at all. I had to get up at five o'clock to catch the workman's train from Redfern at six. I remember arriving on the platform one morning at five, having set the alarm wrong—it had woke me at four. There were times when I would have given my soul for another hour's sleep. I used to make bread and milk over a little spirit lamp before leaving home, but sometimes I'd be so weak and worn out with overnight study and want of rest that I'd go out in the yard and be ill before starting for Redfern. I walked through Hyde Park, Elizabeth Street, and Belmore Park to the railway station, and it was then that the faces in the street first began to haunt me. The faces, and the wretched rag-covered forms on the benches, and under them, and on the grass. The loafers and the unemployed used to sleep under the verandahs round the old central markets, and under the eaves of the sheds on Circular Quay on wet nights. (See "'Dossing Out' and 'Camping'" in While the Billy Boils.) But then if a deaf, uneducated Bush boy of seventeen, who had never learned a trade, could earn thirty shillings a week in Sydney—
I remember, one morning, seeing a horrible old bundle of rags and bones, that had been a woman, struggle up from the wet grass and, staggering, try to drink from an empty bottle. I don't know why she sticks in my memory picture.
I was going to a night-school, trying for the matriculation examination, and used to study in the train when I could keep awake. There was a nasty guard who always woke me about Homebush to look at my workman's ticket. I took breakfast and "lunch" with me—bread and meat or bread and butter—or whatever I could find in the safe at home. The hardest part of the work was the "rubbing down". We used to lead colour the carriages first and then put on many coats of rough quick-drying filling, which, when it was hard enough, we used to rub down to a surface. But I found it harder in private carriage shops, later on, where the old varnish was hard as flint, and had to be soaked with water and soda for days. You see, if you don't rub through the old cracks they will come through the new colour and varnish after a while. On cold winter mornings at Clyde I used to get warm water from one of the pipes. I remember the blood coming from my finger ends and trickling over the pumice stone. Then I used rag or an old glove. I was very willing, and so was Bob H——, a boy of my own age. The boss—a sub-contractor—used to set us rubbing down two carriage doors (off their hinges) and urge us to race—strive to rouse our sporting instincts and keep up our enthusiasm. But Bob and I came to an arrangement after a while, when the boss got too enthusiastic.
The hands were mostly recruited from Birmingham and the North Country, and from Woolloomooloo. I was bushy, shy, different from other boys (and therefore "ratty") and suspected of being of the Sunday school sort, and therefore I was tormented by Hudson Brothers' larrikins; but, considering that, though I was extremely sensitive, I was not tortured to an unendurable extent, they could not have been such a bad push after all. Selfish parents say, "They are more to be pitied than you." I've seen the poor, pale, delicate victim and butt of brutal ignorance in many places since then. I always know him. I saw him last, in coarse clothes and heavy hobnailed boots, in a hopeless English farm-labourers' village. And his face, figure, voice and manner told plainly of a gentleman blackguard and silly village girl. I wondered how on earth they were going to make one of themselves of him, or drive the natural refinement out of him without killing him.
I usually got home about a quarter or half-past six, according to the workman's train, and went to a night school in Phillip Street about seven, where I first made acquaintance with English history: William the First, ten-sixty-six, William the Second, ten-eightyseven, and so on. I went there three evenings a week for a couple of quarters, and on other nights to the School of Arts with an idea of learning Latin and drawing. I had tried the fiddle in the Bush, before I became too deaf. Someone said that Latin would improve my English. I told that to a snuffy old broken-down professor, when he asked me why I wanted to learn Latin, and he cackled a short, dusty, broken-down old cackle—I don't know why. There were one or two like me there, and one or two chemists' apprentices.
I remember, one morning in the workshop, after having been tormented more than usual on the platform and in the train the evening before, I said I would rise above them all yet; and my work mate, who was not a bad fellow, advised me not to let them hear me talking like that, or they'd chyack me worse than ever. They believed I was half ratty already, he said. About this time a boy in a workshop in Darling Harbour, tormented and ill-used to madness, struck another with a batten and killed him. This made a fiercely indignant impression on my mind, as also did the story in court on the minds of the Judge and jury, it would appear, for they acquitted him. "Arvie Aspinall," "Bill" in the "Visit of Condolence", "Two Boys at Grinder Brothers", and "Jones's Alley" (in While the Billy Boils) all came from my Hudson Brothers' days, but Hudson Brothers were not Grinders. If they had been they mightn't have failed. Their work was Australian. They imported the best mechanics they could get, treated and paid them well, went in for agricultural implement making, and were open to encourage "ideas". Their work for Australia deserves to be looked up a bit and credited to them.
