Triangles of Life and Other Stories

Triangles of Life

I. The Reason

Henry Lawson

ALL Australia. All of the best you have seen or read, or remember of it; of what has been written about it by its own sons and in Australia. And a timber-cutter’s camp just within the blazing, blinding, humming, waving, shimmering and pulsating great dusty and gritty heart of it. Tents about, seeming only not to blaze off like so much paper, and bough cook’s-shed at the junction of two lanes of piled cut scrub. A sky darkened and dusky and lowering with drought haze and a boiled sun steaming in the centre of it. A heat that blinds to darkness with perspiration and chills momentarily and frightens men.

“God Forgive Billy” was in a bad way. He had a touch of the “dry ’orrers,” as One-Eyed-Bogan said, who had had great experience with the “Horrors,” both with his own and his mates’, and dry and otherwise. When the men came they found no dinner ready, and they found Billy sitting in the dust and ashes of his “floor,” his back propped against an upright of the shed, a bucket half full of potatoes between his legs, and a butcher’s knife held loosely in his helpless nerveless hand, lying knuckles down in the dust, and rocking a little like a broken live thing—and his greasy kerosene tins round him. Great, shiny black crows were flopping round indignantly, interrupted in a premature grace; a great repulsive-looking goanna skurried and sidled off, turning his head evilly, and went up the baked, ashen bark of a tree; and a close inspection might have revealed the fact that the black ants had already suspended hostilities in their slow, sure and bloodthirsty and merciless war of extermination against a colony of red ants on the bank of the creek (with its one yellow dam or waterhole), and their lines were drawing back towards their base—the shed. He said the Devil had taken the boiling corned beef out of the pot, and so it was no use going on with the potatoes. He described the devil, and supposed it must have been a French one, because it “certingly wearn’t a English one.” One-Eyed-Bogan took a stick and looked and poked in the kerosene tin hanging over the fire, and the meat was gone all right, or rather all wrong. He was a man who liked to see for himself, and he always looked twice at least—on account of his one eye, perhaps.

The meat had really been taken by the mangy, hairless, hide-covered skeleton of a starved Kangaroo dog, “belonging to King Billy,” that was known to be hanging about. There was “any God’s quantity of rabbits,” but dogs starve on rabbits. Billy himself, the royal one, afterwards admitted the fact, and Billy was a truthful potentate. He had seen his dog do it—take the meat out of the boiling water by a corner that stuck up, and from over the lee of the blazing fire, just as described as a lie once by one of the Bulletin’s contributors, and just as I saw it done when a boy, and describe it here as a fact.

Billy said that the other Billy sat down along a prop when he saw the dog do that. Billy (the royal one) said he believed his dog belong-it the devil, and he bin borrow poison along-a rabbit poisoner’s camp, and bin kill-it. He showed the scalp, for like all truthful men, black or white, he believed truth to be no good at all without undoubted material or written evidence behind it.

They carried Billy under the patchy “shade” of some gidgea, and laid him down and watered him till the grateful ground ceased to steam, and was much darker than the shade.

Billy sat up and told them that this was what they call the Four Lanes, and yonder straight ahead was Shepperton-on-Tems, and over there was Halliford and Sunbury-on-Tems, and that was a backwater of the Tems, with the willers an’ watercress an’ ole mill and rustic bridge, an’, twisting himself round, “there was Shawlton (Charlton) jest round the corner, with Bob Howe’s farm first, and the Farmers’ Arms, and then the village, with Shawlton House opposite, where yer see them poplers over the hedge, and then Harry Leonard’s farm, with Upper Sunbury further on, an’ the London Road leadin’ to Stains an’ Windser Castle an’ Hampton Court—an’—an’ London and everywheere else for all he know’d.” Blue smoke crawled along the ground from the burning off, and he said “that was the ground mist comin’ up, an’ it was gettin’ chilly,” and he proposed that they’d all go to the Farmers’ Arms, where he’d fill up the pewter.

