Mitchell on women [short story, by Henry Lawson]

[Editor: This is a chapter from On the Track (1900) by Henry Lawson.]

Mitchell on women

“All the same,” said Mitchell’s mate, continuing an argument by the camp-fire; “all the same, I think that a woman can stand cold water better than a man. Why, when I was staying in a boarding-house in Dunedin, one very cold winter, there was a lady lodger who went down to the shower-bath first thing every morning; never missed one; sometimes went in freezing weather when I wouldn’t go into a cold bath for a fiver; and sometimes she’d stay under the shower for ten minutes at a time.”

“How’d you know?”

“Why, my room was near the bath-room, and I could hear the shower and tap going, and her floundering about.”

“Hear your grandmother!” exclaimed Mitchell, contemptuously. “You don’t know women yet. Was this woman married? Did she have a husband there?”

“No; she was a young widow.”

“Ah! well, it would have been the same if she was a young girl — or an old one. Were there some passable men-boarders there?”

I was there.”

“Oh, yes! But I mean, were there any there beside you?”

“Oh, yes, there were three or four; there was — a clerk and a ——”

“Never mind, as long as there was something with trousers on. Did it ever strike you that she never got into the bath at all?”

“Why, no! What would she want to go there at all for, in that case?”

“To make an impression on the men,” replied Mitchell promptly. “She wanted to make out she was nice, and wholesome, and well-washed, and particular. Made an impression on you, it seems, or you wouldn’t remember it.”

“Well, yes, I suppose so; and, now I come to think of it, the bath didn’t seem to injure her make-up or wet her hair; but I supposed she held her head from under the shower somehow.”

“Did she make-up so early in the morning?” asked Mitchell.

“Yes — I’m sure.”

“That’s unusual; but it might have been so where there was a lot of boarders. And about the hair — that didn’t count for anything, because washing-the-head ain’t supposed to be always included in a lady’s bath; it’s only supposed to be washed once a fortnight, and some don’t do it once a month. The hair takes so long to dry; it don’t matter so much if the woman’s got short, scraggy hair; but if a girl’s hair was down to her waist it would take hours to dry.”

“Well, how do they manage it without wetting their heads?”

“Oh, that’s easy enough. They have a little oilskin cap that fits tight over the forehead, and they put it on, and bunch their hair up in it when they go under the shower. Did you ever see a woman sit in a sunny place with her hair down after having a wash?”

“Yes, I used to see one do that regular where I was staying; but I thought she only did it to show off.”

“Not at all — she was drying her hair; though perhaps she was showing off at the same time, for she wouldn’t sit where you — or even a Chinaman — could see her, if she didn’t think she had a good head of hair. Now, I’ll tell you a yarn about a woman’s bath. I was stopping at a shabby-genteel boarding-house in Melbourne once, and one very cold winter, too; and there was a rather good-looking woman there, looking for a husband. She used to go down to the bath every morning, no matter how cold it was, and flounder and splash about as if she enjoyed it, till you’d feel as though you’d like to go and catch hold of her and wrap her in a rug and carry her in to the fire and nurse her till she was warm again.”

Mitchell’s mate moved uneasily, and crossed the other leg; he seemed greatly interested.

“But she never went into the water at all!” continued Mitchell. “As soon as one or two of the men was up in the morning she’d come down from her room in a dressing-gown. It was a toney dressing-gown, too, and set her off properly. She knew how to dress, anyway; most of that sort of women do. The gown was a kind of green colour, with pink and white flowers all over it, and red lining, and a lot of coffee-coloured lace round the neck and down the front. Well, she’d come tripping downstairs and along the passage, holding up one side of the gown to show her little bare white foot in a slipper; and in the other hand she carried her tooth-brush and bath-brush, and soap — like this — so’s we all could see ’em; trying to make out she was too particular to use soap after anyone else. She could afford to buy her own soap, anyhow; it was hardly ever wet.

“Well, she’d go into the bathroom and turn on the tap and shower; when she got about three inches of water in the bath, she’d step in, holding up her gown out of the water, and go slithering and kicking up and down the bath, like this, making a tremendous splashing. Of course she’d turn off the shower first, and screw it off very tight — wouldn’t do to let that leak, you know; she might get wet; but she’d leave the other tap on, so as to make all the more noise.”

“But how did you come to know all about this?”

“Oh, the servant girl told me. One morning she twigged her through a corner of the bathroom window that the curtain didn’t cover.”

“You seem to have been pretty thick with servant girls.”

“So do you with landladies! But never mind — let me finish the yarn. When she thought she’d splashed enough, she’d get out, wipe her feet, wash her face and hands, and carefully unbutton the two top buttons of her gown; then throw a towel over her head and shoulders, and listen at the door till she thought she heard some of the men moving about. Then she’d start for her room, and, if she met one of the men-boarders in the passage or on the stairs, she’d drop her eyes, and pretend to see for the first time that the top of her dressing-gown wasn’t buttoned — and she’d give a little start and grab the gown and scurry off to her room buttoning it up.

“And sometimes she’d come skipping into the breakfast-room late, looking awfully sweet in her dressing-gown; and if she saw any of us there, she’d pretend to be much startled, and say that she thought all the men had gone out, and make as though she was going to clear; and someone ’d jump up and give her a chair, while someone else said, ‘Come in, Miss Brown! come in! Don’t let us frighten you. Come right in, and have your breakfast before it gets cold.’ So she’d flutter a bit in pretty confusion, and then make a sweet little girly-girly dive for her chair, and tuck her feet away under the table; and she’d blush, too, but I don’t know how she managed that.

“I know another trick that women have; it’s mostly played by private barmaids. That is, to leave a stocking by accident in the bathroom for the gentlemen to find. If the barmaid’s got a nice foot and ankle, she uses one of her own stockings; but if she hasn’t she gets hold of a stocking that belongs to a girl that has. Anyway, she’ll have one readied up somehow. The stocking must be worn and nicely darned; one that’s been worn will keep the shape of the leg and foot — at least till it’s washed again. Well, the barmaid generally knows what time the gentlemen go to bath, and she’ll make it a point of going down just as a gentleman’s going. Of course he’ll give her the preference — let her go first, you know — and she’ll go in and accidentally leave the stocking in a place where he’s sure to see it, and when she comes out he’ll go in and find it; and very likely he’ll be a jolly sort of fellow, and when they’re all sitting down to breakfast he’ll come in and ask them to guess what he’s found, and then he’ll hold up the stocking. The barmaid likes this sort of thing; but she’ll hold down her head, and pretend to be confused, and keep her eyes on her plate, and there’ll be much blushing and all that sort of thing, and perhaps she’ll gammon to be mad at him, and the landlady’ll say, ‘Oh, Mr. Smith! how can yer? At the breakfast table, too!’ and they’ll all laugh and look at the barmaid, and she’ll get more embarrassed than ever, and spill her tea, and make out as though the stocking didn’t belong to her.”



Source:
Henry Lawson, On the Track, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1900, pages 69-74

Editor’s notes:
clear = clear out (depart, leave, move)

gammon = misleading, deceptive, or nonsensical talk, humbug (can also refer to a cured or smoked ham)

stop = stay

toney = having an aristocratic or “high-toned” manner or style

twig = look at; to consider or perceive; understand or figure out (to be aware of a situation)

Vernacular spelling in the original text:
ain’t (isn’t; is not)
’d (would)
’em (them)
so’s (so as)
yer (you)

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