My tormented days ended later, in another shop, when I took a tormentor by the throat and his nose bled. He arranged to meet me outside after knock off, but had to hurry home. I didn't know my physical strength.
I always had the longing for something better—something higher—something different anyhow—but always felt more or less the hollow hopelessness of attempting to rise higher; so I neglected no opportunity of learning my trade. I was painfully shy and extremely sensitive, sensitive about my deafness, my lack of education, my surroundings, my clothes, slimness and paleness, my "h's", handwriting, grammar, pronunciation (made worse by deafness)—everything almost. I was terribly shy of strange girls, and if a girl I knew took any notice of me I would reckon that she was only either pitying me or laughing at me. I am shy of women now, but in another way.
I remember having an idea, born of the notion that a change comes every seven years, that I would recover my hearing when I was twenty-one. I got first noticeably deaf at nine and as deaf as I am now when I was fourteen. And I used to swear, secretly, that if I did not get cured I would not live after twenty-one. And mind, I had none of the suspicious notions generally attributed to the deaf, and I never looked deaf; nor do I ever remember being annoyed or taken advantage of on that account, except perhaps by friends and relatives. But if they did they fell into the habit naturally, and perhaps unconsciously, and were in every way excusable.
I went up to the University matriculation examination twice, and failed. I don't remember being at all shy or sensitive on those occasions. On the last occasion I had a good sound patch in my trousers, and a pair of Father's boots on. All the other boys were well dressed, but I supposed they were more to be pitied than I was. I wished I'd had Father's head too, for his was a mathematical one. I couldn't hear the dictation, so I was taken into another room by an old man without teeth who dictated in Irish. I failed in everything save English history and English composition.
But that's a bit ahead. I seldom went out, Sundays or holidays, but either worked or studied. Later on I took to taking long walks at night and by lonely ways. Every penny of my wages, save ticket fares, went to help others. I paid for the night-schooling and bought my clothes with overtime money; and I washed and mended my own clothes. There was no starching for me in those days. And there was a dark cloud and plenty of trouble. I remember, in darkest days, when all days were dark, being sometimes undecided between home or work and the harbour. And later on, during a brief unemployed period, I saw the American Consul, and haunted the wharves in hopes of getting a ship to America or somewhere.
I was never afraid of physical work, never lazy—I never had the patience to loaf, and my mates often grumbled because they said I was working myself and them out of a job. I was a very quick brush-hand. But I thought what a glorious thing it would be to be able to give even a quarter of my time to study. Of course, I had the ridiculously exaggerated idea of the value of education and of my own ignorance. And it seemed getting too late fast, if, indeed, it were not too late already. I used to seek comfort in stories of self-taught men (my first school prize was entitled Self-taught Men) and instances of men who had risen after certain ages. It was a curious sort of self-deception, if it could be called self-deception. I was exquisitely self-conscious—it was a sort of insane analytical gymnastics most of the time. It was torture through the invulnerable ignorance and mad, unreasoning, and absolutely unnecessary selfishness of others, and self-torture with it all. And one thing my body craved for and my soul longed for was another hour's sleep in the morning. Often I lay, dead tired and resting, and afraid to go to sleep lest it wouldn't seem half a moment before the harsh and grating alarm sounded. I went to work with a dry unrested feeling and weak and sick in the stomach from sheer weariness and worry.
But the faces in the street were passing all the time. The worn faces and gaunt figures in the poor pitiful clothing. Meeting me and passing, and catching up and passing, and seeming to turn momentarily, hopelessly, fearfully, resentfully, appealingly, as though looking to me for help or sympathy—or guidance—for something—I didn't know what. And my face was one of them and not the least pale and pinched nor my figure the least gaunt or meanly clad.