Little “God Forgive Billy,” the greenest of New Chum Jackeroos, had been sent up by the Government, or Labour Bureau—that is he was given a pass and some rations, and sent away almost from the ship into the disc of Australia, of which he knew absolutely nothing except the awful blaze and dust of it—the blasting reason-shaking contrast from the green lanes of England—which was driving him mad. He had learned potato-peeling and rough cooking aboard the ship, and was liked here because of his fresh innocence, mild and obliging disposition, his gentle nursing and attention to Bogan when he had a touch o’ the sun, and his smile, which was dimples deepened and lengthened a bit, hardened and fixed. Besides, he could play both mouth-organ and tin whistle. And he had one surprising gift altogether out of keeping with his appearance and character or nature. A gift that astonished all who saw an exhibition of it for the first time—and startled some. He could act the drunken man. That is a certain type of him. And the type was Australian, and not English. He was a perfect face-maker in this respect—for it was a silent part. He’d half turn away and damp his hair and moustache swiftly, by a quick pass or sleight of hand, and his hair would be dank, his moustache slobbered, and his hand would pass drunkenly over it to fling the surplus beers away, and his limbs would go, and his left eyelid keep dropping, like a lid, and—and he’d be Billy very drunk, who had never been drunk in his life.

Was it the Billy of previous incarnation come out again for the moment?

They never grew tired of seeing Billy do it, and “Come and see Bill the cook drunk” was a common invitation to strangers and new-comers. They intended to use him for practical jokes on the boss, etc., but it wasn’t in Billy’s nature to agree to anything like that.

One-Eyed Bogan was left in camp that afternoon to mutual satisfaction, to look after poor Little Billy and his dry horrors, because Bogan was the most casual, easy-going, and pipe-lighting, and water-bag-seeking worker in that hell’s vineyard—as well as the strongest and least nervous man in camp. Besides, he said he had experience with lunatics, and (besides) he owed a debt of gratitude to Billy, and they reckoned he would be kinder to the little fellow on that account.

“And you never know how snake-quick an’ cunning an’ strong them little fellers is when they’re drunk or ratty. But I’m cunnin’ enough, I reckon, ’n’ strong enough too for pore little Billy.”

One-Eyed Bogan had a naturally sinister expression, and had been otherwise damaged about the face in many gambling and drinking rows, and his green patch and glaring eye must have been very soothing indeed to a mild little new chum going mad through heat, trouble and loneliness in a strange and fearful land.

Bogan said at tea that he’d fixed Billy with his eye all right, which was very apparent, for Billy was much worse, and had to be kept sitting on the rough stool between two of them—who humoured and watched him as a little child—because he only wanted to go down that lane and have a dip in the Thames backwater now it was dusk, and no one was about.

Bogan reckoned he was safe enough for the night, with any one to watch him, turn about, and quite harmless. But he saw the thing in another light, later on, when Billy confessed tearfully to Jack Moonlight that he thought he was going mad, because he kept craving to peel Bogan’s head with the chopper, like a big pumpkin, and quarter it. He said the Voices were urging him all the time to do it—he could hear them all the time he was speaking. And he wanted to be tied up.

Just before dark a solitary swagman, or “traveller,” came along—on his way from a shearing shed to the coach-road, he said—and seeing and hearing how things stood, he volunteered to look after Billy first part of the night, as he’d only made a short stage, and rest over next day, if they liked, with an eye to Billy and the cooking. He said he’d had to do with such cases before, and understood. He was a likely looking chap for the job—tall, with saddish brown eyes—so they washed a tin plate, knife and fork, and pint pot for him, with an audible breath of relief. But afterwards One-Eyed Bogan carefully collected the chopper, knives and forks, and all edged tools about camp and lashed them together in a bundle with bagging, a spare tent fly, and bits of clothes-line and wire—for general safety, he said. He said, “Yer couldn’t be too careful in these here cases.” He made his bed in the open, on some boughs, under the saplings, and laid the bundle beside it, and tied a cord to it and to his arm when he laid him down to rest. But he was seen, when they all were down, save Billy and his new warder, sitting up against the rising moon, and not like a “Queen of Night palm” either, and passing his hand nervously over his “pumpkin” and glancing, apprehensively, it seemed, from Billy and his new mate to the wood-heap—perhaps he was thinking of mashed raw pumpkin.

Bogan gets a fright here through Jack Moonlight stumbling over him.

Then he was seen no more, and in the morning, just as they were reckoning that he’d “gone off too,” and worse calamity of all! had taken the tools, he came out of the scrub from another direction with his bundle and blankets on his shoulder, and looking as if he’d passed a bad night. He said, “Yer could never be too careful in these here cases. They was so——cunnin’, and allers turned agin them as was nearest an’ dearest to ’em. That was a sure sign.” Which reminds me that I could never see why it should be considered a sure, or even extra, or even one sign of insanity that patients turn against friends and relatives first, and cleave to strangers. Look more like a sign of returning, or temporary, sanity, the more I think of it.

