The Lost Souls' Hotel by Henry Lawson
Hunqerford Road, February. One hundred and thirty miles of heavy
reddish sand, bordered by dry, hot scrubs. Dense cloud of hot dust.
Four wool-teams passing through a gate in a “rabbit proof” fence which
crosses the road. Clock, clock, clock of wheels and rattle and clink of
chains, crack of whips and explosions of Australian language. Bales and
everything else coated with dust. Stink of old axle-grease and
tarpaulins. Tyres hot enough to fry chops on: bows and chains so hot
that it's a wonder they do not burn through the bullock's hides. Water
lukewarm in blistered kegs slung behind the wagons. Bullocks dragging
along as only bullocks do. Wheels ploughing through the deep sand, and
the load lurching from side to side. Half-way on a “dry-stretch” of
seventeen miles. Big “tank” full of good water through the scrub to the
right, but it is a private tank and a boundary-rider is shepherding it.
Mulga scrub and sparse, spiky undergrowth.
The carriers camp for dinner and boil their billies while the
bullocks droop under their yokes in the blazing heat; one or two lie
down and the leaders drag and twist themselves round under a dead tree,
under the impression that there is shade there. The carriers look like
Red Indians, with the masks of red dust “bound” with sweat on their
faces, but there is an unhealthy-looking, whitish space round their
eyes, caused by wiping away the blinding dust, sweat, and flies. The
dry sticks burn with a pale flame and an almost invisible thin pale
blue smoke. The sun's heat dancing and dazzling across every white
fence-post, sandhill, or light-coloured object in the distance.
One man takes off his boot and sock, empties half a pint of sand out
of them, and pulls up his trouser-leg. His leg is sheathed to the knee
in dust and sweat; he absently scrapes it with his knife, and presently
he amuses himself by moistening a strip with his forefinger and shaving
it, as if he were vaguely curious to see if he is still a white man.
The Hungerford coach ploughs past in a dense cloud of dust.
The teams drag on again like a “wounded snake that dies at sundown,”
if a wounded snake that dies at sundown could revive sufficiently next
morning to drag on again until another sun goes down.
Hopeless-looking swagmen are met with during the afternoon, and one
carrier—he of the sanded leg—lends them tobacco; his mates contribute
“bits o'“ tea, flour, and sugar.
Sundown and the bullocks done up. The teamsters unyoke them and
drive them on to the next water—five miles—having previously sent a
mate to reconnoitre and see that boundary-rider is not round,
otherwise, to make terms with him, for it is a squatter's bore. They
hurry the bullocks down to the water and back in the twilight, and
then, under cover of darkness, turn them into a clearing in the scrub
off the road, where a sign in the grass might be seen—if you look
close. But the “bullockies” are better off than the horse-teamsters,
for bad chaff is sold by the pound and corn is worth its weight in
Mitchell and I turned off the track at the rabbit-proof fence and
made for the tank in the mulga. We boiled the billy and had some salt
mutton and damper. We were making back for Bourke, having failed to get
a cut in any of the sheds on the Hungerford track. We sat under a clump
of mulga saplings, with our backs to the trunks, and got out our pipes.
Usually, when the flies were very bad on the track, we had to keep
twigs or wild-turkey=tail feathers going in front of our faces the
whole time to keep the mad flies out of our eyes; and, when we camped,
one would keep the feather going while the other lit his pipe—then the
smoke would keep them away. But the flies weren't so bad in a good
shade or in a darkened hut. Mitchell's pipe would have smoked out Old
Nick; it was an ancient string-bound meerschaum, and strong enough to
kill a blackfellow. I had one smoke out of it, once when I felt bad in
my inside and wanted to be sick, and the result was very satisfactory.
Mitchell looked through his old pocket-book—more by force of habit
than anything else—and turned up a circular from Tattersall's. And
that reminded him.
“Do you know what I'd do, Harry,” he said, if I won Tattersall's big
sweep, or was to come into fifty or a hundred thousand pounds, or,
better still, a million?”