I used to meet the same back-wash and eddy of the stream of life—the same debris of a people—mornings, and evenings when the workman's train ran to time. I remember one girl, or woman, another that sticks in a memory picture, but she seems in her right place. Elder, or only grown-up sister; anything between twenty and forty; unlovely, ungraceful—ugly and hard; sexually starved, or starved for love no doubt on account of her ugliness, resentful and ill-tempered; slaving to keep the home together; lot of younger children; mother washing, serving, or cleaning office, useless grown-up brother or two perhaps. Father unemployed, drinking or dead. And they loyal to his drunken memory. She belonged to a mean little circle of Brethren and Sisters (round a dear minister) no doubt, who made mean, unscrupulous and snuffling use of her few spare hours. You'll see her face over and over again in the little Salvation Army street gatherings at night in all weathers. Those were sweating times and days of long hours in factories for girls. I used to meet her in Elizabeth Street every evening about twenty past six. She carried an old fibre bag like workmen carried their dinners in. She looked at nothing but went straight on, and there was nothing but dogged endurance in every jerky, wooden movement of her most ungraceful walk. I used to meet her in the mornings too, sometimes, when I happened to miss the first train. I supposed she had an alarm clock too. But perhaps "mother" had long been in the habit of getting up earlier than she did. I saw her sometimes in Paddy's Market on Saturday nights with a big basket and a brat or two—younger brothers and sisters—and a woman who might have been her twin sister in birth and circumstances, but was probably her mother.
Then I missed her. Maybe she went home ill one night and grew worse before morning—feverish and then delirious; and mother took the alarm clock away in case she might drop asleep; and it never woke her any more in this world. Or—here's another picture. I used to haunt Paddy's Market—about the only place I went to on Saturday night. One Saturday night I saw a woman like that girl might have been ten or fifteen years older—if indeed she could have aged visibly any more. The haggard draggled woman had Sunday's supplies on one arm and a baby on the other. Cheap little workman's boarding house, no doubt, with a young clerk or draper or grocer out of work. Three or four children trailing. One tugging at her draggle-tailed skirt (which was high in front and long behind like a duckling's damp muddy tail, and seemed to keep her up, like a duckling too) and the child kept asking for something with unreasoning, maddening, childish reiteration. The loads slip, first the living and then the dead, and something falls from the pile on the basket. Then, goaded by cruel, merciless, unrelenting circumstances, she turns on the toddler at her skirt and says:
"Be quiet! blast yer!—Where am I to get hokey-pokey money from?"
God help her! and where was she to get hokey-pokey money from?
A brighter incident came along on the way home, and from amongst my own poor people too. I saw a woman sitting on a ledge, outside a theatre, with papers, and a sleeping baby in an old shawl on a coat like something on a shelf. But she was of the fresh cheerful sort, though she looked poor and tired enough. I was moving towards her to buy a paper when a bright little fellow ran between. "Paper, sir! News, sir!", and seeing me hesitate, he said brightly, briskly and most cheerfully: "It's alright mister! It's all the same!—She's my mother."
"His mother's mate."
I worked at Hudson Bros.' branch workshops at Wickham, Newcastle, where I haunted the School of Arts, still with an idea of learning before it was too late. I felt that I must take up some branch of study or other, and it seemed getting too late fast. I fretted, chafed, and nearly worried my soul-case out about "wasted time". Shyness, deafness in a measure, and the cruel early life and "training" had almost made me a hypocrite. And extreme sensitiveness, together with a false sense of physical weakness, led me or forced me to pander to the vanity of ignorant bosses when I could. This last foreman especially, who was a cur of the poodle species, a little man, with a tremendous opinion of his "position", a set speech for every new hand containing cant about his employers, and very big feet that went straight ahead, or turned clumsily at right angles into pubs on Saturday nights. He had never been anything but a brush-hand, and had never bossed a man—or even a crawler—before.
I was very green and very soft, and, because of the deafness, years behind my real age in worldly matters. Also my spirit and moral courage, if any had survived my childhood, had been bullied and ground out of me. This foreman half hurried, half bluffed me into boarding and lodging at his weatherboard humpy, where his missus always managed to get a skimpy, half-cooked breakfast on the table a few minutes before the workshop bell went. His name was, of course, a name which is commonly supposed to be the commonest in the English language, and he looked it, right to his boots, which of course were "larstins".
There was another hand boarding with him, and we both must have been cowards (or perhaps it was because the other was an indifferent brush-hand) for we hung out until the bitter end. I sent home every penny I had, but was soon wanted at home, or my board money perhaps, for I came back to Sydney and worked at the Redfern branch shops, where, if I had not been so soft and willing, I might have worked all along and had my extra hour's sleep every morning. Nothing happened in those shops except I helped paint some beams one morning which I found belonged to the Mount Rennie gallows.
I still longed for something better and never rested but worked things until I got into the office on trial as a clerk. My tribe wanted a gentleman, or the appearance of a gentleman, in the family, but they wanted every penny I could earn also. Something of the cad must have been instilled into my alleged being at this time, but if so, I was soon cured. I couldn't write a simple business letter, I wasn't worth five shillings a week in the office, and so was sent into the timber yards to learn measuring up under a nasty jealous brute with a liver and a son he wanted there. I found that in practice I couldn't measure timber in separate pieces and slowly, with a slate, so I was set to work lumping it. My father could measure up a truck load of different sizes before men who were trained and paid to do it were done scratching their heads and staring at the stuff. Then they'd stare at him.
