[Editor: This poem by Henry Lawson was published in In the Days When the World Was Wide and Other Verses, 1896.]
Peter Anderson and Co.
He had offices in Sydney, not so many years ago,
And his shingle bore the legend ‘Peter Anderson and Co.,’
But his real name was Careless, as the fellows understood —
And his relatives decided that he wasn’t any good.
’Twas their gentle tongues that blasted any ‘character’ he had —
He was fond of beer and leisure — and the Co. was just as bad.
It was limited in number to a unit, was the Co. —
’Twas a bosom chum of Peter and his Christian name was Joe.
’Tis a class of men belonging to these soul-forsaken years:
Third-rate canvassers, collectors, journalists and auctioneers.
They are never very shabby, they are never very spruce —
Going cheerfully and carelessly and smoothly to the deuce.
Some are wanderers by profession, ‘turning up’ and gone as soon,
Travelling second-class, or steerage (when it’s cheap they go saloon);
Free from ‘ists’ and ‘isms,’ troubled little by belief or doubt —
Lazy, purposeless, and useless — knocking round and hanging out.
They will take what they can get, and they will give what they can give,
God alone knows how they manage — God alone knows how they live!
They are nearly always hard-up, but are cheerful all the while —
Men whose energy and trousers wear out sooner than their smile!
They, no doubt, like us, are haunted by the boresome ‘if’ or ‘might,’
But their ghosts are ghosts of daylight — they are men who live at night!
Peter met you with the comic smile of one who knows you well,
And is mighty glad to see you, and has got a joke to tell;
He could laugh when all was gloomy, he could grin when all was blue,
Sing a comic song and act it, and appreciate it, too.
Only cynical in cases where his own self was the jest,
And the humour of his good yarns made atonement for the rest.
Seldom serious — doing business just as ’twere a friendly game —
Cards or billiards — nothing graver. And the Co. was much the same.
They tried everything and nothing ’twixt the shovel and the press,
And were more or less successful in their ventures — mostly less.
Once they ran a country paper till the plant was seized for debt,
And the local sinners chuckle over dingy copies yet.
They’d been through it all and knew it in the land of Bills and Jims —
Using Peter’s own expression, they had been in ‘various swims.’
Now and then they’d take an office, as they called it, — make a dash
Into business life as ‘agents’ — something not requiring cash.
(You can always furnish cheaply, when your cash or credit fails,
With a packing-case, a hammer, and a pound of two-inch nails —
And, maybe, a drop of varnish and sienna, too, for tints,
And a scrap or two of oilcloth, and a yard or two of chintz).
They would pull themselves together, pay a week’s rent in advance,
But it never lasted longer than a month by any chance
The office was their haven, for they lived there when hard-up —
A ‘daily’ for a table cloth — a jam tin for a cup;
And if the landlord’s bailiff happened round in times like these
And seized the office-fittings — well, there wasn’t much to seize —
They would leave him in possession. But at other times they shot
The moon, and took an office where the landlord knew them not.
And when morning brought the bailiff there’d be nothing to be seen
Save a piece of bevelled cedar where the tenant’s plate had been;
There would be no sign of Peter — there would be no sign of Joe
Till another portal boasted ‘Peter Anderson and Co.’
And when times were locomotive, billiard-rooms and private bars —
Spicy parties at the cafe — long cab-drives beneath the stars;
Private picnics down the Harbour — shady campings-out, you know —
No one would have dreamed ’twas Peter — no one would have thought ’twas Joe!
Free-and-easies in their ‘diggings,’ when the funds began to fail,
Bosom chums, cigars, tobacco, and a case of English ale —
Gloriously drunk and happy, till they heard the roosters crow —
And the landlady and neighbours made complaints about the Co.
But that life! it might be likened to a reckless drinking-song,
For it can’t go on for ever, and it never lasted long.
* * * * * *
Debt-collecting ruined Peter — people talked him round too oft,
For his heart was soft as butter (and the Co.’s was just as soft);
He would cheer the haggard missus, and he’d tell her not to fret,
And he’d ask the worried debtor round with him to have a wet;
He would ask him round the corner, and it seemed to him and her,
After each of Peter’s visits, things were brighter than they were.
