An Oversight of Steelman’s
STEELMAN and Smith—professional wanderers—were making back for Wellington, down through the wide and rather dreary-looking Hutt Valley. They were broke. They carried their few remaining belongings in two skimpy, amateurish-looking swags. Steelman had fourpence left. They were very tired and very thirsty—at least Steelman was, and he answered for both. It was Smith’s policy to feel and think just exactly as Steelman did. Said Steelman: “The landlord of the next pub. is not a bad sort. I won’t go in— he might remember me. You’d best go in. You’ve been tramping round in the Wairarapa district for the last six months, looking for work. You’re going back to Wellington now, to try and get on the new corporation works just being started there—the sewage works. You think you’ve got a show. You’ve got some mates in Wellington, and they’re looking out for a chance for you. You did get a job last week on a sawmill at Silverstream, and the boss sacked you after three days and wouldn’t pay you a penny. That’s just his way. I know him— at least a mate of mine does. I’ve heard of him often enough. His name’s Cowman. Don’t forget the name, whatever you do. The landlord here hates him like poison; he’ll sympathize with you. Tell him you’ve got a mate with you; he’s gone ahead—took a short cut across the paddocks. Tell him you’ve got only fourpence left, and see if he’ll give you a drop in a bottle. Says you: ‘Well, boss, the fact is we’ve only got fourpence, but you might let us have a drop in a bottle’; and very likely he’ll stand you a couple of pints in a gin-bottle. You can fling the coppers on the counter, but the chances are he won’t take them. He’s not a bad sort. Beer’s fourpence a pint out here, same’s in Wellington. See that gin-bottle lying there by the stump; get it and we’ll take it down to the river with us and rinse it out.”
They reached the river bank.
“You’d better take my swag—it looks more decent,” said Steelman. “No, I’ll tell you what we’ll do: we’ll undo both swags and make them into one—one decent swag, and I’ll cut round through the lanes and wait for you on the road ahead of the pub.”
He rolled up the swag with much care and deliberation and considerable judgment. He fastened Smith’s belt round one end of it, and the handkerchiefs round the other, and made a towel serve as a shoulder-strap.
“I wish we had a canvas bag to put it in,” he said, “or a cover of some sort. But never mind. The landlord’s an old Australian bushman, now I come to think of it; the swag looks Australian enough, and it might appeal to his feelings, you know—bring up old recollections. But you’d best not say you come from Australia, because he’s been there, and he’d soon trip you up. He might have been where you’ve been, you know, so don’t try to do too much. You always do mug-up the business when you try to do more than I tell you. You might tell him your mate came from Australia—but no, he might want you to bring me in. Better stick to Maoriland. I don’t believe in too much ornamentation. Plain lies are the best.”
“What’s the landlord’s name?” asked Smith.
“Never mind that. You don’t want to know that. You are not supposed to know him at all. It might look suspicious if you called him by his name, and lead to awkward questions; then you’d be sure to put your foot into it.”
“I could say I read it over the door.”
“Bosh. Travellers don’t read the names over the doors, when they go into pubs. You’re an entire stranger to him. Call him ‘Boss’. Say ‘Good-day, Boss,’ when you go in, and swing down your swag as if you’re used to it. Ease it down like this. Then straighten yourself up, stick your hat back, and wipe your forehead, and try to look as hearty and independent and cheerful as you possibly can. Curse the Government, and say the country’s done. It don’t matter what Government it is, for he’s always against it. I never knew a real Australian that wasn’t. Say that you’re thinking about trying to get over to Australia, and then listen to him talking about it— and try to look interested, too! Get that damned stone-deaf expression off your face! . . . He’ll run Australia down most likely (I never knew an Other-sider that had settled down over here who didn’t). But don’t you make any mistake and agree with him, because, although successful Australians over here like to run their own country down, there’s very few of them that care to hear anybody else do it. . . . Don’t come away as soon as you get your beer. Stay and listen to him for a while, as if you’re interested in his yarning, and give him time to put you on to a job, or offer you one. Give him a chance to ask how you and your mate are off for tobacco or tucker. Like as not he’ll sling you half a crown when you come away—that is, if you work it all right. Now try to think of something to say to him, and make yourself a bit interesting—if you possibly can. Tell him about the fight we saw back at the pub. the other day. He might know some of the chaps. This is a sleepy hole, and there ain’t much news knocking round. . . . I wish I could go in myself, but he’s sure to remember me. I’m afraid he got left the last time I stayed there (so did one or two others); and, besides, I came away without saying good-bye to him, and he might feel a bit sore about it. That’s the worst of travelling on the old road. Come on now, wake up!”