I appealed to the powers for another trial in the office, but it was no use, so I resigned. Mr Dean (of Clarke & Dean, the carriage painting contractors) wanted me to go back to Newcastle with him that night, but I wouldn't—for pride or something. Strange that I should get homesick in those days. The cure came very slowly. If Clarke or Dean ever read this book I want them to know that I have kindly recollections of them. Especially of Mr Clarke, who was my immediate boss. Dean was at Redfern mostly.
It was on the first trip to Newcastle with Mr Dean that I got my first breath of the ocean, and, as the steamer rose to the swell outside the heads I drew a breath as deep as the sea itself.
I worked about in various private shops and did a bit of house-painting too. I knew what it was, when I was out of work for a few days in winter, to turn out shivering and be down at the Herald office at four o'clock on bitter mornings, and be one of the haggard group striking matches and running them down the wanted columns on the damp sheets posted outside. I knew what it was to tramp long distances and be one of a hopeless crowd of applicants. I knew what it was to drift about the streets in shabby and patched clothes and feel furtive and criminal-like. I knew all that before I wrote "Faces in the Street"—before I was twenty. I knew what it was to go home to a cold, resentful, gloomy and unbelieving welcome, and blind unreasoning reproaches at the very least. And, above and beyond other unemployed, I knew what it was to know, later on, that all this was selfishly, brutally unnecessary. That all those weary and unspeakably dark and dreary years of trouble, toil, of longing for the world, and fearful, exquisite shyness of the world, of humiliation and heartbreak were absolutely wasted, and the resultant years barren of good effects, reward, and even consideration, but pregnant with fierce hatred, lies, and slander and all the paltry petty annoyances born of a haunting consciousness in the minds (or hearts if they had any) of others—of a great wrong done.
I got on with old Mr Kerridge, carrier builder of Castlereagh Street, and worked for him for about two years. It was a blessed relief, even in those dark days of little relief for me, for I had been working for a man in the same street whose name was remembered and hated by many, and whose name and language had best be filled in by a Blank here. Does anybody remember the second pilot that Mark Twain worked under in Life on the Mississippi (not the "Mississippi Pilot")? Well, that was the man—or his own son. Blank had the horse face and a skin disease in addition. I remember one of his employees, a trimmer, who rose in the labour movement afterwards, who used to go home ill to his young wife and family because of that Blank brute. He seemed to hate me especially—because of my clean skin and effeminate appearance probably. He used to call me a "B——y woman!" "Come out from under that carriage and let me see what yer doin', yer b——y old woman!" etc. He used to sack me every other day, but the first evening or two he sent his little girl after me to tell me I could come in the morning: so I got used to it and would take no notice of his lurid sacks—work was cruelly scarce. He kept me on until one morning there was nothing left to do except clean up and sweep out the shop.
He told me to do that and then go home and go to bed for a —— —— —— ! woman, and come and see him in a week or two if I could get no one else to take me on.
Old Mr Kerridge was the opposite; he was an old gentleman. He was a little old gentleman with snow white hair and a white frill beard and was always in a hurry—an old-fashioned, bird-like, pecking and jerky hurry. It was as if he'd wound up, like a busy mechanical toy, all the first half of his life, and would never live long enough to run down. And when he brushed up and put on a very tall hat to go out on business, he looked like something rather special, but soberly respectable, albeit a trifle dusty and rusty in colour and springs, that had been turned out of Dickens's workshop, and had stood overlong in the show-room.
But he stuck to the shop too much when he should have been out looking for business. He had men who had been with him for from twenty-five to thirty years, and they said so too. He couldn't get out of the habit of working with his men, whether it inconvenienced them or not, but was always particularly careful to uphold the prestige and the alleged dignity of his foremen—whom he always addressed as foreman, and referred to as the foreman—though he had three grown sons in the shop. Every Saturday morning he'd have his two big retriever dogs in and lather them and hose them and rub them down and dry them, just as if he was washing down two buggies against time. But he was out of date and the business went down—not for lack of honest work. I had a reference from him which said I was a steady, trustworthy, hard-working young man, and had worked for him for two years. He told me that I was never afraid of work. He must have been gone for years now. I remember him brushed up and tall-hatted to go to court on a civil case, and I cannot conceive his having gone to the highest court any other way if he had time. Vale! old-fashioned tradesman and gentleman.
