[Editor: Published in Over the Sliprails, by Henry Lawson (1900).]
A gentleman sharper and Steelman sharper.
Steelman and Smith had been staying at the hotel for several days in the dress and character of bushies down for what they considered a spree. The gentleman sharper from the Other Side had been hanging round them for three days now. Steelman was the more sociable, and, to all appearances, the greener of the two bush mates; but seemed rather too much under the influence of Smith, who was reserved, suspicious, self-contained, or sulky. He almost scowled at Gentleman Sharper’s “Good-morning!” and “Fine day!”, replied in monosyllables and turned half away with an uneasy, sullen, resentful hump of his shoulder and shuffle of his feet.
Steelman took Smith for a stroll on the round, bald tussock hills surrounding the city, and rehearsed him for the last act until after sundown.
Gentleman Sharper was lounging, with a cigar, on the end of the balcony, where he had been contentedly contemplating the beautiful death of day. His calm, classic features began to whiten (and sharpen) in the frosty moonlight.
Steelman and Smith sat on deck-chairs behind a half-screen of ferns on the other end of the balcony, smoked their after-dinner smoke, and talked in subdued tones as befitted the time and the scene — great, softened, misty hills in a semicircle, and the water and harbour lights in moonlight.
The other boarders were loitering over dinner, in their rooms, or gone out; the three were alone on the balcony, which was a rear one.
Gentleman Sharper moved his position, carelessly, noiselessly, yet quickly, until he leaned on the rail close to the ferns and could overhear every word the bushies said. He had dropped his cigar overboard, and his scented handkerchief behind a fern-pot en route.
“But he looks all right, and acts all right, and talks all right — and shouts all right,” protested Steelman. “He’s not stumped, for I saw twenty or thirty sovereigns when he shouted; and he doesn’t seem to care a damn whether we stand in with him or not.”
“There you are! That’s just where it is!” said Smith, with some logic, but in a tone a wife uses in argument (which tone, by the way, especially if backed by logic or common sense, makes a man wild sooner than anything else in this world of troubles).
Steelman jerked his chair half-round in disgust. “That’s you!” he snorted, “always suspicious! Always suspicious of everybody and everything! If I found myself shot into a world where I couldn’t trust anybody I’d shoot myself out of it. Life would be worse than not worth living. Smith, you’ll never make money, except by hard graft — hard, bullocking, nigger-driving graft like we had on that damned railway section for the last six months, up to our knees in water all winter, and all for a paltry cheque of one-fifty — twenty of that gone already. How do you expect to make money in this country if you won’t take anything for granted, except hard cash? I tell you, Smith, there’s a thousand pounds lost for every one gained or saved by trusting too little. How did Vanderbilt and ——”
Steelman elaborated to a climax, slipping a glance warily, once or twice, out of the tail of his eye through the ferns, low down.
“There never was a fortune made that wasn’t made by chancing it.”
He nudged Smith to come to the point. Presently Smith asked, sulkily:
“Well, what was he saying?”
“I thought I told you! He says he’s behind the scenes in this gold boom, and, if he had a hundred pounds ready cash to-morrow, he’d make three of it before Saturday. He said he could put one-fifty to one-fifty.”
“And isn’t he worth three hundred?”
“Didn’t I tell you,” demanded Steelman, with an impatient ring, and speaking rapidly, “that he lost his mail in the wreck of the Tasman? You know she went down the day before yesterday, and the divers haven’t got at the mails yet.”
“Yes. . . . But why doesn’t he wire to Sydney for some stuff?”
“I’m ——! Well, I suppose I’ll have to have patience with a born natural. Look here, Smith, the fact of the matter is that he’s a sort of black-sheep — sent out on the remittance system, if the truth is known, and with letters of introduction to some big-bugs out here — that explains how he gets to know these wire-pullers behind the boom. His people have probably got the quarterly allowance business fixed hard and tight with a bank or a lawyer in Sydney; and there’ll have to be enquiries about the lost ‘draft’ (as he calls a cheque) and a letter or maybe a cable home to England; and it might take weeks.”
“Yes,” said Smith, hesitatingly. “That all sounds right enough. But” — with an inspiration — “why don’t he go to one of these big-bug boomsters he knows — that he got letters of introduction to — and get him to fix him up?”
“Oh, Lord!” exclaimed Steelman, hopelessly. “Listen to him! Can’t you see that they’re the last men he wants to let into his game? Why, he wants to use them! They’re the mugs as far as he is concerned!”
“Oh — I see!” said Smith, after hesitating, and rather slowly — as if he hadn’t quite finished seeing yet.
Steelman glanced furtively at the fern-screen, and nudged Smith again.
“He said if he had three hundred, he’d double it by Saturday?”
“That’s what he said,” replied Steelman, seeming by his tone to be losing interest in the conversation.
“And . . . well, if he had a hundred he could double that, I suppose.”
“Yes. What are you driving at now?”
“If he had twenty ——”
“Oh, God! I’m sick of you, Smith. What the ——!”
