A case for the Oracle
The Oracle and I were camped together. The Oracle was a bricklayer by trade, and had two or three small contracts on hand. I was “doing a bit of house-painting”. There were a plasterer, a carpenter, and a plumber — we were all T’othersiders, and old mates, and we worked things together. It was in Westralia — the Land of T’othersiders — and, therefore, we were not surprised when Mitchell turned up early one morning, with his swag and an atmosphere of salt water about him.
He’d had a rough trip, he said, and would take a spell that day and take the lay of the land and have something cooked for us by the time we came home; and go to graft himself next morning. And next morning he went to work, “labouring” for the Oracle.
The Oracle and his mates, being small contractors and not pressed for time, had dispensed with the services of a labourer, and had done their own mixing and hod-carrying in turns. They didn’t want a labourer now, but the Oracle was a vague fatalist, and Mitchell a decided one. So it passed.
The Oracle had a “Case” right under his nose — in his own employ, in fact; but was not aware of the fact until Mitchell drew his attention to it. The Case went by the name of Alfred O’Briar — which hinted a mixed parentage. He was a small, nervous working-man, of no particular colour, and no decided character, apparently. If he had a soul above bricks, he never betrayed it. He was not popular on the jobs. There was something sly about Alf, they said.
The Oracle had taken him on in the first place as a day-labourer, but afterwards shared the pay with him as with Mitchell. O’Briar shouted — judiciously, but on every possible occasion — for the Oracle; and, as he was an indifferent workman, the boys said he only did this so that the Oracle might keep him on. If O’Briar took things easy and did no more than the rest of us, at least one of us would be sure to get it into his head that he was loafing on us; and if he grafted harder than we did, we’d be sure to feel indignant about that too, and reckon that it was done out of nastiness or crawlsomeness, and feel a contempt for him accordingly. We found out accidentally that O’Briar was an excellent mimic and a bit of a ventriloquist, but he never entertained us with his peculiar gifts; and we set that down to churlishness.
O’Briar kept his own counsel, and his history, if he had one; and hid his hopes, joys, and sorrows, if he had any, behind a vacant grin, as Mitchell hid his behind a quizzical one. He never resented alleged satire — perhaps he couldn’t see it — and therefore he got the name of being a cur. As a rule, he was careful with his money, and was called mean — not, however, by the Oracle, whose philosophy was simple, and whose sympathy could not realise a limit; nor yet by Mitchell. Mitchell waited.
* * * * * *
O’Briar occupied a small tent by himself, and lived privately of evenings. When we began to hear two men talking at night in his tent, we were rather surprised, and wondered in a vague kind of way how any of the chaps could take sufficient interest in Alf to go in and yarn with him. In the days when he was supposed to be sociable, we had voted him a bore; even the Oracle was moved to admit that he was “a bit slow.”
But late one night we distinctly heard a woman’s voice in O’Briar’s tent. The Oracle suddenly became hard of hearing, and, though we heard the voice on several occasions, he remained exasperatingly deaf, yet aggressively unconscious of the fact. “I have got enough to do puzzling over me own whys and wherefores,” he said. Mitchell began to take some interest in O’Briar, and treated him with greater respect. But our camp had the name of being the best-constructed, the cleanest, and the most respectable in the vicinity. The health officer and constable in charge had complimented us on the fact, and we were proud of it. And there were three young married couples in camp, also a Darby and Joan; therefore, when the voice of a woman began to be heard frequently and at disreputable hours of the night in O’Briar’s tent, we got uneasy about it. And when the constable who was on night duty gave us a friendly hint, Mitchell and I agreed that something must be done.
“Av coorse, men will be men,” said the constable, as he turned his horse’s head, “but I thought I’d mention it. O’Briar is a dacent man, and he’s one of yer mates. Av coorse. There’s a bad lot in that camp in the scrub over yander, and — av coorse. Good-day to ye, byes.”
* * * * * *
Next night we heard the voice in O’Briar’s tent again, and decided to speak to Alf in a friendly way about it in the morning. We listened outside in the dark, but could not distinguish the words, though I thought I recognised the voice.
“It’s the hussy from the camp over there; she’s got holt of that fool, and she’ll clean him out before she’s done,” I said. “We’re Alf’s mates, any way it goes, and we ought to put a stop to it.”
“What hussy?” asked Mitchell; “there’s three or four there.”
“The one with her hair all over her head,” I answered.
“Where else should it be?” asked Mitchell. “But I’ll just have a peep and see who it is. There’s no harm in that.”
He crept up to the tent and cautiously moved the flap. Alf’s candle was alight; he lay on his back in his bunk with his arms under his head, calmly smoking. We withdrew.
“They must have heard us,” said Mitchell; “and she’s slipped out under the tent at the back, and through the fence into the scrub.”
Mitchell’s respect for Alf increased visibly.
But we began to hear ominous whispers from the young married couples, and next Saturday night, which was pay-night, we decided to see it through. We did not care to speak to Alf until we were sure. He stayed in camp, as he often did, on Saturday evening, while the others went up town. Mitchell and I returned earlier than usual, and leaned on the fence at the back of Alf’s tent.
We were scarcely there when we were startled by a “rat-tat-tat” as of someone knocking at a door. Then an old woman’s voice inside the tent asked: “Who’s there?”
“It’s me,” said Alf’ s voice from the front, “Mr. O’Briar from Perth.”
“Mary, go and open the door!” said the old woman. (Mitchell nudged me to keep quiet.)
“Come in, Mr. O’Breer,” said the old woman. “Come in. How do you do? When did you get back?”