“Nothing I suppose,” I said, “except to get away to Sydney or some
cooler place than this.”
“I'll tell you what I'd do,” said Mitchell, talking round his pipe.
“I'd build a Swagman's Rest right here.”
“A Swagman's Rest?”
“Yes. Right here on this very God-forsaken spot. I'd build a
Swagman's Rest and call it the Lost Souls' Hotel, or the Sundowners'
Arms, or the Half-way House to —-, or some such name that would take
the bushmen's fancy. I'd have it built on the best plans for coolness
in a hot country; bricks, and plenty of wide verandas with brick
floors, and balconies, and shingles, in the old Australian style. I
wouldn't have a sheet of corrugated iron about the place. And I'd have
old-fashioned hinged sashes with small panes and vines round 'em; they
look cooler and more homely and romantic than the glaring sort that
“And I'd dig a tank or reservoir for surface water as big as a lake,
and bore for artesian water—and get it, too, if I had to bore right
through to England; and I'd irrigate the ground and make it grow
horse-feed and fruit, and vegetables too, if I had to cart manure from
Bourke. And every teamster's bullock or horse, and every shearer's
hack, could burst itself free, but I'd make travelling stock pay—for
it belongs to the squatters and capitalists. All carriers could camp
for one night only. And I'd—no, I wouldn't have any flowers; they
might remind some heart-broken, new-chum black sheep of the house where
he was born, and the mother whose heart he broke—and the father whose
grey hairs he brought down in sorrow to the grave—and break him up
“But what about the old-fashioned windows and the vines?” I asked.
“Oh!” said Mitchell, “I forgot them. On second thought, I think I
would have some flowers; and maybe a bit of ivy-green. The new chum
might be trying to work out his own salvation, and the sight of the
roses and ivy would show him that he hadn't struck such a God-forgotten
country after all, and help strengthen the hope for something better
that's in the heart of every vagabond till he dies.”
Puff, puff, puff, slowly and reflectively.
“Until he dies,” repeated Mitchell. “And, maybe,” he said, rousing
himself, “I'd have a little room fixed up like a corner of a swell
restaurant, with silver and napkins on the table, and I'd fix up a
waiter, so that when a broken-down University wreck came along he might
feel, for an hour or so, something like the man he used to be. But I
suppose,” Mitchell reflected, “he wouldn't feel completely his old self
without a lady friend sitting opposite to him. I might fix up a black
gin for him, but I suppose he'd draw the colour line. But that's
“All teamsters and travellers could camp there for one night only.
I'd have shower-baths; but I wouldn't force any man to have a bath
against his will. They could sit down to a table and have a feed off a
table-cloth, and sleep in sheets, and feel like they did before their
old mothers died, or before they ran away from home.”
“Who? The mothers?” I asked.
“Yes, in some cases,” said Mitchell. “And I'd have a nice, cool
little summer-house down near the artificial lake, out of earshot of
the house, where the bullock-drivers could sit with their pipes after
tea, and tell yarns, and talk in their own language. And I'd have boats
on the lake, too, in case an old Oxford or Cambridge man, or an old
sailor came along—it might put years on to his life to have a pull at
the oars. You remember that old sailor we saw in charge of the engine
back there at the government tank? You saw how he had the
engine?—clean and bright as a new pin—everything spick-and-span and
shipshape, and his hut fixed up like a ship's cabin. I believe he
thinks he's at sea half his time, and shoving her through it, instead
of pumping muddy water out of a hole in the baking scrubs for starving
stock. Or maybe he reckons he's keeping her afloat.”
“And would you have fish in this lake of yours?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” said Mitchell, “and any ratty old shepherd or sundowner,
that's gone mad of heat and loneliness—like the old codger we met back
yonder—he could sit by the lagoon in the cool of the evening and fish
to his heart's content with a string and a bent pin, and dream he's
playing truant from school and fishing in the brook near his native
village in England about fifty years ago. It would seem more real than
fishing in the dust as some mad old bushmen do.”