“Hold on. Let me finish. I was only going to say that I’m willing to put up a fiver, and you put up another fiver, and if he doubles that for us then we can talk about standing in with him with a hundred — provided he can show his hundred.”
After some snarling Steelman said: “Well, I’ll try him! Now are you satisfied?” . . .
“He’s moved off now,” he added in a whisper; “but stay here and talk a bit longer.”
Passing through the hall they saw Gentleman Sharper standing carelessly by the door of the private bar. He jerked his head in the direction of drinks. Steelman accepted the invitation — Smith passed on. Steelman took the opportunity to whisper to the Sharper — “I’ve been talking that over with my mate, and ——”
“Come for a stroll,” suggested the professional.
“I don’t mind,” said Steelman.
“Have a cigar?” and they passed out.
When they returned Steelman went straight to the room he occupied with Smith.
“How much stuff have we got, Smith?”
“Nine pounds seventeen and threepence.”
Steelman gave an exclamation of disapproval with that state of financial affairs. He thought a second. “I know the barman here, and I think he knows me. I’ll chew his lug for a bob or may be a quid.”
Twenty minutes later he went to Gentleman Sharper’s room with ten pounds — in very dirty Bank of New Zealand notes — such as those with which bush contractors pay their men.
Two mornings later the sharper suggested a stroll. Steelman went with him, with a face carefully made up to hear the worst.
After walking a hundred yards in a silence which might have been ominous — and was certainly pregnant — the sharper said:
“Well . . . . I tried the water.”
“Yes!” said Steelman in a nervous tone. “And how did you find it?”
“Just as warm as I thought. Warm for a big splash.”
“How? Did you lo se the ten quid?”
“Lose it! What did you take me for? I put ten to your ten as I told you I would. I landed £50 ——”
“Fifty pounds for twenty?”
“That’s the tune of it — and not much of a tune, either. My God! If I’d only had that thousand of mine by me, or even half of it, I’d have made a pile!”
“Fifty pounds for twenty!” cried Steelman excitedly. “Why, that’s grand! And to think we chaps have been grafting like niggers all our lives! By God, we’ll stand in with you for all we’ve got!”
“There’s my hand on it,” as they reached the hotel.
“If you come to my room I’ll give you the £25 now, if you like.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” exclaimed Steelman impulsively; “you mustn’t think I don’t ——”
“That’s all right. Don’t you say any more about it. You’d best have the stuff to-night to show your mate.”
“Perhaps so; he’s a suspicious fool, but I made a bargain with him about our last cheque. He can hang on to the stuff, and I can’t. If I’d been on my own I’d have blued it a week ago. Tell you what I’ll do — we’ll call our share (Smith’s and mine) twenty quid. You take the odd fiver for your trouble.”
“That looks fair enough. We’ll call it twenty guineas to you and your mate. We’ll want him, you know.”
In his own and Smith’s room Steelman thoughtfully counted twenty-one sovereigns on the toilet-table cover, and left them there in a pile.
He stretched himself, scratched be hind his ear, and blinked at the money abstractedly. Then he asked, as if the thought just occurred to him: “By the way, Smith, do you see those yellow boys?”
Smith saw. He had been sitting on the bed with a studiously vacant expression. It was Smith’s policy not to seem, except by request, to take any interest in, or, in fact, to be aware of anything unusual that Steelman might be doing — from patching his pants to reading poetry.
“There’s twenty-one sovereigns there!” remarked Steelman casually.
“Ten of em’s yours.”
“Thank yer, Steely.”
“And,” added Steelman, solemnly and grimly, “if you get taken down for ’em, or lose ’em out of the top-hole in your pocket, or spend so much as a shilling in riotous living, I’ll stoush you, Smith.”
Smith didn’t seem interested. They sat on the beds opposite each other for two or three minutes, in something of the atmosphere that pervades things when conversation has petered out and the dinner-bell is expected to ring. Smith screwed his face and squeezed a pimple on his throat; Steelman absently counted the flies on the wall. Presently Steelman, with a yawning sigh, lay back on the pillow with his hands clasped under his head.
“Better take a few quid, Smith, an d get that suit you were looking at the other day. Get a couple of shirts and collars, and some socks; better get a hat while you’re at it — yours is a disgrace to your benefactor. And, I say, go to a chemist and get some cough stuff for that churchyarder of yours — we’ve got no use for it just now, and it makes me sentimental. I’ll give you a cough when you want one. Bring me a syphon of soda, some fruit, and a tract.”
“A tract. Go on. Start your boots.”
While Smith was gone, Steelman pace d the room with a strange, worried, haunted expression. He divided the gold that was left — (Smith had taken four pounds) — and put ten sovereigns in a pile on the extreme corner of the table. Then he walked up and down, up and down the room, arms tightly folded, and forehead knitted painfully, pausing abruptly now and then by the table to stare at the gold, until he heard Smith’s step. Then his face cleared; he sat down and counted flies.
Smith was undoing and inspecting the parcels, having placed the syphon and fruit on the table. Behind his back Steelman hurriedly opened a leather pocketbook and glanced at the portrait of a woman and child and at the date of a post-office order receipt.
