The story of the Oracle
“We young fellows,” said “Sympathy Joe” to Mitchell, after tea, in their first camp west the river — “and you and I are young fellows, comparatively — think we know the world. There are plenty of young chaps knocking round in this country who reckon they’ve been through it all before they’re thirty. I’ve met cynics and men-o’-the-world, aged twenty-one or thereabouts, who’ve never been further than a trip to Sydney. They talk about ‘this world’ as if they’d knocked around in half-a-dozen other worlds before they came across here — and they are just as off-hand about it as older Australians are when they talk about this colony as compared with the others. They say: ‘My oath! — same here.’ ‘I’ve been there.’ ‘My oath! — you’re right.’ ‘Take it from me!’ and all that sort of thing. They understand women, and have a contempt for ’em; and chaps that don’t talk as they talk, or do as they do, or see as they see, are either soft or ratty. A good many reckon that ‘life ain’t blanky well worth livin’;’ sometimes they feel so blanky somehow that they wouldn’t give a blank whether they chucked it or not; but that sort never chuck it. It’s mostly the quiet men that do that, and if they’ve got any complaints to make against the world they make ’em at the head station. Why, I’ve known healthy, single, young fellows under twenty-five who drank to drown their troubles — some because they reckoned the world didn’t understand nor appreciate ’em — as if it could!”
“If the world don’t understand or appreciate you,” said Mitchell solemnly, as he reached for a burning stick to light his pipe — “make it!”
“To drown their troubles!” continued Joe, in a tone of impatient contempt. “The Oracle must be well on towards the sixties; he can take his glass with any man, but you never saw him drunk.”
“What’s the Oracle to do with it?”
“Did you ever hear his history?”
“No. Do you know it?”
“Yes, though I don’t think he has any idea that I do. Now, we were talking about the Oracle a little while ago. We know he’s an old ass; a good many outsiders consider that he’s a bit soft or ratty, and, as we’re likely to be mates together for some time on that fencing contract, if we get it, you might as well know what sort of a man he is and was, so’s you won’t get uneasy about him if he gets deaf for awhile when you’re talking, or does funny things with his pipe or pint-pot, or walks up and down by himself for an hour or so after tea, or sits on a log with his head in his hands, or leans on the fence in the gloaming and keeps looking in a blank sort of way, straight ahead, across the clearing. For he’s gazing at something a thousand miles across country, south-east, and about twenty years back into the past, and no doubt he sees himself (as a young man), and a Gippsland girl, spooning under the stars along between the hop-gardens and the Mitchell River. And, if you get holt of a fiddle or a concertina, don’t rasp or swank too much on old tunes, when he’s round, for the Oracle can’t stand it. Play something lively. He’ll be down there at that surveyor’s camp yarning till all hours, so we’ll have plenty of time for the story — but don’t you ever give him a hint that you know.
“My people knew him well; I got most of the story from them — mostly from Uncle Bob, who knew him better than any. The rest leaked out through the women — you know how things leak out amongst women?”
Mitchell dropped his head and scratched the back of it. He knew.
“It was on the Cudgegong River. My Uncle Bob was mates with him on one of those ‘rushes’ along there — the ‘Pipeclay,’ I think it was, or the ‘Log Paddock.’ The Oracle was a young man then, of course, and so was Uncle Bob (he was a match for most men). You see the Oracle now, and you can imagine what he was when he was a young man. Over six feet, and as straight as a sapling, Uncle Bob said, clean-limbed, and as fresh as they made men in those days; carried his hands behind him, as he does now, when he hasn’t got the swag — but his shoulders were back in those days. Of course he wasn’t the Oracle then; he was young Tom Marshall — but that doesn’t matter. Everybody liked him — especially women and children. He was a bit happy-go-lucky and careless, but he didn’t know anything about ‘this world,’ and didn’t bother about it; he hadn’t ‘been there.’ ‘And his heart was as good as gold,’ my aunt used to say. He didn’t understand women as we young fellows do nowadays, and therefore he hadn’t any contempt for ’em. Perhaps he understood, and understands, them better than any of us, without knowing it. Anyway, you know, he’s always gentle and kind where a woman or child is concerned, and doesn’t like to hear us talk about women as we do sometimes.
“There was a girl on the goldfields — a fine lump of a blonde, and pretty gay. She came from Sydney, I think, with her people, who kept shanties on the fields. She had a splendid voice, and used to sing ‘Madeline.’ There might have been one or two bad women before that, in the Oracle’s world, but no cold-blooded, designing ones. He calls the bad ones ‘unfortunate.’