Next evening Billy was better, though he feared it coming on with the night. He had taken a great liking to the new man, whom he persisted in recognizing as a long-lost village school-mate. The swagman said he had been taken to England as a child, but remembered very little of it, and nothing of Billy. Billy showed no inclination to peel his potatoes, however, and during the evening, the It and the Voices not coming on, he told him all about it. How he had left home and run to London first, because it was gloomy at home, and there was always trouble. There was big trouble, not his, but he should ’a’stayed an’ shared it. He had a right in it. He hoped, with a momentary loss of himself and a fluttering raising of uncertain fingers to his temples, that “Bob,” the new man, wouldn’t mention a word of it in Shepparton or anywheres. He was sick an’ weak, or he wouldn’t have talked on it. . . . . “And his poor old mother!—Poor mother!” He shed tears and his voice broke into the whine that no man likes to hear. “He’d left trouble that he had as much right in as any o’ them. Left poor mother dyin’ broken-hearted on it, and Tom t’ fight it out. Poor old Tom! Good old Tom as he was allers havin’ ‘dry’ words with—an’ all his own fault. . . . ”

The stranger, who treated him as a perfectly rational being, listened with seeming interest, sympathized, soothed, and assured Billy over and over again, with astonishing patience, that it was all going to be mended and fixed up, and that Billy was going home almost directly the job was done.

About here there came what some writers call a “diversion.” It certainly diverted Bogan’s dreams, if he dreamed. It diverted Jack Moonlight in his quiet way, and was probably a relief to the new -comer. He heard some one, or something, coming through the scrub, then a silence (he heard that too), as if the man or animal had stopped, or was moving quietly. Then he fancied a shadow was bending over Bogan, but before he was sure there was a yell, and sounds like the sudden getting up of a dray horse that has been stumbled over in his sleep by a blundering old working bullock, and badly frightened. The shadows blended and went down; then one rose, and then the other, and there was bad language, then presently one shadow settled down again, and the language grumbled out on the night breeze. Bob was just going across with Billy to see, when he met Jack Moonlight, who seemed to have a “hiccup,” or a catch, in his stomach.

“What’s up?” asked Bob, with the adjectives necessary in new acquaintanceships.

“Oh, it’s only Bogan,” said Moonlight; “I dunno what the hell he wanted to play up like that for. I was coming from the fires, and I only bent over him and rubbed his head with my pipe bowl, to see if he was awake, and I told him to keep an eye out for God Forgive Billy.”

Billy had a strong objection, connected with the earth’s ’lectricity, to sleeping on his usual bed of boughs and blanket on the ground, and he had a horror of the tent. He said he’d got too much ’lectricity coming round the world, and that was what was the matter with him. He said he should never have come halfway round the world, which was correct, and having come so far he should have gone the other half and finished it—which was sane enough. So Bob made Bill’s bed on the rough sapling bench or table, under the dead-bough shed, and persuaded him to lie down. The posts had been “puddled,” or clay rammed, down hard round them, and the cavities kept filled with water, to keep the ants off the table, so Billy was isolated from them, if not from the earth’s electricity. His friend told him he was, that the water and clay acted as perfect world insulator, and he seemed satisfied.

Almost before Bob was aware, he had commenced that long, quiet, calm, deceptive sleep, which so often cruelly raises hopes in the hearts of relatives and friends of such “cases” in the earliest stages, but which never deceives mental doctors or nurses. Bob sat on the sapling seat bench with his back against a corner upright, and commenced his watch of Billy—and of other things—

I. Childhood: Rows and scenes and scenes and rows, violent rows that frightened; father and mother separated; home a hell. Boy slavery and freedom,

II. Cheap boarding house, pretty, but hysterical, daughter; mother, step-father, and sisters; rows and scenes more violent than at home. Tale of ill-treatment. Last big row. Cab, box, and hurried, mad marriage at a “matrimonial bureau.” Seven years of it.

III. Police court. Desertion. “Judicial separation.” Maintenance order. Reconciliation—court—reconciliation—court. Summons for desertion, and maintenance. Summons, summons, summons, Darlinghurst. And the full knowledge of what sort of woman she was.

