The Story of the Oracle by Henry Lawson
An Extract from,
Over the Sliprails
"We young fellows," said "Sympathy Joe" to Mitchell, after tea, in
their first camp west the river — "and you and I ARE young fellows,
comparatively — think we know the world. There are plenty of young
chaps knocking round in this country who reckon they've been through
it all before they're thirty. I've met cynics and men-o'-the-world,
aged twenty-one or thereabouts, who've never been further than a trip
to Sydney. They talk about `this world' as if they'd knocked around
in half-a-dozen other worlds before they came across here — and they
are just as off-hand about it as older Australians are when they talk
about this colony as compared with the others. They say: `My oath! —
same here.' `I've been there.' `My oath! — you're right.' `Take it
from me!' and all that sort of thing. They understand women, and have
a contempt for 'em; and chaps that don't talk as they talk, or do as
they do, or see as they see, are either soft or ratty. A good many
reckon that `life ain't blanky well worth livin''; sometimes they feel
so blanky somehow that they wouldn't give a blank whether they chucked
it or not; but that sort never chuck it. It's mostly the quiet men
that do that, and if they've got any complaints to make against the
world they make 'em at the head station. Why, I've known healthy,
single, young fellows under twenty-five who drank to drown their
troubles — some because they reckoned the world didn't understand nor
appreciate 'em — as if it COULD!"
"If the world don't understand or appreciate you," said Mitchell
solemnly, as he reached for a burning stick to light his pipe — "MAKE
"To drown THEIR troubles!" continued Joe, in a tone of impatient
contempt. "The Oracle must be well on towards the sixties; he can take
his glass with any man, but you never saw him drunk."
"What's the Oracle to do with it?"
"Did you ever hear his history?"
"No. Do you know it?"
"Yes, though I don't think he has any idea that I do. Now, we were
talking about the Oracle a little while ago. We know he's an old ass;
a good many outsiders consider that he's a bit soft or ratty, and, as
we're likely to be mates together for some time on that fencing
contract, if we get it, you might as well know what sort of a man he
is and was, so's you won't get uneasy about him if he gets deaf for a
while when you're talking, or does funny things with his pipe or
pint-pot, or walks up and down by himself for an hour or so after tea,
or sits on a log with his head in his hands, or leans on the fence in
the gloaming and keeps looking in a blank sort of way, straight ahead,
across the clearing. For he's gazing at something a thousand miles
across country, south-east, and about twenty years back into the past,
and no doubt he sees himself (as a young man), and a Gippsland girl,
spooning under the stars along between the hop-gardens and the
Mitchell River. And, if you get holt of a fiddle or a concertina,
don't rasp or swank too much on old tunes, when he's round, for the
Oracle can't stand it. Play something lively. He'll be down there at
that surveyor's camp yarning till all hours, so we'll have plenty of
time for the story — but don't you ever give him a hint that you
"My people knew him well; I got most of the story from them —
mostly from Uncle Bob, who knew him better than any. The rest leaked
out through the women — you know how things leak out amongst women?"
Mitchell dropped his head and scratched the back of it. HE knew.
"It was on the Cudgegong River. My Uncle Bob was mates with him
on one of those `rushes' along there — the `Pipeclay', I think it
was, or the `Log Paddock'. The Oracle was a young man then, of
course, and so was Uncle Bob (he was a match for most men). You see
the Oracle now, and you can imagine what he was when he was a young
man. Over six feet, and as straight as a sapling, Uncle Bob said,
clean-limbed, and as fresh as they made men in those days; carried
his hands behind him, as he does now, when he hasn't got the swag —
but his shoulders were back in those days. Of course he wasn't the
Oracle then; he was young Tom Marshall — but that doesn't matter.
Everybody liked him — especially women and children. He was a bit
happy-go-lucky and careless, but he didn't know anything about `this
world', and didn't bother about it; he hadn't `been there'. `And his
heart was as good as gold,' my aunt used to say. He didn't understand
women as we young fellows do nowadays, and therefore he hadn't any
contempt for 'em. Perhaps he understood, and understands, them better
than any of us, without knowing it. Anyway, you know, he's always
gentle and kind where a woman or child is concerned, and doesn't like
to hear us talk about women as we do sometimes.
"There was a girl on the goldfields — a fine lump of a blonde,
and pretty gay. She came from Sydney, I think, with her people, who
kept shanties on the fields. She had a splendid voice, and used to
sing `Madeline'. There might have been one or two bad women before
that, in the Oracle's world, but no cold-blooded, designing ones. He
calls the bad ones `unfortunate'.
"Perhaps it was Tom's looks, or his freshness, or his innocence, or
softness — or all together — that attracted her. Anyway, he got
mixed up with her before the goldfield petered out.
"No doubt it took a long while for the facts to work into Tom's
head that a girl might sing like she did and yet be thoroughly
unprincipled. The Oracle was always slow at coming to a decision, but
when he does it's generally the right one. Anyway, you can take that
for granted, for you won't move him.
