While the Billy Boils, by Henry Lawson

A Visit of Condolence

“Does Arvie live here, old woman?”

“Why?”

“Strike me dead! carn’t yer answer a civil queschin?”

“How dare you talk to me like that, you young larrikin! Be off! or I’ll send for a policeman.”

“Blarst the cops! D’yer think I cares for ’em? Fur two pins I’d fetch a push an’ smash yer ole shanty about yer ears — y’ole cow! I only arsked if Arvie lived here! Holy Mosis! carn’t a feller ask a civil queschin?”

“What do you want with Arvie? Do you know him?”

“My oath! Don’t he work at Grinder Brothers? I only come out of my way to do him a good turn; an’ now I’m sorry I come — damned if I ain’t — to be barracked like this, an’ shoved down my own throat. (Pause) I want to tell Arvie that if he don’t come ter work termorrer, another bloke’ll collar his job. I wouldn’t like to see a cove collar a cove’s job an’ not tell a bloke about it. What’s up with Arvie, anyhow? Is he sick?”

“Arvie is dead!”

“Christ! (Pause) Garn! What-yer-giv’n-us? Tell Arvie Bill Anderson wants-ter see him.”

“My God! haven’t I got enough trouble without a young wretch like you coming to torment me? For God’s sake go away and leave me alone! I’m telling you the truth, my my poor boy died of influenza last night.”

“My oath!”

The ragged young rip gave a long, low whistle, glanced up and down Jones’s Alley, spat out some tobacco-juice, and said “Swelp me Gord! I’m sorry, mum. I didn’t know. How was I to know you wasn’t havin’ me?”

He withdrew one hand from his pocket and scratched the back of his head, tilting his hat as far forward as it had previously been to the rear, and just then the dilapidated side of his right boot attracted his attention. He turned the foot on one side, and squinted at the sole; then he raised the foot to his left knee, caught the ankle in a very dirty hand, and regarded the sole-leather critically, as though calculating how long it would last. After which he spat desperately at the pavement, and said:

“Kin I see him?”

He followed her up the crooked little staircase with a who’s-afraid kind of swagger, but he took his hat off on entering the room.

He glanced round, and seemed to take stock of the signs of poverty — so familiar to his class — and then directed his gaze to where the body lay on the sofa with its pauper coffin already by its side. He looked at the coffin with the critical eye of a tradesman, then he looked at Arvie, and then at the coffin again, as if calculating whether the body would fit.

The mother uncovered the white, pinched face of the dead boy, and Bill came and stood by the sofa. He carelessly drew his right hand from his pocket, and laid the palm on Arvie’s ice-cold forehead.

“Poor little cove!” Bill muttered, half to himself; and then, as though ashamed of his weakness, he said:

“There wasn’t no post mortem, was there?”

“No,” she answered; “a doctor saw him the day before — there was no post mortem.”

“I thought there wasn’t none,” said Bill, “because a man that’s been post mortemed always looks as if he’d been hurt. My father looked right enough at first — just as if he was restin’— but after they’d had him opened he looked as if he’d been hurt. No one else could see it, but I could. How old was Arvie?”

“Eleven.”’

“I’m twelve — goin’ on for thirteen. Arvie’s father’s dead, ain’t he?”

“Yes.”

“So’s mine. Died at his work, didn’t he?”

“Yes.”

“So’d mine. Arvie told me his father died of something with his heart!”

“Yes.”

“So’d mine; ain’t it rum? You scrub offices an’ wash, don’t yer?”

“Yes.”

“So does my mother. You find it pretty hard to get a livin’, don’t yer, these times?”

“My God, yes! God only knows what I’ll do now my poor boy’s gone. I generally get up at half-past five to scrub out some offices, and when that’s done I’ve got to start my day’s work, washing. And then I find it hard to make both ends meet.”

“So does my mother. I suppose you took on bad when yer husband was brought home?”

“Ah, my God! Yes. I’ll never forget it till my dying day. My poor husband had been out of work for weeks, and he only got the job two days before he died. I suppose it gave your mother a great shock?”