He shook it off, or lifted his mind from under it. He had gone through so much that he had this power: that he could do this at will almost. The moon rose over the scrub, and all things softened. It was cool, and even growing chilly, as drought nights do grow, and he drew the blanket up over Billy, who never stirred. Then he leaned back against the corner sapling, when he heard his voice called; the close, yet far away call, very distinct. “Robert!” His elbows jumped to his sides as he straightened, but he’d heard that voice before. Then, clear and distinct: “Read, Robert—read!”

At the first start he thrust out his hand towards Billy, and his hand touched Billy’s hand, which lay, palm up, on the saplings; he was drawing back with a momentary sense of shame at his fear when Billy’s fingers closed over his, as a sleeping child’s might. Then he looked up, and across, and set his mind to read. Then gradually the “Four Lanes” took shape, and he saw the cool green, peaceful English scene, as Billy had. The ground mist was “coming up,” and dusk coming on—dusking the moonlight at first—and he saw two figures coming, or seeming more to float toward him from the direction of Shepperton-on-Thames—as in a picture from the dawn of memory. Then suddenly the figures were close to him and plain—save the faces. The girl wore a dark jacket, such as worn in England five or six years ago, and a dark hat with much forward brim, held down to hide the face, which always gives a girl a more hang-dog and guilty look than any slouch hat worn any way can give a man. And to Bob it seemed his wife, as he last saw her—under cross-examination. And who was the man? He seemed to have had both arms round the woman—or girl—in the first part of the vision, now he had only one, the left, and the right was risen as though to hide his face, shut out of sight, or ward off a blow. The attitude chilled Bob with a strange fear. Who was the man? What was Bob to do? What would Bob do? He seemed to be lying against the outside of a ditch with eyes just above the grass. Should he attack the man as “all the world” would expect him to do, or slip down and along the bottom of the ditch quietly? There was no “world” to see, so he was just sinking down, with that strange, calm, easy “will power,” or whatever it is, which makes all the difference between hypnotic influence and “nightmare” when, with a sudden upheaval, as of a wave, he was beside the girl. He was the man with one arm round her and the other up to ward off. He was struggling and grappling with Billy, the little scrub cutter’s lunatic cook, while watching whom he had fallen asleep, and—with the sudden, violent, half dislocating jerk of all the limbs and body that often accompanies an awakening from hypnotic trance, he was awake, and standing up, in his proper senses, cool and collected. It was as though nightmare, with its violent awakening, had come to the rescue from hypnotism. And Billy lay as he had fallen asleep, still sleeping peacefully. The awful hot, ghostly daylight was over the scrub, looking the same as drought nightfall.

Billy woke at his usual time, and in his usual manner, save for saying cheerily, “Oh! I’m all right now, mates!” Then with a fearful pause, he flung his wavering fingers up hopelessly to his head and said, “Oh—oh, them Voices, Bob!”

Next day, the last of the job, Billy was worse, and they had to run him down or round him up several times, but the drays came out and the men cleared up without loss of time, and went into the station for their cheques, taking Billy with them. And leaving the King Billy monarch of all he surveyed—just think of it, for hundreds of miles—and sixteen dogs and two gins. They took Billy with them—and a trusted, sober, station hand, sent by the super—to the coach road, where Poisonous Jimmy kept a pub-store and post office, and there was a “police camp” (a brick and iron one) handy. Billy had a pleasant ride—through English lanes—to Poisonous Jimmy’s—though he rode and walked with devils most of the time. He pointed out all the features of the imaginary panorama—to propitiate them perhaps. Poisonous Jimmy’s was like a deserted and dried-up slaughter yard, with the offal shed only left and cleaned up a bit, and set in big dust and sand patch in the blazing scrub desert. Here the stranger got a packet of dusty letters and a lot of copies of a Sydney paper. Then he began to act peculiar. He got the loan of the private parlour from the landlady, and, after much hunting, borrowed some scraps of brown paper. Then he got on the right side of the girl to make him some paste. Then he went through his bundle of papers and marked many paragraphs, some verse, and other matter with the stump of a blue pencil. Then he cut out all the marked pieces carefully with his penknife, and pasted them on strips of brown paper; then he borrowed a carpenter’s rule, measured the strips carefully, and entered the result in a pocket-book!

