The geological spieler
There’s nothing so interesting as Geology, even to common and ignorant people, especially when you have a bank or the side of a cutting, studded with fossil fish and things and oysters that were stale when Adam was fresh to illustrate by. (Remark made by Steelman, professional wanderer, to his pal and pupil, Smith.)
The first man that Steelman and Smith came up to on the last embankment, where they struck the new railway line, was a heavy, gloomy, labouring man with bow-yangs on and straps round his wrists. Steelman bade him the time of day and had a few words with him over the weather. The man of mullick gave it as his opinion that the fine weather would’nt last, and seemed to take a gloomy kind of pleasure in that reflection; he said there was more rain down yonder, pointing to the south-east, than the moon could swallow up — the moon was in its first quarter, during which time it is popularly believed in some parts of Maoriland that the south-easter is most likely to be out on the wallaby and the weather bad. Steelman regarded that quarter of the sky with an expression of gentle remonstrance mingled as it were with a sort of fatherly indulgence, agreed mildly with the labouring man, and seemed lost for a moment in a reverie from which he roused himself to enquire cautiously after the boss. There was no boss, it was a co-operative party. That chap standing over there by the dray in the end of the cutting was their spokesman — their representative: they called him Boss, but that was only his nickname in camp. Steelman expressed his thanks and moved on towards the cutting, followed respectfully by Smith.
Steelman wore a snuff-coloured sac suit, a wide-awake hat, a pair of professional-looking spectacles, and a scientific expression; there was a clerical atmosphere about him, strengthened however by an air as of unconscious dignity and superiority, born of intellect and knowledge. He carried a black bag, which was an indispensable article in his profession in more senses than one. Smith was decently dressed in sober tweed and looked like a man of no account, who was mechanically devoted to his employer’s interests, pleasures, or whims, whatever they may have been.
The boss was a decent-looking young fellow with a good face — rather solemn — and a quiet manner.
‘Good day, sir,’ said Steelman.
‘Good day, sir,’ said the Boss.
‘Nice weather this.’
‘Yes, it is, but I’m afraid it won’t last.’
‘I am afraid it will not by the look of the sky down there,’ ventured Steelman.
‘No, I go mostly by the look of our weather prophet,’ said the Boss with a quiet smile, indicating the gloomy man.
‘I suppose bad weather would put you back in your work?’
‘Yes, it will; we didn’t want any bad weather just now.’
Steelman got the weather question satisfactorily settled; then, he said:
‘You seem to be getting on with the railway.’
‘Oh, yes, we are about over the worst of it.’
‘The worst of it?’ echoed Steelman, with mild surprise: ‘I should have thought you were just coming into it’ and he pointed to the ridge ahead.
‘Oh, our section doesn’t go any further than that pole you see sticking up yonder. We had the worst of it back there across the swamps — working up to our waists in water most of the time, in mid-winter too — and at eighteenpence a yard.’
‘That was bad.’
‘Yes, rather rough. Did you come from the terminus?’
‘Yes, I sent my baggage on in the brake.’
‘Commercial traveller, I suppose,’ asked the Boss, glancing at Smith, who stood a little to the rear of Steelman, seeming interested in the work.
‘Oh no,’ said Steelman, smiling — ‘I am — well — I’m a geologist; this is my man here,’ indicating Smith. ‘(You may put down the bag, James, and have a smoke.) My name is Stoneleigh — you might have heard of it.’
The Boss said ‘oh,’ and then presently he added ‘indeed,’ in an undecided tone.
There was a pause — embarrassed on the part of the Boss — he was silent not knowing what to say. Meanwhile Steelman studied his man and concluded that he would do.
‘Having a look at the country, I suppose?’ asked the Boss presently.