“Only last night,” said Alf.
“Look at that now! Bless us all! And how did you like the country at all?”
“I didn’t care much for it,” said Alf. We lost the thread of it until the old woman spoke again.
“Have you had your tea, Mr. O’Breer?”
“Yes, thank you, Mrs. O’Connor.”
“Are you quite sure, man?”
“Quite sure, thank you, Mrs. O’Connor.” (Mitchell trod on my foot.)
“Will you have a drop of whisky or a glass of beer, Mr. O’Breer?”
“I’ll take a glass of beer, thank you, Mrs. O’Connor.”
There seemed to be a long pause. Then the old woman said, “Ah, well, I must get my work done, and Mary will stop here and keep you company, Mr. O’Breer.” The arrangement seemed satisfactory to all parties, for there was nothing more said for awhile. (Mitchell nudged me again, with emphasis, and I kicked his shin.)
Presently Alf said: “Mary!” And a girl’s voice said, “Yes, Alf.”
“You remember the night I went away, Mary?”
“Yes, Alf, I do.”
“I have travelled long ways since then, Mary; I worked hard and lived close. I didn’t make my fortune, but I managed to rub a note or two together. It was a hard time and a lonesome time for me, Mary. The summer’s awful over there, and livin’s bad and dear. You couldn’t have any idea of it, Mary.”
“I didn’t come back so well off as I expected.”
“But that doesn’t matter, Alf.”
“I got heart-sick and tired of it, and couldn’t stand it any longer, Mary.”
“But that’s all over now, Alf; you mustn’t think of it.”
“Your mother wrote to me.”
“I know she did” — (very low and gently).
“And do you know what she put in it, Mary?”
“And did you ask her to put it in?”
“Don’t ask me, Alf.”
“And it’s all true, Mary?”
There was no answer, but the silence seemed satisfactory.
“And be sure you have yourself down here on Sunday, Alf, me son.” (“There’s the old woman come back!” said Mitchell.)
“An’ since the girl’s willin’ to have ye, and the ould woman’s willin’ — there’s me hand on it, Alf, me boy. An’ God bless ye both.” (“The old man’s come now,” said Mitchell.)
* * * * * *
“Come along,” said Mitchell, leading the way to the front of the tent.
“But I wouldn’t like to intrude on them. It’s hardly right, Mitchell, is it?”
“That’s all right,” said Mitchell. He tapped the tent pole.
“Come in,” said Alf. Alf was lying on his bunk as before, with his arms under his head. His face wore a cheerful, not to say happy, expression. There was no one else in the tent. I was never more surprised in my life.
“Have you got the paper, Alf?” said Mitchell.
“Yes. You’ll find it there at the foot of the bunk. There it is. Won’t you sit down, Mitchell?”
“Not to-night,” said Mitchell. “We brought you a bottle of ale. We’re just going to turn in.”
And we said “good-night.” “Well,” I said to Mitchell when we got inside, “what do you think of it?”
“I don’t think of it at all,” said Mitchell. “Do you mean to say you can’t see it now?”
“No, I’m dashed if I can,” I said. “Some of us must be drunk, I think, or getting rats. It’s not to be wondered at, and the sooner we get out of this country the better.”
“Well, you must be a fool, Joe,” said Mitchell. “Can’t you see? Alf thinks aloud.”
“Talks to himself. He was thinking about going back to his sweetheart. Don’t you know he’s a bit of a ventriloquist?”
Mitchell lay awake a long time, in the position that Alf usually lay in, and thought. Perhaps he thought on the same lines as Alf did that night. But Mitchell did his thinking in silence.
We thought it best to tell the Oracle quietly. He was deeply interested, but not surprised. “I’ve heerd of such cases before,” he said. But the Oracle was a gentleman. “There’s things that a man wants to keep to himself that ain’t his business,” he said. And we understood this remark to be intended for our benefit, and to indicate a course of action upon which the Oracle had decided, with respect to this case, and which we, in his opinion, should do well to follow.
Alf got away a week or so later, and we all took a holiday and went down to Fremantle to see him off. Perhaps he wondered why Mitchell gripped his hand so hard and wished him luck so earnestly, and was surprised when he gave him three cheers.
“Ah, well!” remarked Mitchell , as we turned up the wharf.
“I’ve heerd of such cases before,” said the Oracle, meditatively. “They ain’t common, but I’ve hear’d of such cases before.”
Henry Lawson, Over the Sliprails, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1900, pages 72-80
awhile = for a time; in modern times it is usually rendered as two words, “a while”
Darby and Joan = a happily married elderly couple, generally content with life and devoted to each other, although usually of a humble or impoverished financial status
dashed = a euphemism for “damned” (regarded as a swear word not fit to be printed)
graft = work; especially hard work
rats = (slang) mad, crazy, insane (for example “he had rats”)
spell = rest, or a period of rest (“spell” refers to a period of time, but was also used to refer to a period of rest, due to the common phrase “to rest for a spell” and variations thereof)
T’othersiders = a term used by Western Australians to denote those from the Eastern states of Australia (that is, regarding people from “the other side” of the Australian continent) (also rendered as: t’othersiders)
Westralia = a contraction used to denote the state of Western Australia
Vernacular spelling in the original text:
ain’t (aren’t; are not)
av (of) [Irish]
coorse (course) [Irish]
dacent (decent) [Irish]
yander (yonder) [Irish]
ye (you) [Irish]
[Editor: Changed: “about in the morning” to “about it in the morning”.]