“Bet I’ll get a quart,” said Smith, brightening up, “and some tucker for it to wash down.”
“If you don’t,” said Steelman, “I’ll stoush you. Never mind the bottle; fling it away. It doesn’t look well for a traveller to go into a pub. with an empty bottle in his hand. A real swagman never does. It looks much better to come out with a couple of full ones. That’s what you’ve got to do. Now, come along.”
Steelman turned off into a lane, cut across the paddocks to the road again, and waited for Smith. He hadn’t long to wait.
Smith went on towards the public-house, rehearsing his part as he walked— repeating his “lines” to himself, so as to be sure of remembering all that Steelman had told him to say to the landlord, and adding, with what he considered appropriate gestures, some fancy touches of his own, which he determined to throw in in spite of Steelman’s advice and warning. “I’ll tell him (this)—I’ll tell him (that). Well, look here, boss, I’ll say you’re pretty right and I quite agree with you as far as that’s concerned, but,” &c. And so, murmuring and mumbling to himself, Smith reached the hotel. The day was late, and the bar was small, and low, and dark. Smith walked in with all the assurance he could muster, eased down his swag in a corner in what he no doubt considered the true professional style, and, swinging round to the bar, said in a loud voice which he intended to be cheerful, independent, and hearty:
But it wasn’t a “boss”. It was about the hardest-faced old woman that Smith had ever seen. The pub. had changed hands.
“I—I beg your pardon, missus,” stammered poor Smith.
It was a knock-down blow for Smith. He couldn’t come to time. He and Steelman had had a landlord in their minds all the time, and laid their plans accordingly; the possibility of having a she —and one like this—to deal with never entered into their calculations. Smith had no time to reorganise, even if he had had the brains to do so, without the assistance of his mate’s knowledge of human nature.
“I—I beg your pardon, missus,” he stammered.
Painful pause. She sized him up.
“Well, what do you want?”
“Well, missus—I—the fact is—will you give me a bottle of beer for fourpence?”
“I mean——. The fact is, we’ve only got fourpence left, and—I’ve got a mate outside, and you might let us have a quart or so, in a bottle, for that. I mean—anyway, you might let us have a pint. I’m very sorry to bother you, missus.”
But she couldn’t do it. No. Certainly not. Decidedly not! All her drinks were sixpence. She had her license to pay, and the rent, and a family to keep. It wouldn’t pay out there—it wasn’t worth her while. It wouldn’t pay the cost of carting the liquor out, &c., &c.
“Well, missus,” poor Smith blurted out at last, in sheer desperation, “give me what you can in a bottle for this. I’ve—I’ve got a mate outside.” And he put the four coppers on the bar.
“Have you got a bottle?”
“If I give you one, will you bring it back? You can’t expect me to give you a bottle as well as a drink.”
“Yes, mum; I’ll bring it back directly.”
She reached out a bottle from under the bar, and very deliberately measured out a little over a pint and poured it into the bottle, which she handed to Smith without a cork.
Smith went his way without rejoicing. It struck him forcibly that he should have saved the money until they reached Petone, or the city, where Steelman would be sure to get a decent drink. But how was he to know? He had chanced it, and lost; Steelman might have done the same. What troubled Smith most was the thought of what Steelman would say; he already heard him, in imagination, saying: “You’re a mug, Smith— Smith, you are a mug.”
But Steelman didn’t say much. He was prepared for the worst by seeing Smith come along so soon. He listened to his story with an air of gentle sadness, even as a stern father might listen to the voluntary confession of a wayward child; then he held the bottle up to the fading light of departing day, looked through it (the bottle), and said:
“Well—it ain’t worth while dividing it.”
Smith’s heart shot right down through a hole in the sole of his left boot into the hard road.
“Here, Smith,” said Steelman, handing him the bottle, “drink it, old man; you want it. It wasn’t altogether your fault; it was an oversight of mine. I didn’t bargain for a woman of that kind, and, of course, you couldn’t be expected to think of it. Drink it! Drink it down, Smith. I’ll manage to work the oracle before this night is out.”
Smith was forced to believe his ears, and, recovering from his surprise, drank.
“I promised to take back the bottle,” he said, with the ghost of a smile.
Steelman took the bottle by the neck and broke it on the fence.
“Come on, Smith; I’ll carry the swag for a while.”
And they tramped on in the gathering starlight.
- Written by Henry Lawson
- Source: On The Track, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1900