‘Yes,’ said Steelman; then after a moment’s reflection: ‘I am travelling for my own amusement and improvement, and also in the interest of science, which amounts to the same thing. I am a member of the Royal Geological Society — vice-president in fact of a leading Australian branch;’ and then, as if conscious that he had appeared guilty of egotism, he shifted the subject a bit. ‘Yes. Very interesting country this — very interesting indeed. I should like to make a stay here for a day or so. Your work opens right into my hands. I cannot remember seeing a geological formation which interested me so much. Look at the face of that cutting, for instance. Why! you can almost read the history of the geological world from yesterday — this morning as it were — beginning with the super-surface on top and going right down through the different layers and stratas — through the vanished ages — right down and back to the prehistorical — to the very primeval or fundamental geological formations!’ And Steelman studied the face of the cutting as if he could read it like a book, with every layer or stratum a chapter, and every streak a note of explanation. The Boss seemed to be getting interested, and Steelman gained confidence and proceeded to identify and classify the different ‘stratas and layers’, and fix their ages, and describe the conditions and politics of Man in their different times, for the Boss’s benefit.
‘Now,’ continued Steelman, turning slowly from the cutting, removing his glasses, and letting his thoughtful eyes wander casually over the general scenery — ‘now the first impression that this country would leave on an ordinary intelligent mind — though maybe unconsciously, would be as of a new country — new in a geological sense; with patches of an older geological and vegetable formation cropping out here and there; as for instance that clump of dead trees on that clear alluvial slope there, that outcrop of lime-stone, or that timber yonder,’ and he indicated a dead forest which seemed alive and green because of the parasites. ‘But the country is old — old; perhaps the oldest geological formation in the world is to be seen here, as is the oldest vegetable formation in Australia. I am not using the words old and new in an ordinary sense, you understand, but in a geological sense.’
The Boss said, ‘I understand,’ and that geology must be a very interesting study.
Steelman ran his eye meditatively over the cutting again, and turning to Smith said,
‘Go up there, James, and fetch me a specimen of that slaty out-crop you see there — just above the coeval strata.’
It was a stiff climb and slippery, but Smith had to do it, and he did it.
‘This,’ said Steelman, breaking the rotten piece between his fingers, ‘belongs probably to an older geological period than its position would indicate — a primitive sandstone level perhaps. Its position on that layer is no doubt due to volcanic upheavals — such disturbances, or rather the results of such disturbances, have been and are the cause of the greatest trouble to geologists — endless errors and controversy. You see we must study the country, not as it appears now, but as it would appear had the natural geological growth been left to mature undisturbed; we must restore and reconstruct such disorganised portions of the mineral kingdom, if you understand me.’
The Boss said he understood.
Steelman found an opportunity to wink sharply and severely at Smith, who had been careless enough to allow his features to relapse into a vacant grin.
‘It is generally known even amongst the ignorant that rock grows — grows from the outside — but the rock here, a specimen of which I hold in my hand, is now in the process of decomposition; to be plain it is rotting — in an advanced stage of decomposition — so much so that you are not able to identify it with any geological period or formation, even as you may not be able to identify any other extremely decomposed body.’
The Boss blinked and knitted his brow, but had the presence of mind to say: ‘Just so.’
‘Had the rock on that cutting been healthy — been alive, as it were — you would have had your work cut out; but it is dead and has been dead for ages perhaps. You find less trouble in working it than you would ordinary clay or sand, or even gravel, which formations together are really rock in embryo — before birth as it were.’
The Boss’s brow cleared.
‘The country round here is simply rotting down — simply rotting down.’
He removed his spectacles, wiped them, and wiped his face; then his attention seemed to be attracted by some stones at his feet. He picked one up and examined it.
‘I shouldn’t wonder,’ he mused, absently, ‘I shouldn’t wonder if there is alluvial gold in some of these creeks and gullies, perhaps tin or even silver, quite probably antimony.’
The boss seemed interested.
‘Can you tell me if there is any place in this neighbourhood where I could get accommodation for myself and my servant for a day or two?’ asked Steelman presently. ‘I should very much like to break my journey here.’
‘Well, no,’ said the Boss. ‘I can’t say I do — I don’t know of any place nearer than Pahiatua, and that’s seven miles from here.’
‘I know that,’ said Steelman reflectively, ‘but I fully expected to have found a house of accommodation of some sort on the way, else I would have gone on in the van.’