“Perhaps it was Tom’s looks, or his freshness, or his innocence, or softness — or all together — that attracted her. Anyway, he got mixed up with her before the goldfield petered out.
“No doubt it took a long while for the facts to work into Tom’s head that a girl might sing like she did and yet be thoroughly unprincipled. The Oracle was always slow at coming to a decision, but when he does it’s generally the right one. Anyway, you can take that for granted, for you won’t move him.
“I don’t know whether he found out that she wasn’t all that she pretented to be to him, or whether they quarrelled, or whether she chucked him over for a lucky digger. Tom never had any luck on the goldfields. Anyway, he left and went over to the Victorian side, where his people were, and went up Gippsland way. It was there for the first time in his life that he got what you would call ‘properly gone on a girl’; he got hard hit — he met his fate.
“Her name was Bertha Bredt, I remember. Aunt Bob saw her afterwards. Aunt Bob used to say that she was ‘a girl as God made her’ — a good, true, womanly girl — one of those sort of girls that only love once. Tom got on with her father, who was packing horses through the ranges to the new goldfields — it was rough country and there were no roads; they had to pack everything there in those days, and there was money in it. The girl’s father took to Tom — as almost everybody else did — and, as far as the girl was concerned, I think it was a case of love at first sight. They only knew each other for about six months, and were only ‘courting’ (as they called it then) for three or four months altogether, but she was that sort of girl that can love a man for six weeks and lose him for ever, and yet go on loving him to the end of her life — and die with his name on her lips.
“Well, things were brightening up every way for Tom, and he and his sweetheart were beginning to talk about their own little home in future, when there came a letter from the ‘Madeline’ girl in New South Wales.
“She was in terrible trouble. Her baby was to be born in a month. Her people had kicked her out, and she was in danger of starving. She begged and prayed of him to come back and marry her, if only for his child’s sake. He could go then, and be free; she would never trouble him any more — only come and marry her for the child’s sake.
“The Oracle doesn’t know where he lost that letter, but I do. It was burnt afterwards by a woman, who was more than a mother to him in his trouble — Aunt Bob. She thought he might carry it round with the rest of his papers, in his swag, for years, and come across it unexpectedly when he was camped by himself in the bush and feeling dull. It wouldn’t have done him any good then.
“He must have fought the hardest fight in his life when he got that letter. No doubt he walked to and fro, to and fro, all night, with his hands behind him, and his eyes on the ground, as he does now sometimes. Walking up and down helps you to fight a thing out.
“No doubt he thought of things pretty well as he thinks now: the poor girl’s shame on every tongue, and belled round the district by every hag in the township; and she looked upon by women as being as bad as any man who ever went to Bathurst in the old days, handcuffed between two troopers. There is sympathy, a pipe and tobacco, a cheering word, and, maybe, a whisky now and then, for the criminal on his journey; but there is no mercy, at least as far as women are concerned, for the poor foolish girl, who has to sneak out the back way and round by back streets and lanes after dark, with a cloak on to hide her figure.
“Tom sent what money he thought he could spare, and next day he went to the girl he loved and who loved him, and told her the truth, and showed her the letter. She was only a girl — but the sort of girl you could go to in a crisis like that. He had made up his mind to do the right thing, and she loved him all the more for it. And so they parted.
“When Tom reached ‘Pipeclay’, the girl’s relations, that she was stopping with, had a parson readied up, and they were married the same day.”
“And what happened after that?” asked Mitchell.
“Nothing happened for three or four months; then the child was born. It wasn’t his!”
Mitchell stood up with an oath.
“The girl was thoroughly bad. She’d been carrying on with God knows how many men, both before and after she trapped Tom.”
“And what did he do then?”
“Well, you know how the Oracle argues over things, and I suppose he was as big an old fool then as he is now. He thinks that, as most men would deceive women if they could, when one man gets caught, he’s got no call to squeal about it; he’s bound, because of the sins of men in general against women, to make the best of it. What is one man’s wrong counted against the wrongs of hundreds of unfortunate girls.
“It’s an uncommon way of arguing — like most of the Oracle’s ideas — but it seems to look all right at first sight.
