State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 70 Spring 2002


Notes on ‘A Child in the Dark and a Foreign Father

This handwritten manuscript of 47 pages was apparently retrieved from the Bulletin by Lawson some time after the story was published in that journal on 13 December 1902 under the title ‘A Child in the Dark.—A Bush Sketch'. It has corrections in ink and also in pencil, all apparently by Lawson; some made while he was writing out the copy and others made subsequently. Of particular interest is the fact that in the original copy only the father was named, with spaces left for the other names, which were pencilled in later.. The book title Jane Eyre was struck out in ink, and replaced by Ardath written in pencil. Ardath was the title of a novel by the popular English novelist Marie Corelli, whom Lawson did not take seriously as a writer.
The Bulletin editor cut the story severely, deleting the passages which are printed here in bold type. These passages were not restored when the story was collected in book form in Triangles of Life, which Lothian published in 1913. In making the deletions the Bulletin editor reduced the importance of the father in the narrative.
As in ‘A Foreign Father', the father in the story is recognizably Nils Larsen, and the story may be drawn from the same manuscript source. In a letter to T.C. Lothian, March 1907, Lawson said that ‘A Child in the Dark’ had been begun in England as a novel. However, it is not an excerpt, and the state of the manuscript indicates that Lawson was not simply copying from another text.

A Child in the Dark and a Foreign Father
By Henry Lawson

New Year's Eve. A hot night in midsummer in the drought. It was so dark—with a smothering darkness—that even the low loom of the scrub-covered ridges, close at hand across the creek, was not to be seen. The sky was not clouded with droug for rain, but with drought haze and the smoke of distant bush fires.
Down the hard road to the crossing at Pipelay Creek {sounded} the footsteps of a man. Not the crunching steps of an English laborer, clod-hopping contentedly home. These sounded more like the steps footsteps of a man one pacing steadily to and fro, and thinking steadily and hopelessly—sorting out the past. Only the steps went on. A glimmer of white moleskin trousers and a suggestion of light coloured tweed jacket, now and again, as if in the glimmer of a faint ghost light in the darkness.
It was so dark that he stumbled twice in crossing the creek, once in the new and unfamiliar cutting which reduced the grade, and once in the dry bed of the crossing. He stooped down to see if he could ‘sky’ the banks of the opposite cutting, and, failing in that, he fairly groped his way up to the level road beyond. And the steps went on, sounding like the steps of a man walking to and fro in the darkness, but tramping out an old and hopeless {Track} bravely and steadily — or doggedly.
The road ran along by the foot of a line of low ridges, and or spurs, and, as he passed the gullies or gaps, he felt a breath of hotter air, like blasts from a furnace in the suffocating atmosphere. He followed a two-railed fence for a short distance and turned in at a white, batten gate. It seemed lighter now. There was a house, or, rather, a hut suggested, with whitewashed slabe walls and a bark roof. He walked quietly round to the door of a detatched kitchen, opened it softly, went in, and struck a match. A candle stood, stuck in a blot of its own greaee, on one end of the dresser. He lit the candle and looked round.
He was a short man, stout but by no means ‘heavy'; ‘nuggety and well formed and light on his feet which were small — a man who might have been a ‘dapper', or ‘smart little fellow’ in his young days. He had a square, high forehead, whi very white above the hat mark, and with a short deep vertical ‘knit’ or dint, as of pain, between the eyes. His eyes were blue and naturally mild, his {nose intelligent}: and his lower face was covered with a short red beard, growing grey, which might have hidden a senual or even cruel {the} mouth. His square hands were scarred and ridged and horny and the nails twisted and broken with hard work. His hair was brown and straight and thick — the sort that grows white grey before it begins to fall out. His type was a good type of Scandinavian.
The walls of the kitchen were of split slabs, the roof box bark, the floor clay, and there was a large, clay-lined fireplace, the sides a dirty brown, and the back black, which {It} had frankly {evidently} never been whitewashed. There was a bed of about

Top and left: Henry Lawson, pages from handwritten manuscript of ‘A Child in the Dark'.

three a week's ashes, and above it, suspended by a blackened hook & chain from a grimy crossbar, hung a black bucket full of warm water. He {The man} got a fork, explored the bucket, and found what he expected: a piece of raw corned beef in water water which had gone off the boil before the meat had been heated through.