"I don't know whether he found out that she wasn't all that she
pretented to be to him, or whether they quarrelled, or whether she
chucked him over for a lucky digger. Tom never had any luck on the
goldfields. Anyway, he left and went over to the Victorian side,
where his people were, and went up Gippsland way. It was there for
the first time in his life that he got what you would call `properly
gone on a girl'; he got hard hit — he met his fate.
"Her name was Bertha Bredt, I remember. Aunt Bob saw her
afterwards. Aunt Bob used to say that she was `a girl as God made her'
— a good, true, womanly girl — one of those sort of girls that only
love once. Tom got on with her father, who was packing horses through
the ranges to the new goldfields — it was rough country and there
were no roads; they had to pack everything there in those days, and
there was money in it. The girl's father took to Tom — as almost
everybody else did — and, as far as the girl was concerned, I think
it was a case of love at first sight. They only knew each other for
about six months, and were only `courting' (as they called it then)
for three or four months altogether, but she was that sort of girl
that can love a man for six weeks and lose him for ever, and yet go
on loving him to the end of her life — and die with his name on her
"Well, things were brightening up every way for Tom, and he and his
sweetheart were beginning to talk about their own little home in
future, when there came a letter from the `Madeline' girl in New South
"She was in terrible trouble. Her baby was to be born in a month.
Her people had kicked her out, and she was in danger of starving. She
begged and prayed of him to come back and marry her, if only for his
child's sake. He could go then, and be free; she would never trouble
him any more — only come and marry her for the child's sake.
"The Oracle doesn't know where he lost that letter, but I do. It
was burnt afterwards by a woman, who was more than a mother to him in
his trouble — Aunt Bob. She thought he might carry it round with the
rest of his papers, in his swag, for years, and come across it
unexpectedly when he was camped by himself in the bush and feeling
dull. It wouldn't have done him any good then.
"He must have fought the hardest fight in his life when he got that
letter. No doubt he walked to and fro, to and fro, all night, with his
hands behind him, and his eyes on the ground, as he does now
sometimes. Walking up and down helps you to fight a thing out.
"No doubt he thought of things pretty well as he thinks now: the
poor girl's shame on every tongue, and belled round the district by
every hag in the township; and she looked upon by women as being as
bad as any man who ever went to Bathurst in the old days, handcuffed
between two troopers. There is sympathy, a pipe and tobacco, a
cheering word, and, maybe, a whisky now and then, for the criminal on
his journey; but there is no mercy, at least as far as women are
concerned, for the poor foolish girl, who has to sneak out the back
way and round by back streets and lanes after dark, with a cloak on
to hide her figure.
"Tom sent what money he thought he could spare, and next day he
went to the girl he loved and who loved him, and told her the truth,
and showed her the letter. She was only a girl — but the sort of
girl you COULD go to in a crisis like that. He had made up his mind
to do the right thing, and she loved him all the more for it. And so
"When Tom reached `Pipeclay', the girl's relations, that she was
stopping with, had a parson readied up, and they were married the same
"And what happened after that?" asked Mitchell.
"Nothing happened for three or four months; then the child was
born. It wasn't his!"
Mitchell stood up with an oath.
"The girl was thoroughly bad. She'd been carrying on with God
knows how many men, both before and after she trapped Tom."
"And what did he do then?"
"Well, you know how the Oracle argues over things, and I suppose
he was as big an old fool then as he is now. He thinks that, as most
men would deceive women if they could, when one man gets caught, he's
got no call to squeal about it; he's bound, because of the sins of men
in general against women, to make the best of it. What is one man's
wrong counted against the wrongs of hundreds of unfortunate girls.
"It's an uncommon way of arguing — like most of the Oracle's ideas
— but it seems to look all right at first sight.
"Perhaps he thought she'd go straight; perhaps she convinced him
that he was the cause of her first fall; anyway he stuck to her for
more than a year, and intended to take her away from that place as
soon as he'd scraped enough money together. It might have gone on up
till now, if the father of the child — a big black Irishman named
Redmond — hadn't come sneaking back at the end of a year. He — well,
he came hanging round Mrs. Marshall while Tom was away at work — and
she encouraged him. And Tom was forced to see it.
"Tom wanted to fight out his own battle without interference, but
the chaps wouldn't let him — they reckoned that he'd stand very
little show against Redmond, who was a very rough customer and a
fighting man. My uncle Bob, who was there still, fixed it up this way:
The Oracle was to fight Redmond, and if the Oracle got licked Uncle
Bob was to take Redmond on. If Redmond whipped Uncle Bob, that was to
settle it; but if Uncle Bob thrashed Redmond, then he was also to
fight Redmond's mate, another big, rough Paddy named Duigan. Then the
affair would be finished — no matter which way the last bout went.
You see, Uncle Bob was reckoned more of a match for Redmond than the
Oracle was, so the thing looked fair enough — at first sight.
"Redmond had his mate, Duigan, and one or two others of the rough
gang that used to terrorise the fields round there in the roaring days
of Gulgong. The Oracle had Uncle Bob, of course, and long Dave Regan,
the drover — a good-hearted, sawny kind of chap that'd break the
devil's own buck-jumper, or smash him, or get smashed himself — and
little Jimmy Nowlett, the bullocky, and one or two of the old,
better-class diggers that were left on the field.
