by Henry Lawson
While the Billy Boils (1896)
You remember when we hurried home from the old bush school how we were sometimes startled by a bearded apparition, who smiled kindly down on us, and whom our mother introduced, as we raked off our hats, as “An old mate of your father’s on the diggings, Johnny.” And he would pat our heads and say we were fine boys, or girls — as the case may have been — and that we had our father’s nose but our mother’s eyes, or the other way about; and say that the baby was the dead spit of its mother, and then added, for father’s benefit: “But yet he’s like you, Tom.” It did seem strange to the children to hear him address the old man by his Christian name —— considering that the mother always referred to him as “Father.” She called the old mate Mr So-and-so, and father called him Bill, or something to that effect.
Occasionally the old mate would come dressed in the latest city fashion, and at other times in a new suit of reach-me-downs, and yet again he would turn up in clean white moleskins, washed tweed coat, Crimean shirt, blucher boots, soft felt hat, with a fresh-looking speckled handkerchief round his neck. But his face was mostly round and brown and jolly, his hands were always horny, and his beard grey. Sometimes he might have seemed strange and uncouth to us at first, but the old man never appeared the least surprised at anything he said or did — they understood each other so well — and we would soon take to this relic of our father’s past, who would have fruit or lollies for us — strange that he always remembered them — and would surreptitiously slip “shilluns” into our dirty little hands, and tell us stories about the old days, “when me an’ yer father was on the diggin’s, an’ you wasn’t thought of, my boy.”
Sometimes the old mate would stay over Sunday, and in the forenoon or after dinner he and father would take a walk amongst the deserted shafts of Sapling Gully or along Quartz Ridge, and criticize old ground, and talk of past diggers’ mistakes, and second bottoms, and feelers, and dips, and leads — also outcrops — and absently pick up pieces of quartz and slate, rub them on their sleeves, look at them in an abstracted manner, and drop them again; and they would talk of some old lead they had worked on: “Hogan’s party was here on one side of us, Macintosh was here on the other, Mac was getting good gold and so was Hogan, and now, why the blanky blank weren’t we on gold?” And the mate would always agree that there was “gold in them ridges and gullies yet, if a man only had the money behind him to git at it.” And then perhaps the guv’nor would show him a spot where he intended to put down a shaft some day — the old man was always thinking of putting down a shaft. And these two old fifty-niners would mooch round and sit on their heels on the sunny mullock heaps and break clay lumps between their hands, and lay plans for the putting down of shafts, and smoke, till an urchin was sent to “look for his father and Mr So-and-so, and tell ’em to come to their dinner.”
And again — mostly in the fresh of the morning — they would hang about the fences on the selection and review the live stock: five dusty skeletons of cows, a hollow-sided calf or two, and one shocking piece of equine scenery — which, by the way, the old mate always praised. But the selector’s heart was not in farming nor on selections — it was far away with the last new rush in Western Australia or Queensland, or perhaps buried in the worked-out ground of Tambaroora, Married Man’s Creek, or Araluen; and by-and-by the memory of some half-forgotten reef or lead or Last Chance, Nil Desperandum, or Brown Snake claim would take their thoughts far back and away from the dusty patch of sods and struggling sprouts called the crop, or the few discouraged, half-dead slips which comprised the orchard. Then their conversation would be pointed with many Golden Points, Bakery Hill, Deep Creeks, Maitland Bars, Specimen Flats, and Chinamen’s Gullies. And so they’d yarn till the youngster came to tell them that “Mother sez the breakfus is gettin’ cold,” and then the old mate would rouse himself and stretch and say, “Well, we mustn’t keep the missus waitin’, Tom!”
Golden Point, Ballarat, 1851
Drawn by David Tulloch, Engraved by Thomas Ham
State Library Victoria
And, after tea, they would sit on a log of the wood-heap, or the edge of the veranda — that is, in warm weather — and yarn about Ballarat and Bendigo — of the days when we spoke of being on a place oftener than at it: on Ballarat, on Gulgong, on Lambing Flat, on Creswick— and they would use the definite article before the names, as: “on The Turon; The Lachlan; The Home Rule; The Canadian Lead.” Then again they’d yarn of old mates, such as Tom Brook, Jack Henright, and poor Martin Ratcliffe — who was killed in his golden hole — and of other men whom they didn’t seem to have known much about, and who went by the names of “Adelaide Adolphus,” “Corney George,” and other names which might have been more or less applicable.
And sometimes they’d get talking, low and mysterious like, about “Th’ Eureka Stockade;” and if we didn’t understand and asked questions, “what was the Eureka Stockade?” or “what did they do it for?” father’d say: “Now, run away, sonny, and don’t bother; me and Mr So-and-so want to talk.” Father had the mark of a hole on his leg, which he said he got through a gun accident when a boy, and a scar on his side, that we saw when he was in swimming with us; he said he got that in an accident in a quartz-crushing machine. Mr So-and-so had a big scar on the side of his forehead that was caused by a pick accidentally slipping out of a loop in the rope, and falling down a shaft where he was working. But how was it they talked low, and their eyes brightened up, and they didn’t look at each other, but away over sunset, and had to get up and walk about, and take a stroll in the cool of the evening when they talked about Eureka?
And, again they’d talk lower and more mysterious like, and perhaps mother would be passing the wood-heap and catch a word, and asked:
“Who was she, Tom?”
And Tom — father — would say:
“Oh, you didn’t know her, Mary; she belonged to a family Bill knew at home.”
And Bill would look solemn till mother had gone, and then they would smile a quiet smile, and stretch and say, “Ah, well!” and start something else.
They had yarns for the fireside, too, some of those old mates of our father’s, and one of them would often tell how a girl — a queen of the diggings — was married, and had her wedding-ring made out of the gold of that field; and how the diggers weighed their gold with the new wedding-ring — for luck — by hanging the ring on the hook of the scales and attaching their chamois-leather gold bags to it (whereupon she boasted that four hundred ounces of the precious metal passed through her wedding-ring); and how they lowered the young bride, blindfolded, down a golden hole in a big bucket, and got her to point out the drive from which the gold came that her ring was made out of. The point of this story seems to have been lost — or else we forget it — but it was characteristic. Had the girl been lowered down a duffer, and asked to point out the way to the gold, and had she done so successfully, there would have been some sense in it.
And they would talk of King, and Maggie Oliver, and G. V. Brooke, and others, and remember how the diggers went five miles out to meet the coach that brought the girl actress, and took the horses out and brought her in in triumph, and worshipped her, and sent her off in glory, and threw nuggets into her lap. And how she stood upon the box-seat and tore her sailor hat to pieces, and threw the fragments amongst the crowd; and how the diggers fought for the bits and thrust them inside their shirt bosoms; and how she broke down and cried, and could in her turn have worshipped those men — loved them, every one. They were boys all, and gentlemen all. There were college men, artists, poets, musicians, journalists — Bohemians all. Men from all the lands and one. They understood art — and poverty was dead.
And perhaps the old mate would say slyly, but with a sad, quiet smile:
“Have you got that bit of straw yet, Tom?”
Those old mates had each three pasts behind them. The two they told each other when they became mates, and the one they had shared.
And when the visitor had gone by the coach we noticed that the old man would smoke a lot, and think as much, and take great interest in the fire, and be a trifle irritable perhaps.
Those old mates of our father’s are getting few and far between, and only happen along once in a way to keep the old man’s memory fresh, as it were. We met one to-day, and had a yarn with him, and afterwards we got thinking, and somehow began to wonder whether those ancient friends of ours were, or were not, better and kinder to their mates than we of the rising generation are to our fathers; and the doubt is painfully on the wrong side.