He looked round. The kitchen was furnished with a pine table, a well-made flour bin, and a neat safe and side-board, or dresser—evidently the work of a carpenter. The top of the [cancelled] safe was dirty—covered with crumbs and grease and tea stains. On one corner lay a school exercise book with a stone ink-bottle and a pen beside it. The book was open at a page written in the form of verse, in a woman's hand, and headed:
He took the edges of the book between his fingers and thumbs, and made to tear it, but, the cover being tough, and resiting the first savage tug, he altered his mind and put the book down. Then he turned to the table. There was a jumble of dirty crockery on one end, and, on the other, set on a sheet of dirty newspaper, the remains of a meal—a junk of badly-hacked bread, a basin of dripping with the fat over the edges, and a tin of treacle. The treacle had run down the sides of the tin, onto the paper. Knives, heavy with treacle, lay glued to the paper. {There was a dish with some water a rag and a cup or two in it, evidently an attempt to wash up.}
He{The man} took up a cup and pressed it hard between his palms until it broke. Then he felt relieved. He looked down mistily at the pieces on the table before him, and presently it seemed to him that two pieces, lying together, resembled a broken heart. He gathered the fragments in one hand, took the candle, and stumbled out to where there was a dust heap. He kicked {Kicking}a hole in the ashes,{he} dropped in the bits of broken crockery, and covered them. Then his anger blazed again. He walked quickly to the back door of the house, thrust the door open, and flung in, but a childs voice said from the dark:-
“Is that you, Father? Don't tread on me father.”
The room was nearly as bare as the kitchen. There was a table, covered with cheap American oilcloth, and, on the other side a sofa on which a straw mattrass, a cloudy blanket, and a pillow without a slip had been thrown in a heap. On the floor, between the table sofa and the table, lay a boy, a child almost, on a simitar mattress — with a cover of coarse sacking — with a bundle of dirty clothes for a pillow. A pale, thin-faced, dark-eyed boy.
“What are you doing here? sonny?” asked the father.
“Mothers bad again with her head. She says to tell you to come in quiet and sleep on the sofa to night. — I started to wash up and clean up the kitchen, father, but I got sick.”
“Why, what is the matter with {you} sonny?” His voice quickened and he held the candle down to the child's face.
“On nothing much, Father. I felt sick on my stomarch, but I threw up and I feel better now.”
“Threw up?— What have you been eating?”
“Nothing that I know of — I think it was the hot weather, father.”
“Are you sure you haven't been eating any of those green quinces?”
“No Father. I'd have told you if I did. It was only the terrible heat.”
The father put the candle in one of the “ornaments” on the mantleshelfe.
Where's the lamp, or the candle-stick, sonny?” he asked.
“Oh, I broke the lamp, Father, cleaning the glass; and {Karl} put the candlestick against the fire to melt the greace off, and the top got melted off.“
The father spread the mattress, blew out the candle, and lay down in his clothes. After a while the boy began to toss restlessly.
“Oh! it's too hot, Father,” he said, “Im smothering.
The father got up, lit the candle, took a corner of the newspaper-covered “scrim” lining that screened the cracks of the slab wall, and tore it away; then he propped open the door with a chair.
“Oh! — Thats better already father!” said the boy.
The hut was three rooms long and one deep, with a verandah in front and a skillingion {harness & tool} room, about half the length, behind. The father opened the door of the next room, softly, and propped that open too. There was a sideboard in this room, a horsehair sofa, and chairs &c, but shoved aside in such [cancelled] a way that the furniture looked like lumber and rubbish. There was another boy on the sofa, younger than the first, but healthy and study sturdy-looking. He had nothing on him but a very dirty ‘shirt', a blanket patch work quilt was slipping from under him, and most of it was on the floor, the boy and the pillow were nearly off too. The father fixed him as comfortably as possible and put some chairs by the sofa to keep him from rolling off. He noticed that somebody had started to scrub this room and left it. He listened at the door of the third room for a few moments to the breathing within; then he opened it gently and went in. There was an old fashioned four-poster cedar bedstead, a chest of drawers, and a baby's cradle made out of a gin-case. The woman was fast asleep. She was a big strong and healthy looking woman, with dark hair and strong square features. There was were a plate, a knife and fork and egg shells and a cup and saucer on the top of the chest of drawers nearest the bed; also two candles, one stuck in a mustard tin, and one in a pickle bottle, and a bound copy of Jane Eyre {Ardath}.
