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The Little World Left Behind by Henry Lawson

 

I lately revisited a western agricultural district in Australia after many years. The railway had reached it, but otherwise things were drearily, hopelessly, depressingly unchanged. There was the same old grant, comprising several thousands of acres of the richest land in the district, lying idle still, except for a few horses allowed to run there for a shilling a-head per week.

There were the same old selections — about as far off as ever from becoming freeholds — shoved back among the barren ridges; dusty little patches in the scrub, full of stones and stumps, and called farms, deserted every few years, and tackled again by some little dried-up family, or some old hatter, and then given best once more. There was the cluster of farms on the flat, and in the foot of the gully, owned by Australians of Irish or English descent, with the same number of stumps in the wheat-paddock, the same broken fences and tumble-down huts and yards, and the same weak, sleepy attempt made every season to scratch up the ground and raise a crop. And along the creek the German farmers — the only people there worthy of the name — toiling (men, women, and children) from daylight till dark, like slaves, just as they always had done; the elder sons stoop-shouldered old men at thirty.

The row about the boundary fence between the Sweeneys and the Joneses was unfinished still, and the old feud between the Dunderblitzens and the Blitzendunders was more deadly than ever — it started three generations ago over a stray bull. The O'Dunn was still fighting for his great object in life, which was not to be `onneighborly', as he put it. `I DON'T want to be onneighborly,' he said, `but I'll be aven wid some of 'em yit. It's almost impossible for a dacent man to live in sich a neighborhood and not be onneighborly, thry how he will. But I'll be aven wid some of 'em yit, marruk my wurrud.'

Jones's red steer — it couldn't have been the same red steer — was continually breaking into Rooney's `whate an' bringin' ivery head av the other cattle afther him, and ruinin' him intirely.' The Rooneys and M`Kenzies were at daggers drawn, even to the youngest child, over the impounding of a horse belonging to Pat Rooney's brother-in-law, by a distant relation of the M`Kenzies, which had happened nine years ago.

The same sun-burned, masculine women went past to market twice a-week in the same old carts and driving much the same quality of carrion. The string of overloaded spring-carts, buggies, and sweating horses went whirling into town, to `service', through clouds of dust and broiling heat, on Sunday morning, and came driving cruelly out again at noon. The neighbours' sons rode over in the afternoon, as of old, and hung up their poor, ill-used little horses to bake in the sun, and sat on their heels about the verandah, and drawled drearily concerning crops, fruit, trees, and vines, and horses and cattle; the drought and `smut' and `rust' in wheat, and the `ploorer' (pleuro-pneumonia) in cattle, and other cheerful things; that there colt or filly, or that there cattle-dog (pup or bitch) o' mine (or `Jim's'). They always talked most of farming there, where no farming worthy of the name was possible — except by Germans and Chinamen. Towards evening the old local relic of the golden days dropped in and announced that he intended to `put down a shaft' next week, in a spot where he'd been going to put it down twenty years ago — and every week since. It was nearly time that somebody sunk a hole and buried him there.

An old local body named Mrs Witherly still went into town twice a-week with her `bit av prodjuce', as O'Dunn called it. She still drove a long, bony, blind horse in a long rickety dray, with a stout sapling for a whip, and about twenty yards of clothes-line reins. The floor of the dray covered part of an acre, and one wheel was always ahead of the other — or behind, according to which shaft was pulled. She wore, to all appearances, the same short frock, faded shawl, men's 'lastic sides, and white hood that she had on when the world was made. She still stopped just twenty minutes at old Mrs Leatherly's on the way in for a yarn and a cup of tea — as she had always done, on the same days and at the same time within the memory of the hoariest local liar. However, she had a new clothes-line bent on to the old horse's front end — and we fancy that was the reason she didn't recognise us at first. She had never looked younger than a hard hundred within the memory of man. Her shrivelled face was the colour of leather, and crossed and recrossed with lines till there wasn't room for any more. But her eyes were bright yet, and twinkled with humour at times.

She had been in the Bush for fifty years, and had fought fires, droughts, hunger and thirst, floods, cattle and crop diseases, and all the things that God curses Australian settlers with. She had had two husbands, and it could be said of neither that he had ever done an honest day's work, or any good for himself or any one else. She had reared something under fifteen children, her own and others; and there was scarcely one of them that had not given her trouble. Her sons had brought disgrace on her old head over and over again, but she held up that same old head through it all, and looked her narrow, ignorant world in the face — and `lived it down'. She had worked like a slave for fifty years; yet she had more energy and endurance than many modern city women in her shrivelled old body. She was a daughter of English aristocrats.

And we who live our weak lives of fifty years or so in the cities — we grow maudlin over our sorrows (and beer), and ask whether life is worth living or not.

I sought in the farming town relief from the general and particular sameness of things, but there was none. The railway station was about the only new building in town. The old signs even were as badly in need of retouching as of old. I picked up a copy of the local `Advertiser', which newspaper had been started in the early days by a brilliant drunkard, who drank himself to death just as the fathers of our nation were beginning to get educated up to his style. He might have made Australian journalism very different from what it is. There was nothing new in the `Advertiser' — there had been nothing new since the last time the drunkard had been sober enough to hold a pen. There was the same old `enjoyable trip' to Drybone (whereof the editor was the hero), and something about an on-the-whole very enjoyable evening in some place that was tastefully decorated, and where the visitors did justice to the good things provided, and the small hours, and dancing, and our host and hostess, and respected fellow-townsmen; also divers young ladies sang very nicely, and a young Mr Somebody favoured the company with a comic song.

There was the same trespassing on the valuable space by the old subscriber, who said that `he had said before and would say again', and he proceeded to say the same things which he said in the same paper when we first heard our father reading it to our mother. Farther on the old subscriber proceeded to `maintain', and recalled attention to the fact that it was just exactly as he had said. After which he made a few abstract, incoherent remarks about the `surrounding district', and concluded by stating that he `must now conclude', and thanking the editor for trespassing on the aforesaid valuable space.

There was the usual leader on the Government; and an agitation was still carried on, by means of horribly-constructed correspondence to both papers, for a bridge over Dry-Hole Creek at Dustbin — a place where no sane man ever had occasion to go.

I took up the `unreliable contemporary', but found nothing there except a letter from `Parent', another from `Ratepayer', a leader on the Government, and `A Trip to Limeburn', which latter I suppose was made in opposition to the trip to Drybone.

There was nothing new in the town. Even the almost inevitable gang of city spoilers hadn't arrived with the railway. They would have been a relief. There was the monotonous aldermanic row, and the worse than hopeless little herd of aldermen, the weird agricultural portion of whom came in on council days in white starched and ironed coats, as we had always remembered them. They were aggressively barren of ideas; but on this occasion they had risen above themselves, for one of them had remembered something his grandfather (old time English alderman) had told him, and they were stirring up all the old local quarrels and family spite of the district over a motion, or an amendment on a motion, that a letter — from another enlightened body and bearing on an equally important matter (which letter had been sent through the post sufficiently stamped, delivered to the secretary, handed to the chairman, read aloud in council, and passed round several times for private perusal) — over a motion that such letter be received.

There was a maintenance case coming on — to the usual well-ventilated disgust of the local religious crank, who was on the jury; but the case differed in no essential point from other cases which were always coming on and going off in my time. It was not at all romantic. The local youth was not even brilliant in adultery.

After I had been a week in that town the Governor decided to visit it, and preparations were made to welcome him and present him with an address. Then I thought that it was time to go, and slipped away unnoticed in the general lunacy.

 
 
 

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