[Editor: Published in Over the Sliprails, by Henry Lawson (1900).]
New Year’s night
It was dark enough for anything in Dead Man’s Gap — a round, warm, close darkness, in which retreating sounds seemed to be cut off suddenly at a distance of a hundred yards or so, instead of growing faint and fainter, and dying away, to strike the ear once or twice again — and after minutes, it might seem — with startling distinctness, before being finally lost in the distance, as it is on clear, frosty nights. So with the sounds of horses’ hoofs, stumbling on the rough bridle-track through the “saddle,” the clatter of hoof-clipped stones and scrape of gravel down the hidden “siding,” and the low sound of men’s voices, blurred and speaking in monosyllables and at intervals it seemed, and in hushed, awed tones, as though they carried a corpse. To practical eyes, grown used to such a darkness, and at the nearest point, the passing blurrs would have suggested two riders on bush hacks leading a third with an empty saddle on its back — a lady’s or “side-saddle”, if one could have distinguished the horns. They may have struck a soft track or level, or rounded the buttress of the hill higher up, but before they had time to reach or round the foot of the spur, blurs, whispers, stumble and clatter of hoofs, jingle of bridle rings, and the occasional clank together of stirrup irons, seemed shut off as suddenly and completely as though a great sound-proof door had swung to behind them.
It was dark enough on the glaringest of days down in the lonely hollow or “pocket,” between two spurs, at the head of a blind gully behind Mount Buckaroo, where there was a more or less dusty patch, barely defined even in broad daylight by a spidery dog-legged fence on three sides, and a thin “two-rail” (dignified with the adjective “split-rail” — though rails and posts were mostly of saplings split in halves) running along the frontage. In about the middle of it a little slab hut, overshadowed by a big stringy-bark shed, was pointed out as Johnny Mears’s Farm.
“Black as — as charcoal,” said Johnny Mears. He had never seen coal, and was a cautious man, whose ideas came slowly. He stooped, close by the fence, with his hands on his knees, to “sky” the loom of his big shed and so get his bearings. He had been to have a look at the penned calves, and see that all slip-rails were up and pegged, for the words of John Mears junior, especially when delivered rapidly and shrilly and in injured tones, were not to be relied upon in these matters.
“It’s hot enough to melt the belly out of my fiddle,” said Johnny Mears to his wife, who sat on a three-legged stool by the rough table in the little whitewashed “end-room,” putting a patch of patches over the seat of a pair of moleskin knickerbockers. He lit his pipe, moved a stool to the side of the great empty fireplace, where it looked cooler — might have been cooler on account of a possible draught suggested by the presence of the chimney, and where, therefore, he felt a breath cooler. He took his fiddle from a convenient shelf, tuned it slowly and carefully, holding his pipe (in his mouth) well up and to one side, as if the fiddle were an inquisitive and restless baby. He played “Little Drops o’ Brandy” three times, right through, without variations, blinking solemnly the while; then he put the violin carefully back in its box, and started to cut up another pipeful.
“You should have gone, Johnny,” said the haggard little woman.
“Rackin’ the horse out a night like this,” retorted Johnny, “and startin’ ploughin’ to-morrow. It ain’t worth while. Let them come for me if they want me. Dance on a night like this! Why! they’ll dance in ——”
“But you promised. It won’t do you no good, Johnny.”
“It won’t do me no harm.”
The little woman went on stitching.
“It’s smotherin’ hot,” said Johnny, with an impatient oath. “I don’t know whether I’ll turn in, or turn out, under the shed to-night. It’s too d——d hot to roost indoors.”
She bent her head lower over the patch. One smoked and the other stitched in silence for twenty minutes or so, during which time Johnny might be supposed to have been deliberating listlessly as to whether he’d camp out on account of the heat, or turn in. But he broke the silence with a clout at a mosquito on the nape of his neck, and a bad word.
“I wish you wouldn’t swear so much, Johnny,” she said wearily — “at least not to-night.”
He looked at her blankly.
“Why — why to-night? What’s the matter with you to-night, Mary? What’s to-night more than any other night to you? I see no harm — can’t a man swear when a mosquito sticks him?”
“I — I was only thinking of the boys, Johnny.”
“The boys! Why, they’re both on the hay in the shed.” He stared at her again, shifted uneasily, crossed the other leg tightly, frowned, blinked, and reached for the matches. “You look a bit off-colour, Mary. It’s the heat that makes us all a bit ratty at times. Better put that by and have a swill o’ oatmeal and water, and turn in.”