The little girl was sleeping with her face down in one corner of the box; the father lifted her round and and fixed the pillow under her head: then he [cancelled] went out on tip-toe after prop leaving the door open for ventilation.
He stepped out [cancelled] into the skillion and lifted some harnas onto its pegs from some chaff bags in the corner. Coming in again he nearly stumbled over a bucket of half full of dirty water on the floor, with a scrubbing brush, some wet rages, and half a bar of yellow soap beside it; he put these in the bucket and carried
it out. As he passed through the first room, the delicate {sick}boy said:
“I couldn't lift the saddle of the harnas onto the peg, father. I had to [cancelled] leave the scrubbing to make some tea and cook some eggs for mother, and put {baby} to bed, and then I felt too sick to go on with the scrubbing — and I forgot about the bucket.”
“Did {the baby} have any tea sonny?”
“Yes. I made her bread and milk, and she eat {ate} a big plate full. The calves are in the pen alright and I fixed the gate. And I brought a load of wood this morning Father, before Mother got sick.”
“You should not have done that. I told you not to. I could have done that on Sunday. Now, are you sure you didn't lift a log into the cart that was too heavy for you?”
“Quite sure, Father. Oh! I'm plenty strong enough to put a load of wood on the cart.”
The father lay on his back on the sofa, with his hands behind his head, for a few minutes.
“Aren't you tired, Father?” asked the boy.
“No, sonny, not very tired; you must try and go to sleep now,” and he reached across the table for the candle and blew it out.
Presently the baby cried and in a moment the mother's voice was heard..
“Nils! — Nils! — Are you there Nils?
“Yes {EdithEmrna}.
“Then for God's sake come and take this child away before she dives drives me mad! My head's splitting!”
The father went in to the child and presently returned for a cup of water.
“She only wanted a drink,” the boy heard him say to the mother.
“Well didn't I tell you she wanted a drink? I've been laying here calling for the last half hour, with that child screaming and not a soul to come near me, and me laying here helpless all day and not a wink of sleep for two nights.”
“But {Emma} you were asleep when I came in
Hush Do be reasonable; the children will hear
“I don't care if they do! They'll know soon enough, God knows!I wish I was under
“How can you tell such infernal lies? I __ To think
I'm chained to a man who can't say a word of truth! God help me! To have to lay night after night in the same bed with a liar! —”
The child in the first room lay quaking with terror, fearing dreading one of those cruel and shameful scenes which had made a hell of his childhood, and him a poor little bundle of jumping nerves. But the father had almost given up the reins; he
had been forced to realize that it was much worse than useless to attempt to argue or reason with a women the mother. It was madness in fact
“Hush, {Emma!}” he kept saying Do be reasonable. Think of the children They'll hear us.”
“I don't care if they do. They'll know soon enough, God knows! I wish I was under the turf! &
”{Emma} do be reasonabe
“Reasonable! — I —” & &
The child was crying again. The father came back to the first room, got something from his coat pocket and took it in.
“Nils! Are you quite mad or do you want to drive me mad? Don't give that child that rattle! You must be {either} mad or bad a brute, and my nerves in this state. Haven't you got the slightest consideration for—.”
It's not a rattle, {Emma} it's a doll.”
“There you go again! Flinging your money away on rubbish that'll be on the dust-heap to-morrow and your poor wife slaving her fingernails off in this wrfor you in this wretched hole, and not a decent rag to her back. Me, your clever wife that ought to be~ & & xxx Light those candles and bring me a wet towel for my head. I must read now to try and compose my nerves if I can.”
When the father returned to the first room, the boy was sitting up in bed looking deathly white.
“Why! what's the matter, sonney?” said the father bending over him, and putting a hand to his back.
“Nothing, Father. I'll be alright dreckly {directly}. Don't you worry father.”
“Where do you feel bad sonny?”
“In my head and stomach, father; but I'll be alright d'rectly. — I've often been that way.”
In a minute or two he was worse.
