Send Round the Hat

The Sex Problem Again

Henry Lawson

IT was Mitchell’s habit to take an evening off now and then from yarning or reflecting, and proceed, in a most methodical manner, to wash his spare shirts and patch his pants. I was in the habit of contributing to some Sydney papers, and every man is an editor at heart, so, at other times, Mitchell would take another evening off, and root out my swag, and go through my papers in the same methodical manner, and make alterations and additions without comment or reference to me; and sometimes he’d read a little thing of my own which didn’t meet his views, and accidentally drop it into the fire; and at other times he’d get hold of some rhyme or sketch that was troubling me, and wrap it up and give it to a passing mailman unbeknown to me. The unexpected appearance of such articles in the paper, as well as the effects of the involuntary collaboration in other pieces, gave me several big surprises.

It was in camp on a fencing contract west of Bourke. We had a book which we’d borrowed from a library at Bourke for a year or two—never mind the name of it—it was in ninety-one or ninety-two, and the sex problem was booming then.

I had been surreptitiously tearing some carefully-written slips of manuscript—leaves taken from an old pocket-book—into small pieces; I dropped them, with apparent carelessness, into the fire and stood with my back to it.

“I’ll bet five pounds,” said Mitchell, suddenly, “that you’ve been trying your hand on a sex-problem story.”

I shifted uneasily and brought my hands from behind me into my pockets. “Well, to tell you the truth,” I admitted, “I have.”

“I thought so,” exclaimed Mitchell. “We’ll be put to the expense of sending you to Sydney for medical treatment yet. You’ve been having too easy times lately, plenty of hard graft and no anxiety about tucker or the future. What are the symptoms?”

“Well,” I said, taking a hand out to scratch the back of my head, “the plot looked all right—at first sight.”

“So there’s a plot, is there? Well, in the first place, a plot is a problem. Well, what’s the plot? . . . Come on, you needn’t be frightened to tell an old mate like me.”

“Well,” I said, “the yarn looked all right at first sight; that article of ‘T’s’ in the Bulletin turned me off it; listen and see what you think of it: There was a young fellow, a bit of a genius ”

“Just so, it’s the geniuses that build the sex problems. It’s an autobiography. Go on.”

“Well, he married a girl.”

Mitchell (sotto voce): “God help her.”

“He loved her, and she loved him: but after they’d been married a while he found out that, although he understood her, she didn’t and couldn’t possibly ever understand him.”

“Yes,” commented Mitchell, “and if he hadn’t caught the sex problem, nor been reading about it, he would never have found that out.”

“It was a terrible disappointment,” I continued—I had got into the habit of taking Mitchell’s interruptions and comments as matters of course—“He saw that his life would be a hell with her——”

Mitchell: “Didn’t strike him that her life would be a hell with him?”

“They had no thought in common.”

Mitchell: “She was in her right mind then.”

“But he couldn’t leave her because he loved her, and because he knew that she loved him and would break her heart if he left her.”

“Must have been a pretty cocksure sort of a fellow,” remarked Mitchell, “but all geniuses are.”

“When he was with her he saw all her obstinacy, unreason, and selfishness; but when he was away he only saw her good points.”

Mitchell: “Pity such men don’t stop away.”

“He thought and thought, and brooded over it till his life was a hell——”

Mitchell: “Jes-so: thanks to the problemaniacs.”

“He thought of killing her and himself, and so taking her with him——”

“Where?” asked Mitchell. “He must have loved her a lot. . . . Good Lord! That shows the awful effects of the sex problem on the mind of a healthy young man like you;” and Mitchell stood up.

“He lay awake by her side at nights thinking and fighting the thing out.”

“And you’ve been lying awake, thinking, with me and ‘the Oracle’ by your side. We’ll have to plant the tommy-hawk, and watch you by turns at night till you get over this.”

“One night he rested on his elbow, and watched her sleeping, and tried to reconstruct his ideal out of her, and, just when he was getting into a happier frame of mind, her mouth fell open, and she snored. . . . I didn’t get any further than the snore,” I said.

