Steelman was a hard case. If you were married, and settled down, and were so unfortunate as to have known Steelman in other days, he would, if in your neighbourhood and dead-beat, be sure to look you up. He would find you anywhere, no matter what precautions you might take. If he came to your house, he would stay to tea without invitation, and if he stayed to tea, he would ask you to ‘fix up a shake-down on the floor, old man,’ and put him up for the night; and, if he stopped all night, he’d remain — well, until something better turned up.
There was no shaking off Steelman. He had a way about him which would often make it appear as if you had invited him to stay, and pressed him against his roving inclination, and were glad to have him round for company, while he remained only out of pure goodwill to you. He didn’t like to offend an old friend by refusing his invitation.
Steelman knew his men.
The married victim generally had neither the courage nor the ability to turn him out. He was cheerfully blind and deaf to all hints, and if the exasperated missis said anything to him straight, he would look shocked, and reply, as likely as not —
‘Why, my good woman, you must be mad! I’m your husband’s guest!’
And if she wouldn’t cook for him, he’d cook for himself.
There was no choking him off. Few people care to call the police in a case like this; and besides, as before remarked, Steelman knew his men. The only way to escape from him was to move — but then, as likely as not, he’d help pack up and come along with his portmanteau right on top of the last load of furniture, and drive you and your wife to the verge of madness by the calm style in which he proceeded to superintend the hanging of your pictures.
Once he quartered himself like this on an old schoolmate of his, named Brown, who had got married and steady and settled down. Brown tried all ways to get rid of Steelman, but he couldn’t do it. One day Brown said to Steelman:
‘Look here, Steely, old man, I’m very sorry, but I’m afraid we won’t be able to accommodate you any longer — to make you comfortable, I mean. You see, a sister of the missis is coming down on a visit for a month or two, and we ain’t got anywhere to put her, except in your room. I wish the missis’s relations to blazes! I didn’t marry the whole blessed family; but it seems I’ve got to keep them.’
Pause — very awkward and painful for poor Brown. Discouraging silence from Steelman. Brown rested his elbows on his knees, and, with a pathetic and appealing movement of his hand across his forehead, he continued desperately:
‘I’m very sorry, you see, old man — you know I’d like you to stay — I want you to stay. . . It isn’t my fault — it’s the missis’ doings. I’ve done my best with her, but I can’t help it. I’ve been more like a master in my own house — more comfortable — and I’ve been better treated since I’ve had you to back me up. . . . I’ll feel mighty lonely, anyway, when you’re gone. . . But . . you know . . as soon as her sister goes . . you know . .’
Here poor Brown broke down — very sorry he had spoken at all; but Steely came to the rescue with a ray of light.
‘What’s the matter with the little room at the back?’ he asked.
‘Oh, we couldn’t think of putting you there,’ said Brown, with a last effort; ‘it’s not fixed up; you wouldn’t be comfortable, and, besides, it’s damp, and you’d catch your death of cold. It was never meant for anything but a washhouse. I’m sorry I didn’t get another room built on to the house.’
‘Bosh!’ interrupted Steelman, cheerfully. ‘Catch a cold! Here I’ve been knocking about the country for the last five years — sleeping out in all weathers — and do you think a little damp is going to hurt me? Pooh! What do you take me for? Don’t you bother your head about it any more, old man; I’ll fix up the lumber-room for myself, all right; and all you’ve got to do is to let me know when the sister-in-law business is coming on, and I’ll shift out of my room in time for the missis to get it ready for her. Here, have you got a bob on you? I’ll go out and get some beer. A drop’ll do you good.’
‘Well, if you can make yourself comfortable, I’ll be only too glad for you to stay,’ said Brown, wearily.
‘You’d better invite some woman you know to come on a visit, and pass her off as your sister,’ said Brown to his wife, while Steelman was gone for the beer. ‘I’ve made a mess of it.’
Mrs. Brown said, ‘I knew you would.’
Steelman knew his men.
But at last Brown reckoned that he could stand it no longer. The thought of it made him so wild that he couldn’t work. He took a day off to get thoroughly worked up in, came home that night full to the chin of indignation and Dunedin beer, and tried to kick Steelman out. And Steelman gave him a hiding.
Next morning Steelman was sitting beside Brown’s bed with a saucer of vinegar, some brown paper, a raw beef-steak, and a bottle of soda.
‘Well, what have you got to say for yourself now, Brown?’ he said, sternly, ‘Ain’t you jolly well ashamed of yourself to come home in the beastly state you did last night, and insult a guest in your house, to say nothing of an old friend — and perhaps the best friend you ever had, if you only knew it? Anybody else would have given you in charge and got you three months for the assault. You ought to have some consideration for your wife and children, and your own character — even if you haven’t any for your old mate’s feelings. Here, drink this, and let me fix you up a bit; the missis has got the breakfast waiting.’
Henry Lawson, While the Billy Boils, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1896, pages 113-116
missis = wife (usually spelt “missus”)
portmanteau = a large suitcase that opens into two compartments; from the French “porter”, to carry, and “manteau”, cloak or coat (can also refer to the combining of several items or qualities, especially to the combining of two existing words to form a new word)
[Editor: Corrected “Oh. we” to “Oh, we”.]