It was very hot weather, so we started after sunset, intending to travel all night. We crossed the big billabong, and were ploughing through the dust and sand towards West Bourke, when a buggy full of city girls and swells passed by. They were part of a theatrical company on tour in the Back-Blocks, and some local Johnnies. They’d been driven out to see an artesian bore, or wool-shed, or something. The horses swerved, and jerked a little squawk out of one of the girls. Then another said:
“Ow-w! Two old swaggies. He! he! he!”
I glanced at Mitchell to see if he was hit, and caught his head down; but he pulled himself up and pretended to hitch his swag into an easier position.
About a hundred yards further on he gave me a side look and said:
“Did that touch you, Harry?”
“No,” I said, and I laughed.
“You see,” reflected Mitchell, “they’re more to be pitied than blamed. It’s their ignorance. In the first place, we’re not two old tramps, as they think. We are professional shearers; and the Australian shearers are about the most independent and intelligent class of men in the world. We’ve got more genius in one of our little fingers than there is in the whole of that wagonette-load of diddle-daddle and fiddle-faddle and giggles. Their intellects are on a level with the rotten dramas they travel with, and their lives about as false. They are slaves to the public, and their home is the pub-parlour, with sickly, senseless Johnnies to shout suppers and drink for them and lend their men money. If one of those girls is above the average, how she must despise those Johnnies—and the life! She must feel a greater contempt for them than the private-barmaid does for the boozer she cleans out. He gets his drink and some enjoyment, anyhow. And how she must loathe the life she leads! And what’s the end of it as often as not? I remember once, when I was a boy, I was walking out with two aunts of mine—they’re both dead now. God rest their fussy, innocent old souls!—and one of ’em said suddenly, ‘Look! Quick, Jack! There’s Maggie So-and-So, the great actress.’ And I looked and saw a woman training vines in a porch. It seemed like seeing an angel to me, and I never forgot her as she was then. The diggers used to go miles out of town to meet the coach that brought her, and take the horses out and drag it in, and throw gold in her lap, and worship her.
“The last time I was in Sydney I saw her sitting in the back parlour of a third-rate pub. She was dying of dropsy and couldn’t move from her chair. She showed me a portrait of herself as I remembered her, and talked quite seriously about going on the stage again.
“Now, our home is about two thousand miles wide, and the world’s our stage. If the worst comes to the worst we can always get tucker and wood and water for nothing. If we’re camping at a job in a tent there’s no house-cleaning to bother us. All we’ve got to do when the camp gets too dirty is to shift the tent to a fresh place. We’ve got time to think andwe’re free.
“But then, agen,” he reflected, “there’s the world’s point of view to be considered. Some day I might be flashing past in a buggy or saloon-carriage—or, the chances are it will be you—and you might look out the window and see an old swaggy tramping along in the dust, or camped under a strip of calico in the rain in the scrub. (And it might be me—old Mitchell—that really wrote your books, only the world won’t know it.) And then you’ll realize what a wretched, miserable life it was. We never realize the miseries of life till we look back—the mistakes and miseries that had to be and couldn’t be helped. It’s all luck—luck and chance.”
But those girls seemed to have gravelled Mitchell, and he didn’t seem able to talk himself round. He tramped on, brooding for a while, and then suddenly he said:
“Look here, Harry! Those girls are giving a dance to-night, and if I liked to go back to Bourke and tog up and go to the dance I could pick out the prettiest, dance with her all the evening, and take her for a stroll afterwards, old tramp as they thought me. I’ve lived—but it wouldn’t be worth my while now.”
I’d seen Jack in a mood like this before, and thought it best to say nothing. Perhaps the terrible heat had affected him a little. We walked on in silence until we came to the next billabong. “Best boil the billy here, Harry,” said Mitchell, “and have some tea before we go any further.”
I got some sticks together and made a fire and put the billy on. The country looked wretched—like the ghost of a burnt-out land—in the moonlight. The banks of the creek were like ashes, the thin, gnarled gum-bush seemed dry-rotting fast, and in many places the surface of the ground was cracked in squares where it had shrunk in the drought. In the bed of the creek was a narrow gutter of water that looked like bad milk.
Mitchell sat on his swag, with his pint of tea on the ground by his foot, and chewed his pipe.
“What’s up, Jack?” I asked. “Have you got the blues?”
“Well, yes, Harry,” he said. “I’m generally dull the first day on the track. The first day is generally the worst, anywhere or anytime—except, perhaps, when you’re married. . . . I got—well, I got thinking of the time when a woman’s word could have hurt me.”
Just then one of the “travellers” who were camped a hit up the creek suddenly commenced to sing. It was a song called “The Shearer’s Dream,” and I suppose the buggy of girls, or the conversation they started, reminded him of it. He started his verses and most of his lines with a howl; and there were unexpected howls all through the song, and it wailed off, just as unexpectedly, in places where there was no pathos that I could see:
Oh, I dreamt I shore in a shearer’s shed, and it was a dream of joy,|
For every one of the rouseabouts was a girl dressed up as a boy—
Dressed up like a page in a pantomime, and the prettiest ever seen—
They had flaxen hair, they had coal-black hair—and every shade between.
“Every” with sudden and great energy, a long drop on to “shade,” and a wail of intense sadness and regret running on into “between,” the dirge reaching its wailsomest in the “tween” in every case.
The shed was cooled by electric fans that was over every “shoot”;|
The pens was of polished ma-ho-gany, and ev’rything else to suit;
The huts was fixed with spring-mattresses, and the tucker was simply grand,
And every Right by the biller-bong we darnced to a German band.
There was short, plump girls, there was tall, slim girls, and the handsomest ever seen—|
They was four-foot-five, they was six-foot high, and hevery size between.
Our pay was the wool on the jumbucks’ backs, so we shore till all was blue—
The sheep was washed afore they was shore (and the rams was scented too);
And we all of us cried when the shed cut out, in spite of the long, hot days,
For hevery hour them girls waltzed in with whisky and beer on tr-a-a-a-ys!
“Chorus! you ——!”
They had kind grey eyes, they had coal-black eyes, and the grandest ever seen—|
They had plump pink hands, they had slim white hands, and hevery shape be-tw-e-e-n.
There was three of them girls to every chap, and as jealous as they could be—
“Ow! you ——”
The singer’s voice or memory seemed suddenly to have failed him at this point, but whether his mates hit him on the back of the head with a tomahawk, or only choked him, I do not know. Mitchell was inclined to think, from the sound of it, that they choked him.