by Henry Lawson
While the Billy Boils (1896)
Camp Fire, Photographic Reproduction, Jan Hendrik Scheltema (1861-1941)
“This girl,” said Mitchell, continuing a yarn to his mate, “was about the ugliest girl I ever saw, except one, and I’ll tell you about her directly. The old man had a carpenter’s shop fixed up in a shed at the back of his house, and he used to work there pretty often, and sometimes I’d come over and yarn with him. One day I was sitting on the end of the bench, and the old man was working away, and Mary was standing there too, all three of us yarning — she mostly came poking round where I was if I happened to be on the premises — or at least I thought so — and we got yarning about getting married, and the old cove said he’d get married again if the old woman died.
“‘You get married again!’ said Mary. ‘Why, father, you wouldn’t get anyone to marry you — who’d have you?’
“‘Well,’ he said, ‘I bet I’ll get someone sooner than you, anyway. You don’t seem to be able to get anyone, and it’s pretty near time you thought of settlin’ down and gettin’ married. I wish someone would have you.’
“He hit her pretty hard there, but it served her right. She got as good as she gave. She looked at me and went all colours, and then she went back to her washtub.
“She was mighty quiet at tea-time — she seemed hurt a lot, and I began to feel sorry I’d laughed at the old man’s joke, for she was really a good, hard-working girl, and you couldn’t help liking her.
“So after tea I went out to her in the kitchen, where she was washing up, to try and cheer her up a bit. She’d scarcely speak at first, except to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, and kept her face turned away from me; and I could see that she’d been crying. I began to feel sorry for her and mad at the old man, and I started to comfort her. But I didn’t go the right way to work about it. I told her that she mustn’t take any notice of the old cove, as he didn’t mean half he said. But she seemed to take it harder than ever, and at last I got so sorry for her that I told her that I’d have her if she’d have me.”
“And what did she say?” asked Mitchell’s mate, after a pause.
“She said she wouldn’t have me at any price!”
The mate laughed, and Mitchell grinned his quiet grin.
“Well, this set me thinking,” he continued. “I always knew I was a dashed ugly cove, and I began to wonder whether any girl would really have me; and I kept on it till at last I made up my mind to find out and settle the matter for good — or bad.
“There was another farmer’s daughter living close by, and I met her pretty often coming home from work, and sometimes I had a yarn with her. She was plain, and no mistake: Mary was a Venus alongside of her. She had feet like a Lascar, and hands about ten sizes too large for her, and a face like that camel — only red; she walked like a camel, too. She looked like a ladder with a dress on, and she didn’t know a great A from a corner cupboard.
“Well, one evening I met her at the sliprails, and presently I asked her, for a joke, if she’d marry me. Mind you, I never wanted to marry her; I was only curious to know whether any girl would have me.
“She turned away her face and seemed to hesitate, and I was just turning away and beginning to think I was a dashed hopeless case, when all of a sudden she fell up against me and said she’d be my wife. . . . And it wasn’t her fault that she wasn’t.”
“What did she do?”
“Do! What didn’t she do? Next day she went down to our place when I was at work, and hugged and kissed mother and the girls all round, and cried, and told mother that she’d try and be a dutiful daughter to her. Good Lord! You should have seen the old woman and the girls when I came home.
“Then she let everyone know that Bridget Page was engaged to Jack Mitchell, and told her friends that she went down on her knees every night and thanked the Lord for getting the love of a good man. Didn’t the fellows chyack me, though! My sisters were raving mad about it, for their chums kept asking them how they liked their new sister, and when it was going to come off, and who’d be bridesmaids and best man, and whether they weren’t surprised at their brother Jack’s choice; and then I’d gammon at home that it was all true.
“At last the place got too hot for me. I got sick of dodging that girl. I sent a mate of mine to tell her that it was all a joke, and that I was already married in secret; but she didn’t see it, then I cleared, and got a job in Newcastle, but had to leave there when my mates sent me the office that she was coming. I wouldn’t wonder but what she is humping her swag after me now. In fact, I thought you was her in disguise when I set eyes on you first. . . . You needn’t get mad about it; I don’t mean to say that you’re quite as ugly as she was, because I never saw a man that was — or a woman either. Anyway, I’ll never ask a woman to marry me again unless I’m ready to marry her.”
Then Mitchell’s mate told a yarn.
“I knew a case once something like the one you were telling me about; the landlady of a hash-house where I was stopping in Albany told me. There was a young carpenter staying there, who’d run away from Sydney from an old maid who wanted to marry him. He’d cleared from the church door, I believe. He was scarcely more’n a boy — about nineteen — and a soft kind of a fellow, something like you, only good-looking — that is, he was passable. Well, as soon as the woman found out where he’d gone, she came after him. She turned up at the boarding-house one Saturday morning when Bobbie was at work; and the first thing she did was to rent a double room from the landlady and buy some cups and saucers to start housekeeping with. When Bobbie came home he just gave her one look and gave up the game.
“‘Get your dinner, Bobbie,’ she said, after she’d slobbered over him a bit, ‘and then get dressed and come with me and get married!’
“She was about three times his age, and had a face like that picture of a lady over Sappho Smith’s letters in the Sydney Bulletin.
“Well, Bobbie went with her like a — like a lamb; never gave a kick or tried to clear.”
“Hold on,” said Mitchell, “did you ever shear lambs?”
“Never mind. Let me finish the yarn. Bobbie was married; but she wouldn’t let him out of her sight all that afternoon, and he had to put up with her before them all. About bedtime he sneaked out and started along the passage to his room that he shared with two or three mates. But she’d her eye on him.
“‘Bobbie, Bobbie!’ she says, ‘Where are you going?’
“‘I’m going to bed,’ said Bobbie. ‘Good night!’
“‘Bobbie, Bobbie,’ she says, sharply. ‘That isn’t our room; this is our room, Bobbie. Come back at once! What do you mean, Bobbie? Do you hear me, Bobbie?’
“So Bobbie came back, and went in with the scarecrow. Next morning she was first at the breakfast table, in a dressing-gown and curl papers. And when they were all sitting down Bobbie sneaked in, looking awfully sheepish, and sidled for his chair at the other end of the table. But she’d her eyes on him.
“‘Bobbie, Bobbie!’ she said, ‘Come and kiss me, Bobbie!’” And he had to do it in front of them all.
“But I believe she made him a good wife.”