But, of course, it wasn’t business — only Peter’s careless way;
And perhaps it pays in heaven, but on earth it doesn’t pay.
They got harder up than ever, and, to make it worse, the Co.
Went more often round the corner than was good for him to go.
‘I might live,’ he said to Peter, ‘but I haven’t got the nerve —
‘I am going, Peter, going — going, going — no reserve.
‘Eat and drink and love they tell us, for to-morrow we may die,
‘Buy experience — and we bought it — we’re experienced, you and I.’
Then, with a weary movement of his hand across his brow:
‘The death of such philosophy’s the death I’m dying now.
‘Pull yourself together, Peter; ’tis the dying wish of Joe
‘That the business world shall honour Peter Anderson and Co.
‘When you feel your life is sinking in a dull and useless course,
‘And begin to find in drinking keener pleasure and remorse —
‘When you feel the love of leisure on your careless heart take holt,
Break away from friends and pleasure, though it give your heart a jolt.
‘Shun the poison breath of cities — billiard-rooms and private bars,
‘Go where you can breathe God’s air and see the grandeur of the stars!
‘Find again and follow up the old ambitions that you had —
‘See if you can raise a drink, old man, I’m feelin’ mighty bad —
‘Hot and sweetened, nip o’ butter — squeeze o’ lemon, Pete,’ he sighed.
And, while Peter went to fetch it, Joseph went to sleep — and died
With a smile — anticipation, maybe, of the peace to come,
Or a joke to try on Peter — or, perhaps, it was the rum.
* * * * * *
Peter staggered, gripped the table, swerved as some old drunkard swerves —
At a gulp he drank the toddy, just to brace his shattered nerves.
It was awful, if you like. But then he hadn’t time to think —
All is nothing! Nothing matters! Fill your glasses — dead man’s drink.
* * * *
Yet, to show his heart was not of human decency bereft,
Peter paid the undertaker. He got drunk on what was left;
Then he shed some tears, half-maudlin, on the grave where lay the Co.,
And he drifted to a township where the city failures go.
Where, though haunted by the man he was, the wreck he yet might be,
Or the man he might have been, or by each spectre of the three,
And the dying words of Joseph, ringing through his own despair,
Peter ‘pulled himself together’ and he started business there.
But his life was very lonely, and his heart was very sad,
And no help to reformation was the company he had —
Men who might have been, who had been, but who were not in the swim —
’Twas a town of wrecks and failures — they appreciated him.
They would ask him who the Co. was — that queer company he kept —
And he’d always answer vaguely — he would say his partner slept;
That he had a ‘sleeping partner’ — jesting while his spirit broke —
And they grinned above their glasses, for they took it as a joke.
He would shout while he had money, he would joke while he had breath —
No one seemed to care or notice how he drank himself to death;
Till at last there came a morning when his smile was seen no more —
He was gone from out the office, and his shingle from the door,
And a boundary-rider jogging out across the neighb’ring run
Was attracted by a something that was blazing in the sun;
And he found that it was Peter, lying peacefully at rest,
With a bottle close beside him and the shingle on his breast.
Well, they analysed the liquor, and it would appear that he
Qualified his drink with something good for setting spirits free.
Though ’twas plainly self-destruction — ‘’twas his own affair,’ they said;
And the jury viewed him sadly, and they found — that he was dead.
Henry Lawson. In the Days When the World Was Wide and Other Verses, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1903 [first published 1896], pages 184-194
bevelled = having a surface or edge which slopes away from a horizontal or vertical surface
shot the moon = in the context of renting, to “shoot the moon” is to leave your premises whilst still owing rent; doing a “moonlight flit” (in other contexts, “shoot for the moon” refers to trying to do something ambitious; whilst “shoot the moon” in some card games, such as Hearts or Hoosier Bid Euchre, refers to an particular ambitious tactic in those games)
toddy = an alcoholic drink consisting of liquor (such as rum), water, sugar, and spices, usually served hot
wet = in a social context, a drink (e.g. “invite a friend to have a wet”)
[Editor: Added an apostrophe to the start of “Twas a town”.]