[Editor: This story by Henry Lawson was published in While the Billy Boils (1896).]
He’d come back
The yarn was all lies, I suppose; but it wasn’t bad. A city bushman told it, of course, and he told it in the travellers’ hut.
‘As true’s God hears me I never meant to desert her in cold blood,’ he said. ‘We’d only been married about two years, and we’d got along grand together; but times was hard, and I had to jump at the first chance of a job, and leave her with her people, an’ go up-country.’
He paused and fumbled with his pipe until all ears were brought to bear on him.
‘She was a beauty, and no mistake; she was far too good for me — I often wondered how she came to have a chap like me.’
He paused again, and the others thought over it — and wondered, too, perhaps. The joker opened his lips to speak, but altered his mind about it.
‘Well, I travelled up into Queensland, and worked back into Victoria ’n South Australia, an’ I wrote home pretty reg’lar and sent what money I could. Last I got down on to the South-Western Coast of South Australia — an’ there I got mixed up with another woman — you know what that means, boys?’
‘Well, this went on for two years, and then the other woman drove me to drink. You know what a woman can do when the devil’s in her?’
Sound between a sigh and a groan from Lally Thompson. ‘My oath,’ he said, sadly.
‘You should have made it three years, Jack,’ interposed the joker; ‘you said two years before.’ But he was suppressed.
‘Well, I got free of them both, at last — drink and the woman, I mean; but it took another — it took a couple of years to pull myself straight ——’
Here the joker opened his mouth again, but was warmly requested to shut it.
‘Then, chaps, I got thinking. My conscience began to hurt me, and — and hurt worse every day. It nearly drove me to drink again. Ah, boys, a man — if he is a man — can’t expect to wrong a woman and escape scot-free in the end.’ (Sigh from Lally Thompson.) ‘It’s the one thing that always comes home to a man, sooner or later — you know what that means, boys.’
Lally Thompson: ‘My oath!’
The Joker: ‘Dry up yer crimson oath! What do you know about women?’
Cries of ‘Order!’
‘Well,’ continued the story-teller, ‘I got thinking. I heard that my wife had broken her heart when I left her, and that made matters worse. I began to feel very bad about it. I felt mean. I felt disgusted with myself. I pictured my poor, ill-treated, little wife and children in misery and poverty, and my conscience wouldn’t let me rest night or day’ — (Lally Thompson seemed greatly moved) — ‘so at last I made up my mind to be a man, and make — what’s the word?’
‘Reparation,’ suggested the joker.
‘Yes; so I slaved like a nigger for a year or so, got a few pounds together and went to find my wife. I found out that she was living in a cottage in Burwood, Sydney, and struggling through the winter on what she’d saved from the money her father left her.
‘I got a shave and dressed up quiet and decent. I was older looking and more subdued like, and I’d got pretty grey in those few years that I’d been making a fool of myself; and, somehow, I felt rather glad about it, because I reckoned she’d notice it first thing — she was always quick at noticing things — and forgive me all the quicker. Well, I waylaid the school kids that evening, and found out mine — a little boy and a girl — and fine youngsters they were. The girl took after her mother, and the youngster was the dead spit o’me. I gave ’em half-a-crown each and told them to tell their mother that someone would come when the sun went down.’
Bogan Bill nodded approvingly.
‘So at sundown I went and knocked at the door. It opened, and there stood my little wife looking prettier than ever — only careworn.’
* * * *
Long, impressive pause.
‘Well, Jack, what did she do?’ asked Bogan.
‘She didn’t do nothing.’
‘Well, Jack, what did she say?’
Jack sighed and straightened himself up: ‘She said — she said — “Well, so you’ve come back”.’
‘Well, Jack, and what did you say?’
‘I said yes.’
‘Well, and so you had!’ said Tom Moonlight.
‘It wasn’t that, Tom,’ said Jack sadly and wearily — ‘It was the way she said it!’
Lally Thompson rubbed his eyes: ‘And what did you do, Jack?’ he asked gently.
‘I stayed for a year, and then I deserted her again — but I meant it that time.’
‘Ah, well! It’s time to turn in.’
Henry Lawson, While the Billy Boils, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1896, pages 106-109
Vernacular spelling in the original text:
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