"There's a clear space among the saplings in Specimen Gully, where
they used to pitch circuses; and here, in the cool of a summer evening,
the two men stood face to face. Redmond was a rough, roaring,
foul-mouthed man; he stripped to his shirt, and roared like a bull,
and swore, and sneered, and wanted to take the whole of Tom's crowd
while he was at it, and make one clean job of 'em. Couldn't waste
time fighting them all one after the other, because he wanted to get
away to the new rush at Cattle Creek next day. The fool had been
"Tom stood up in his clean, white moles and white flannel shirt —
one of those sort with no sleeves, that give the arms play. He had a
sort of set expression and a look in his eyes that Uncle Bob — nor
none of them — had ever seen there before. `Give us plenty of ——
room!' roared Redmond; `one of us is going to hell, now! This is
going to be a fight to a —— finish, and a —— short one!' And it
was!" Joe paused.
"Go on," said Mitchell — "go on!"
Joe drew a long breath.
"The Oracle never got a mark! He was top-dog right from the start.
Perhaps it was his strength that Redmond had underrated, or his want
of science that puzzled him, or the awful silence of the man that
frightened him (it made even Uncle Bob uneasy). Or, perhaps, it was
Providence (it was a glorious chance for Providence), but, anyway, as
I say, the Oracle never got a mark, except on his knuckles. After a
few rounds Redmond funked and wanted to give in, but the chaps
wouldn't let him — not even his own mates — except Duigan. They made
him take it as long as he could stand on his feet. He even shammed to
be knocked out, and roared out something about having broken his ——
ankle — but it was no use. And the Oracle! The chaps that knew
thought that he'd refuse to fight, and never hit a man that had given
in. But he did. He just stood there with that quiet look in his eyes
and waited, and, when he did hit, there wasn't any necessity for
Redmond to PRETEND to be knocked down. You'll see a glint of that old
light in the Oracle's eyes even now, once in a while; and when you do
it's a sign that you or someone are going too far, and had better pull
up, for it's a red light on the line, old as he is.
"Now, Jimmy Nowlett was a nuggety little fellow, hard as cast iron,
good-hearted, but very excitable; and when the bashed Redmond was
being carted off (poor Uncle Bob was always pretty high-strung, and
was sitting on a log sobbing like a great child from the reaction),
Duigan made some sneering remark that only Jimmy Nowlett caught, and
in an instant he was up and at Duigan.
"Perhaps Duigan was demoralised by his mate's defeat, or by the
suddenness of the attack; but, at all events, he got a hiding, too.
Uncle Bob used to say that it was the funniest thing he ever saw in
his life. Jimmy kept yelling: `Let me get at him! By the Lord, let
me get at him!' And nobody was attempting to stop him, he WAS getting
at him all the time — and properly, too; and, when he'd knocked
Duigan down, he'd dance round him and call on him to get up; and every
time he jumped or bounced, he'd squeak like an india-rubber ball,
Uncle Bob said, and he would nearly burst his boiler trying to lug the
big man on to his feet so's he could knock him down again. It took
two of Jimmy's mates all their time to lam him down into a
comparatively reasonable state of mind after the fight was over.
"The Oracle left for Sydney next day, and Uncle Bob went with him.
He stayed at Uncle Bob's place for some time. He got very quiet,
they said, and gentle; he used to play with the children, and they
got mighty fond of him. The old folks thought his heart was broken,
but it went through a deeper sorrow still after that and it ain't
broken yet. It takes a lot to break the heart of a man."
"And his wife," asked Mitchell — "what became of her?"
"I don't think he ever saw her again. She dropped down pretty low
after he left her — I've heard she's living somewhere quietly. The
Oracle's been sending someone money ever since I knew him, and I know
it's a woman. I suppose it's she. He isn't the sort of a man to see
a woman starve — especially a woman he had ever had anything to do
"And the Gippsland girl?" asked Mitchell.
"That's the worst part of it all, I think. The Oracle went up
North somewhere. In the course of a year or two his affair got over
Gippsland way through a mate of his who lived over there, and at last
the story got to the ears of this girl, Bertha Bredt. She must have
written a dozen letters to him, Aunt Bob said. She knew what was in
'em, but, of course, she'd never tell us. The Oracle only wrote one in
reply. Then, what must the girl do but clear out from home and make
her way over to Sydney — to Aunt Bob's place, looking for Tom. She
never got any further. She took ill — brain-fever, or broken heart,
or something of that sort. All the time she was down her cry was — `I
want to see him! I want to find Tom! I only want to see Tom!'
"When they saw she was dying, Aunt Bob wired to the Oracle to come
— and he came. When the girl saw it was Tom sitting by the bed, she
just gave one long look in his face, put her arms round his neck, and
laid her head on his shoulder — and died. . . . Here comes the
Mitchell lifted the tea-billy on to the coals.