Oh! — If I could only be sick, Father, I'd be alright then. Couldn't you give me something to make me sick Father?“
The father wen't to the kitchen, got some half melted butter and rolled it into balls with sugar, and brought a basin in. He made the boy swallow the lumps until he was relieved
“For God's sake Nils take that boy into the kitchen or somewhere,” cried the woman, “or I'll go mad! It's enough to turn the stomach of a horse. — Do you want to drive me into a lunatic asylum?”
“Do you feel better now sonny?” asked the father.
“Yes, [cancelled] ever so much better, Father,” said the boy, white and weak. “I'll be alright in a minute Father. I only wanted to be sick.
The father made a fire in the kitcheen, and hung a bucket of water over it. He was haunted by recollections of convulsions amongst the children while teething. He
“You had best sleep on the sofa to night, sonny; it's cooler there.”
“No Father, I'd rather stay here; it's much cooler now.”
The father fixed the bed as comfortably as he could, and, in spite of the boys protest, put his own pillow under his head. Then he made a fire in the kitchen and hung the kettle and a big billy of water over it. He was haunted by recollections of convulsions amongst the children while they were teething. He took off his boots and was about to {lie} down again when the mother called:
“Nils! — Nils! — Have you made a fire?”
“Yes {Emma}”
“Then for God's sake make me a cup of tea; I must have it after all this.”
He hurried up the kettle — she calling every few minutes to know if “that kettle was boiling yet”— and he took her a cup of tea, and then a second, at her reques earnest request. She said the tea was slush, and as sweet as syrup, and called for more, and hot water.
“How do you feel now sonny?” he asked, as he lay down on the sofa once more.
“Much better, father. You can put out the light now if you like.”
The father blew out the candle, and settled back again, still dressed save for his coat, and presently the small, weak hand sought the hard, strong, horny, knotted one, as was the and so they lay, as was customary with them. After a while the father leaned over a little and whispered:
“Asleep, sonny?”
“No, Father.”
What are you thinking about, sonny
“Feel sick again?”
“No Father.”
What are you thinking abo
“What are you thinking about, sonny?”
“Nothing, Father”
“But what is it? What are you worrying about? tell me.”
“Nothing Father, only—it'll be a good while yet before I grow up to be a man, won't it, Father?”
The father lay silent and troubled for a few moments.
“Why do you ask me that question tonight, sonny? I thought you'd done with all that. You were always asking me that question when you were a child. You're getting too old for those foolish fancies now. Why have you always had such a horror of growing up to be a man?”
“I don't know, father. I always had funny thoughts—you know, Father. I used to think that I'd been a child once before, and grew up to be a man, and grew old and died.”
“You're not well , so tonight, sonny—that's what the matter is. You're queer (sick) sonny — {it's a touch of sun}—that's all. Now try to go to sleep. You'll grow up to be a man in spite of laying and awake worrying about it. If you do you'll be a man all the sooner.”
Suddenly the mother called out:
“Can't you he quiet? What do you mean by talking at this hour of the night? Aint I to get a win Am I ever to get another wink of sleep? Shut those doors, Nils, for God's sake, if you don't want to drive me mad — and make that boy hold his tongue!”
The father dosed the doors.
“Better try to go to sleep now, sonny,” he whispered, as he lay down again.
“Father!” whispered the boy “What makes mother so unhappy? What makes her always like this? _she wasn't always the same, was she?”
“You'll know, someday, sonny. Now try to go to sleep.”
The father waited for some time, then, moving very softly, he lit the candle at the kitchen fire, put it where it shouldn't light the boy's face, and watched him. And the child knew he was watching him, and pretended to sleep, and, so pretending, he slept. And the old year died as many old years had died.
The fattier was up at about four o'clock—he worked at his trade in a farming town about five miles away, and was struggling to make a farm and a home between jobs. He cooked bacon for breakfast, washed up the dishes and tidied the kitchen, gave the boys some bread and bacon fat, of which they were very fond, and told the eldest to have take a cup of tea and some bread and milk to his mother and the baby when they woke.
The boy milked the three cows, set the milk, and heard his mother calling
“Yes Mother.”
“Why didnt you answer when I called you? I've been calling here for the last three hours. Is your father gone
“Yes, mother.”
“Thank God! It's a relief to be rid of his everlasting growling for a day or two. Bring me a cup of tea and the Australian Journal, and take this child out and dress her; she should have been up hours ago. And so the New Year commenced.
Henry Lawson
Syd.Oct. 1902