“It’s too hot to go to bed. I couldn’t sleep. I’m all right. I’ll — I’ll just finish this. Just reach me a drink from the water-bag — the pannikin’s on the hob there, by your boot.”
He scratched his head helplessly, and reached for the drink. When he sat down again, he felt strangely restless. “Like a hen that didn’t know where to lay,” he put it. He couldn’t settle down or keep still, and didn’t seem to enjoy his pipe somehow. He rubbed his head again.
“There’s a thunderstorm comin’,” he said. “That’s what it is; and the sooner it comes the better.”
He went to the back door, and stared at the blackness to the east, and, sure enough, lightning was blinking there.
“It’s coming, sure enough; just hang out and keep cool for another hour, and you’ll feel the difference.”
He sat down again on the three-legged stool, folded his arms, with his elbows on his knees, drew a long breath, and blinked at the clay floor for awhile; then he twisted the stool round on one leg, until he faced the old-fashioned spired wooden clock (the brass disc of the pendulum moving ghost-like through a scarred and scratched marine scene — Margate in England — on the glass that covered the lower half) that stood alone on the slab shelf over the fireplace. The hands indicated half-past two, and Johnny, who had studied that clock and could “hit the time nigh enough by it,” after knitting his brows and blinking at the dial for a full minute by its own hand, decided “that it must be getting on toward nine o’clock.”
It must have been the heat. Johnny stood up, raking his hair, turned to the door and back again, and then, after an impatient gesture, took up his fiddle and raised it to his shoulder. Then the queer thing happened. He said afterwards, under conditions favourable to such sentimental confidence, that a cold hand seemed to take hold of the bow, through his, and — anyway, before he knew what he was about he had played the first bars of “When First I Met Sweet Peggy,” a tune he had played often, twenty years before, in his courting days, and had never happened to play since. He sawed it right through (the cold hand left after the first bar or two) standing up; then still stood with fiddle and bow trembling in his hands, with the queer feeling still on him, and a rush of old thoughts going through his head, all of which he set down afterwards to the effect of the heat. He put the fiddle away hastily, damning the bridge of it at the same time in loud but hurried tones, with the idea of covering any eccentricity which the wife might have noticed in his actions. “Must ’a’ got a touch o’ sun,” he muttered to himself. He sat down, fumbled with knife, pipe, and tobacco, and presently stole a furtive glance over his shoulder at his wife.
The washed-out little woman was still sewing, but stitching blindly, for great tears were rolling down her worn cheeks.
Johnny, white-faced on account of the heat, stood close behind her, one hand on her shoulder and the other clenched on the table; but the clenched hand shook as badly as the loose one.
“Good God! What is the matter, Mary? You’re sick! (They had had little or no experience of illness.) Tell me, Mary — come now! Has the boys been up to anything?”
“No, Johnny; it’s not that.”
“What is it then? You’re taken sick! What have you been doing with yourself? It might be fever. Hold up a minute. You wait here quiet while I roost out the boys and send ’em for the doctor and someone ——.”
“No! no! I’m not sick, John. It’s only a turn. I’ll be all right in a minute.”
He shifted his hand to her head, which she dropped suddenly, with a life-weary sigh, against his side.
“Now then!” cried Johnny, wildly, “don’t you faint or go into disterricks, Mary! It’ll upset the boys; think of the boys! It’s only the heat — you’re only takin’ queer.”
“It’s not that; you ought to know me better than that. It was — I — Johnny, I was only thinking — we’ve been married twenty years to-night — an’ — it’s New Year’s Night!”
“And I’ve never thought of it!” said Johnny (in the afterwards). “Shows what a God-forgotten selection will make of a man. She’d thought of it all the time, and was waiting for it to strike me. Why! I’d agreed to go and play at a darnce at Old Pipeclay School-house all night — that very night — and leave her at home because she hadn’t asked to come; and it never struck me to ask her — at home by herself in that hole — for twenty-five bob. And I only stopped at home because I’d got the hump, and knew they’d want me bad at the school.”
They sat close together on the long stool by the table, shy and awkward at first; and she clung to him at opening of thunder, and they started apart guiltily when the first great drops sounded like footsteps on the gravel outside, just as they’d done one night-time before — twenty years before.
If it was dark before, it was black now. The edge of the awful storm-cloud rushed up and under the original darkness like the best “drop” black-brushed over the cheap “lamp” variety, turning it grey by contrast. The deluge lasted only a quarter of an hour; but it cleared the night, and did its work. There was hail before it, too — big as emu eggs, the boys said — that lay feet deep in the old diggers’ holes on Pipeclay for days afterwards — weeks some said.
