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Dipping into "While the Billy Boils"

The days have been very hot at Gwambygine recently, and after a morning in the orchard or slashing weeds or pruning my trees, I usually go for a lie-down, a read and a nap under the fan. A special pleasure is to pick up my battered old copy of Henry Lawson's While the Billy Boils and dip in. Invariably I come across an old favourite.

One of his most tragic stories is His father's mate, and I no longer re-read it unless feeling depressed or sentimental, these being the best moods in which to read this story. But the opening paragraphs are a wonderful evocation of an old diggings - a scene that Lawson often dwells upon, and describes so bleakly:

It was Golden Gully still, but golden in name only, unless indeed the yellow mullock heaps or the bloom of the wattle-trees on the hillside gave it a claim to the title. But the gold was gone from the gully, and the diggers were gone, too, after the manner of Timon’s friends when his wealth deserted him. Golden Gully was a dreary place, dreary even for an abandoned goldfield. The poor, tortured earth, with its wounds all bare, seemed to make a mute appeal to the surrounding bush to come up and hide it, and, as if in answer to its appeal, the shrub and saplings were beginning to close in from the foot of the range. The wilderness was reclaiming its own again ...

...The predominant note of the scene was a painful sense of listening, that never seemed to lose its tension—a listening as though for the sounds of digger life, sounds that had gone and left a void that was accentuated by the signs of a former presence. The main army of diggers had long ago vanished to new rushes, leaving only its stragglers and deserters behind. These were men who were too poor to drag families about, men who were old and feeble, and men who had lost their faith in fortune. They had dropped unnoticed out of the ranks, and remained to scratch out a living among the abandoned claims .....

It is a harrowing story, and I turned from it with relief to The Drover's Wife. This must be one of Lawson's best-known stories, along with The Loaded Dog. I can remember reading both when I was in Primary School. In the former I was always remember the episode with the snake, and I am able to share the anxiety of the mother, and the excitement of the children and the dog. Re-reading it the other day I was reminded of the wife's recollection of a bushfire and marvelled at how Lawson captures the event with such economy and humour:

Now and then the bushwoman lays down her work and watches, and listens, and thinks. She thinks of things in her own life, for there is little else to think about.

The rain will make the grass grow, and this reminds her how she fought a bush-fire once while her husband was away. The grass was long, and very dry, and the fire threatened to burn her out. She put on an old pair of her husband’s trousers and beat out the flames with a green bough, till great drops of sooty perspiration stood out on her forehead and ran in streaks down her blackened arms.

The sight of his mother in trousers greatly amused Tommy, who worked like a little hero by her side, but the terrified baby howled lustily for his “mummy.” The fire would have mastered her but for four excited bushmen who arrived in the nick of time.

It was a mixed-up affair all round; when she went to take up the baby he screamed and struggled convulsively, thinking it was a “blackman;” and Alligator, trusting more to the child’s sense than his own instinct, charged furiously, and (being old and slightly deaf) did not in his excitement at first recognize his mistress’s voice, but continued to hang on to the moleskins until choked off by Tommy with a saddle-strap. The dog’s sorrow for his blunder, and his anxiety to let it be known that it was all a mistake, was as evident as his ragged tail and a twelve-inch grin could make it. It was a glorious time for the boys; a day to look back to, and talk about, and laugh over for many years.

I love the dog's "12-inch grin" (my old dog Ruby had one of those) and I recalled another of Lawson's observations, this time about the pet dog in the story of his Grandfather's Courtship. Tired out after a day's excitement, Grandfather's tiny pet dog gave a yawn that "would have done credit to a much larger dog". I've seen small dogs yawn like that.

The Drover's Wife has a memorable ending, the snake having been caught by the dog Alligator and killed by the mother. The sense is not of an ending, but of a never-ending:

She lifts the mangled reptile on the point of her stick, carries it to the fire, and throws it in; then piles on the wood and watches the snake burn. The boy and dog watch too. She lays her hand on the dog’s head, and all the fierce, angry light dies out of his yellow eyes. The younger children are quieted, and presently go to sleep. The dirty-legged boy stands for a moment in his shirt, watching the fire. Presently he looks up at her, sees the tears in her eyes, and, throwing his arms round her neck exclaims:

“Mother, I won’t never go drovin’; blarst me if I do!” And she hugs him to her worn-out breast and kisses him; and they sit thus together while the sickly daylight breaks over the bush.