“No, of course you didn’t,” said Mitchell, “and none of the sex problemers ever will—unless they get as far as ‘blanky.’ You might have made the snore cure him; did it?”

“No, it was making things worse in my idea of the yarn. He fell back and lay staring at the ceiling in a hopeless kind of a way.”

“Then he was a fit case for the lunatic asylum. . . . Now, look here, Harry, you’re a good-natured, soft old fool when you’re in your right mind; just you go on being a good-natured, soft old fool, and don’t try to make a problem out of yourself or anybody else, or you’ll come to a bad end. A pocket-book’s to keep your accounts in, not to take notes in (you take them in your head and use ’em in your arms), not to write sex-problem rot in—that’s spoilt many a good pocket-book, and many a good man. You’ve got a girl you’re talking about going back to as soon as we’ve finished this contract. Don’t you make a problem of her; make a happy wife and mother of her. . . . I was very clever when I was young”—and here Mitchell’s voice took a tinge of bitterness, or sadness. “I used to make problems out of things. . . . I ain’t much to boast of now. . . . Seems to me that a good many men want to make angels of their wives without first taking trouble of making saints of themselves. We want to make women’s ways our ways—it would be just as fair to make our ways theirs. Some men want to be considered gods in their own homes; you’ll generally find that sort of men very small potatoes outside; if they weren’t they wouldn’t bother so much about being cocks on their own little dunghills. . . . And again, old mates seldom quarrel, because they understand each other’s moods. Now, if you went brooding round for any length of time I’d say to you. ‘Now then, Harry, what have I been doing to you? Spit it out, old man.’ And you’d do the same by me; but how many men would take even that much trouble with their wives?”

A breeze stirred the mulga and brought the sound of a good voice singing in the surveyors’ camp

Should old acquaintance be forgot
    And never brought to mint
Should old acquaintance be forgot
    And the days of Auld Lang Syne?

That damned old tune will upset the Oracle* for the rest of the night,” I said.

“Now, there’s the Oracle,” said Mitchell. “He was wronged by a woman as few men are wronged; his life was ruined—but he isn’t the man to take any stock in sex problems on account of her. He thinks he’s great on problems, but he isn’t. It all amounts to this—that he’s sorry for most men and all women and tries to act up to it to the best of his ability; and if he ain’t a Christian, God knows what is—I don’t. No matter what a woman does to you, or what you think she does to you, there come times, sooner or later, when you feel sorry for her—deep down in your heart—that is if you’re a man. And, no matter what action or course you might take against her, and no matter how right or justified you might seem in doing it, there comes a time when, deep down in your heart, you feel mean and doubtful about your own part. You can take that as a general thing as regards men against women, and man against man, I think. And I believe that deep-down feeling of being doubtful, or mean, or sorry, that comes afterwards, when you are cooler and know more about the world, is a right and natural thing, and we ought to act more in accordance with it.”

Came the refrain from the surveyors’ camp:

We twa hae run about the braes,
    An’ pu’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wandered mony a weary foot
    Sin’ Auld Lang Syne.

“We feel sorry for our quarrels with our worst enemy when we see him lying still and quiet—dead. Why can’t we try and feel a bit sorry beforehand?”

            For Auld Lang Syne.
We twa ha’ padl’t i’ the burn,
    Fra mornin’ sun till dine;
But seas between us braid ha’ roar’d
    Sin’ Auld Lang Syne.

“I used to feel blazing bitter against things one time but it never hurt anybody but myself in the end. I argued and quarrelled with a girl once—and made a problem of the thing and went away. She’s married to a brute now, and I’m what I am. I made a problem of a good home or the world once, and went against the last man in God’s world that I should have gone against, and turned my back on his hand, and left him. His hand was very cold the next time I took it in mine. We don’t want problems to make us more bitter against the world than we get sometimes.”

And here’s a han’ my trusty frien’,
    An’ gie’s a han’ o’ thine,
We’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet
    For Auld Lang Syne.

“And that song’s the answer of all problems,” said Mitchell. But it was I who lay awake and thought that night.

* The Oracle—See “The Story of the Oracle.”    [back]

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