The story of Malachi
Malachi was very tall, very thin, and very round-shouldered, and the sandiness of his hair also cried aloud for an adjective. All the boys considered Malachi the greatest ass on the station, and there was no doubt that he was a dreadful fool. He had never been out of his native bush in all his life, excepting once, when he paid a short visit to Sydney, and when he returned it was evident that his nerves had received a shaking. We failed to draw one word out of Malachi regarding his views on the city — to describe it was not in his power, for it had evidently been something far beyond his comprehension. Even after his visit had become a matter of history, if you were to ask him what he thought of Sydney the dazed expression would come back into his face, and he would scratch his head and say in a slow and deliberate manner, ‘Well, there’s no mistake, it’s a caution.’ And as such the city remained so far as Malachi’s opinion of it was concerned.
Malachi was always shabbily dressed, in spite of his pound a week and board, and ‘When Malachi gets a new suit of clothes’ was the expression invariably used by the boys to fix a date for some altogether improbable event. We were always having larks with Malachi, for we looked upon him as our legitimate butt. He seldom complained, and when he did his remonstrance hardly ever went beyond repeating the words, ‘Now, none of your pranktical jokes!’ If this had not the desired effect, and we put up some too outrageous trick on him he would content himself by muttering with sorrowful conviction, ‘Well, there’s no mistake it’s a caution.’
We were not content with common jokes, such as sewing up the legs of Malachi’s trousers while he slept, ‘fixing’ his bunk, or putting explosives in his pipe — we aspired to some of the higher branches of the practical joker’s art. It was well known that Malachi had an undying hatred for words of four syllables and over, and the use of them was always sufficient to forfeit any good opinions he might have previously entertained concerning the user. ‘I hate them high-flown words,’ he would say — ‘I got a book at home that I could get them all out of if I wanted them; but I don’t.’ The book referred to was a very dilapidated dictionary. Malachi’s hatred for high-flown words was only equalled by his aversion to the opposite sex; and, this being known, we used to write letters to him in a feminine hand, threatening divers breach of promise actions, and composed in the high-flown language above alluded to. We used to think this very funny, and by these means we made his life a burden to him. Malachi put the most implicit faith in everything we told him; he would take in the most improbable yarn provided we preserved a grave demeanour and used no high-flown expressions. He would indeed sometimes remark that our yarns were a caution, but that was all.
We played upon him the most gigantic joke of all during the visit of a certain bricklayer, who came to do some work at the homestead. ‘Bricky’ was a bit of a phrenologist, and knew enough of physiognomy and human nature to give a pretty fair delineation of character. He also went in for spirit-rapping, greatly to the disgust of the two ancient housekeepers, who declared that they’d have ‘no dalins wid him and his divil’s worruk.’
The bricklayer was from the first an object of awe to Malachi, who carefully avoided him; but one night we got the butt into a room where the artisan was entertaining the boys with a séance. After the table-rapping, during which Malachi sat with uncovered head and awe-struck expression, we proposed that he should have his ‘bumps’ told, and before he could make his escape Malachi was seated in a chair in the middle of the room and the bricklayer was running his fingers over his head. I really believe that Malachi’s hair bristled between the phrenologist’s fingers. Whenever he made a hit his staunch admirer, the ‘Donegal,’ would exclaim: ‘Look at that now!’ while the girls tittered and said, ‘Just fancy!’ and from time to time Malachi would be heard to mutter to himself in a tone of the most intense conviction that, ‘without the least mistake it was a caution.’ Several times at his work the next day Malachi was observed to rest on his spade while he tilted his hat forward with one hand and felt the back of his head as though he had not been previously aware of its existence.
We ‘ran’ Malachi to believe that the bricklayer was mad on the subject of phrenology and was suspected of having killed several persons in order to obtain their skulls for experimental purposes. We further said that he had been heard to say that Malachi’s skull was a most extraordinary one, and so, we advised him to be careful.
Malachi occupied a hut some distance from the station, and one night, the last night of the bricklayer’s stay, as Malachi sat smoking over the fire the door opened quietly and the phrenologist entered. He carried a bag with a pumpkin in the bottom of it, and, sitting down on a stool, he let the bag down with a bump on the floor between his feet. Malachi was badly scared, but he managed to stammer out —
‘’Ello!’ said the phrenologist.
There was an embarrassing silence, which was at last broken by ‘Bricky’ saying:— ‘How are you gettin’ on, Malachi?’
‘Oh, jist right,’ replied Malachi.
Nothing was said for a while, until Malachi, after fidgetting a good deal on his stool, asked the bricklayer when he was leaving the station.
‘Oh, I’m going away in the morning early,’ said he. ‘I’ve jist been over to Jimmy Nowlett’s camp, and as I was passing I thought I’d call and get your head.’
‘I come for your skull.’
‘Yes,’ the phrenologist continued, while Malachi sat horror-stricken; ‘I’ve got Jimmy Nowlett’s skull here,’ and he lifted the bag and lovingly felt the pumpkin — it must have weighed forty pounds. ‘I spoilt one of his best bumps with the tomahawk. I had to hit him twice, but it’s no use crying over spilt milk.’ Here he drew a heavy shingling-hammer out of the bag and wiped off with his sleeve something that looked like blood. Malachi had been edging round for the door, and now he made a rush for it. But the skull-fancier was there before him.