“But you'd draw the line somewhere?” I asked.
“No,” said Mitchell, “not even at poets. I'd try to cure them, too,
with good wholesome food and plenty of physical exercise. The Lost
Souls' Hotel would be a refuge for men who'd been jail-birds once as
well as men who were gentlemen once, and for physical wrecks and ruined
drunkards as well as healthy honest shearers. I'd sit down and talk to
the boozer or felon just as if I thought he was as good a man as
me—and he might be, for that matter—God knows.
“The sick man would be kept till he recovered, or died; and the
boozer, suffering from a recovery, I'd keep him till he was on his legs
“Then you'd have to have a doctor,” I said.
“Yes,” said Mitchell, “I'd fix that up all right. I wouldn't bother
much about a respectable medical practitioner from the city. I'd get a
medical wreck who had a brilliant career before him once in England and
got into disgrace, and cleared out to the colonies—a man who knows
what the d.t.'s is—a man who's been through it all and knows it all.”
“Then you'd want a manager, or a clerk or secretary,” I suggested.
“I suppose I would,” said Mitchell. “I've got no head for figures. I
suppose I'd have to advertise for him. If an applicant came with the
highest testimonials of character, and especially if one was signed by
a parson, I'd tell him to call again next week; and if a young man
could prove that he came of a good Christian family, and went to church
regularly, and sang in the choir, and taught Sunday-school, I'd tell
him that he needn't come again, that the vacancy was filled, for I
couldn't trust, him. The man who's been extra religious and honest and
hard-working in his young days is most likely to go wrong afterwards.
I'd sooner trust some poor old devil of a clerk who'd got into the
hands of a woman or racing men when he was young, and went wrong, and
served his time for embezzlement; anyway, I'd take him out and give him
“And what about woman's influence?” I asked.
“Oh, I suppose there'd have to be a woman, if only to keep the
doctor on the line. I'd get a woman with a past, one that hadn't been
any better than she should have been, they're generally the most
kind-hearted in the end. Say an actress who'd come down in the world,
or an old opera-singer who'd lost her voice but could still sing a
little. A woman who knows what trouble is. And I'd get a girl to keep
her company, a sort of housemaid, with a couple of black gins or
half-castes to help her. I'd get hold of some poor girl who'd been
deceived and deserted: and a baby or two wouldn't be an objection—the
kids would amuse the chaps and help humanize the place.”
“And what if the manageress fell in love with the doctor?” I asked.
“Well, I couldn't provide against love,” said Mitchell. “I fell in
love myself more than once—and I don't suppose I'd have been any worse
off if I'd have stayed in love. Ah, well! But suppose she did fall in
love with the doctor and marry him, or suppose she fell in love with
him and didn't marry him, for that matter—and suppose the girl fell in
love with the secretary? There wouldn't be any harm done; it would only
make them more contented with the home and bind them to it. They'd be a
happy family, and the Lost Souls' Hotel would be more cheerful and
homelike than ever.”
“But supposing they all fell in love with each other and cleared
out,” I said.
“I don't see what they'd have to clear out for,” said Mitchell. “But
suppose they did. There's more than one medical wreck in Australia, and
more than one woman with a past, and more than one broken old clerk who
went wrong and was found out, and who steadied down in jail, and
there's more than one poor girl that's been deceived. I could easily
replace 'em. And the Lost Souls' Hotel might be the means of patching
up many wrecked lives in that way—giving people with pasts the chance
of another future, so to speak.”
“I suppose you'd have music and books and pictures?” I said.
“Oh, yes,” said Mitchell. “But I wouldn't have any bitter or
sex-problem books. They do no good. Problems have been the curse of the
world ever since it started. I think one noble, kindly, cheerful
character in a book does more good than all the clever villains or
romantic adventurers ever invented. And I think a man ought to get rid
of his maudlin sentiment in private, or when he's drunk. It's a pity
that every writer couldn't put all his bitterness into one book and
then burn it.