“Perhaps he thought she’d go straight; perhaps she convinced him that he was the cause of her first fall; anyway he stuck to her for more than a year, and intended to take her away from that place as soon as he’d scraped enough money together. It might have gone on up till now, if the father of the child — a big black Irishman named Redmond — hadn’t come sneaking back at the end of a year. He — well, he came hanging round Mrs. Marshall while Tom was away at work — and she encouraged him. And Tom was forced to see it.
“Tom wanted to fight out his own battle without interference, but the chaps wouldn’t let him — they reckoned that he’d stand very little show against Redmond, who was a very rough customer and a fighting man. My uncle Bob, who was there still, fixed it up this way: The Oracle was to fight Redmond, and if the Oracle got licked Uncle Bob was to take Redmond on. If Redmond whipped Uncle Bob, that was to settle it; but if Uncle Bob thrashed Redmond, then he was also to fight Redmond’s mate, another big, rough Paddy named Duigan. Then the affair would be finished — no matter which way the last bout went. You see, Uncle Bob was reckoned more of a match for Redmond than the Oracle was, so the thing looked fair enough — at first sight.
“Redmond had his mate, Duigan, and one or two others of the rough gang that used to terrorise the fields round there in the roaring days of Gulgong. The Oracle had Uncle Bob, of course, and long Dave Regan, the drover — a good-hearted, sawny kind of chap that’d break the devil’s own buck-jumper, or smash him, or get smashed himself — and little Jimmy Nowlett, the bullocky, and one or two of the old, better-class diggers that were left on the field.
“There’s a clear space among the saplings in Specimen Gully, where they used to pitch circuses; and here, in the cool of a summer evening, the two men stood face to face. Redmond was a rough, roaring, foul-mouthed man; he stripped to his shirt, and roared like a bull, and swore, and sneered, and wanted to take the whole of Tom’s crowd while he was at it, and make one clean job of ’em. Couldn’t waste time fighting them all one after the other, because he wanted to get away to the new rush at Cattle Creek next day. The fool had been drinking shanty-whisky.
“Tom stood up in his clean, white moles and white flannel shirt — one of those sort with no sleeves, that give the arms play. He had a sort of set expression and a look in his eyes that Uncle Bob — nor none of them — had ever seen there before. ‘Give us plenty of — room!’ roared Redmond; ‘one of us is going to hell, now! This is going to be a fight to a — finish, and a — short one!’ And it was!”
“Go on,” said Mitchell — “go on!”
Joe drew a long breath.
“The Oracle never got a mark! He was top-dog right from the start. Perhaps it was his strength that Redmond had underrated, or his want of science that puzzled him, or the awful silence of the man that frightened him (it made even Uncle Bob uneasy). Or, perhaps, it was Providence (it was a glorious chance for Providence), but, anyway, as I say, the Oracle never got a mark, except on his knuckles. After a few rounds Redmond funked and wanted to give in, but the chaps wouldn’t let him — not even his own mates — except Duigan. They made him take it as long as he could stand on his feet. He even shammed to be knocked out, and roared out something about having broken his — ankle — but it was no use. And the Oracle! The chaps that knew thought that he’d refuse to fight, and never hit a man that had given in. But he did. He just stood there with that quiet look in his eyes and waited, and, when he did hit, there wasn’t any necessity for Redmond to pretend to be knocked down. You’ll see a glint of that old light in the Oracle’s eyes even now, once in a while; and when you do it’s a sign that you or someone are going too far, and had better pull up, for it’s a red light on the line, old as he is.
“Now, Jimmy Nowlett was a nuggety little fellow, hard as cast iron, good-hearted, but very excitable; and when the bashed Redmond was being carted off (poor Uncle Bob was always pretty high-strung, and was sitting on a log sobbing like a great child from the reaction), Duigan made some sneering remark that only Jimmy Nowlett caught, and in an instant he was up and at Duigan.
“Perhaps Duigan was demoralised by his mate’s defeat, or by the suddenness of the attack; but, at all events, he got a hiding, too. Uncle Bob used to say that it was the funniest thing he ever saw in his life. Jimmy kept yelling: ‘Let me get at him! By the Lord, let me get at him!’ And nobody was attempting to stop him, he was getting at him all the time — and properly, too; and, when he’d knocked Duigan down, he’d dance round him and call on him to get up; and every time he jumped or bounced, he’d squeak like an india-rubber ball, Uncle Bob said, and he would nearly burst his boiler trying to lug the big man on to his feet so’s he could knock him down again. It took two of Jimmy’s mates all their time to lam him down into a comparatively reasonable state of mind after the fight was over.