My mother started to publish The Dawn, in Phillip Street, then The Young Idea and Young Australia, which last was sacrificed in later years and is alive now I believe. Later on I edited and helped print, wrap and post a paper called The Republican, with William Keep, one time Tommy Walker's manager, and a sort of adopted brother of mine—but that was later on.
It was mostly house-painting now, and odd jobs about.
One wet night I was coming home through Hyde Park from working late on a job at Paddington. Rain and wind and swept boughs and sickly gaslights on the wet asphalt; and poles and scaffolding about in preparation for the Jubilee celebrations. I had sent a couple of attempts on the subject to the Bulletin, and had got encouragement in Answers to Correspondents. And now the idea of "Sons of the South" or "Song of the Republic" came. I wrote it and screwed up courage to go down to the Bulletin after hours, intending to drop the thing into the letter box, but just as I was about to do so, or rather making up my mind as to whether I'd shove it in or take it home, and have another look at the spelling and the dictionary, the door opened suddenly and a haggard woman stood there. And I shoved the thing into her hand and got away round the corner, feeling something like a person who had been nearly caught on the premises under suspicious circumstances and was not safe yet by any means.
I watched the Answers to Correspondents column as hundreds have watched it since—they'll understand. Here is the reply: "H.A.L.: Will publish your 'Sons of the South'. You have in you good grit."
I hadn't the courage to go near the Bulletin office again, but used to lie awake at night and get up very early and slip down to the nearest newsagent's on Thursday mornings, to have a peep at the Bulletin, in fear and trembling and half furtively as if the newsagent—another hard-life woman, by the way—named Mrs Furlong, would guess my secret. At last, sick with disappointment, I went to the office and saw Mr Archibald, who seemed surprised, encouraged me a lot and told me that they were holding the "Song of a Republic" over for a special occasion—Eight Hours Day.
It has never been printed in any of my books, so I give it here: not because of any literary merit, but because it was my first song and sincere—written by a Bush boy who was a skinny city work-boy in patched pants and blucher boots, struggling on the edge of the unemployed gulf—and written twenty years ago in Australia in high toady days.
A Song of the Republic Sons of the South, awake! arise! Sons of the South, and do. Banish from under your bonny skies Those old-world errors and wrongs and lies. Making a hell in a Paradise That belongs to your sons and you. Sons of the South, make choice between (Sons of the South, choose true), The Land of Morn and the Land of E'en, The Old Dead Tree and the Young Tree Green, The Land that belongs to the lord and the Queen, And the Land that belongs to you. Sons of the South, your time will come— Sons of the South, 'tis near— The "Signs of the Times", in their language dumb, Foretell it, and ominous whispers hum Like sullen sounds of a distant drum, In the ominous atmosphere. Sons of the South, aroused at last! Sons of the South are few! But your ranks grow longer and deeper fast, And ye shall swell to an army vast, And free from the wrongs of the North and Past The land that belongs to you.
Then I wrote "The Wreck of the Derry Castle"—strange theme for a Bush boy; and on another rainy night, from a dark dreary gully behind our camp at Mount Victoria where I had gone to paint for Father—I got the idea of the lines to "Golden Gully" at Pipeclay. It was published in the Christmas Bulletin, 1887. It has never been reprinted, and, as it might be useful to show how I had brought the atmosphere of weird melancholy from the heart of the Bush, I print it here:
Golden Gully No one lives in Golden Gully, for its golden days are o'er, And its clay shall never sully blucher-boots of diggers more, For the diggers long have vanished—nought but broken shafts remain, And the bush, by diggers banished, fast reclaims its own again. Now, when dying Daylight slowly draws her fingers from the "Peak", The Weird Empress Melancholy rises from the reedy creek— In the gap above the gully, while the dismal curlews scream Loud to welcome her as ruler of the dreary night supreme— Takes her throne, and by her presence fills the strange, uncertain air With a ghostly phosphorescence of the horrors hidden there. None would think, by camp-fire blazy, lighting fitfully the scene, In the seasons that are hazy, how in seasons gone between, Diggers yarned or joined in jolly ballads of the field and foam, Or grew sad and melancholy over songs like "Home, Sweet Home"— Songs of other times, demanding sullen tears that would not start, Every digger understanding what was in his comrade's heart. It may seem to you a riddle how a poet's fancies roam, But methinks I hear a fiddle softly playing "Home, Sweet Home" 'Mid the trees, while meditative diggers round the camp-fire stand. (Those were days before Australians learned to love their native land.) Now the dismal curlew screeches round the shafts when night winds sough; Startling murmurs, broken speeches, shake each twisted, tangled bough, And whene'er the night comes dreary, darkened by the falling rain, Voices, loud and dread and eerie, come again and come again— Come like troubled souls forbidden rest until their tales are told— Tales of deeds of darkness hidden in the whirl of days of gold— Come like troubled spirits telling tales of dire and dread mishaps, Kissing, falling, rising, swelling, dying in the dismal gaps. When the coming daylight slowly lays her fingers on the "Peak" Then the Empress Melancholy hurries off to swamps that reek. But the scene is never cheery, be it sunshine, be it rain, For the Gully keeps its dreary look till darkness comes again. As you stand beside the broken shafts, where grass is growing thick, You can almost hear a spoken word, or hear a thudding pick; And your very soul seems sinking, foetid grows the morning air, For you cannot help believing that there's something buried there. There's a ring amid the saplings by a travelling circus worn, That amused the noisy diggers e'er the rising race was born; There's a road where scrub encroaches that was once the main highway, Over which two rival coaches dashed in glory twice a day; Gone—all gone from Golden Gully, for its golden days are o'er, And its clay shall never sully wheels of crowded coaches more.
