The moon rose away out on the edge of a smoky plain, seen through a sort of tunnel or arch in the fringe of mulga behind which we were camped — Jack Mitchell and I. The ‘timber’ proper was just behind us, very thick and very dark. The moon looked like a big new copper boiler set on edge on the horizon of the plain, with the top turned towards us and a lot of old rags and straw burning inside.
We had tramped twenty-five miles on a dry stretch on a hot day — swagmen know what that means. We reached the water about two hours ‘after dark’ — swagmen know what that means. We didn’t sit down at once and rest — we hadn’t rested for the last ten miles. We knew that if we sat down we wouldn’t want to get up again in a hurry — that, if we did, our leg-sinews, especially those of our calves, would ‘draw’ like red-hot wires. You see, we hadn’t been long on the track this time — it was only our third day out. Swagmen will understand.
We got the billy boiled first, and some leaves laid down for our beds and the swags rolled out. We thanked the Lord that we had some cooked meat and a few johnny-cakes left, for we didn’t feel equal to cooking. We put the billy of tea and our tucker-bags between the heads of our beds, and the pipes and tobacco in the crown of an old hat, where we could reach them without having to get up. Then we lay down on our stomachs and had a feed. We didn’t eat much — we were too tired for that — but we drank a lot of tea. We gave our calves time to tone down a bit; then we lit up and began to answer each other. It got to be pretty comfortable, so long as we kept those unfortunate legs of ours straight, and didn’t move round much.
We cursed society because we weren’t rich men, and then we felt better and conversation drifted lazily round various subjects and ended in that of smoking.
‘How I came to start smoking?’ said Mitchell. ‘Let’s see.’ He reflected. ‘I started smoking first when I was about fourteen or fifteen. I smoked some sort of weed — I forget the name of it — but it wasn’t tobacco; and then I smoked cigarettes — not the ones we get now, for those cost a penny each. Then I reckoned that, if I could smoke those, I could smoke a pipe.’
‘We lived in Sydney then — Surry Hills. Those were different times; the place was nearly all sand. The old folks were alive then, and we were all at home, except Tom.’
‘Ah, well! …. Well, one evening I was playing marbles out in front of our house when a chap we knew gave me his pipe to mind while he went into a church-meeting. The little church was opposite — a ‘chapel’ they called it.’
‘The pipe was alight. It was a clay pipe and nigger-head tobacco. Mother was at work out in the kitchen at the back, washing up the tea-things, and, when I went in, she said; ‘You’ve been smoking!’
‘Well, I couldn’t deny it — I was too sick to do so, or care much, anyway.’
‘Give me that pipe!’ she said.
‘I said I hadn’t got it.”
‘Give — me — that — pipe!’ she said.
‘I said I hadn’t got it.’
‘Where is it?’ she said.
‘Jim Brown’s got it,’ I said, ‘it’s his.’
‘Then I’ll give it to Jim Brown,’ she said; and she did; though it wasn’t Jim’s fault, for he only gave it to me to mind. I didn’t smoke the pipe so much because I wanted to smoke a pipe just then, as because I had such a great admiration for Jim.’
Mitchell reflected, and took a look at the moon. It had risen clear and had got small and cold and pure-looking, and had floated away back out amongst the stars.
‘I felt better towards morning, but it didn’t cure me — being sick and nearly dead all night, I mean. I got a clay pipe and tobacco, and the old lady found it and put it in the stove. Then I got another pipe and tobacco, and she laid for it, and found it out at last; but she didn’t put the tobacco in the stove this time — she’d got experience. I don’t know what she did with it. I tried to find it, but couldn’t. I fancy the old man got hold of it, for I saw him with a plug that looked very much like mine.’
‘But I wouldn’t be done. I got a cherry pipe. I thought it wouldn’t be so easy to break if she found it. I used to plant the bowl in one place and the stem in another because I reckoned that if she found one she mightn’t find the other. It doesn’t look much of an idea now, but it seemed like an inspiration then. Kids get rum ideas.’
‘Well, one day I was having a smoke out at the back, when I heard her coming, and I pulled out the stem in a hurry and put the bowl behind the water-butt and the stem under the house. Mother was coming round for a dipper of water. I got out of her way quick, for I hadn’t time to look innocent; but the bowl of the pipe was hot and she got a whiff of it. She went sniffing round, first on one side of the cask and then on the other, until she got on the scent and followed it up and found the bowl. Then I had only the stem left. She looked for that, but she couldn’t scent it. But I couldn’t get much comfort out of that. Have you got the matches?’
‘Then I gave it best for a time and smoked cigars. They were the safest and most satisfactory under the circumstances, but they cost me two shillings a week, and I couldn’t stand it, so I started a pipe again and then mother gave in at last. God bless her, and God forgive me, and us all — we deserve it. She’s been at rest these seventeen long years.’
‘And what did your old man do when he found out that you were smoking?’ I asked.
‘The old man?’
‘Well, he seemed to brighten up at first. You see, he was sort of pensioned off by mother and she kept him pretty well inside his income. . . . Well, he seemed to sort of brighten up — liven up — when he found out that I was smoking.’
‘Did he? So did my old man, and he livened me up, too. But what did your old man do — what did he say?’
‘Well,’ said Mitchell, very slowly, ‘about the first thing he did was to ask me for a fill.’
‘Ah! many a solemn, thoughtful old smoke we had together on the quiet — the old man and me.’
‘Is your old man dead, Mitchell?’ I asked softly.
‘Long ago — these twelve years,’ said Mitchell.
Henry Lawson, While the Billy Boils, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1896, pages 240-244
billy = a metal pot or tin (usually with a wire or steel handle), used for boiling water over a camp fire (also known as a “billy can”)
johnny-cake = a cake or flatbread made using cornmeal, salt, and water or milk
nigger-head tobacco = a brand of tobacco (the phrase “nigger head” was used as a brand name, a colour, and regarding things with an appearance perceived to resemble a black person’s head; the phrase was used in connection with various items, including clothing, machinery, rum, and tobacco; as well as a geographic description, such as with Mount Niggerhead in the Alpine National Park in Victoria)
See: “phrase “Nigger Head””, Institute of Australian Culture (list on Trove website, National Library of Australia)
rum = odd, peculiar, queer, strange (may also mean dangerous, difficult, problematic)
tucker-bag = a cloth bag used for carrying food
water-butt = a large container (often a cask or barrel) used to store water, especially for collecting rain water