I met him in a sixpenny restaurant — “All meals, 6d. — Good beds, 1s.” That was before sixpenny restaurants rose to a third-class position, and became possibly respectable places to live in, through the establishment, beneath them, of fourpenny hash-houses (good beds, 6d.), and, beneath them again, of three-penny “dining-rooms — clean beds, 4d.”
There were five beds in our apartment, the head of one against the foot of the next, and so on round the room, with a space where the door and washstand were. I chose the bed the head of which was near the foot of his, because he looked like a man who took his bath regularly. I should like, in the interests of sentiment, to describe the place as a miserable, filthy, evil-smelling garret; but I can’t — because it wasn’t. The room was large and airy; the floor was scrubbed and the windows cleaned at least once a week, and the beds kept fresh and neat, which is more — a good deal more — than can be said of many genteel private boarding-houses. The lodgers were mostly respectable unemployed, and one or two — fortunate men! — in work; it was the casual boozer, the professional loafer, and the occasional spieler — the one-shilling-bed-men — who made the place objectionable, not the hard-working people who paid ten pounds a week for the house; and, but for the one-night lodgers and the big gilt black-and-red bordered and “shaded” “6d.” in the window — which made me glance guiltily up and down the street, like a burglar about to do a job, before I went in — I was pretty comfortable there.
They called him “Mr. Smellingscheck”, and treated him with a peculiar kind of deference, the reason for which they themselves were doubtless unable to explain or even understand. The haggard woman who made the beds called him “Mr. Smell-’is-check”. Poor fellow! I didn’t think, by the look of him, that he’d smelt his cheque, or anyone else’s, or that anyone else had smelt his, for many a long day. He was a fat man, slow and placid. He looked like a typical monopolist who had unaccountably got into a suit of clothes belonging to a Domain unemployed, and hadn’t noticed, or had entirely forgotten, the circumstance in his business cares — if such a word as care could be connected with such a calm, self-contained nature. He wore a suit of cheap slops of some kind of shoddy “tweed.” The coat was too small and the trousers too short, and they were drawn up to meet the waistcoat — which they did with painful difficulty, now and then showing, by way of protest, two pairs of brass buttons and the ends of the brace-straps; and they seemed to blame the irresponsive waistcoat or the wearer for it all. Yet he never gave way to assist them. A pair of burst elastic-sides were in full evidence, and a rim of cloudy sock, with a hole in it, showed at every step.
But he put on his clothes and wore them like — like a gentleman. He had two white shirts, and they were both dirty. He’d lay them out on the bed, turn them over, regard them thoughtfully, choose that which appeared to his calm understanding to be the cleaner, and put it on, and wear it until it was unmistakably dirtier than the other; then he’d wear the other till it was dirtier than the first. He managed his three collars the same way. His handkerchiefs were washed in the bathroom, and dried, without the slightest disguise, in the bedroom. He never hurried in anything. The way he cleaned his teeth, shaved, and made his toilet almost transformed the place, in my imagination, into a gentleman’s dressing-room.
He talked politics and such things in the abstract — always in the abstract — calmly in the abstract. He was an old-fashioned Conservative of the Sir Leicester Dedlock style. When he was moved by an extra shower of aggressive democratic cant — which was seldom — he defended Capital, but only as if it needed no defence, and as if its opponents were merely thoughtless, ignorant children whom he condescended to set right because of their inexperience and for their own good. He stuck calmly to his own order — the order which had dropped him like a foul thing when the bottom dropped out of his boom, whatever that was. He never talked of his misfortunes.
He took his meals at the little greasy table in the dark corner downstairs, just as if he were dining at the Exchange. He had a chop — rather well-done — and a sheet of the Herald for breakfast. He carried two handkerchiefs; he used one for a handkerchief and the other for a table-napkin, and sometimes folded it absently and laid it on the table. He rose slowly, putting his chair back, took down his battered old green hat, and regarded it thoughtfully — as though it had just occurred to him in a calm, casual way that he’d drop into his hatter’s, if he had time, on his way down town, and get it blocked, or else send the messenger round with it during business hours. He’d draw his stick out from behind the next chair, plant it, and, if you hadn’t quite finished your side of the conversation, stand politely waiting until you were done. Then he’d look for a suitable reply into his hat, put it on, give it a twitch to settle it on his head — as gentlemen do a “chimney-pot” — step out into the gangway, turn his face to the door, and walk slowly out on to the middle of the pavement — looking more placidly well-to-do than ever. The saying is that clothes make a man, but he made his almost respectable just by wearing them. Then he’d consult his watch — (he stuck to the watch all through, and it seemed a good one — I often wondered why he didn’t pawn it); then he’d turn slowly, right turn, and look down the street. Then slowly back, left-about turn, and take a cool survey in that direction, as if calmly undecided whether to take a cab and drive to the Exchange, or (as it was a very fine morning, and he had half an hour to spare) walk there and drop in at his club on the way. He’d conclude to walk. I never saw him go anywhere in particular, but he walked and stood as if he could.
Coming quietly into the room one day, I surprised him sitting at the table with his arms lying on it and his face resting on them. I heard something like a sob. He rose hastily, and gathered up some papers which were on the table; then he turned round, rubbing his forehead and eyes with his forefinger and thumb, and told me that he suffered from — something, I forget the name of it, but it was a well-to-do ailment. His manner seemed a bit jolted and hurried for a minute or so, and then he was himself again. He told me he was leaving for Melbourne next day. He left while I was out, and left an envelope downstairs for me. There was nothing in it except a pound note.
I saw him in Brisbane afterwards, well-dressed, getting out of a cab at the entrance of one of the leading hotels. But his manner was no more self-contained and well-to-do than it had been in the old sixpenny days — because it couldn’t be. We had a well-to-do whisky together, and he talked of things in the abstract. He seemed just as if he’d met me in the Australia.
Henry Lawson, On the Track, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1900, pages 123-127
Previously published in:
The Bulletin (vol. 18 no. 907), 3 July 1897, page 28
According to an article published in 1901, it is believed that Lawson derived the name “Smellingscheck” from a businessman in Sydney:
“The fire in Vickery’s Chambers, whereby part of the stock owned by a foreign agent named Schmellitscheck was damaged reminds the writer of a curious coincidence. Writing a short story about a hard-up remittance man in the Bulletin, author Henry Lawson cast about in his mind for a suitable name. The name Smell-its-cheque occurred to him, and he used it almost unaltered. In the course of his walks through town, he must have noticed the real Mr. Schmellitscheck’s name alongside the office doorway and for a time have forgotten the incident. Later, he unconsciously made use of a past impression. The Bulletin, however, explained matters and put in an explanatory paragraph, but authors would do well to look in the directory before naming their villians or butts.”
[See: “Passing notes”, The Grenfell Record and Lachlan District Advertiser (Grenfell, NSW), 9 March 1901, p. 2]
boozer = a heavy drinker, someone who consumes a lot of alcoholic drinks
Domain = the Domain is a large area (34 hectares) of parkland located on the eastern edge of the Sydney central business district
garret = a small room or space located just beneath the roof of a building, particularly with connotations of being a dismal or unpleasant room; an attic
Leicester Deadlock = Sir Leicester Dedlock was a character in the book Bleak House (1854), written by Charles Dickens
spieler = someone with a glib and plausible manner of speaking, with a style that is intended to persuade, and often speaking at length, especially regarding a salesman giving a sales pitch (may also refer to an announcer on radio or television, particularly one who does commercials; a barker employed at a circus sideshow; or a swindler)
[Editor: Corrected “Sir Leicester Deadlock” to “Sir Leicester Dedlock”.]