“The Oracle left for Sydney next day, and Uncle Bob went with him. He stayed at Uncle Bob’s place for some time. He got very quiet, they said, and gentle; he used to play with the children, and they got mighty fond of him. The old folks thought his heart was broken, but it went through a deeper sorrow still after that and it ain’t broken yet. It takes a lot to break the heart of a man.”
“And his wife,” asked Mitchell — “what became of her?”
“I don’t think he ever saw her again. She dropped down pretty low after he left her — I’ve heard she’s living somewhere quietly. The Oracle’s been sending someone money ever since I knew him, and I know it’s a woman. I suppose it’s she. He isn’t the sort of a man to see a woman starve — especially a woman he had ever had anything to do with.”
“And the Gippsland girl?” asked Mitchell.
“That’s the worst part of it all, I think. The Oracle went up North somewhere. In the course of a year or two his affair got over Gippsland way through a mate of his who lived over there, and at last the story got to the ears of this girl, Bertha Bredt. She must have written a dozen letters to him, Aunt Bob said. She knew what was in ’em, but, of course, she’d never tell us. The Oracle only wrote one in reply. Then, what must the girl do but clear out from home and make her way over to Sydney — to Aunt Bob’s place, looking for Tom. She never got any further. She took ill — brain-fever, or broken heart, or something of that sort. All the time she was down her cry was — ‘I want to see him! I want to find Tom! I only want to see Tom!’
“When they saw she was dying, Aunt Bob wired to the Oracle to come — and he came. When the girl saw it was Tom sitting by the bed, she just gave one long look in his face, put her arms round his neck, and laid her head on his shoulder — and died. . . . Here comes the Oracle now.”
Mitchell lifted the tea-billy on to the coals.
Henry Lawson, Over the Sliprails, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1900, pages 156-167
In this story, Henry Lawson uses the name “Bertha Bredt” for the love of the Oracle; it should be noted that Bertha Bredt (1876-1957) was the name of Lawson’s wife (they were married on 15 April 1896).
Aunt = (style notation) in one style of usage, the wife of an uncle would be referred to by her husband’s name, so that the wife of Uncle Bob would be called Aunt Bob; used in a similar style to that of a wife (e.g. the wife of Mr. Robert Smith would be called Mrs. Robert Smith)
awhile = for a time; in modern times it is usually rendered as two words, “a while”
blank = substitution for a swear word; “blank” was often used as a way to infer a swear word, without actually swearing; commonly used as a replacement for words such as “damn” or “bastard”
blanky = substitution for a swear word (such as “bloody”)
funk = a state of fear or panic (may also refer to a coward; may also refer to a state of depression, including the phrase “in a blue funk”)
gay = happy, joyous, carefree (may also mean well-decorated, bright, attractive) (in modern times it may especially refer to a homosexual, especially a male homosexual; may also refer to something which is no good, pathetic, useless)
gloaming = dusk, twilight
lug = to carry, drag or pull something, especially a heavy item (as a slang term, it may also refer to an ear)
moles = moleskins, especially moleskin trousers
pint-pot = a beer glass, mug, or drinking vessel that holds a pint (especially as used for beer or another alcoholic drink), commonly made of pewter
pretent = an archaic form of “pretend”
ratty = (slang) mad, crazy, insane (may also refer to being bad-tempered, irritable, or nasty; or dilapidated, ramshackle, shabby, or in a wretched condition)
rush = (in the context of gold) a gold rush; a hurried move by a lot of people to an area where a discovery of gold has been made, where they set up camp and begin mining or looking for gold
shanties = plural of “shanty”: a pub, especially an unlicensed pub; may also refer to a small roughly-built cabin or hut
stop = stay
swag = a swagman’s bundle, being a number of personal belongings rolled up in a piece of calico, tent-fly, or blanket, secured tightly together (e.g. with rope or straps), and sometimes placed inside a cloth bag (such as a flour sack); swags were hung from the shoulder, making them easy to carry whilst their owners tramped many miles; a swag was also commonly referred to as a “bluey” (from the colour of the blankets, which were often blue), “drum”, or “Matilda”
swank = to behave or dress in such a way as to impress people; pretentious in style; to show off, swagger
Vernacular spelling in the original text:
ain’t (isn’t; is not)
so’s (so as)
[Editor: Added a closing quotation mark after “And it was!”.]