Bogg of Geebung
At the local police court, where the subject of this sketch turned up periodically amongst the drunks, he had ‘James’ prefixed to his name for the sake of convenience and as a matter of form previous to his being fined forty shillings (which he never paid) and sentenced to ‘a month hard’ (which he contrived to make as soft as possible). The local larrikins called him ‘Grog,’ a very appropriate name, all things considered; but to the Geebung Times he was known until the day of his death as ‘a well-known character named Bogg.’ The antipathy of the local paper might have been accounted for by the fact that Bogg strayed into the office one day in a muddled condition during the absence of the staff at lunch and corrected a revise proof of the next week’s leader, placing bracketed ‘query’ and ‘see proof’ marks opposite the editor’s most flowery periods and quotations, and leaving on the margin some general advice to the printers to ‘space better,’ &c. He also corrected a Latin quotation or two, and added a few ideas of his own in good French.
But no one, with the exception of the editor of the Times, ever dreamed that there was anything out of the common in the shaggy, unkempt head upon which poor Bogg used to ‘do his little time,’ until a young English doctor came to practise at Geebung. One night the doctor and the manager of the local bank and one or two others wandered into the bar of the Diggers’ Arms, where Bogg sat in a dark corner mumbling to himself as usual and spilling half his beer on the table and floor. Presently some drunken utterances reached the doctor’s ear, and he turned round in a surprised manner and looked at Bogg. The drunkard continued to mutter for some time, and then broke out into something like the fag-end of a song. The doctor walked over to the table at which Bogg was sitting, and, seating himself on the far corner, regarded the drunkard attentively for some minutes; but the latter’s voice ceased, his head fell slowly on his folded arms, and all became silent except the drip, drip of the overturned beer falling from the table to the form and from the form to the floor.
The doctor rose and walked back to his friends with a graver face.
‘You seem interested in Bogg,’ said the bank manager.
‘Yes,’ said the doctor.
‘What was he mumbling about?’
‘Oh, that was a passage from Homer.’
The doctor repeated his answer.
‘Then do you mean to say he understands Greek?’
‘Yes,’ said the doctor, sadly; ‘he is, or must have been, a classical scholar.’
The manager took time to digest this, and then asked:
‘What was the song?’
‘Oh, that was an old song we used to sing at the Dublin University,’ said the doctor.
During his sober days Bogg used to fossick about among the old waste heaps, or split palings in the bush, and by these means he managed to keep out of debt. Strange to say, in spite of his drunken habits, his credit was as good as that of any man in the town. He was very unsociable, seldom speaking, whether drunk or sober; but a weary, hard-up sundowner was always pretty certain to get a meal and a shake-down at Bogg’s lonely hut among the waste heaps. It happened one dark night that a little ‘push’ of local larrikins, having nothing better to amuse them, wended their way through the old mullock heaps in the direction of the lonely little hut, with the object of playing off an elaborately planned ghost joke on Bogg. Previously to commencing operations, the leader of the jokers put his eye to a crack in the bark to reconnoitre. He didn’t see much, but what he did see seemed to interest him, for he kept his eye there till his companions grew impatient. Bogg sat in front of his rough little table with his elbows on the same, and his hands supporting his forehead. Before him on the table lay a few articles such as lady novelists and poets use in their work, and such as bitter cynics often wear secretly next their bitter and cynical hearts.
There was the usual faded letter, a portrait of a girl, something that looked like a pressed flower and, of course, a lock of hair. Presently Bogg folded his arms over these things, and his face sank lower and lower, till nothing was visible to the unsuspected watcher except the drunkard’s rough, shaggy hair; rougher and wilder looking in the uncertain light of the slush lamp.
The larrikin turned away, and beckoned his comrades to follow him.
‘Wot is it?’ asked one, when they had gone some distance.
The leader said, ‘We’re a-goin’ ter let ’im alone; that’s wot it is.’
There was some demur over this, and an explanation was demanded; but the boss bully unbuttoned his coat, and spit on his hands, and said:—
‘We’re a-goin’ ter let Bogg alone; that’s wot it is.’
So they went away and let Bogg alone that night.
A few days later the following paragraph appeared in the Geebung Times:— “A well-known character named Bogg was found drowned in the river on Sunday last, his hat and coat being found on the bank. At a late hour on Saturday night a member of our staff saw a man walking slowly along the river bank, but it was too dark to identify the person.”
We suppose it was Bogg whom the Times reported, but of course we cannot be sure. The chances are that it was Bogg. It was pretty evident that he had committed suicide, and, being a ‘well-known character,’ no doubt he had reasons for his rash act. Perhaps he was walking by himself in the dark along the river bank, and thinking of those reasons when the Times man saw him. Strange to say, the world knows least about the lives and sorrows of ‘well-known characters’ of this kind, no matter what their names might be, and — well, there is no reason why we should bore a reader, or waste any more space over a well-known character named Bogg.
Henry Lawson, While the Billy Boils, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1896, pages 296-300
fag-end = the last or extreme end of something (e.g. the fag end of a rope, the fag end of a civilisation); may also be applied to a poor, useless, worn-out, or inferior end (or remnant) of something
hard = hard labour; hard manual work whilst in prison; some prison sentences were handed down with the specific inclusion of “hard labour”
larrikin = in earlier times “larrikin” referred to a young male urban hoodlum, lout, or roughneck, or someone who was loud, mischievous and rowdy; in modern times “larrikin” refers to someone who behaves rowdily and noisily in public, or who has a disregard for cultural, social, or political conventions
mullock = mining refuse; dirt and stone which remains after the ore has been separated (often placed in a big pile outside of a mine, a mullock heap)
push = a gang, commonly refers to a street gang; may also be used to refer to a group
slush lamp = a crudely-made lamp; a slush lamp could be made by using a tin can (or any crude container, such as a coconut shell; or a container half-filled with clay), putting in a fuel, such as grease, mutton fat, oil, slush (i.e. fat and grease from cooking), or tallow, and using a rag for a wick
sundowner = a swagman, or tramp, who walked from station to station, ostensibly to look for work, but with no intention of doing any, who would deliberately time his arrival at a farm or station late enough in the evening, or at sundown, so that they could ask for food and lodging, but with little to no risk of being asked to perform some work in exchange
Vernacular spelling in the original text: