While the Billy Boils


Henry Lawson

THERE is an old custom prevalent in Australasia—and other parts, too, perhaps, for that matter—which, we think, deserves to be written up. It might not be an “honoured” custom from a newspaper manager’s or proprietor’s point of view, or from the point of view (if any) occupied by the shareholders on the subject; but, nevertheless, it is a time-honoured and a good old custom. Perhaps, for several reasons, it was more prevalent among diggers than with the comparatively settled bushmen of to-day—the poor, hopeless, wandering swaggy doesn’t count in the matter, for he has neither the wherewithal nor the opportunity to honour the old custom; also his movements are too sadly uncertain to permit of his being honoured by it. We refer to the remailing of newspapers and journals from one mate to another.

Bill gets his paper and reads it through conscientiously from beginning to end by candle or slush-lamp as he lies on his back in the hut or tent with his pipe in his mouth; or, better still, on a Sunday afternoon as he reclines on the grass in the shade, in all the glory and comfort of a clean pair of moleskins and socks and a clean shirt. And when he has finished reading the paper—if it is not immediately bespoke—he turns it right side out, folds it, and puts it away where he’ll know where to find it. The paper is generally bespoke in the following manner:

“Let’s have a look at that paper after you, Bill, when yer done with it.” says Jack.

And Bill says:

“I just promised it to Bob. You can get it after him.” And, when it is finally lent, Bill says:

“Don’t forget to give that paper back to me when yer done with it. Don’t let any of those other blanks get holt of it, or the chances are I won’t set eyes on it again.”

But the other blanks get it in their turn after being referred to Bill. “You must ask Bill,” says Jack to the next blank, “I got it from him.” And when Bill gets his paper back finally—which is often only after much bush grumbling, accusation, recrimination, and denial—he severely and carefully re-arranges the pages, folds the paper, and sticks it away up over a rafter, or behind a post or batten, or under his pillow where it will be safe. He wants that paper to send to Jim.

Bill is but an indifferent hand at folding, and knows little or nothing about wrappers. He folds and re-folds the paper several times and in various ways, but the first result is often the best, and is finally adopted. The parcel looks more ugly than neat; but Bill puts a weight upon it so that it won’t fly open, and looks round for a piece of string to tie it with. Sometimes he ties it firmly round the middle, sometimes at both ends; at other times he runs the string down inside the folds and ties it that way, or both ways, or all the ways, so as to be sure it won’t come undone—which it doesn’t as a rule. If he can’t find a piece of string long enough, he ties two bits together, and submits the result to a rather severe test; and if the string is too thin, or he has to use thread, he doubles it. Then he worries round to find out who has got the ink, or whether anyone has seen anything of the pen; and when he gets them, he writes the address with painful exactitude on the margin of the paper, sometimes in two or three places. He has to think a moment before he writes; and perhaps he’ll scratch the back of his head afterwards with an inky finger, and regard the address with a sort of mild, passive surprise. His old mate Jim was always plain Jim to him, and nothing else; but, in order to reach Jim, this paper has to be addressed to—

        c/o J. W. Dowell, Esq.,
            Munnigrub Station.

and so on. “Mitchell” seems strange—Bill couldn’t think of it for the moment—and so does “James.”

And, a week or so later, over on Coolgardie, or away up in northern Queensland, or bush-felling down in Maoriland, Jim takes a stroll up to the post office after tea on mail night. He doesn’t expect any letters, but there might be a paper from Bill. Bill generally sends him a newspaper. They seldom write to each other, these old mates.

There were points, of course, upon which Bill and Jim couldn’t agree—subjects upon which they argued long and loud and often in the old days; and it sometimes happens that Bill comes across an article or a paragraph which agrees with and, so to speak, barracks for a pet theory of his as against one held by Jim; and Bill marks it with a chuckle and four crosses at the corners—and an extra one at each side perhaps—and sends it on to Jim; he reckons it’ll rather corner old Jim. The crosses are not over ornamental nor artistic, but very distinct; Jim sees them from the reverse side of the sheet first, maybe, and turns it over with interest to see what it is. He grins a good-humoured grin as he reads—poor old Bill is just as thick-headed and obstinate as ever—just as far gone on his old fad. It’s rather rough on Jim, because he’s too far off to argue; but, if he’s very earnest on the subject, he’ll sit down and write, using all his old arguments to prove that the man who wrote that rot was a fool. This is one of the few things that will make them write to each other. Or else Jim will wait till he comes across a paragraph in another paper which barracks for his side of the argument, and, in his opinion. rather knocks the stuffing out of Bill’s man; then he marks it with more and bigger crosses and a grin, and sends it along to Bill. They are both democrats—these old mates generally are—and at times one comes across a stirring article or poem, and marks it with approval and sends it along. Or it may be a good joke, or the notice of the death of an old mate. What a wave of feeling and memories a little par can take through the land!

Jim is a sinner and a scoffer, and Bill is an earnest, thorough, respectable old freethinker, and consequently they often get a War Cry or a tract sent inside their exchanges—somebody puts it in for a joke.

Long years ago—long years ago Bill and Jim were sweet on a rose of the bush—or a lily of the goldfields—call her Lily King. Both courted her at the same time, and quarrelled over her—fought over her, perhaps—and were parted by her for years. But that’s all bygones. Perhaps she loved Bill, perhaps she loved Jim—perhaps both; or, maybe, she wasn’t sure which. Perhaps she loved neither. and was only stringing them on. Anyway, she didn’t marry either the one or the other. She married another man—call him Jim Smith. And so, in after years, Bill comes across a paragraph in a local paper, something like the following:

On July 10th, at her residence, Eureka Cottage, Ballarat-street, Tally Town, the wife of James Smith of twins (boy and girl); all three doing well.

And Bill marks it with a loud chuckle and big crosses, and sends it along to Jim. Then Bill sits and thinks and smokes, and thinks till the fire goes out, and quite forgets all about putting that necessary patch on his pants.

And away down on Auckland gum-fields, perhaps, Jim reads the par with a grin; then grows serious, and sits and scrapes his gum by the flickering firelight in a mechanical manner, and—thinks. His thoughts are far away in the back years—faint and far, far and faint. For the old, lingering, banished pain returns and hurts a man’s heart like the false wife who comes back again, falls on her knees before him, and holds up her trembling arms and pleads with swimming, upturned eyes, which are eloquent with the love she felt too late.

It is supposed to be something to have your work published in an English magazine, to have it published in book form, to be flattered by critics and reprinted throughout the country press, or even to be cut up well and severely. But, after all, now we come to think of it, we would almost as soon see a piece of ours marked with big inky crosses in the soiled and crumpled rag that Bill or Jim gets sent him by an old mate of his—the paper that goes thousands of miles scrawled all over with smudgy addresses and tied with a piece of string.

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