The girl noticed first, of course. Then she whispered to the landlady, who went and had an indifferent look, as also had Poisonous Jimmy. They’d seen too many drink and drought “looneys” to take much notice. Then One-Eyed Bogan went to see for himself, and glared in quite awhile with his one eye.

“——! Blowed if he ain’t took it from Billy!” he said. “I told yer yer couldn’t be too careful in them cases! Lunatic-doctors an’ lunatic-nurses all get it more or less themselves if they stick to the game long enough. Who the blazes next, I wonder?”

Then the new lunatic wanted a piece of white paper, and the landlady humoured him—as she had done the others—to “save trouble and for the sake of peace and quietness.” She found it at the bottom of a “band-box” (where did that term come from to Australia?). Then he wrapped the brown paper with the slips pasted on, folded it, tied it neatly with twine, addressed, stamped—and posted it to a newspaper!

“And I’ll have to send it, because it’s stamped,” said Poisonous Jimmy. “Couldn’t keep it back without a doctor’s certificate. You chaps had better give the policeman a hint—what goes in the coach with your mate. T’other looney’s goin’ too.”

But just a little rite had to be performed that belongs to the Bushman’s Creed in another man’s trouble—be he Bushman or—or Chinaman—and which is usually performed on the quiet, mysteriously, furtively, and looks more like a low class conspiracy, or better class robbery being planned than anything else. But in Billy’s case it didn’t matter. Bogan collected the men in the bar, and took off his old black slouch calico crowned straw hat. But Jack Moonlight objected jocularly that there were edges of straw inside under which coins might slip in a hat held by experienced hands (he was a noted gambler—and so was One-Eyed Bogan).

So One-Eyed Bogan borrowed Moonlight’s hat, “chucked” “half-a-caser” in it for a send-off, and passed it round. In a shearing shed in full swing in a good season it would have been quids, half-quids, casers, and at the lowest half-casers permitted. But scrub-cutting is low down and “red hot” in a bad season. “Anyways,” Bogan said, “there was enough to get a clean shirt and socks and a handkerchief and boot laces for Billy.” When Bogan got his last shearing cheque he went to Sydney and ended up, or rather began a new life in the Darlinghurst Receiving House, with a pair of torn trousers, a shirt, the best part of a waistcoat, a new elastic side-boot, and one sock. He sang “Home, Sweet Home!” all the first night in the padded cell—“an’ that’ll show how bad I was!” he said.

And at the last moment, Bogan told the policeman in charge of Billy, for his comfort on a thirty-mile dry stretch, that “he’d better keep his eye on the other fellow too!” And the driver was a noted eccentric, and there were no other passengers—but—well, all men are mad more or less—and more Out Back in drought time. So perhaps the inspector thought himself lucky to have no more than three looneys on hand—and one of them he knew. Better the lunatic you know than the one you don’t.

Then they went their various ways through their common hells to their private ones, sober, drunken and domestic.

“But,” said Bob to the policeman, casually, as they plunged into a fifty-mile bank of dust, “that’s a hard case, that one-eyed chap they call the Bogan. What lark was he up to when he took your lug?”

Which satisfied the constable at once that it was only another little practical joke attempted on the police, whereas Bob might have talked to him till Sydney, and never convinced him that his new and previous mates had been in earnest, but mistaken.

Bob now became Billy’s brother Tom, and was told all about it again—about Billy’s troubles in Australia—and so on through all the freaks of a disordered brain to Redfern Terminus.

Billy was taken to the Receiving House, where Bob went to see him, and they saved him from Callan Park.

Some weeks later a boat of the Bright Star Line wanted a fourth or fifth cook (and as many shillings a month firemen as they could get), and Billy went as cook, and the other lunatic saw him off with a supply of tobacco and a parcel of clean things.

And there was one little man with a smile in England who never talked of Australia.

In 1901 Robert Cleaves went to London with great hopes—and deep fears—as a writer, and struck a period of “mental dismay,” as I heard it called by another who went to London with great hopes as a young poet, and came back grey. But it was more than “mental dismay” with Bob, it was mental horror—or horrors—most of the time, for he had heavy private trouble on him, and no funds, relatives or friends. In the lowest depth of the dismay, and on the verge of rags and starvation, he thought of “Shawlton” and “God Forgive Billy.”

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