“Smith,” said Steelman, “we’re two honest, ignorant, green coves; hard-working chaps from the bush.”
“It doesn’t matter whether we are or not — we are as far as the world is concerned. Now we’ve grafted like bullocks, in heat and wet, for six months, and made a hundred and fifty, and come down to have a bit of a holiday before going back to bullock for another six months or a year. Isn’t that so, Smith?”
“You could take your oath on it?”
“Well, it doesn’t matter if it is so or not — it is so, so far as the world is concerned. Now we’ve paid our way straight. We’ve always been pretty straight anyway, even if we are a pair of vagabonds, and I don’t half like this new business; but it had to be done. If I hadn’t taken down that sharper you’d have lost confidence in me and wouldn’t have been able to mask your feelings, and I’d have had to stoush you. We’re two hard-working, innocent bushies, down for an innocent spree, and we run against a cold-blooded professional sharper, a paltry sneak and a coward, who’s got neither the brains nor the pluck to work in the station of life he togs himself for. He tries to do us out of our hard-earned little hundred and fifty — no matter whether we had it or not — and I’m obliged to take him down. Serve him right for a crawler. You haven’t the least idea what I’m driving at, Smith, and that’s the best of it. I’ve driven a nail of my life home, and no pincers ever made will get it out.”
“Why, Steely, what’s the matter with you?”
Steelman rose, took up the pile of ten sovereigns , and placed it neatly on top of the rest.
“Put the stuff away, Smith.”
After breakfast next morning, Gentleman Sharper hung round a bit, and then suggested a stroll. But Steelman thought the weather looked too bad, so they went on the balcony for a smoke. They talked of the weather, wrecks, and things, Steelman leaning with his elbows on the balcony rail, and Sharper sociably and confidently in the same position close beside him. But the professional was evidently growing uneasy in his mind; his side of the conversation grew awkward and disjointed, and he made the blunder of drifting into an embarrassing silence before coming to the point. He took one elbow from the rail, and said, with a bungling attempt at carelessness which was made more transparent by the awkward pause before it:
“Ah, well, I must see to my correspondence. By the way, when could you make it convenient to let me have that hundred? The shares are starting up the last rise now, and we’ve got no time to lose if we want to double it.”
Steelman turned his face to him and winked once — a very hard, tight, cold wink — a wink in which there was no humour: such a wink as Steelman had once winked at a half-drunken bully who was going to have a lark with Smith.
The sharper was one of those men who pull themselves together in a bad cause, as they stagger from the blow. But he wanted to think this time.
Later on he approached Steelman quietly and proposed partnership. But Steelman gave him to understand (as between themselves) that he wasn’t taking on any pupils just then.
Henry Lawson, Over the Sliprails, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1900, pages 11-21
big-bug = (slang) an important person (similar slang terms are: “big shot”, “big-wig”)
blue = (slang) squander, spend money wastefully
bob = a shilling (equivalent to twelve pence); after the decimalisation of the Australian currency in 1966, the monetary equivalent of a shilling was ten cents; the phrase “a couple of bob” could specifically refer to two shillings (and, later on, to twenty cents), but it was generally a common reference to a small amount of money, as in “can you lend me a couple of bob?”
born natural = born natural fool (also rendered as “natural born fool”); idiot; simpleton
bushie = bushman; a man from the bush; someone who lives out in the country
churchyarder = a bad cough (such as people might have with a bad lung infection, which could become fatal, leading to them being buried in a churchyard)
cove = man, chap, fellow
en route = (French) on the way
graft = work; especially hard work
green = someone new to a particular job, task or work; someone lacking experience, knowledge, and/or training; someone who is innocent, unaware of the ways of the world
lug = ear (may also refer to a projection from the side of an item; a low grade of tobacco; to carry, drag or pull something, especially a heavy item; an oaf, or someone who is big and clumsy)
quid = a pound or a dollar; originally “quid” referred to a pound, a unit of British-style currency used in Australia (until it was replaced by the dollar in 1966, when decimal currency was introduced); after the decimalisation of Australia’s currency, it referred to a dollar
sharper = a con man, someone who cheats or swindles; a “sharp” (clever, shrewd) swindler (may also refer to a professional gambler)
spree = in general terms, a “spree” refers to an outburst of, or period of, an activity or indulgence (e.g. a crime spree, a drinking spree, a spending spree)
stoush = hit, punch (stoush may also mean to fight or brawl)
tract = a short written work, such as a leaflet or pamphlet, especially a religious tract (may also refer to a section of land)
Vernacular spelling in the original text:
em’s (them is)
[Editor: Changed “could’nt trust anybody” to “couldn’t trust anybody” (whilst “could’nt” was a style used by some publishers in the 1800s and early 1900s, it was corrected here because all of the other instances of the word in the book were given as “couldn’t”). Left “em’s” as it was in the text (as in “Ten of em’s yours”), because whilst the vernacular abbreviation “’em” uses an apostrophe at the beginning of the word (as is the case with its appearance elsewhere in this book), a practice used by some publishers was to only include one apostrophe (the last apostrophe) in a word which used more than one apostrophe to indicate missing letters.]
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