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The Lost Souls' Hotel by Henry Lawson

1902

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 gold.

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 shove up.

“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 altogether.”

“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 nonsense.

“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 again.”

“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 another chance.”

“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 self.

“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 swag.”

“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.

 
 
 

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