While the Billy Boils also contains one of Lawson's least well-known stories, but it is another of my favourites, The Ironbark Chip. It tells the story of a gang of bushmen who have a contract to build culverts on a new railway, and the contract specifies the use of ironbark timber, noted for its strength and durability. The scene is set in the first paragraph or two:

Dave Regan and party—bush-fencers, tank-sinkers, rough carpenters, &c.— were finishing the third and last culvert of their contract on the last section of the new railway line, and had already sent in their vouchers for the completed contract, so that there might be no excuse for extra delay in connection with the cheque.

Now it had been expressly stipulated in the plans and specifications that the timber for certain beams and girders was to be iron-bark and no other, and Government inspectors were authorised to order the removal from the ground of any timber or material they might deem inferior, or not in accordance with the stipulations. The railway contractor’s foreman and inspector of sub-contractors was a practical man and a bushman, but he had been a timber-getter himself; his sympathies were bushy, and he was on winking terms with Dave Regan. Besides, extended time was expiring, and the contractors were in a hurry to complete the line. But the Government inspector was a reserved man who poked round on his independent own and appeared in lonely spots at unexpected times —with apparently no definite object in life—like a grey kangaroo bothered by a new wire fence, but unsuspicious of the presence of humans. He wore a grey suit, rode, or mostly led, an ashen-grey horse; the grass was long and grey, so he was seldom spotted until he was well within the horizon and bearing leisurely down on a party of sub-contractors, leading his horse.

Now iron-bark was scarce and distant on those ridges, and another timber, similar in appearance, but much inferior in grain and “standing” quality, was plentiful and close at hand. Dave and party were “about full of” the job and place, and wanted to get their cheque and be gone to another “spec” they had in view. So they came to reckon they’d get the last girder from a handy tree, and have it squared, in place, and carefully and conscientiously tarred before the inspector happened along, if he did. But they didn’t. They got it squared, and ready to be lifted into its place; the kindly darkness of tar was ready to cover a fraud that took four strong men with crowbars and levers to shift; and now (such is the regular cussedness of things) as the fraudulent piece of timber lay its last hour on the ground, looking and smelling, to their guilty imaginations like anything but iron-bark, they were aware of the Government inspector drifting down upon them obliquely, with something of the atmosphere of a casual Bill or Jim who had dropped out of his easy-going track to see how they were getting on, and borrow a match.

The suspicious Government Inspector picks up a chip of timber from the recently squared girder and proceeds to take it away for analysis. However, stopping to light his pipe he hangs up his horse, places the chip on a fence post (it was too big to fit in his pocket) and then walks off a little way to inspect a gang of fencing contractors. Dave has a brilliant idea. He takes up a chip of genuine ironbark, and

... ran along the bed of the water-course into the scrub, raced up the siding behind the bushes, got safely, though without breathing, across the exposed space, and brought the tree into line between him and the inspector, who was talking to the fencers.

Then he:

... slipped round the tree, down on his hands and knees, and made quick time through the grass which, luckily, grew pretty tall on the thirty or forty yards of slope between the tree and the horse. Close to the horse, a thought struck Dave that pulled him up, and sent a shiver along his spine and a hungry feeling under it. The horse would break away and bolt! But the case was desperate. Dave ventured an interrogatory “Cope, cope, cope?” The horse turned its head wearily and regarded him with a mild eye, as if he’d expected him to come, and come on all fours, and wondered what had kept him so long; then he went on thinking. Dave reached the foot of the post; the horse obligingly leaning over on the other leg. Dave reared head and shoulders cautiously behind the post, like a snake; his hand went up twice, swiftly—the first time he grabbed the inspector’s chip, and the second time he put the iron-bark one in its place. He drew down and back, and scuttled off for the tree like a gigantic tailless “goanna”.

Dave returned to his mates along the creek, smoking hard to settle his nerves. He had not completed the job with a moment to spare:

The sky seemed to darken suddenly; the first great drops of the thunderstorm came pelting down. The inspector hurried to his horse, and cantered off along the line in the direction of the fettlers’ camp. He had forgotten all about the chip, and left it on top of the post!

Dave Regan sat down on the beam in the rain and swore comprehensively.

I always think when I read this that I would have sworn just as comprehensively myself.

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