The two sweethearts of twenty years ago and to-night watched the retreat of the storm, and, seeing Mount Buckaroo standing clear, they went to the back door, which opened opposite the end of the shed, and saw to the east a glorious arch of steel-blue, starry sky, with the distant peaks showing clear and blue away back under the far-away stars in the depth of it.
They lingered awhile — arms round each other’s waists — before she called the boys, just as they had done this time of night twenty years ago, after the boys’ grandmother had called her.
“Awlright, mother!” bawled back the boys, with unfilial independence of Australian youth. “We’re awlright! We’ll be in directly! Wasn’t it a pelterer, mother?”
They went in and sat down again. The embarrassment began to wear off.
“We’ll get out of this, Mary,” said Johnny. “I’ll take Mason’s offer for the cattle and things, and take that job of Dawson’s, boss or no boss” — (Johnny’s bad luck was due to his inability in the past to “get on” with any boss for any reasonable length of time) — “I can get the boys on, too. They’re doing no good here, and growing up. It ain’t doing justice to them; and, what’s more, this life is killin’ you, Mary. That settles it! I was blind. Let the jumpt-up selection go! It’s making a wall-eyed bullock of me, Mary — a dry-rotted rag of a wall-eyed bullock like Jimmy Nowlett’s old Strawberry. And you’ll live in town like a lady.”
“Somebody coming!” yelled the boys.
There was a clatter of sliprails hurriedly thrown down, and clipped by horses’ hoofs.
“Insoide there! Is that you, Johnny?”
“Yes!” (“I knew they’d come for you,” said Mrs. Mears to Johnny.)
“You’ll have to come, Johnny. There’s no get out of it. Here’s Jim Mason with me, and we’ve got orders to stun you and pack you if you show fight. The blessed fiddler from Mudgee didn’t turn up. Dave Regan burst his concertina, and they’re in a fix.”
“But I can’t leave the missus.”
“That’s all right. We’ve got the school missus’s mare and side-saddle. She says you ought to be jolly well ashamed of yourself, Johnny Mears, for not bringing your wife on New Year’s Night. And so you ought!”
Johnny did not look shame-faced, for reasons unknown to them.
“The boys couldn’t find the horses,” put in Mrs. Mears. “Johnny was just going down the gully again.”
He gave her a grateful look, and felt a strange, new thrill of admiration for his wife.
“And — there’s a bottle of the best put by for you, Johnny,” added Pat McDurmer, mistaking Johnny’s silence; “and we’ll call it thirty bob!” (Johnny’s ideas were coming slowly again, after the recent rush.) “Or — two quid! — there you are!”
“I don’t want two quid, nor one either, for taking my wife to a dance on New Year’s Night!” said Johnny Mears. “Run and put on your best bib and tucker, Mary.”
And she hurried to dress as eager and excited, and smiling to herself as girlishly as she had done on such occasions on evenings before the bright New Year’s Night twenty years ago.
Henry Lawson, Over the Sliprails, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1900, pages 94-103
awhile = for a time; in modern times it is usually rendered as two words, “a while”
blurr = an archaic spelling of “blur” [see: Charles Richardson, A New Dictionary of the English Language, vol. I, London: William Pickering 1836, page 196]
d——d = damned (censored, as it is a swear word)
hack = horse; a horse for general hire; a horse used for general work purposes; a worn-out horse
hob = metal shelf at the side, or rear, of a fireplace, on which something may be placed so as to keep it warm (commonly used to heat up pans) (may also refer to a cooktop, the flat top of a stove or cooker)
knickerbockers = loose-fitting short trousers which are gathered in at, or just below, the knee
pannikin = a small metal pan, or a small metal cup
queer = ill, slightly ill (may also refer to: something odd or strange; a homosexual)
ratty = (slang) mad, crazy, insane (may also refer to being bad-tempered, irritable, or nasty; or dilapidated, ramshackle, shabby, or in a wretched condition)
sliprail = one of a set of several horizontal fence rails that can be moved (slipped in or out of place) so as to easily create an opening in a fence, and then close it up again (sliprails are distinct from the common sets of fence rails, which are nailed or bolted to keep them in place) (spelt as “slip-rail” or “sliprail)
Vernacular spelling in the original text:
[Editor: Changed “What is the matter, Mary.” to “What is the matter, Mary?”; “an — it’s New Year’s Night” to “an’ — it’s New Year’s Night”; “said Johnny to Mrs. Mears” to “said Mrs. Mears to Johnny”.]
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