I wrote "The Watch on the Kerb"—lines to a street girl—and one or two other attempts which I have forgotten; and then—about then—I wrote what I always considered my first song, and superior to "Faces in the Street"; it certainly was more lyrical. I can't remember writing it or where I got the idea from; it must have been composed quickly, and perhaps half unconsciously, as was "Faces in the Street". And as was everything of a popular kind ever written that was worth reading; in spite of Byron's clever and catchy bluffing saying that he wished he had the art of easy reading, which would be easy writing. Hard writing makes hard reading. Is Don Juan easy reading? It's like a dray coming down a long gully by a rough track where the only easy places are the bogs.
The song I speak of was published in the Bulletin as the "Song of the Outcasts", and went through the United States as "The Army of the Rear". And that was newly twenty years ago. I print it here in a book for the first time, to show I was in deadly earnest, anyway.
Army of the Rear I listened through the music and the sounds of revelry, And all the hollow noises of that year of Jubilee; I heard beyond the music and beyond the loyal cheer, The steady tramp of thousands that were marching in the rear. Tramp! tramp! tramp! They seem to shake the air, Those never-ceasing footsteps of the outcasts in the rear. I heard defiance ringing from the men of rags and dirt, I heard wan woman singing that sad 'Song of the Shirt,' And o'er the sounds of menace and moaning low and drear, I heard the steady tramping of their feet along the rear. Tramp! tramp! tramp! Vibrating in the air— They're swelling fast, those footsteps of the Army of the Rear! I hate the wrongs I read about, I hate the wrongs I see! The tramping of that army sounds as music unto me! A music that is terrible, that frights the anxious ear, Is beaten from the weary feet that tramp along the rear. Tramp! tramp! tramp! In dogged, grim despair— They have a goal, those footsteps of the Army of the Rear! I looked upon the nobles, with their lineage so old; I looked upon their mansions, on their acres and their gold, I saw their women radiant in jewelled robes appear, And then I joined the army of the outcasts in the rear. Tramp! tramp! tramp! We'll show what Want can dare, My brothers and my sisters of the Army of the Rear! I looked upon the mass of poor, in filthy alleys pent; And on the rich men's Edens, that are built on grinding rent; I looked o'er London's miles of slums—I saw the horrors here, And swore to die a soldier of the Army of the Rear. Tramp! tramp! tramp! I've sworn to do and dare, I've sworn to die a soldier of the Army of the Rear! 'They're brutes,' so say the wealthy, 'and by steel must be dismayed'— Be brutes among us, nobles, they are brutes that ye have made; We want what God hath given us, we want our portion here, And that is why we're marching—and we'll march beyond the rear! Tramp! tramp! tramp! Awake and have a care, Ye proud and haughty spurners of the wretches in the rear. We'll nurse our wrongs to strengthen us, our hate that it may grow, For, outcast from society, society's our foe. Beware! who grind out human flesh, for human life is dear! There's menace in the marching of the Army of the Rear. Tramp! tramp! tramp! There's danger in despair, There's danger in the marching of the Army of the Rear! The wealthy care not for our wants, nor for the pangs we feel; Our hands have clutched in vain for bread, and now they clutch for steel! Come, men of rags and hunger, come! There's work for heroes here! There's room still in the vanguard of the Army of the Rear! Tramp! tramp! tramp! O men of want and care! There's glory in the vanguard of the Army of the Rear!
