by Henry Lawson
While the Billy Boils (1896)
Shearing shed, Newstead c. 1893, Photographic Reproduction, Tom Roberts (1856-1931)
“Well, I dunno,” said Tom Marshall — known as “The Oracle” — “I’ve heerd o’ sich cases before: they ain’t commin, but — I’ve heerd o’ sich cases before,” and he screwed up the left side of his face whilst he reflectively scraped his capacious right ear with the large blade of a pocket-knife.
They were sitting at the western end of the rouseabouts’ hut, enjoying the breeze that came up when the sun went down, and smoking and yarning. The “case” in question was a wretchedly forlorn-looking specimen of the swag-carrying clan whom a boundary-rider had found wandering about the adjacent plain, and had brought into the station. He was a small, scraggy man, painfully fair, with a big, baby-like head, vacant watery eyes, long thin hairy hands, that felt like pieces of damp seaweed, and an apologetic cringe-and-look-up-at-you manner. He professed to have forgotten who he was and all about himself.
The Oracle was deeply interested in this case, as indeed he was in anything else that “looked curious.” He was a big, simple-minded shearer, with more heart than brains, more experience than sense, and more curiosity than either. It was a wonder that he had not profited, even indirectly, by the last characteristic. His heart was filled with a kind of reverential pity for anyone who was fortunate or unfortunate enough to possess an “affliction;” and amongst his mates had been counted a deaf man, a blind man, a poet, and a man who “had rats.” Tom had dropped across them individually, when they were down in the world, and had befriended them, and studied them with great interest — especially the poet; and they thought kindly of him, and were grateful — except the individual with the rats, who reckoned Tom had an axe to grind — that he, in fact, wanted to cut his (Rat’s) liver out as a bait for Darling cod — and so renounced the mateship.
It was natural, then, for The Oracle to take the present case under his wing. He used his influence with the boss to get the Mystery on “picking up,” and studied him in spare time, and did his best to assist the poor hushed memory, which nothing the men could say or do seemed able to push further back than the day on which the stranger “kind o’ woke up” on the plain, and found a swag beside him. The swag had been prospected and fossicked for a clue, but yielded none. The chaps were sceptical at first, and inclined to make fun of the Mystery; but Tom interfered, and intimated that if they were skunks enough to chyack or try on any of their “funny business” with a “pore afflicted chap,” he (Tom) would be obliged to “perform.” Most of the men there had witnessed Tom’s performance, and no one seemed ambitious to take a leading part in it. They preferred to be in the audience.
“Yes,” reflected The Oracle, “it’s a curious case, and I dare say some of them big doctors, like Morell Mackenzie, would be glad to give a thousand or two to get holt on a case like this.”
“Done,” cried Mitchell, the goat of the shed. “I’ll go halves! — or stay, let’s form a syndicate and work the Mystery.”
Some of the rouseabouts laughed, but the joke fell as flat with Tom as any other joke.
“The worst of it is,” said the Mystery himself, in the whine that was natural to him, and with a timid side look up at Tom —“the worst of it is I might be a lord or duke, and don’t know anything about it. I might be a rich man, with a lot of houses and money. I might be a lord.”
The chaps guffawed.
“Wot’yer laughing at?” asked Mitchell. “I don’t see anything unreasonable about it; he might be a lord as far as looks go. I’ve seen two.”
“Yes,” reflected Tom, ignoring Mitchell, “there’s something in that; but then again, you see, you might be Jack the Ripper. Better let it slide, mate; let the dead past bury its dead. Start fresh with a clean sheet.”
“But I don’t even know my name, or whether I’m married or not,” whined the outcast. “I might have a good wife and little ones.”
“Better keep on forgetting, mate,” Mitchell said, “and as for a name, that’s nothing. I don’t know mine, and I’ve had eight. There’s plenty good names knocking round. I knew a man named Jim Smith that died. Take his name, it just suits you, and he ain’t likely to call round for it; if he does, you can say you was born with it.”
So they called him Smith, and soon began to regard him as a harmless lunatic and to take no notice of his eccentricities. Great interest was taken in the case for a time, and even Mitchell put in his oar and tried all sorts of ways to assist the Mystery in his weak, helpless, and almost pitiful endeavours to recollect who he was. A similar case happened to appear in the papers at this time, and the thing caught on to such an extent that The Oracle was moved to impart some advice from his store of wisdom.
“I wouldn’t think too much over it if I was you,” said he to Mitchell, “hundreds of sensible men went mad over that there Tichborne case who didn’t have anything to do with it, but just through thinking on it; and you’re ratty enough already, Jack. Let it alone and trust me to find out who’s Smith just as soon as ever we cut out.”
