“Joe!” he added in a louder voice, condescendingly adapting his language to my bushed comprehension. “I’m going to sling graft and try and get some stuff together.”
I didn’t feel in a responsive humour, but I lit up and settled back comfortably against the tree, and Jack folded his arms on his knees and presently continued, reflectively:
“I remember the first time I went to work. I was a youngster then. Mother used to go round looking for jobs for me. She reckoned, perhaps, that I was too shy to go in where there was a boy wanted and barrack for myself properly, and she used to help me and see me through to the best of her ability. I’m afraid I didn’t always feel as grateful to her as I should have felt. I was a thankless kid at the best of times — most kids are — but otherwise I was a straight enough little chap as nippers go. Sometimes I almost wish I hadn’t been. My relations would have thought a good deal more of me and treated me better — and, besides, it’s a comfort, at times, to sit and watch the sun going down in the bed of the bush, and think of your wicked childhood and wasted life, and the way you treated your parents and broke their hearts, and feel just properly repentant and bitter and remorseful and low-spirited about it when it’s too late.
“Ah, well! . . . I generally did feel a bit backward in going in when I came to the door of an office or shop where there was a ‘Strong Lad’, or a ‘Willing Youth’, wanted inside to make himself generally useful. I was a strong lad and a willing youth enough, in some things, for that matter; but I didn’t like to see it written up on a card in a shop window, and I didn’t want to make myself generally useful in a close shop in a hot dusty street on mornings when the weather was fine and the great sunny rollers were coming in grand on the Bondi Beach and down at Coogee, and I could swim. . . . I’d give something to be down along there now.”
Mitchell looked away out over the sultry sandy plain that we were to tackle next day, and sighed.
“The first job I got was in a jam factory. They only had ‘Boy Wanted’ on the card in the window, and I thought it would suit me. They set me to work to peel peaches, and, as soon as the foreman’s back was turned, I picked out a likely-looking peach and tried it. They soaked those peaches in salt or acid or something — it was part of the process — and I had to spit it out. Then I got an orange from a boy who was slicing them, but it was bitter, and I couldn’t eat it. I saw that I’d been had properly. I was in a fix, and had to get out of it the best way I could. I’d left my coat down in the front shop, and the foreman and boss were there, so I had to work in that place for two mortal hours. It was about the longest two hours I’d ever spent in my life. At last the foreman came up, and I told him I wanted to go down to the back for a minute. I slipped down, watched my chance till the boss’ back was turned, got my coat, and cleared.
“The next job I got was in a mat factory; at least, Aunt got that for me. I didn’t want to have anything to do with mats or carpets. The worst of it was the boss didn’t seem to want me to go, and I had a job to get him to sack me, and when he did he saw some of my people and took me back again next week. He sacked me finally the next Saturday.
“I got the next job myself. I didn’t hurry; I took my time and picked out a good one. It was in a lolly factory. I thought it would suit me — and it did, for a while. They put me on stirring up and mixing stuff in the jujube department; but I got so sick of the smell of it and so full of jujube and other lollies that I soon wanted a change; so I had a row with the chief of the jujube department and the boss gave me the sack.
“I got a job in a grocery then. I thought I’d have more variety there. But one day the boss was away, sick or something, all the afternoon, and I sold a lot of things too cheap. I didn’t know. When a customer came in and asked for something I’d just look round in the window till I saw a card with the price written up on it, and sell the best quality according to that price; and once or twice I made a mistake the other way about and lost a couple of good customers. It was a hot, drowsy afternoon, and by-and-bye I began to feel dull and sleepy. So I looked round the corner and saw a Chinaman coming. I got a big tin garden syringe and filled it full of brine from the butter keg, and, when he came opposite the door, I let him have the full force of it in the ear.
“That Chinaman put down his baskets and came for me. I was strong for my age, and thought I could fight, but he gave me a proper mauling.
“It was like running up against a thrashing machine, and it wouldn’t have been well for me if the boss of the shop next door hadn’t interfered. He told my boss, and my boss gave me the sack at once.
“I took a spell of eighteen months or so after that, and was growing up happy and contented when a married sister of mine must needs come to live in town and interfere. I didn’t like married sisters, though I always got on grand with my brothers-in-law, and wished there were more of them. The married sister comes round and cleans up the place and pulls your things about and finds your pipe and tobacco and things, and cigarette portraits, and “Deadwood Dicks”, that you’ve got put away all right, so’s your mother and aunt wouldn’t find them in a generation of cats, and says:
“‘Mother, why don’t you make that boy go to work. It’s a scandalous shame to see a big boy like that growing up idle. He’s going to the bad before your eyes.’ And she’s always trying to make out that you’re a liar, and trying to make mother believe it, too. My married sister got me a job with a chemist, whose missus she knew.
“I got on pretty well there, and by-and-bye I was put upstairs in the grinding and mixing department; but, after a while, they put another boy that I was chummy with up there with me, and that was a mistake. I didn’t think so at the time, but I can see it now. We got up to all sorts of tricks. We’d get mixing together chemicals that weren’t related to see how they’d agree, and we nearly blew up the shop several times, and set it on fire once. But all the chaps liked us, and fixed things up for us. One day we got a big black dog — that we meant to take home that evening — and sneaked him upstairs and put him on a flat roof outside the laboratory. He had a touch of the mange and didn’t look well, so we gave him a dose of something; and he scrambled over the parapet and slipped down a steep iron roof in front, and fell on a respected townsman that knew my people. We were awfully frightened, and didn’t say anything. Nobody saw it but us. The dog had the presence of mind to leave at once, and the respected townsman was picked up and taken home in a cab; and he got it hot from his wife, too, I believe, for being in that drunken, beastly state in the main street in the middle of the day.
“I don’t think he was ever quite sure that he hadn’t been drunk or what had happened, for he had had one or two that morning; so it didn’t matter much. Only we lost the dog.
“One day I went downstairs to the packing-room and saw a lot of phosphorus in jars of water. I wanted to fix up a ghost for Billy, my mate, so I nicked a bit and slipped it into my trouser pocket.
“I stood under the tap and let it pour on me. The phosphorus burnt clean through my pocket and fell on the ground. I was sent home that night with my leg dressed with lime-water and oil, and a pair of the boss’s pants on that were about half a yard too long for me, and I felt miserable enough, too. They said it would stop my tricks for a while, and so it did. I’ll carry the mark to my dying day — and for two or three days after, for that matter.”
I fell asleep at this point, and left Mitchell’s cattle pup to hear it out.