The two travellers had yarned late in their camp, and the moon was getting low down through the mulga. Mitchell’s mate had just finished a rather ‘racy’ yarn, but it seemed to fall flat on Mitchell; he was in a sentimental mood. He smoked a while, and thought, and then said:
‘Ah! there was one little girl that I was properly struck on. She came to our place on a visit to my sister. I think she was the best little girl that ever lived, and about the prettiest. She was just eighteen, and didn’t come up to my shoulder; the biggest blue eyes you ever saw, and she had hair that reached down to her knees, and so thick you couldn’t span it with your two hands — brown and glossy — and her skin was like lilies and roses. Of course, I never thought she’d look at a rough, ugly, ignorant brute like me, and I used to keep out of her way and act a little stiff towards her; I didn’t want the others to think I was gone on her, because I knew they’d laugh at me, and maybe she’d laugh at me more than all. She would come and talk to me, and sit near me at table; but I thought that that was on account of her good nature, and she pitied me because I was such a rough, awkward chap. I was gone on that girl, and no joking; and I felt quite proud to think she was a countrywoman of mine. But I wouldn’t let her know that, for I felt sure she’d only laugh.
‘Well, things went on till I got the offer of two or three years’ work on a station up near the border, and I had to go, for I was hard up; besides, I wanted to get away. Stopping round where she was only made me miserable.
‘The night I left they were all down at the station to see me off — including the girl I was gone on. When the train was ready to start she was standing away by herself on the dark end of the platform, and my sister kept nudging me and winking, and fooling about, but I didn’t know what she was driving at. At last she said:
“Go and speak to her, you noodle; go and say good-bye to Edie.”
‘So I went up to where she was, and, when the others turned their backs —
“Well, good-bye, Miss Brown,” I said, holding out my hand; “I don’t suppose I’ll ever see you again, for Lord knows when I’ll be back. Thank you for coming to see me off.”
‘Just then she turned her face to the light, and I saw she was crying. She was trembling all over. Suddenly she said, “Jack! Jack!” just like that, and held up her arms like this.’
Mitchell was speaking in a tone of voice that didn’t belong to him, and his mate looked up. Mitchell’s face was solemn, and his eyes were fixed on the fire.
‘I suppose you gave her a good hug then, and a kiss?’ asked the mate.
‘I s’pose so,’ snapped Mitchell. ‘There is some things a man doesn’t want to joke about. . . . . Well, I think we’ll shove on one of the billies, and have a drink of tea before we turn in.’
‘I suppose,’ said Mitchell’s mate, as they drank their tea, ‘I suppose you’ll go back and marry her some day?’
‘Some day! That’s it; it looks like it, doesn’t it? We all say ‘Some day.’ I used to say it ten years ago, and look at me now. I’ve been knocking round for five years, and the last two years constant on the track, and no show of getting off it unless I go for good, and what have I got for it? I look like going home and getting married, without a penny in my pocket or a rag to my back scarcely, and no show of getting them. I swore I’d never go back home without a cheque, and, what’s more, I never will; but the cheque days are past. Look at that boot! If we were down among the settled districts we’d be called tramps and beggars; and what’s the difference? I’ve been a fool, I know, but I’ve paid for it; and now there’s nothing for it but to tramp, tramp, tramp for your tucker, and keep tramping till you get old and careless and dirty, and older, and more careless and dirtier, and you get used to the dust and sand, and heat, and flies, and mosquitoes, just as a bullock does, and lose ambition and hope, and get contented with this animal life, like a dog, and till your swag seems part of yourself, and you’d be lost and uneasy and light-shouldered without it, and you don’t care a damn if you’ll ever get work again, or live like a Christian; and you go on like this till the spirit of a bullock takes the place of the heart of a man. Who cares? If we hadn’t found the track yesterday we might have lain and rotted in that lignum, and no one been any the wiser — or sorrier — who knows? Somebody might have found us in the end, but it mightn’t have been worth his while to go out of his way and report us. Damn the world, say I!’
He smoked for awhile in savage silence; then he knocked the ashes out of his pipe, felt for his tobacco with a sigh, and said:
‘Well, I am a bit out of sorts to-night. I’ve been thinking. . . . . I think we’d best turn in, old man; we’ve got a long, dry stretch before us to-morrow.’
They rolled out their swags on the sand, lay down, and wrapped themselves in their blankets. Mitchell covered his face with a piece of calico, because the moonlight and wind kept him awake.
Henry Lawson, While the Billy Boils, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1896, pages 205-208
billies = plural of “billy”; a billy was 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”)
gone on = in love with someone; fancies a person
lignum = Latin for wood, or woody; may also refer to the woody tissue of a plant, or to firewood in general; in Australia, it also refers to the Muehlenbeckia Florulenta shrub (known commonly as “Tangled Lignum”, or just “Lignum”), which is a perennial shrub native to inland Australia, which grows up to 2.5 metres in height; may also refer to Vitex lignum-vitae (also known as Lignum-vitae, or more commonly as Yellow Hollywood), which is a rainforest tree native to Queensland and northern New South Wales, which grows up to 30 metres in height (also, there are other types of Lignum which grow in various other countries)
swag = a swagman’s bundle, being a number of personal belongings rolled up in a blanket, and hung from the shoulder; also known as a “bluey”, “drum”, or “Matilda”
tucker = food