Meanwhile Smith ate, worked, and slept, and borrowed tobacco and forgot to return it — which was made a note of. He talked freely about his case when asked, but if he addressed anyone, it was with the air of the timid but good young man, who is fully aware of the extent and power of this world’s wickedness, and stands somewhat in awe of it, but yet would beg you to favour a humble worker in the vineyard by kindly accepting a tract, and passing it on to friends after perusal.
One Saturday morning, about a fortnight before cut out, The Oracle came late to his stand, and apparently with something on his mind. Smith hadn’t turned up, and the next rouseabout was doing his work, to the mutual dissatisfaction of all parties immediately concerned.
“Did you see anything of Smith?” asked Mitchell of The Oracle. “Seems to have forgot to get up this morning.”
Tom looked disheartened and disappointed. “He’s forgot again,” said he, slowly and impressively.
“Forgot what? We know he’s blessed well forgot to come to graft.”
“He’s forgot again,” repeated Tom. “He woke up this morning and wanted to know who he was and where he was.” Comments.
“Better give him best, Oracle,” said Mitchell presently. “If he can’t find out who he is and where he is, the boss’ll soon find it out for him.”
“No,” said Tom, “when I take a thing in hand I see it through.”
This was also characteristic of the boss-over-the-board, though in another direction. He went down to the but and inquired for Smith.
“Why ain’t you at work?”
“Who am I, sir? Where am I?” whined Smith. “Can you please tell me who I am and where I am?”
The boss drew a long breath and stared blankly at the Mystery; then he erupted.
“Now, look here!” he howled, “I don’t know who the gory sheol you are, except that you’re a gory lunatic, and what’s more, I don’t care a damn. But I’ll soon show you where you are! You can call up at the store and get your cheque, and soon as you blessed well like; and then take a walk, and don’t forget to take your lovely swag with you.”
The matter was discussed at the dinner-table. The Oracle swore that it was a cruel, mean way to treat a “pore afflicted chap,” and cursed the boss. Tom’s admirers cursed in sympathy, and trouble seemed threatening, when the voice of Mitchell was heard to rise in slow, deliberate tones over the clatter of cutlery and tin plates.
“I wonder,” said the voice, “I wonder whether Smith forgot his cheque?”
It was ascertained that Smith hadn’t.
There was some eating and thinking done. Soon Mitchell’s voice was heard again, directed at The Oracle.
It said “Do you keep any vallabels about your bunk, Oracle?”
Tom looked hard at Mitchell. “Why?”
“Oh, nothin’: only I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea for you to look at your bunk and see whether Smith forgot.”
The chaps grew awfully interested. They fixed their eyes on Tom, and he looked with feeling from one face to another; then he pushed his plate back, and slowly extracted his long legs from between the stool and the table. He climbed to his bunk, and carefully reviewed the ingredients of his swag. Smith hadn’t forgot.
When The Oracle’s face came round again there was in it a strange expression which a close study would have revealed to be more of anger than of sorrow, but that was not all. It was an expression such as a man might wear who is undergoing a terrible operation, without chloroform, but is determined not to let a whimper escape him. Tom didn’t swear, and by that token they guessed how mad he was. ’Twas a rough shed, with a free and lurid vocabulary, but had they all sworn in chorus, with One-eyed Bogan as lead, it would not have done justice to Tom’s feelings — and they realized this.
The Oracle took down his bridle from its peg, and started for the door amid a respectful and sympathetic silence, which was only partly broken once by the voice of Mitchell, which asked in an awed whisper:
“Going ter ketch yer horse, Tom?” The Oracle nodded, and passed on; he spake no word — he was too full for words.
Five minutes passed, and then the voice of Mitchell was heard again, uninterrupted by the clatter of tinware. It said in impressive tones:
“It would not be a bad idea for some of you chaps that camp in the bunks along there, to have a look at your things. Scotty’s bunk is next to Tom’s.”
Scotty shot out of his place as if a snake had hold of his leg, starting a plank in the table and upsetting three soup plates. He reached for his bunk like a drowning man clutching at a plank, and tore out the bedding. Again, Smith hadn’t forgot.
Then followed a general overhaul, and it was found in most cases that Smith had remembered. The pent-up reservoir of blasphemy burst forth.
The Oracle came up with Smith that night at the nearest shanty, and found that he had forgotten again, and in several instances, and was forgetting some more under the influence of rum and of the flattering interest taken in his case by a drunken Bachelor of Arts who happened to be at the pub. Tom came in quietly from the rear, and crooked his finger at the shanty-keeper. They went apart from the rest, and talked together a while very earnestly. Then they secretly examined Smith’s swag, the core of which was composed of Tom’s and his mate’s valuables.
Then The Oracle stirred up Smith’s recollections and departed.
Smith was about again in a couple of weeks. He was damaged somewhat physically, but his memory was no longer impaired.