“No; I'd have good cheerful books of the best and brightest sides of
human nature—Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain, and Bret Harte, and
those men. And I'd have all Australian pictures—showing the brightest
and best side of Australian life. And I'd have all Australian songs. I
wouldn't have `Swannie Ribber,' or `Home, Sweet Home,' or `Annie
Laurie,' or any of those old songs sung at the Lost Souls'
Hotel—they're the cause of more heartbreaks and drink and suicide in
the bush than anything else. And if a jackaroo got up to sing, `Just
before the battle, mother,' or, `Mother bit me in me sleep,' he'd find
it was just before the battle all right. He'd have to go out and sleep
in the scrub, where the mosquitoes and bulldog ants would bite him out
of his sleep. I hate the man who's always whining about his mother
through his nose, because, as a rule, he never cared a rap for his old
mother, nor for anyone else, except his own paltry, selfish little
“I'd have intellectual and elevating conversation for those that—-”
“Who'd take charge of that department?” I inquired hurriedly.
“Well,” reflected Mitchell, “I did have an idea of taking it on
myself for a while anyway; but, come to think of it, the doctor or the
woman with the past would have more experience; and I could look after
that part of the business at a pinch. Of course you're not in a
position to judge as to my ability in the intellectual line; you see,
I've had no one to practise on since I've been with you. But no
matter—-There'd be intellectual conversation for the benefit of
black-sheep new chums. And any broken-down actors that came along could
get up a play if they liked—it would brighten up things and help
elevate the bullock-drivers and sundowners. I'd have a stage fixed up
and a bit of scenery. I'd do all I could to attract shearers to the
place after shearing, and keep them from rushing to the next shanty
with their cheques, or down to Sydney, to be cleaned out by barmaids.
“And I'd have the hero squashed in the last act for a selfish sneak,
and marry the girl to the villain—he'd be more likely to make her
happy in the end.”
“And what about the farm?” I asked. “I suppose you'd get some expert
from the agricultural college to manage that?”
“No,” said Mitchell. “I'd get some poor drought-ruined selector and
put him in charge of the vegetation. Only, the worst of it is,” he
reflected, “if you take a selector who has bullocked all his life to
raise crops on dusty, stony patches in the scrubs, and put him on land
where there's plenty of water and manure, and where he's only got to
throw the seed on the ground and then light his pipe and watch it grow,
he's apt to get disheartened. But that's human nature.
“And, of course, I'd have to have a `character' about the place—a
sort of identity and joker to brighten up things. I wouldn't get a man
who'd been happy and comfortable all his life; I'd get hold of some old
codger whose wife had nagged him till she died, and who'd been sold off
many times, and run in for drowning his sorrows, and who started as an
undertaker and failed at that, and finally got a job pottering
round—gardener, or gatekeeper, or something—in a lunatic asylum. I'd
get him. He'd most likely be a humorist and a philosopher, and he'd
help cheer up the Lost Souls' Hotel. I reckon the lost souls would get
very fond of him.”
“And would you have drink at Lost Souls'?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Mitchell. “I'd have the best beer and spirits and wine
to be had. After tea I'd let every man have just enough to make him
feel comfortable and happy, and as good and clever, and innocent and
honest as any other man, but no more. But if a poor devil came along in
the horrors, with every inch of him jumping, and snakes, and green-eyed
yahoos, and flaming-nosed bunyips chasing him, we'd take him in and
give him soothing draughts, and nurse him, and watch him, and clear him
out with purgatives, and keep giving him nips of good whisky, and,
above all, we'd sympathize with him, and tell him that we were worse
than he was many a time. We wouldn't tell him what a weak, selfish man
he was, or harp on his ruined life. We'd try to make him out a good
deal better morally than he really was. It's remorse that hurries most
men to hell—especially in the Bush. When a man firmly believes he is a
hopeless case, then there's no hope for him: but let him have doubts
and there's a chance. Make him believe that there are far worse cases
than his. We wouldn't preach the sin of dissipation to him, no—but
we'd try to show him the folly of a wasted life. I ought to be
able to preach that, God knows.
