The master’s mistake
William Spencer stayed away from school that hot day, and “went swimming.” The master wrote a note to William’s father, and gave it to William’s brother Joe to carry home.
“You’ll give that to your father to-night, Joseph.”
Bill waited for Joe near the gap, and walked home with him.
“I s’pose you’ve got a note for father.”
“Yes,” said Joe.
“I s’pose you know what’s in it?”
“Ye—yes. Oh, why did you stop away, Bill?”
“You don’t mean to say that you’re dirty mean enough to give it to father? Hey?”
“I must, Will. I promised the master.”
“He needn’t never know.”
“Oh, yes, he will. He’s coming over to our place on Saturday, and he’s sure to ask me to-morrow.”
“Look here, Joe!” said Bill, “I don’t want to get a hiding and go without supper to-night. I promised to go ’possuming with Johnny Nowlett, and he’s going to give me a fire out of his gun. You can come, too. I don’t want to cop out on it to-night — if I do I’ll run away from home again, so there.”
Bill walked on a bit in moody, Joe in troubled, silence.
Bill tried again: he threatened, argued, and pleaded, but Joe was firm. “The master trusted me, Will,” he said.
“Joe,” said Bill at last, after a long pause, “I wouldn’t do it to you.”
Joe was troubled.
“I wouldn’t do it to you, Joe.”
Joe thought how Bill had stood up and fought for him only last week.
“I’d tear the note in bits; I’d tell a hundred lies; I’d take a dozen hidings first, Joe — I would.”
Joe was greatly troubled. His chest heaved, and the tears came to his eyes.
“I’d do more than that for you, Joe, and you know it.”
Joe knew it. They were crossing the old goldfield now. There was a shaft close to the path; it had fallen in, funnel-shaped, at the top, but was still thirty or forty feet deep; some old logs were jammed across about five feet down. Joe suddenly snatched the note from his pocket and threw it in. It fluttered to the other side and rested on a piece of the old timber. Bill saw it, but said nothing, and, seeing their father coming home from work, they hurried on.
Joe was deep in trouble now. Bill tried to comfort and cheer him, but it was no use. Bill promised never to run away from home any more, to go to school every day, and never to fight, or steal, or tell lies. But Joe had betrayed his trust for the first time in his life, and wouldn’t be comforted.
Some time in the night Bill woke, and found Joe sitting up in bed crying.
“Why, what’s the matter, Joe?”
“I never done a mean thing like that before,” sobbed Joe. “I wished I’d chucked meself down the shaft instead. The master trusted me, Will; an’ now, if he asks me to-morrow, I’ll have to tell a lie.”
“Then tell the truth, Joe, an’ take the hidin’; it’ll soon be over — just a couple of cuts with the cane and it’ll be all over.”
“Oh, no, it won’t. He won’t never trust me any more. I’ve never been caned in that school yet, Will, and if I am I’ll never go again. Oh! why will you run away from home, Will, and play the wag, and steal, and get us all into such trouble? You don’t know how mother takes on about it — you don’t know how it hurts father! I’ve deceived the master, and mother and father to-day, just because you’re so — so selfish,” and he laid down and cried himself to sleep.
Bill lay awake and thought till daylight; then he got up quietly, put on his clothes, and stole away from the house and across the flat, followed by the dog, who thought it was a ’possum-hunting expedition. Bill wished the dog would not be quite so demonstrative, at least until they got away from the house. He went straight to the shaft, let himself down carefully on to one of the old logs, and stooped to pick up the note, gleaming white in the sickly summer daylight. Then the rotten timber gave way suddenly, without a moment’s warning.
* * * * * *
They found him that morning at about nine o’clock. The dog attracted the attention of an old fossicker passing to his work. The letter was gripped in Bill’s right hand when they brought him up. They took him home, and the father went for a doctor. Bill came to himself a little just before the last, and said: “Mother! I wasn’t running away, mother — tell father that — I — I wanted to try and catch a ’possum on the ground. . . . Where’s Joe? I want Joe. Go out, mother, a minute, and send Joe.”
“Here I am, Bill,” said Joe, in a choking, terrified voice.
“Has the master been yet?”
“Bend down, Joe. I went for the note, and the logs gave way. I meant to be back before they was up. I dropped it down inside the bed; you watch your chance and get it; and say you forgot it last night — say you didn’t like to give it — that won’t be a lie. Tell the master I’m — I’m sorry — tell the master never to send no notes no more — except by girls — that’s all. . . . Mother! Take the blankets off me — I’m dyin’.”
Henry Lawson, Over the Sliprails, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1900, pages 152-155
fossicker = someone who searches for gold, especially by picking through dirt that has already been worked on
wag = to not attend school without permission to do so; to skip school, to be truant (may also be used in other contexts, such as to wag work, but primarily used regarding schooling)
Vernacular spelling in the original text: