She wouldn’t speak [short story by Henry Lawson]

[Editor: This story by Henry Lawson was published in While the Billy Boils (1896).]

She wouldn’t speak

Well, we reached the pub about dinner time, dropped our swags outside, had a drink, and then went into the dinin’-room. There was a lot of jackeroo swells, that had been on a visit to the squatter, or something, and they were sittin’ down at dinner; and they seemed to think by their looks that we ought to have stayed outside and waited till they was done — we was only two rough shearers, you know. There was a very good-looking servant girl waitin’ on ’em, and she was all smiles — laughin’, and jokin’, and chyackin’, and barrickin’ with ’em like anything.

I thought a damp expression seemed to pass across her face when me and my mate sat down, but she served us and said nothing — we was only two dusty swaggies, you see. Dave said ‘Good-day’ to her when we came in, but she didn’t answer; and I could see from the first that she’d made up her mind not to speak to us.

The swells finished, and got up and went out, leaving me and Dave and the servant girl alone in the room; but she didn’t open her mouth — not once. Dave winked at her once or twice as she handed his cup, but it wasn’t no go. Dave was a good-lookin’ chap, too; but we couldn’t get her to say a word — not one.

We finished the first blanky course, and, while she was gettin’ our puddin’ from the side table, Dave says to me in a loud whisper, so’s she could hear: ‘Ain’t she a stunner, Joe?’ says Dave; ‘I never thought there was sich fine girls on the Darlin’!’ says Dave.

But no; she wouldn’t speak.

Then Dave says: ‘They pitch a blanky lot about them New Englan’ gals but I’ll back the Darlin’ girls to lick ’em holler as far’s looks is concerned,’ says Dave.

But no; she wouldn’t speak. She wouldn’t even smile.

Dave didn’t say nothing for awhile, and then he said: ‘Did you hear about that red-headed barmaid at Stiffner’s goin’ to be married to the bank manager at Bourke next month, Joe,’ says Dave.

But no, not a single word out of her; she didn’t even look up, or look as if she wanted to speak.

Dave scratched his ear and went on with his puddin’ for awhile. Then he said: ‘Joe, did you hear that yarn about young Scotty and old whatchisname’s missis?’ says Dave to me.

‘Yes,’ I says; ‘But I think it was the daughter, not the wife, and young Scotty,’ I says.

But it wasn’t no go; that girl wouldn’t speak.

Dave shut up for a good while, but presently I says to Dave: ‘I see that them hoops is comin’ in again, Dave. The paper says that this here Lady Duff had one on when she landed.’

‘Yes, I heard about it,’ says Dave. ‘I’d like to see my wife in one, but I s’pose a woman must wear what all the rest does.’

And do you think that girl would speak? Not a blanky word.

We finished our second puddin’ and fourth cup of tea, and I was just gettin’ up when Dave catches holt on my arm, like that, and pulls me down into my chair again.

‘’Old on,’ whispers Dave; ‘I’m goin’ to make that blanky gal speak.’

‘You won’t,’ I says.

‘Bet you a five-pound-note,’ says Dave.

‘Allright,’ I says.

So I sits down again, and Dave whistles to the girl, and he passes along his cup and mine. She filled ’em at once, without a word, and we got outside our fifth cup of tea each. Then Dave jingled his spoon, and passed both cups along again. She put some hot water in the pot this time, and, after we’d drunk another couple of cups, Dave muttered something about drownin’ the miller.

‘We want tea, not warm water,’ he growled, lookin’ sulky and passin’ along both cups again.

But she never opened her mouth; she wouldn’t speak. She didn’t even look cross. She made a fresh pot of tea, and filled our cups again. She didn’t even slam the cups down, or swamp the tea over into the saucers — which would have been quite natural, considerin’.

‘I’m about done,’ I said to Dave directly in a low whisper. ‘We’ll have to give it up, I’m afraid, Dave,’ I says.

‘I’ll make her speak, or bust myself,’ says Dave.

And I’m blessed if he didn’t go on till I was so blanky full of tea that it brimmed over and ran out the corners of my mouth; and Dave was near as bad. At last I couldn’t drink another teaspoonful without holding back my head, and then I couldn’t keep it down, but had to let it run back into the blanky cup again. The girl began to clear away at the end of the table, and now and then she’d lay her hand on the teapot and squint round to see if we wanted any more tea. But she never spoke. She might have thought a lot — but she never opened her lips.

I tell you, without a word of a lie, that we must have drunk about a dozen cups each. We made her fill the teapot twice, and kept her waitin’ nearly an hour, but we couldn’t make her say a word. She never said a single word to us from the time we came in till the time we went out, nor before nor after. She’d made up her mind from the first not to speak to us.

We had to get up and leave our cups half full at last. We went out and sat down on our swags in the shade against the wall, and smoked and gave that tea time to settle; and then we got on to the track again.

Henry Lawson, While the Billy Boils, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1896, pages 301-304

Editor’s notes:
blanky = substitution for a swear word (such as “bloody”)

chyack = (also spelt “chiack”) to taunt or tease in jest, to engage in good-natured banter (may also refer to jeering or taunting in an ill-natured manner)

Darling = the Darling River (New South Wales)

jackeroo = (also spelt “jackaroo”) in modern times, the term refers to an apprentice station hand (female station hands are known as “Jillaroos”); however, in The Old Bush Songs (1905), Banjo Paterson explains the term thus: “A “Jackaroo” is a young man who comes to a station to get experience. He occupies a position much like that of an apprentice on a ship, and has to work with the men, though supposed to be above them in social status. Hence these sneers at the Jackaroo” [see: Jimmy Sago, Jackaroo]

lick them hollow = beat them, surpass others in some way

missis = wife (usually spelt “missus”)

squatter = in the context of Australian history, a squatter was originally someone who kept their livestock (mostly cattle and sheep) upon Crown land without permission to do so (thus illegally occupying land, or “squatting”); however, the practice became so widespread that eventually the authorities decided to formalise it by granting leases or licenses to occupy or use the land; and, with the growth of the Australian economy, many of the squatters became quite rich, and the term “squatter” came to refer to someone with a large amount of farm land (they were often regarded as rich and powerful)

swag = a swagman’s bundle, being a number of personal belongings rolled up in a blanket, and hung from the shoulder; also known as a “bluey”, “drum”, or “Matilda”

swaggie = swagman

swell = “a swell” is someone who is fashionably dressed or socially prominent

Vernacular spelling in the original text:
’em (them)
gal (girl)
holler (hollow)
holt (hold)
’old (hold)
sich (such)
s’pose (suppose)
so’s (so as)
whatchisname (what’s his name)

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