13 August 2017

The Man Who Forgot, Part II

While the Billy Boils
with Leigh Lundin and B.K. Stevens

Yesterday, Bonnie brought you Part I of a classic Australian crime story published in 1896. It’s part of While the Billy Boils, a collection of 52 short stories by famed poet and short story writer Henry Lawson. At right is the frontispiece of the 1913 edition.

A 1921 film of the same title, now considered to be a lost classic, brought together several story threads into an overarching story line of drama and romance. Unfortunately, no copies are known to exist.

Now for Part II of…


The Man Who Forgot

from 1896’s

While the Billy Boils

by Henry Lawson

Part II
One Saturday morning, about a fortnight before cut-out, The Oracle came late to his stand, and apparently with something on his mind. Smith hadn’t turned up, and the next rouseabout was doing his work, to the mutual dissatisfaction of all parties immediately concerned.
“Did you see anything of Smith?” asked Mitchell of The Oracle. “Seems to have forgot to get up this morning.”
Tom looked disheartened and disappointed.
“He’s forgot again,” said he, slowly and impressively.
“Forgot what? We know he’s blessed well forgot to come to graft.”
“He’s forgot again,” repeated Tom. “He woke up this morning and wanted to know who he was and where he was.”
“Better give him best, Oracle,” said Mitchell, presently. “If he can’t find out who he is and where he is, the boss’ll soon find it out for him.”
“No,” said Tom, “when I take a thing in hand I see it through.”
This was also characteristic of the Boss-over-the board, though in another direction. He went down to the hut and enquired for Smith.
“Why ain’t you at work?”
“Who am I, sir? Where am I?” whined Smith. “Can you please tell me who I am and where I am?”
The boss drew a long breath and stared blankly at the Mystery; then he erupted.
“Now, look here!’ he howled, “I don’t know who the gory sheol you are, except that you’re a gory lunatic, and what’s more, I don’t care a damn. But I’ll soon show you where you are! You can call up at the store and get your cheque, and soon as you blessed well like; and then take a walk, and don’t forget to take your lovely swag with you.”
The matter was discussed at the dinner table. The Oracle swore that it was a cruel, mean way to treat a ‘pore afflicted chap,” and cursed the boss. Tom’s admirers cursed in sympathy, and trouble seemed threatening, when the voice of Mitchell was heard to rise in slow deliberate tones over the clatter of cutlery and tin plates.
“I wonder,” said the voice, “I wonder whether Smith forgot his cheque?”
It was ascertained that Smith hadn’t.
There was some eating and thinking done.
Soon Mitchell’s voice was heard again, directed at The Oracle. It said: “Do you keep any vallabels about your bunk, Oracle?”
Tom looked hard at Mitchell. “Why?”
“Oh, nothin’; only I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea for you to look at your bunk and see whether Smith forgot.”
film poster
The chaps grew awfully interested. They fixed their eyes on Tom, and he looked with feeling from one face to another; then he pushed his plate back, and slowly extracted his long legs from between the stool and the table. He climbed to his bunk, and carefully reviewed the ingredients of his swag. Smith hadn’t forgot.
When the Oracle’s face came round again there was in it a strange expression which a close study would have revealed to be more of anger than of sorrow, but that was not all. It was an expression such as a man might wear who is undergoing a terrible operation, without chloroform, but is determined not to let a whimper escape him. Tom didn’t swear, and by that token they guessed how mad he was. “Twas a rough shed, with a free and lurid vocabulary, but had they all sworn in chorus, with One-Eyed Bogan as lead, it would not have done justice to Tom’s feelings and― they realised this.
The Oracle took down his bridle from its peg, and started for the door amid a respectful and sympathetic silence, which was only partly broken once by the voice of Mitchell, which asked in an awed whisper: “Going ter ketch yer horse, Tom?”
The Oracle nodded, and passed on; he spake no word―he was too full for words.
Five minutes passed, and then the voice of Mitchell was heard again, uninterrupted by the clatter of tin-ware. It said in impressive tones: “It would not be a bad idea for some of you chaps that camp in the bunks along there, to have a look at your things. Scotty’s bunk is next to Tom’s.”
Scotty shot out of his place as if a snake had hold of his leg, starting a plank in the table and upsetting three soup plates. He reached for his bunk like a drowning man clutching at a plank, and tore out the bedding. Again, Smith hadn’t forgot.
Then followed a general overhaul, and it was found that in most cases that Smith had remembered. The pent-up reservoir of blasphemy burst forth.
The Oracle came up with Smith that night at the nearest shanty, and found that he had forgotten again, and in several instances, and was forgetting some more under the influence of rum and of the flattering interest taken in his case by a drunken Bachelor of Arts who happened to be at the pub. Tom came in quietly from the rear, and crooked his finger at the shanty-keeper. They went apart from the rest, and talked together awhile very earnestly. Then they secretly examined Smith’s swag, the core of which was composed of Tom’s and his mate’s valuables.
Then The Oracle stirred up Smith’s recollection and departed.
Smith was about again in a couple of weeks. He was damaged somewhat physically, but his memory was no longer impaired.
Henry Lawson

Australia and a bit of history… We trust this glimpse into a distant time and place demonstrates how much we have in common, no matter when and where we live.



Henry Lawson (1867-1922) became a fondly revered Australian writer and bush poet. Among the best-known Australian poets and authors of the colonial period, he is often considered Australia’s greatest short story writer.

7 comments:

R.T. Lawton said...

All of the words are good English, although the reader sometimes needs to look deep into how they are used to understand what happened. Still, it is a good story. I may have to look for more of Henry in Kindle form.

Leigh Lundin said...

RT, it may be turn-of-the-century Australian humour is like vegemite… an acquired taste. However, it’s worth noting that Lawson appeared in world literature courses taught in American secondary schools (middle school, high school).

Lawson’s writing struck me how similar it is to that of American writers and particularly humorists of the same period. The comedy is gentle and often subtle, and it relies strongly upon strongly upon character portraits. American interest in their own once popular literature of the time waned to nearly nil in the 1960s, forgetting wildly popular authors like James Oliver Curwood and James Whitcomb Riley.

Eve Fisher said...

I think Lawson and Brett Harte would have had a lot in common.

Leigh Lundin said...

Good point, Eve. These were hardy people who not only wrote what they knew, they lived it.

Jan Grape said...

Great story. So much in each word is revealed. I especially like the lines of "It was like the face of a man who had under gone a terrible operation without chloroform but is determined not to let a whimper escape him." What a perfect description in so few words.

Robert Lopresti said...

This part: "Then The Oracle stirred up Smith’s recollection and departed. Smith was about again in a couple of weeks..." Strikes me as classic Twain.

Leigh Lundin said...

Jan and Rob, I agree. He his sly word-smithing and understated humor really make the story. I hadn't thought of Twain until you mention it, but yes, there's that wry sense of irony.