Mitchell: A Character Sketch by Henry Lawson

Story type: Literature

It was a very mean station, and Mitchell thought he had better go himself and beard the overseer for tucker. His mates were for waiting till the overseer went out on the run, and then trying their luck with the cook; but the self-assertive and diplomatic Mitchell decided to go.

“Good day,” said Mitchell.

“Good day,” said the manager.

“It’s hot,” said Mitchell.

“Yes, it’s hot.”

“I don’t suppose,” said Mitchell; “I don’t suppose it’s any use asking you for a job?”

“Naw.”

“Well, I won’t ask you,” said Mitchell, “but I don’t suppose you want any fencing done?”

“Naw.”

“Nor boundary-riding’?”

“Naw.”

“You ain’t likely to want a man to knock round?”

“Naw.”

“I thought not. Things are pretty bad just now.”

“Na–yes–they are.”

“Ah, well; there’s a lot to be said on the squatter’s side as well as the men’s. I suppose I can get a bit of rations?”

“Ye-yes.” (Shortly)–“Wot d’yer want?”

“Well, let’s see; we want a bit of meat and flour–I think that’s all. Got enough tea and sugar to carry us on.”

“All right. Cook! have you got any meat?”

“No!”

To Mitchell: “Can you kill a sheep?”

“Rather!”

To the cook: “Give this man a cloth and knife and steel, and let him go up to the yard and kill a sheep.” (To Mitchell) “You can take a fore-quarter and get a bit of flour.”

Half an hour later Mitchell came back with the carcass wrapped in the cloth.

“Here yer are; here’s your sheep,” he said to the cook. “That’s all right; hang it in there. Did you take a forequarter?”‘

“No.”

“Well, why didn’t you? The boss told you to.”

“I didn’t want a fore-quarter. I don’t like it. I took a hind-quarter.”

So he had.

The cook scratched his head; he seemed to have nothing to say. He thought about trying to think, perhaps, but gave it best. It was too hot and he was out of practice.

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“Here, fill these up, will you?” said Mitchell. “That’s the tea-bag, and that’s the sugar-bag, and that’s the flour-bag.” He had taken them from the front of his shirt.

“Don’t be frightened to stretch ’em a little, old man. I’ve got two mates to feed.”

The cook took the bags mechanically and filled them well before he knew what he was doing. Mitchell talked all the time.

“Thank you,” said he–“got a bit of baking-powder?”

“Ye-yes, here you are.”

“Thank you. Find it dull here, don’t you?”

“Well, yes, pretty dull. There’s a bit of cooked beef and some bread and cake there, if you want it!”

“Thanks,” said Mitchell, sweeping the broken victuals into an old pillow-slip which he carried on his person for such an emergency. “I s’pose you find it dull round here.”

“Yes, pretty dull.”

“No one to talk to much?” “No, not many.”

“Tongue gets rusty?”

“Ye–es, sometimes.”

“Well, so long, and thank yer.”

“So long,” said the cook (he nearly added “thank yer”).

“Well, good day; I’ll see you again.”

“Good day.”

Mitchell shouldered his spoil and left.

The cook scratched his head; he had a chat with the overseer afterwards, and they agreed that the traveller was a bit gone.

But Mitchell’s head wasn’t gone–not much: he had been round a bit–that was all.

[THE END]

Notes on Australianisms

Based on my own speech over the years, with some checking in the dictionaries. Not all of these are peculiar to Australian slang, but are important in Lawson’s stories, and carry overtones.

bagman: commercial traveller

Bananaland: Queensland

billabong. Based on an aboriginal word. Sometimes used for an anabranch (a bend in a river cut off by a new channel, but more often used for one that, in dry season or droughts especially, is cut off at either or both ends from the main stream. It is often just a muddy pool, and may indeed dry up completely.

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billy: quintessentially Australian. It is like (or may even be made out of) a medium-sized can, with wire handles and a lid. Used to boil water. If for tea, the leaves are added into the billy itself; the billy may be swung (‘to make the leaves settle’) or a eucalyptus twig place across the top, more ritual than pragmatic. These stories are supposedly told while the billy is suspended over the fire at night, at the end of a tramp. (Also used in want of other things, for cooking)

blackfellow (also, blackman): condescending for Australian Aboriginal

blackleg: someone who is employed to cross a union picket line to break a workers’ strike. As Molly Ivins said, she was brought up on the three great commandments: do not lie; do not steal; never cross a picket line. Also scab.

blanky or — : Fill in your own favourite word. Usually however used for “bloody”

blucher: a kind of half-boot (named after Austrian general)

blued: of a wages cheque: all spent extravagantly–and rapidly.

bluey: swag. Supposedly because blankets were mostly blue (so Lawson)

boggabri: never heard of it. It is a town in NSW: the dictionaries seem to suggest that it is a plant, which fits context. What then is a ‘tater-marrer’ (potato-marrow?). Any help?

bowyangs: ties (cord, rope, cloth) put around trouser legs below knee

bullocky: Bullock driver. A man who drove teams of bullocks yoked to wagons carrying e.g. wool bales or provisions. Proverbially rough and foul mouthed.

bush: originally referred to the low tangled scrubs of the semi-desert regions (‘mulga’ and ‘mallee’), and hence equivalent to “outback”. Now used generally for remote rural areas (“the bush”) and scrubby forest.