“And, above all, we'd try to drive out of his head the cursed old
popular idea that it's hard to reform—that a man's got to fight a hard
battle with himself to get away from drink—pity drunkards can't
believe how easy it is. And we'd put it to him straight whether his few
hours' enjoyment were worth the days he had to suffer hell for it.”
“And, likely as not,” I said, “when you'd put him on his feet he'd
take the nearest track to the next shanty, and go on a howling spree,
and come back to Lost Souls' in a week, raving aid worse than ever.
What would you do then?”
“We'd take him in again, and build him up some more; and a third or
fourth time if necessary. I believe in going right on with a thing once
I take it in hand. And if he didn't turn up after the last spree we'd
look for him up the scrub and bring him in and let him die on a bed,
and make his death as comfortable as possible. I've seen one man die on
the ground, and found one dead in the bush. We'd bury him under a gum
and put `Sacred to the Memory of a Man who Died. (Let him R.I.P.)' over
him. I'd have a nice little graveyard, with gums for tombstones—and
I'd have some original epitaphs—I promise you.”
“And how much gratitude would you expect to get out of the Lost
Souls' Hotel?” I asked.
“None,” said Mitchell, promptly. “It wouldn't be a Gratitude
Discovery Syndicate. People might say that the Lost Souls' Hotel was a
den for kidnapping women and girls to be used as decoys for the purpose
of hocussing and robbing bushmen, and the law and retribution might
come after me—but I'd fight the thing out. Or they might want to make
a K.C.M.G., or a god of me, and worship me before they hung me. I
reckon a philanthropist or reformer is lucky if he escapes with a whole
skin in the end, let alone his character—-But there!—- Talking of
gratitude: it's the fear of ingratitude that keeps thousands from doing
good. It's just as paltry and selfish and cowardly as any other fear
that curses the world—it's rather more selfish than most fears, in
fact—take the fear of being thought a coward, or being considered
eccentric, or conceited, or affected, or too good, or too bad, for
instance. The man that's always canting about the world's ingratitude
has no gratitude owing to him as a rule—generally the reverse—he
ought to be grateful to the world for being let live. He broods over
the world's ingratitude until he gets to be a cynic. He sees the world
like the outside of a window, as it were, with the blind drawn and the
dead, cold moonlight shining on it, and he passes on with a sour face;
whereas, if he took the trouble to step inside he'd most likely find a
room full of ruddy firelight, and sympathy and cheerfulness, and
kindness, and love, and gratitude. Sometimes, when he's right down on
his uppers, and forced to go amongst people and hustle for bread, he
gets a lot of surprises at the amount of kindness he keeps running
against in the world—and in places where he'd never have expected to
find it. But—ah, well! I'm getting maudlin.”
“And you've forgot all about the Lost Souls' Hotel,” I said.
“No, I haven't,” said Mitchell; “I'd fix that up all right. As soon
as I'd got things going smoothly under a man I could trust, I'd tie up
every penny I had for the benefit of the concern; get some `white men'
for trustees, and take the track again. I'm getting too old to stay
long in one place—(I'm a lost soul that always got along better in
another place). I'm so used to the track that if I was shut up in a
house I'd get walking up and down in my room of nights and disturb the
folk; and, besides, I'd feel lost and light-shouldered without the
“So you'd put all your money in the concern?”
“Yes—except a pound or two to go on the track with—for, who knows,
I might come along there, dusty and tired, and ragged and hard up and
old, some day, and be very glad of a night's rest at the Lost Souls'
Hotel. But I wouldn't let on that I was old Mitchell, the millionaire,
who founded Lost Souls'. They might be too officious, and I hate fuss.
. . . But it's time to take the track, Harry.”
There came a cool breeze with sunset; we stood up stiffly,
shouldered our swags and tucker-bags, and pushed on, for we had to make
the next water before we camped. We were out of tobacco, so we borrowed
some from one of the bullock-drivers.