I would like to say here, while I think of it—out of place, and before I forget—that there are a great many old rhymes of mine, printed, but lost or forgotten, which may turn up where I am not likely to. I burnt my scrap books and old MSS. in London (in the yard of the house where Micawber and David Copperfield lived, by the way) to get rid of the worry of them; and I'm sorry for it now, for much was political and had an historical value, if nothing else. Much of the stuff contained truer history than Australia is ever likely to see. This can be taken as an advertisement for copies of my old songs, not in the books, which will be gratefully received. They were published over the names of Joe Swallow, and Cervus Wright, and Henry Lawson in the old Truth, Boomerang, Town and Country Journal, Echo, etc.
Another rainy night on Petersham platform. I don't remember what I was doing there unless I had been out late to see about a job. The sickly gaslamps again, the wet shining asphalt, the posters on the mean brick walls close at hand, the light glistening on the enamelled iron notice saying "Second Class Wait Here", and I alone and tired as usual and cold with a shoddy overcoat coarse as sacking and warm as a refrigerator. But it was here I struck the keynote, or the key-line, of "Faces in the Street."
It all seems very tame now. I thought that, when I came to writing about having my first verses accepted and seeing them in print, I would rise to the occasion without effort, but I haven't. I can't even remember the emotions that such things gave rise to. I only remember that I didn't worry any more about my surroundings, and "rising", and the School of Arts, after "Faces in the Street". I just went on painting and helping with the Republican. It all seems very tame now, but I couldn't have felt tame then, nor could the flood of emotions have been so, that swelled for years and, pent beyond the poor tortured soul's endurance, broke bounds in a burst of red republicanism—found vent in "Song of the Outcasts", "Faces in the Street", and other songs of freedom.
The life of the Republican ("Cambaroora Star" in When the World Was Wide) was a tragical farce now I come to look back at it. We got hold of a little old printing press that had been over the mountains in the early days—and Keep had been a draper in London. He was a weed then, but with the vitality, energy and blind self-confidence of a dozen fat men. He's getting stout and young now at forty-five. We had to turn the press by hand and it ran like a dray most of the time; we had to feed and fly by hand, too—when the press was going. The bed was uneven and worm-eaten and the types old and new, so there was always a great deal of digging out and pasting on round the cylinder. I could never tell when the machine was likely to go wrong, or shy, or why it went right at times at all. Keep had an inventive mind. We got some old roller moulds with the press and once he invented some new roller composition, out of treacle and stuff I think and in hot weather those rollers would bring the flies and pick up loose type. The paper was illustrated, mind, with portraits, that came out black or blank or half and half, or smudged according to Keep's cheerful digging or pasting on the cylinder. But he'd get 'em right in time or at least recognisable as being intended to represent portraits. Then the letterpress would begin to disappear here and there, and there would be more pasting. Then there'd be a breakdown or smash-up somewhere and Keep would go round briskly and cheerfully in front of the machine, behind it and under it, and squeeze between it and the wall, with a couple of spanners and a screw-wrench for odd nuts and screw up a nut here and loosen one there, and try her again, until at last, by some accident, or wonderful combination of accidents incomprehensible to me, he'd get her going all right. Then we'd wire in as if afraid of our lives to give her time to think about playing up again. I've known that press to print from two to three hundred sheets (it was one side only) without a breakdown or smash-up. Then, towards the end, Keep would get excited, and, if it were a hot night, peel to his pants and shirt and rustle up every damaged or soiled sheet of paper from the floor and put it through. I believe if such a contingency had arisen to make it seem necessary, he would have put his shirt and pants through too, rather than disappoint two of our subscribers. The subscribers were few enough in number but most enthusiastic, and Rasmussen's ad. was our mainstay. Keep used to buy damaged lots of paper, of different colours and size, from fires and old stock, and he'd cut the larger sheets to size with a carving knife. We used to soak the paper in a tub of water the night before going to press.
The night after we'd fold, wrap (there wasn't much folding) and carry the papers to the post in the early hours in a clothes basket; and, before daylight we'd have a public breakfast at the old coffee stall outside the Herald office where Keep would argue politics and freethought and other things with cabmen and others. Occasionally a fresh policeman would bail us up and enquire about the basket. Little incidents like this cheered Keep and made him happy, and if that policeman would wait he'd try to bring him to his way of thinking.