‘Well,’ said the Boss. ‘If you like to camp with us for to-night, at least, and don’t mind roughing it, you’ll be welcome, I’m sure.’
‘If I was sure that I would not be putting you to any trouble, or interfering in any way with your domestic economy —’
‘No trouble at all,’ interrupted the Boss. ‘The boys will be only too glad, and there’s an empty whare where you can sleep. Better stay. It’s going to be a rough night.’
After tea Steelman entertained the Boss and a few of the more thoughtful members of the party with short chatty lectures on geology and other subjects.
In the meantime Smith, in another part of the camp, gave selections on a tin whistle, sang a song or two, contributed, in his turn, to the sailor yarns, and ensured his popularity for several nights at least. After several draughts of something that was poured out of a demijohn into a pint pot, his tongue became loosened, and he expressed an opinion that geology was all bosh, and said if he had half his employer’s money he’d be dashed if he would go rooting round in the mud like a blessed old ant-eater; he also irreverently referred to his learned boss as ‘Old Rocks’ over there. He had a pretty easy billet of it though, he said, taking it all round, when the weather was fine; he got a couple of notes a week and all expenses paid, and the money was sure; he was only required to look after the luggage and arrange for accommodation, grub out a chunk of rock now and then, and (what perhaps was the most irksome of his duties) he had to appear interested in old rocks and clay.
Towards midnight Steelman and Smith retired to the unoccupied whare which had been shown them, Smith carrying a bundle of bags, blankets, and rugs, which had been placed at their disposal by their good-natured hosts. Smith lit a candle and proceeded to make the beds. Steelman sat down, removed his specs and scientific expression, placed the glasses carefully on a ledge close at hand, took a book from his bag, and commenced to read. The volume was a cheap copy of Jules Verne’s ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth.’ A little later there was a knock at the door. Steelman hastily resumed the spectacles, together with the scientific expression, took a note-book from his pocket, opened it on the table, and said ‘Come in.’ One of the chaps appeared with a billy of hot coffee, two pint pots, and some cake. He said he thought you chaps might like a drop of coffee before you turned in, and the boys had forgot to ask you to wait for it down in the camp. He also wanted to know whether Mr. Stoneleigh and his man would be all right and quite comfortable for the night, and whether they had blankets enough. There was some wood at the back of the whare and they could light a fire if they liked.
Mr. Stoneleigh expressed his thanks and his appreciation of the kindness shown him and his servant. He was extremely sorry to give them any trouble.
The navvy, a serious man, who respected genius or intellect in any shape or form, said that it was no trouble at all, the camp was very dull and the boys were always glad to have some one come round. Then, after a brief comparison of opinions concerning the probable duration of the weather which had arrived, they bade each other good night, and the darkness swallowed the serious man.
Steelman turned into the top bunk on one side and Smith took the lower on the other. Steelman had the candle by his bunk, as usual; he lit his pipe for a final puff before going to sleep, and held the light up for a moment so as to give Smith the full benefit of a solemn, uncompromising wink. The wink was silently applauded and dutifully returned by Smith. Then Steelman blew out the light, lay back, and puffed at his pipe for a while. Presently he chuckled, and the chuckle was echoed by Smith; by-and-bye Steelman chuckled once more, and then Smith chuckled again. There was silence in the darkness, and after a bit Smith chuckled twice. Then Steelman said:
‘For God’s sake give her a rest, Smith, and give a man a show to get some sleep.’
Then the silence in the darkness remained unbroken.
The invitation was extended next day, and Steelman sent Smith on to see that his baggage was safe.
Smith stayed out of sight for two or three hours, and then returned and reported all well.
They stayed on for several days. After breakfast and when the men were going to work Steelman and Smith would go out along the line with the black bag and poke round amongst the ‘layers and stratas’ in sight of the works for a while, as an evidence of good faith; then they’d drift off casually into the bush, camp in a retired and sheltered spot, and light a fire when the weather was cold, and Steelman would lie on the grass and read and smoke and lay plans for the future and improve Smith’s mind until they reckoned it was about dinner time. And in the evening they would come home with the black bag full of stones and bits of rock, and Steelman would lecture on those minerals after tea.