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bushfire: wild fires: whether forest fires or grass fires. bushman/bushwoman: someone who lives an isolated existence, far from cities, “in the bush”. (today: a “bushy”)

bushranger: an Australian “highwayman”, who lived in the ‘bush’– scrub–and attacked especially gold carrying coaches and banks. Romanticised as anti-authoritarian Robin Hood figures–cf. Ned Kelly–but usually very violent.

cheque: wages for a full season of sheep-shearing; meant to last until the next year, including a family, but often “blued’ in a ‘spree’

chyack: (chy-ike) like chaffing; to tease, mildly abuse

cocky: a farmer, esp. dairy farmers (=’cow-cockies’)

cubby-house: or cubby. Children’s playhouse (“Wendy house” is commercial form))

Darlinghurst: Sydney suburb–where the gaol was in those days

dead marine: empty beer bottle

dossing: sleeping rough or poorly (as in a “doss-house”)

doughboy: kind of dumpling

drover: one who “droves” cattle or sheep.

droving: driving on horseback cattle or sheep from where they were fattened to a a city, or later, a rail-head.

drown the miller: to add too much water to flour when cooking. Used metaphorically in story.

fossick: pick over areas for gold. Not mining as such.

half-caser: Two shillings and sixpence. As a coin, a half-crown.

half-sov.: a coin worth half a pound (sovereign)

Gladesville: Sydney suburb–site of mental hospital.

goanna: various kinds of monitor lizards. Can be quite a size.

Homebush: Saleyard, market area in Sydney

humpy: originally an aboriginal shelter (=gunyah); extended to a settler’s hut

jackaroo: (Jack + kangaroo; sometimes jackeroo)–someone, in early days a new immigrant from England, learning to work on a sheep/cattle station (U.S. “ranch”)

jumbuck: a sheep (best known from Waltzing Matilda: “where’s that jolly jumbuck, you’ve got in your tucker bag”.

larrikin: anything from a disrespectful young man to a violent member of a gang (“push”). Was considered a major social problem in Sydney of the 1880’s to 1900. The Bulletin, a magazine in which much of Lawson was published, spoke of the “aggressive, soft-hatted “stoush brigade”. Anyone today who is disrespectful of authority or convention is said to show the larrikin element in the Australian character.

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larrikiness: jocular feminine form

leather-jacket: kind of pancake (more often a fish, these days)

lucerne: cattle feed-a leguminous plant, alfalfa in US

lumper: labourer; esp. on wharves?

mallee: dwarfed eucalyptus trees growing in very poor soil and under harsh rainfall conditions. Usually many stems emerging from the ground, creating a low thicket.

Maoriland: Lawson’s name for New Zealand

marine, dead: see dead

mooching: wandering idly, not going anywhere in particular

mug: gullible person, a con-man’s ‘mark’ (potential victim)

mulga: Acacia sp. (“wattle” in Australian) especially Acacia aneura; growing in semi-desert conditions. Used as a description of such a harsh region.

mullock: the tailings left after gold has been removed. In Lawson generally mud (alluvial) rather than rock

myall: aboriginal living in a traditional–pre-conquest–manner

narked: annoyed

navvies: labourers (especially making roads, railways; originally canals, thus from ‘navigators’)

nobbler: a drink

nuggety: compact but strong physique; small but well-muscled

pannikin: metal mug

peckish: hungry–usually only mildly so. Use here is thus ironic.

poley: a dehorned cow

poddy-(calf): a calf separated from its mother but still needing milk

rouseabout: labourer in a (sheep) shearing shed. Considered to be, as far as any work is, unskilled labour.

sawney: silly, gormless

selector: small farmer who under the “Selection Act (Alienation of Land Act”, Sydney 1862 could settle on a few acres of land and farm it, with hope of buying it. As the land had been leased by “squatters” to run sheep, they were NOT popular. The land was usually pretty poor, and there was little transport to get food to market, many, many failed. (The same mistake was made after WWI– returned soldiers were given land to starve on.)

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shanty: besides common meaning of shack it refers to an unofficial (and illegal) grog-shop; in contrast to the legal ‘pub’.

spieler; con artist

sliprails: in lieu of a gate, the rails of a fence may be loosely socketed into posts, so that they may ‘let down’ (i.e. one end pushed in socket, the other end resting on the ground). See ‘A Day on a Selection’

spree: prolonged drinking bout–days, weeks.

stoush: a fight,

strike: the perhaps the Shearers’ strike in Barcaldine, Queensland, 1891 gjc]

sundowner: a swagman (see) who is NOT looking for work, but a “handout”. Lawson explains the term as referring to someone who turns up at a station at sundown, just in time for “tea” i.e. the evening meal. In view of the Great Depression of the time, these expressions of attitude are probably unfair, but the attitudes are common enough even today.

Surry Hills: Sydney inner suburb (where I live)

swagman (swaggy): Generally, anyone who is walking in the “outback” with a swag. (See “The Romance of the Swag” in Children of the Bush, also a PG Etext) Lawson also restricts it at times to those whom he considers to be tramps, not looking for work but for “handouts”. See ‘travellers’.

‘swelp: mild oath of affirmation =”so help me [God]”

travellers: “shearers and rouseabouts travelling for work” (Lawson).

whare: small Maori house–is it used here for European equivalent? Help anyone?

whipping the cat: drunk

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