“My oath! One of the fellows that carried father home said: ‘Yer husband’s dead, mum,’ he says; ‘he dropped off all of a suddint,’ and mother said, ‘My God! my God!’ just like that, and went off.”

“Poor soul! poor soul! And — now my Arvie’s gone. Whatever will me and the children do? Whatever will I do? Whatever will I do? My God! I wish I was under the turf.”

“Cheer up, mum!” said Bill. “It’s no use frettin’ over what’s done.”

He wiped some tobacco-juice off his lips with the back of his hand, and regarded the stains reflectively for a minute or so. Then he looked at Arvie again.

“You should ha’ tried cod liver oil,” said Bill.

“No. He needed rest and plenty of good food.”

“He wasn’t very strong.”

“No, he was not, poor boy.”

“I thought he wasn’t. They treated him bad at Grinder Brothers: they didn’t give him a show to learn nothing; kept him at the same work all the time, and he didn’t have cheek enough to arsk the boss for a rise, lest he’d be sacked. He couldn’t fight, an’ the boys used to tease him; they’d wait outside the shop to have a lark with Arvie. I’d like to see ’em do it to me. He couldn’t fight; but then, of course, he wasn’t strong. They don’t bother me while I’m strong enough to heave a rock; but then, of course, it wasn’t Arvie’s fault. I s’pose he had pluck enough, if he hadn’t the strength.” And Bill regarded the corpse with a fatherly and lenient eye.

“My God!” she cried, “if I’d known this, I’d sooner have starved than have my poor boy’s life tormented out of him in such a place. He never complained. My poor, brave-hearted child! He never complained! Poor little Arvie! Poor little Arvie!”

“He never told yer?”

“No — never a word.”

“My oath! You don’t say so! P’raps he didn’t want to let you know he couldn’t hold his own; but that wasn’t his fault, I s’pose. Y’see, he wasn’t strong.”

An old print hanging over the bed attracted his attention, and he regarded it with critical interest for awhile:

“We’ve got a pickcher like that at home. We lived in Jones’s Alley wunst — in that house over there. How d’yer like livin’ in Jones’s Alley?”

“I don’t like it at all. I don’t like having to bring my children up where there are so many bad houses; but I can’t afford to go somewhere else and pay higher rent.”

“Well, there is a good many night-shops round here. But then,” he added, reflectively, “you’ll find them everywheres. An’, besides, the kids git sharp, an’ pick up a good deal in an alley like this; ‘twon’t do ’em no harm; it’s no use kids bein’ green if they wanter get on in a city. You ain’t been in Sydney all yer life, have yer?”

“No. We came from the bush, about five years ago. My poor husband thought he could do better in the city. I was brought up in the bush.”’

“I thought yer was. Well, men are sick fools. I’m thinking about gittin’ a billet up-country, myself, soon. Where’s he goin’ ter be buried?”

“At Rookwood, to-morrow.”

“I carn’t come. I’ve got ter work. Is the Guvmint goin’ to bury him?”

“Yes.”

Bill looked at the body with increased respect. “Kin I do anythin’ for you? Now, don’t be frightened to arsk!”

“No. Thank you very much, all the same.”

“Well, I must be goin’; thank yer fur yer trouble, mum.”

“No trouble, my boy — mind the step.”

“It is gone. I’ll bring a piece of board round some night and mend it for you, if you like; I’m learnin’ the carpenterin’; I kin nearly make a door. Tell yer what, I’ll send the old woman round to-night to fix up Arvie and lend yer a hand.”

“No, thank you. I suppose your mother’s got work and trouble enough; I’ll manage.”

“I’ll send her round, anyway; she’s a bit rough, but she’s got a soft gizzard; an’ there’s nothin’ she enjoys better than fixin’ up a body. Good-bye, mum.”

“Good-bye, my child.”

He paused at the door, and said:

“I’m sorry, mum. Swelp me God! I’m sorry. S’long, an’ thank yer.”

An awe-stricken child stood on the step, staring at Bill with great brimming eyes. He patted it on the head and said “Keep yer pecker up, young ’un!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lawson/henry/while_the_billy_boils/book2.6.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38