When things were tight Keep would get a billet as clerk or something and put his wages into the Republican and the other two little ventures. He would tackle anything, and generally succeeded—went on the platform once, for the first time in his life, and at five minutes' notice, and gave a lecture, when he was managing for Tommy Walker and Walker fell ill.
When things looked up, we'd hire a labouring man to turn the press.
We shifted that old machine about a good deal, on account of the rent and because of other circumstances, and Keep always took it to pieces and put it together again as carefully as he would have taken a baby to pieces and put it together again—had that been possible, without spoiling the baby, and had Keep been called upon to do it.
We had an office in the top of a building in George Street once; a long narrow room with a window back and front, and got a small, pedal handbill press, a cutter and a small wirer, and then Keep was happy. As we got on he bought a net hammock and slung it there and slept in the office—to be on the spot all the time I suppose. Perhaps he dreamed of special editions.
Well, one Sunday morning he'd cleaned up and set fire to a lot of waste paper in the fireplace, and was pottering happily and lovingly round the old press with a screw-wrench, getting ready for the monthly fray, when he should be again in holts with her, when there was a crash below and a tremendous clattering and bumping on the stairs, and Keep got to the front window quick, thinking that part of the building was collapsing. Then the door burst open and several big helmeted firemen burst in, and Keep, looking out dazedly, saw two fire engines in the street, and more coming, and the opposite side was lined with stupid upturned faces and gaping mouths. He had left both windows open, and the wind had blown the smoke from the waste paper through the front one.
I came in a little later, when things had cooled down a bit, and Keep said, with a sickly sort of smile, that I always missed all the fun. But he soon recovered, and, on one of the firemen returning—for the address, or something they had forgotten in their indignation—Keep cornered him, got him vacantly interested in the machinery, then the paper, and actually got, by easy stages, to talking Progress and Poverty and Henry George with him.
We rechristened the Republican the Nationaliser against my convictions, and eventually dropped it just as it was getting a little lighter to our shoulders.
Keep is a great breeder of Persian cats now, and goes to Church on Sunday.
I was on a scaffold, kalsomining or painting a ceiling at the Deaf, Dumb and Blind Institution, Sydney, on New Year's Eve, eighteen-eighty-five when my brother brought a telegram from Mount Victoria to say that my father had died that morning. He had just completed a row of cottages called the Sanitorium, and was working at his old friend Mr Rienits' school—"The School", Mount Victoria. He had several men working for him, but still worked and lived as hard as ever. He was camping in a room of one of the new cottages, and the night before his death he had two or three young fellows up to see him who used to discuss Henry George's Progress and Poverty and other democratic subjects with him, and always got onto mathematics. But my first story, "His Father's Mate", had just been published in the Christmas Bulletin and Father was full of this. About the first thing he would ask, they told me, when a newcomer dropped in, was "Have you seen my son Henry's story in the Sydney Bulletin?" "And he said it in a voice for all the world to hear," said an old mate of mine, "though he was a quiet man." One, a Bob Evans, a bit of an artist, traced Father's shadow in profile on the wall that evening, and I transferred it afterwards on oiled paper.
Next morning, they told me, he went down to work at the school building as usual, and though he complained of "feeling queer"—"quare", poor Father would say, putting his hand to his side—he returned to the cottages for a keg or small drum of white lead, instead of letting one of the men go for it. He carried that down, and, feeling "very queer", started for home again. One of his men, a Swede—he mostly had a Swede or Norwegian with him at that time—either went back to the cottages with him or was working there. About half way Father must have felt worse, for he began to run. When he reached the new cottages he told Fred Olsen, the Swede, that he didn't think this could last long and that he had better go for the doctor; so Fred ran for Dr Morgan, who said he would come as soon as he was dressed and had a cup of tea. Then Father told Fred to run for his friend, Constable Brassington—old Lucknow man retired years ago—he had something to tell him. The Constable came at once, but got there too late. Father was sitting dead on his bunk, beside his table, leaning back against the wall. He had got a mustard plaster on his chest under his flannel and still had his hands pressed to it.
The doctor told me it was heart disease, and an old thing. I reached Mount Victoria by the midnight train when bonfires were blazing and rockets going up. Some said it was the only time they had ever seen him rest.
I painted the cottages where Father had left the painting unfinished, did one or two other jobs on the Mount, and, there being no work there, and things in Sydney being very bad, I went steerage to Western Australia and struck Albany while the new town was being built, and shortly after responsible government had been granted. There were three master painters there and no hands—except a stranded sailor or two.
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