‘Gor-sake you don’t want to murder me!’ gasped Malachi.
‘Not if I can get your skull any other way,’ said Bricky.
‘Oh!’ gasped poor Malachi — and then, with a vague idea that it was best to humour a lunatic, he continued, in a tone meant to be off-hand and careless — ‘Now, look here, if yer only waits till I die you can have my whole skelington and welcome.’
‘Now, Malachi,’ said the phrenologist sternly, ‘d’ye think I’m a fool? I ain’t going to stand any humbug. If yer acts sensible you’ll be quiet, and it’ll soon be over, but if yer —’
Malachi did not wait to hear the rest. He made a spring for the back of the hut and through it, taking down a large new sheet of stringy-bark in his flight. Then he could be heard loudly ejaculating ‘It’s a caution!’ as he went through the bush like a startled kangaroo, and he didn’t stop till he reached the station.
Jimmy Nowlett and I had been peeping through a crack in the same sheet of bark that Malachi dislodged; it fell on us and bruised us somewhat, but it wasn’t enough to knock the fun out of the thing.
When Jimmy Nowlett crawled out from under the bark he had to lie down on Malachi’s bunk to laugh, and even for some time afterwards it was not unusual for Jimmy to wake up in the night and laugh till we wished him dead.
I should like to finish here, but there remains something more to be said about Malachi.
One of the best cows at the homestead had a calf, about which she made a great deal of fuss. She was ordinarily a quiet, docile creature, and although somewhat fussy after calving no one ever dreamed that she would injure anyone. It happened one day that the squatter’s daughter and her intended husband, a Sydney exquisite, were strolling in a paddock where the cow was. Whether the cow objected to the masher or his lady love’s red parasol, or whether she suspected designs upon her progeny, is not certain; anyhow, she went for them. The young man saw the cow coining first, and he gallantly struck a bee-line for the fence, leaving the girl to manage for herself. She wouldn’t have managed very well if Malachi hadn’t been passing just then. He saw the girl’s danger and ran to intercept the cow with no weapon but his hands.
It didn’t last long. There was a roar, a rush, and a cloud of dust, out of which the cow presently emerged, and went scampering back to the bush in which her calf was hidden.
We carried Malachi home and laid him on a bed. He had a terrible wound in the groin, and the blood soaked through the bandages like water. We did all that was possible for him, the boys killed the squatter’s best horse and spoilt two others riding for a doctor, but it was of no use. In the last half-hour of his life we all gathered round Malachi’s bed; he was only twenty-two. Once he said:
‘I wonder how mother’ll manage now?’
‘Why, where’s your mother?’ someone asked gently; we had never dreamt that Malachi might have some one to love him and be proud of him.
‘In Bathurst,’ he answered wearily — ‘she’ll take on awful, I ’spect, she was awful fond of me — we’ve been pulling together this last ten years — mother and me — we wanted to make it all right for my little brother Jim — poor Jim!’
‘What’s wrong with Jim?’ someone asked.
‘Oh, he’s blind,’ said Malachi — ‘always was — we wanted to make it all right for him agin time he grows up — I — I managed to send home about — about forty pounds a year — we bought a bit of ground, and — and — I think — I’m — going now. Tell ’em, Harry — tell ’em how it was——.’
I had to go outside then. I couldn’t stand it any more. There was a lump in my throat and I’d have given anything to wipe out my share in the practical jokes, but it was too late now.
Malachi was dead when I went in again, and that night the hat went round with the squatter’s cheque in the bottom of it and we made it ‘all right’ for Malachi’s blind brother Jim.
Henry Lawson, While the Billy Boils, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1896, pages 263-269
breach of promise = breach of contract to marry (a broken engagement); a promise to marry, as evidenced by a formal engagement, was regarded in many jurisdictions as a legally-binding contract, and therefore if one of the participants backed out of the arrangement, it could be considered as a breach of promise and subject to legal action for damages (the majority of breach of promise cases were taken again males, although in rare instances females were the defendants)
divers = a number of items (all of which are not necessarily different, they may all be identical, i.e. distinct from “diverse”), several, sundry, various; “divers” is also an archaic spelling variant of “diverse” (a number of items which are different to each other, a wide range of various types)
masher = a lover or sweetheart (from “mash”, usually meaning to kiss or canoodle, but also meaning to flirt with or court)
phrenologist = someone who adhered to the now-discredited science of phrenology, a theory based on the idea that shape, size, and configurations of the skull gave indications as to character traits and mental abilities
squatter = in the context of Australian history, a squatter was originally someone who kept their livestock (mostly cattle and sheep) upon Crown land without permission to do so (thus illegally occupying land, or “squatting”); however, the practice became so widespread that eventually the authorities decided to formalise it by granting leases or licenses to occupy or use the land; and, with the growth of the Australian economy, many of the squatters became quite rich, and the term “squatter” came to refer to someone with a large amount of farm land (they were often regarded as rich and powerful)
Vernacular spelling in the original text:
dalins (dealings) [Irish]
divil (devil) [Irish]
d’ye (do you)
Gor-sake (God’s sake)
wid (with) [Irish]
worruk (work) [Irish]
[Editor: Added single quotation mark after “skull here,”.]