The Western train had just arrived at Redfern railway-station with a lot of ordinary passengers and one swagman.
He was short, and stout, and bow-legged, and freckled, and sandy. He had red hair and small, twinkling, grey eyes, and — what often goes with such things — the expression of a born comedian. He was dressed in a ragged, well-washed print shirt, an old black waistcoat with a calico back, a pair of cloudy moleskins patched at the knees and held up by a plaited greenhide belt buckled loosely round his hips, a pair of well-worn, fuzzy blucher boots, and a soft felt hat, green with age, and with no brim worth mentioning, and no crown to speak of. He swung a swag on to the platform, shouldered it, pulled out a billy and water-bag, and then went to a dog-box in the break van.
Five minutes later he appeared on the edge of the cab-platform, with an anxious-looking cattle-dog crouching against his legs, and one end of the chain in his hand. He eased down the swag against a post, turned his face to the city, tilted his hat forward, and scratched the well-developed back of his head with a little finger. He seemed undecided what track to take.
The swagman turned slowly and regarded cabby with a quiet grin.
‘Now, do I look as if I want a cab?’
‘Well, why not? No harm, anyway — I thought you might want a cab.’
Swaggy scratched his head, reflectively.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘you’re the first man that has thought so these ten years. What do I want with a cab?’
‘To go where you’re going’ of course.’
‘Do I look knocked up?’
‘I didn’t say you did.’
‘And I didn’t say you said I did. . . . Now, I’ve been on the track this five years. I’ve tramped two thousan’ miles since last Chris’mas, and I don’t see why I can’t tramp the last mile. Do you think my old dog wants a cab?’
The dog shivered and whimpered; he seemed to want to get away from the crowd.
‘But then, you see, you ain’t going to carry that swag through the streets, are you?’ asked the cabman.
‘Why not? Who’ll stop me? There ain’t no law agin it, I b’lieve?’
‘But then, you see, it don’t look well, you know.’
‘Ah! I thought we’d get to it at last.’
The traveller up-ended his bluey against his knee, gave it an affectionate pat, and then straightened himself up and looked fixedly at the cabman.
‘Now, look here!’ he said, sternly and impressively, ‘can you see anything wrong with that old swag o’ mine?’
It was a stout, dumpy swag, with a red blanket outside, patched with blue, and the edge of a blue blanket showing in the inner rings at the end. The swag might have been newer; it might have been cleaner; it might have been hooped with decent straps, instead of bits of clothes-line and greenhide — but otherwise there was nothing the matter with it, as swags go.
‘I’ve humped that old swag for years,’ continued the bushman; ‘I’ve carried that old swag thousands of miles — as that old dog knows — an’ no one ever bothered about the look of it, or of me, or of my old dog, neither; and do you think I’m going to be ashamed of that old swag, for a cabby or anyone else? Do you think I’m going to study anybody’s feelings? No one ever studied mine! I’m in two minds to summon you for using insulting language towards me!’
He lifted the swag by the twisted towel which served for a shoulder-strap, swung it into the cab, got in himself and hauled the dog after him.
‘You can drive me somewhere where I can leave my swag and dog while I get some decent clothes to see a tailor in,’ he said to the cabman. ‘My old dog ain’t used to cabs, you see.’
Then he added, reflectively: ‘I drove a cab myself, once, for five years in Sydney.’
Henry Lawson, While the Billy Boils, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1896, pages 15-17
billy = a metal pot or tin (usually with a wire or steel handle), used for boiling water over a camp fire (also known as a “billy can”)
blucher boots = dress shoes for men, distinguished by open lacing; or a high shoe or half boot (named after the Prussian military leader Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, who fought against Napoleon at Waterloo)
swag = a swagman’s bundle, being a number of personal belongings rolled up in blanket, and hung from the shoulder; also known as a “bluey”, “drum”, or “Matilda”
swagman = a roaming labourer who carries his personal belongings in a swag, or bundle, whilst traveling about in search of casual work (also known as a “swaggie”); especially used to refer to itinerant labourers traveling around the country areas of Australia in the late 1800s to early 1900s
Vernacular spelling in the original text: