State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 28 October 1981


‘A Bluff That Failed’

This is a Mitchell/Steelman1 story, which is listed amongst the “Compositions unavailable”, Colin Roderick Henry Lawson. Collected prose, vol. 2 (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1972), p.376. It was purchased by Angus and Robertson in 1898 but was returned to Lawson in 1900. and it was thought to be one of the manuscripts he destroyed while in London.
The copy of ‘A bluff that failed’ which forms part of the Lothian Papers is incomplete, lacking only half of the final page. The missing pieces, amounting to approximately ten words, are marked in the text by empty square brackets. The manuscript is undated, however Lawson generally put the date on the left hand side of the last page of his literary manuscripts, the half of the page which is missing here. In the upper right-hand corner of the first page the date 6 September 1897 has been marked in purple ink. probably the date the manuscript was received by Angus and Robertson. The manuscript of ‘A bluff that failed’ is reproduced in full here, with minor alterations to punctuation.
The Oracle, Mitchell, and I had “had a shot” at New Zealand at different times. A contemplation of the flat monotony and aweful, convict-haunted melancholy of the Swan River at sunset started us talking of Maori land by way of contrast, and we exchanged Maoriland experiences. I said that Maoriland was the best of all the colonies for a workman to hang out in.
The Oracle said, “Mebbe”.
Mitchell hitched another hook onto his line — he already had five — put on some more mullet and cast out. He was humming: “Way out along the Black Swan River” &c.
Presently he started:
∗ ∗ ∗
“It was that time I struck out from Wellington — up north. I'd done a fair perish there for I wasn't up in the politics of the country. I started up round the harbour through the Hutt Valley. I had an idea of the sawmills — something in the engine driving way — or the railway works up there. No, I didn't know anything about engine-driving, but that didn't trouble me much. You ought to know enough. Joe, about one-horse steam mills in the bush, not to interrupt me with a silly trifle like that. I reckoned that if I bluffed myself on I'd start her going and take my chance to get the hang of her excentricities before she burst.
“Maoriland scenery is grand mostly and the rivers are beautiful — They are clear and run all summer. The scenery don't seem to brood and haunt you like our bush. Its a different sort of loneliness altogether — sort of sociable new-mate kind of loneliness — and not that exactly. I can't describe it. But there was something wanting and I soon fixed on it. You see, they don't understand travelling and mateship round there — they're not used to it. A swagman is a tramp with them — same as in the old coastal district of N.S.W. One place I asked for tucker the girls got awfully excited and rushed round and made a fuss as if I was going to die of starvation on the premises before they could boil enough eggs. One little golden-haired fairy kept peeping at me round the corners, to see if my plate or cup were empty yet, all the time, with her great blue eyes swimming in tears — just as if I was a run-over poodle. It didn't make one feel cheerful. I wasn't used to it.
“But that was on another track, afterwards where they were all Scotch and Scandies (Norweigans), and I had a pound or two and a programme then.
“And most of the chaps on the Hutt Valley track seemed puzzled and hurt when I asked them for a pipe of tobacco. You're often inclined to feel hurt and indignant over being puzzled that way. I think I met more men who didn't smoke or had just cut up their last pipe full than I ever did on any other track.
“It was only ignorance. The new system of education in Maoriland will do a lot towards altering all that — and the democratic legislation too. I believe in female suffarage.”
“Jes-so”, observed the Oracle simply, as he tenderly drew in his line.
Mitchell looked at him hard, seemed satisfied and continued.
“It came on to rain. I felt lonely and discouraged and dismal, but I thought out a plan. The call was desparate and the only chance seemed to be to write to an old mate of mine in Sydney and get him to wire a pound or two through the bank. He'd made me promise to wire if I got stumped, but I'd left it too late, and wires cost money. I had no swag only a small portmanteau.
“Fancy me tramping with a portmanteau!” and Mitchell grinned dolefully at the recollection. “If I could only hang out for a week I'd be alright. I had a couple of bob, a decent suit that I'd bought to go over, and a clean collar, so I decided to work a swindle, and planned it out.
“I was never any good at swindles or practical jokes. Some chaps can do anything and come out alright, but I couldn't. If I struck a match against a house like as not an old woman would fly out and accuse me of attempted arson. It was always the way. But I had a good long think and decided to chance it this time.
“I fixed up, under a bridge, and tried the first pub outside Petone. It was a small two story affair. I put my portmanteau down in the passage and asked for the landlord.
“He was a big good looking fellow with brown eyes, a bit reddish, a drooping black moustache and sad expression at times — like a successful poet.”
The Oracle seemed impressed. He was going to remark, but he was too slow.
“I asked him if he could put me up for a day or two and he said he thought he could. I mentioned that I was on a bit of a walking tour, and left him to guess whether I was a writer or something in the scientific line or only a stray Johnny tourist. Its always best to leave something to people's imagination.
“It was on a walking tour sure enough. I started that walking tour fifteen years ago and I'm getting tired of it.
“He showed me a room with two beds.
“‘I'd rather have a single room, if possible,’ I said. ‘I've got some writing to do and wish to be quiet.
“He showed me another room and said he'd get the girl to fix it up and put a table in it if I wished, and the parlour was at my disposal, nobody went there. He was very civil.
“I said I would like a fire in the room later on and the sheets aired as I suffered a bit from chronic influenza. He said certainly, he would send the girl to see about it at once. He'd have the bath heated presently if I liked to wait — the water was rather chilly.
“He came down again. He asked me what I'd have to drink and advised hot rum. He enquired if I was going north, and I said I didn't know: I might go on to Napier and take the boat to Auckland or round by Wanganui — or perhaps I'd go back to Wellington by rail. It all depended.
“He served out the rum and started to polish a glass: looking as if he was thinking up some lines for a poem.
“‘By the way,’ I said with a hitch towards my pocket. ‘I don't know whether you want payment in advance or —’
“‘Well,’ he said, slowly, ‘I do generally make it a rule. But I dont think I will this time.”
“I didn't know how to take it for the moment. I remember once asking a selector's wife if she'd oblige me with some meat, and she said ‘Yes of course I will!’ in a tone that might have meant I'll give you the farm, if you like’. It took me back a bit, and I wasn't ready for her. But it was only her way.
“Presently the landlord asked in a new tone of voice:
“‘Is there any more I can do for you?’
“I looked him hard for a minute then I said:
“‘Yes, boss, you might lend me a pipe of tobacco. I havn't had a smoke since morning’.
“He cut a stick of ‘Juno’ in two and gave me half.
“He went on polishing the glasses and watching the rain while I filled my pipe.
“‘Miserable weather’, he said after a while, ‘sets a man thinking of old things. Have you got a mate outside?
“‘No,’ I answered. ‘Wish I had.’
“‘Come from the otherside?’
“‘Yes, N.S.W.’
“‘I was thinking of taking a run over there someday. Tea's ready. You'd better come and have a feed.’
“We yarned and smoked and played cards up till twelve oclock. He was very much interested about Australia and a first class hand at telling yarns. I could have listened to him all night. He never said a word about tourists.
When we got sleepy he asked:
“‘Are you looking for a graft?
“‘What can you do?’
“‘Any bush work.’
“‘Think you could loaf round a sawmill till pay day, without getting the sack?’
“‘I think so.’
“‘Well I think I can get you on in the morning. You can camp in any of those beds upstairs.’
“After breakfast he said: ‘You go over to the saw pit. I'll show you the way. Ask for old Hesler. Tell him Steelman sent you.’
“When he put me on the track he said
“‘Wait a minute. I'll give you a point. He's a rough one to work for, and the chaps there are more frightened of him than they are of the devil. They're a soft lot. Now, if he starts cutting up rough with you, just open fire on him and curse him till your out of breath; then shut up and go on with your work and you'll be alright. See you at dinner time.’
“I got along alright with Hesler. I stayed on a couple of months and when I knocked off Steelman made me spell at his place for a week.
“He seemed sorry when I went and was more than half inclined to sling the pub and come on the track with me.
“‘Look here Jack’, he said when I was leaving, ‘never offer to tip or pay in advance, and never do it, especially when you haven't too much stuff. If people ask you to pay in advance it shows that they think you might be a swindler; if you offer to do it it shows that you think they think you might be a swindler. You run the risk of misjudging people and besides it's an insult. Never misjudge people. And besides the majority of people lose all interest in a man's comfort and a good deal of [] had for him the []
“[] studied.”


In the 1890’s Lawson wrote a series of stories and sketches based loosely around the two characters of Mitchell and Steelman. For these stories see Colin Roderick, Henry Lawson. Collected prose, vol. 1 (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1972).