While the Billy Boils

For Auld Lang Syne

Henry Lawson

THERE were ten of us there on the wharf when our first mate left for Maoriland, he having been forced to leave Sydney because he could not get anything like regular work, nor anything like wages for the work he could get. He was a carpenter and joiner, a good tradesman and a rough diamond. He had got married and had made a hard fight for it during the last two years or so, but the result only petrified his conviction that “a lovely man could get no blessed show in this condemned country,” as he expressed it; so he gave it best at last “chucked it up,” as he said—left his wife with her people and four pounds ten, until such time as he could send for her—and left himself with his box of tools, a pair of hands that could use them, a steerage ticket, and thirty shillings.

We turned up to see him off. There were ten of us all told and about twice as many shillings all counted. He was the first of the old push to go—we use the word push in its general sense, and we called ourselves the mountain push because we had worked in the tourist towns a good deal—he was the first of the mountain push to go; and we felt somehow, and with a vague kind of sadness or uneasiness, that this was the beginning of the end of old times and old things. We were plasterers, bricklayers, painters, a carpenter, a labourer, and a plumber, and were all suffering more or less—mostly more—and pretty equally, because of the dearth of regular graft, and the consequent frequency of the occasions on which we didn’t hold it—the “it” being the price of one or more long beers. We had worked together on jobs in the city and up-country, especially in the country, and had had good times together when things were locomotive, as Jack put it; and we always managed to worry along cheerfully when things were “stationary.” On more than one big job up the country our fortnightly spree was a local institution while it lasted, a thing that was looked forward to by all parties, whether immediately concerned or otherwise (and all were concerned more or less), a thing to be looked back to and talked over until next pay-day came. It was a matter for anxiety and regret to the local business people and publicans, and loafers and spielers, when our jobs were finished and we left.

There were between us the bonds of graft, of old times, of poverty, of vagabondage and sin, and in spite of all the right-thinking person may think, say or write, there was between us that sympathy which in our times and conditions is the strongest and perhaps the truest of all human qualities, the sympathy of drink. We were drinking mates together. We were wrong-thinking persons too, and that was another bond of sympathy between us.

There were cakes of tobacco, and books, and papers, and several flasks of “rye-buck”—our push being distantly related to a publican who wasn’t half a bad sort—to cheer and comfort our departing mate on his uncertain way; and these tokens of mateship and the sake of auld lang syne were placed casually in his bunk or slipped unostentatiously into his hand or pockets, and received by him in short eloquent silence (sort of an aside silence), and partly as a matter of course. Every now and then there would be a surreptitious consultation between two of us and a hurried review of finances, and then one would slip quietly ashore and presently return supremely unconscious of a book, magazine, or parcel of fruit bulging out of his pocket.

You may battle round with mates for many years, and share and share alike, good times or hard, and find the said mates true and straight through it all; but it is their little thoughtful attentions when you are going away, that go right down to the bottom of your heart, and lift it up and make you feel inclined—as you stand alone by the rail when the sun goes down on the sea—to write or recite poetry and otherwise make a fool of yourself.

We helped our mate on board with his box, and inspected his bunk, and held a consultation over the merits or otherwise of its position, and got in his way and that of the under-steward and the rest of the crew right down to the captain, and superintended our old chum’s general arrangements, and upset most of them, and interviewed various members of the crew as to when the boat would start for sure, and regarded their statements with suspicion, and calculated on our own account how long it would take to get the rest of the cargo aboard, and dragged our mate ashore for a final drink, and found that we had “plenty of time to slip ashore for a parting wet” so often that his immediate relations grew anxious and officious, and the universe began to look good, and kind, and happy, and bully, and jolly, and grand, and glorious to us, and we forgave the world everything wherein it had not acted straight towards us, and were filled full of love for our kind of both genders—for the human race at large—and with an almost irresistible longing to go aboard, and stay at all hazards, and sail along with our mate. We had just time “to slip ashore and have another” when the gangway was withdrawn and the steamer began to cast off. Then a rush down the wharf, a hurried and confused shaking of hands, and our mate was snatched aboard. The boat had been delayed, and we had waited for three hours, and had seen our chum nearly every day for years, and now we found we hadn’t begun to say half what we wanted to say to him. We gripped his hand in turn over the rail, as the green tide came between, till there was a danger of one mate being pulled aboard—which he wouldn’t have minded much—or the other mate pulled ashore, or one or both yanked overboard. We cheered the captain and cheered the crew and the passengers—there was a big crowd of them going and a bigger crowd of enthusiastic friends on the wharf—and our mate on the forward hatch; we cheered the land they were going to and the land they had left behind, and sang “Auld Lang Syne” and “He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” (and so yelled all of us) and “Home Rule for Ireland Evermore”—which was, I don’t know why, an old song of ours. And we shouted parting injunctions and exchanged old war cries, the meanings of which were only known to us, and we were guilty of such riotous conduct that, it being now Sunday morning, one or two of the quieter members suggested we had better drop down to about half-a-gale, as there was a severe-looking old sergeant of police with an eye on us; but once, in the middle of a heart-stirring chorus of “Auld Lang Syne,” Jack, my especial chum, paused for breath and said to me:

“It’s all right, Joe, the trap’s joining in.” And so he was—and leading.

But I well remember the hush that fell on that, and several other occasions, when the steamer had passed the point.

And so our first mate sailed away out under the rising moon and under the morning stars. He is settled down in Maoriland now, in a house of his own, and has a family and a farm; but somehow, in the bottom of our hearts, we don’t like to think of things like this, for they don’t fit in at all with “Auld Lang Syne.”

There were six or seven of us on the wharf to see our next mate go. His ultimate destination was known to himself and us only. We had pickets at the shore end of the wharf, and we kept him quiet and out of sight; the send-off was not noisy, but the band-grips were very tight and the sympathy deep. He was running away from debt, and wrong, and dishonour, a drunken wife, and other sorrows, and we knew it all.

Two went next—to try their luck in Western Australia; they were plasterers. Ten of us turned up again, the push having been reinforced by one or two new members and an old one who had been absent on the first occasion. It was a glorious send-off, and only two found beds that night—the government supplied the beds.

And one by one and two by two they have gone from the wharf since then. Jack went to-day; he was perhaps the most irreclaimable of us all—a hard case where all cases were hard; and I loved him best—anyway I know that, wherever Jack goes, there will be someone who will barrack for me to the best of his ability (which is by no means to be despised as far as barracking is concerned), and resent, with enthusiasm and force if he deems it necessary, the barest insinuation which might be made to the effect that I could write a bad line if I tried, or be guilty of an action which would not be straight according to the rules of mateship.

Ah well! I am beginning to think it is time I emigrated too; I’ll pull myself together and battle round and raise the price of a steerage ticket, and maybe a pound or two over. There may not be anybody to see me off, but some of the boys are sure to be on the wharf or platform “over there,” when I arrive. Lord! I almost hear them hailing now! and won’t I yell back! and perhaps there won’t be a wake over old times in some cosy bar parlour, or camp, in Western Australia or Maoriland some night in a year to come.

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