On about the fourth morning Steelman had a yarn with one of the men going to work. He was a lanky young fellow with a sandy complexion, and seemingly harmless grin. In Australia he might have been regarded as a ‘cove’ rather than a ‘chap,’ but there was nothing of the ‘bloke’ about him. Presently the cove said:
‘What do you think of the Boss, Mr. Stoneleigh? He seems to have taken a great fancy for you, and he’s fair gone on geology.’
‘I think he is a very decent fellow indeed, a very intelligent young man. He seems very well read and well informed.’
‘You wouldn’t think he was a University man,’ said the cove.
‘No, indeed! Is he?’
‘Yes. I thought you knew!’
Steelman knitted his brows. He seemed slightly disturbed for the moment. He walked on a few paces in silence and thought hard.
‘What might have been his special line?’ he asked the cove.
‘Why, something the same as yours. I thought you knew. He was, reckoned the best — what do you call it? — the best minrologist in the country. He had a first-class billet in the Mines Department, but he lost it — you know — the booze.’
‘I think we will be making a move, Smith,’ said Steelman, later on, when they were private. ‘There’s a little too much intellect in this camp to suit me. But we haven’t done so bad anyway. We’ve got three days’ good board and lodging with entertainments and refreshment thrown in.’ Then he said to himself: ‘We’ll stay for another day any-way. If those beggars are having a lark with us, we’re getting the worth of it any-way, and I’m not thin-skinned. They’re the mugs and not us, anyhow it goes, and I can take them down before I leave.’
But on the way home he had a talk with another man whom we might set down as a ‘chap.’
‘I wouldn’t have thought the Boss was a college man,’ said Steelman to the chap.
‘A University man — University education.’
‘Why! Who’s been telling you that?’
‘One of your mates.’
‘Oh, he’s been getting at you, why: it’s all the Boss can do to write his own name. Now that lanky sandy cove with the birth-mark grin — it’s him that’s had the college education.’
‘I think we’ll make a start to-morrow,’ said Steelman to Smith in the privacy of their whare. ‘There’s too much humour and levity in this camp to suit a serious scientific gentleman like myself.’
Henry Lawson, While the Billy Boils, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1896, pages 305-316
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”)
bosh = absurd or foolish talk; empty or meaningless opinions; nonsense; rubbish ideas
bow-yangs = a pair of cords, strings, or straps tied around a worker’s trouser leg just below the knee (derived from 1800s English dialect, wherein “bowy-yanks” referred to leather leggings); they were used by agricultural workers so as to stop dust, grass seeds, insects, and snakes from going up their legs
coeval = of the same age, antiquity, date, duration, or generation; contemporary
demijohn = a large bulbous-shaped bottle with a short, narrow neck (commonly made with small handles positioned at the neck; typically encased in wickerwork)
Maoriland = New Zealand, home of the Maori tribes
navvy = an unskilled labourer, especially one employed on major civil engineering projects; from navigations (canals), as many construction workers were employed on widespread canal-building schemes in 18th century Britain (thus, navigation workers came to be colloquially known as “navvies”)
on the wallaby = on the wallaby track; tramping the country roads as a swagman; in “The Swagman” (published in The Old Bush Songs, 1905), Banjo Paterson explains the term as “A nomad following the track of the wallaby, i.e., loafing aimlessly”
pint pot = a beer glass, mug, or drinking vessel that holds a pint (especially as used for beer or another alcpholic drink), commonly made of pewter
sac suit = a functional daywear suit, of plain design, commonly made from tweed
See: 1) Melissa Mehrtens, Rule Britannia, Altering Fashions – Time is a Tailor, 24 February 2014 (accessed 6 March 2015)
2) Sac suit, History in the Making (accessed 6 March 2015)
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)
whare = a simple or roughly-built dwelling place, particularly at a beach or in the bush, often a temporary abode (from the Maori “whare” meaning hut, house, or dwelling place)
wide-awake hat = a hat with a low crown and broad brim, made of felt, and commonly black or brown in colour
[Editor: Corrected “rocks and and clay” to “rocks and clay”.]