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- While the Billy Boils - 40/51 -
berth a long consumptive-looking new chum sat in his pyjamas, with his legs hanging over the edge, and his hands grasping the sideboard, to which, on his right hand, a sort of tin-can arrangement was hooked. He was staring intently at nothing, and seemed to be thinking very hard.
We dozed off again, and woke suddenly to find our eyes wide open, and the young Swiss still studying, and the jackaroo still sitting in the same position, but with a kind of waiting expression on his face--a sort of expectant light in his eyes. Suddenly he lurched for the can, and after awhile he lay back looking like a corpse.
We slept again, and finally awoke to daylight and the clatter of plates. All the bunks were vacated except two, which contained corpses, apparently.
Wet decks, and a round, stiff, morning breeze, blowing strongly across the deck, abeam, and gustily through the open portholes. There was a dull grey sky, and the sea at first sight seemed to be of a dark blue or green, but on closer inspection it took a dirty slate colour, with splashes as of indigo in the hollows. There was one of those near, yet far-away horizons.
About two-thirds of the men were on deck, but the women had not shown up yet--nor did they show up until towards the end of the trip.
Some of the men were smoking in a sheltered corner, some walking up and down, two or three trying to play quoits, one looking at the poultry, one standing abaft the purser's cabin with hands in the pockets of his long ragged overcoat, watching the engines, and two more--carpenters--were discussing a big cedar log, about five feet in diameter, which was lashed on deck alongside the hatch.
While we were waiting for the _Oroya_ some of the ship's officers came and had a consultation over this log and called up part of the crew, who got some more ropes and a chain on to it. It struck us at the time that that log would make a sensation if it fetched loose in rough weather. But there wasn't any rough weather.
The fore-cabin was kept clean; the assistant steward was good-humoured and obliging; his chief was civil enough to freeze the Never-Never country; but the bill of fare was monotonous.
During the afternoon a first-salooner made himself obnoxious by swelling round for'ard. He was a big bull-necked "Britisher" (that word covers it) with a bloated face, prominent gooseberry eyes, fore 'n' aft cap, and long tan shoes. He seemed as if he'd come to see a "zoo," and was dissatisfied with it--had a fine contempt for it, in fact, because it did not come up to other zoological gardens that he had seen in London, and on the _aw_--continong and in the--_aw_-er-- _aw_--the States, dontcherknow. The fellows reckoned that he ought to be "took down a peg" (dontcherknow) and the sandy-complexioned comedian said he'd do it. So he stepped softly up to the swell, tapped him lightly on the shoulder, and pointed aft--holding his arm out like a pump handle and his forefinger rigid.
The Britisher's face was a study; it was blank at first and then it went all colours, and wore, in succession, every possible expression except a pleasant one. He seemed bursting with indignation, but he did not speak--could not, perhaps; and, as soon as he could detach his feet from the spot to which they had been nailed in the first place by astonishment, he stalked aft. He did not come to see the zoo any more.
The fellows in the fore-cabin that evening were growling about the bad quality of the grub supplied.
Then the shearer's volcano showed signs of activity. He shifted round, spat impatiently, and said:
"You chaps don't know what yer talkin' about. You want something to grumble about. You should have been out with me last year on the Paroo in Noo South Wales. The meat we got there was so bad that it uster travel!"
"Yes! travel! take the track! go on the wallaby! The cockies over there used to hang the meat up on the branches of the trees, and just shake it whenever they wanted to feed the fowls. And the water was so bad that half a pound of tea in the billy wouldn't make no impression on the colour--nor the taste. The further west we went the worse our meat got, till at last we had to carry a dog-chain to chain it up at night. Then it got worse and broke the chain, and then we had to train the blessed dogs to shepherd it and bring it back. But we fell in with another chap with a bad old dog--a downright knowing, thieving, old hard-case of a dog; and this dog led our dogs astray---demoralized them--corrupted their morals--and so one morning they came home with the blooming meat inside them, instead of outside--and we had to go hungry for breakfast."
"You'd better turn in, gentlemen. I'm going to turn off the light," said the steward.
The yarn reminded the Sydney man of a dog he had, and he started some dog lies.
"This dog of mine," he said, "knowed the way into the best public-houses. If I came to a strange town and wanted a good drink, I'd only have to say, 'Jack, I'm dry,' and he'd lead me all right. He always knew the side entrances and private doors after hours, and I--"
But the yarn did not go very well--it fell flat in fact. Then the commercial traveller was taken bad with an anecdote. "That's nothing," he said, "I had a black bag once that knew the way into public-houses."
"Yes. A black bag. A long black bag like that one I've got there in my bunk. I was staying at a boarding-house in Sydney, and one of us used to go out every night for a couple of bottles of beer, and we carried the bottles in the bag; and when we got opposite the pub the front end of the bag would begin to swing round towards the door. It was wonderful. It was just as if there was a lump of steel in the end of the bag and a magnet in the bar. We tried it with ever so many people, but it always acted the same. We couldn't use that bag for any other purpose, for if we carried it along the street it would make our wrists ache trying to go into pubs. It twisted my wrist one time, and it ain't got right since--I always feel the pain in dull weather. Well, one night we got yarning and didn't notice how the time was going, and forgot to go for the beer till it was nearly too late. We looked for the bag and couldn't find it--we generally kept it under a side-table, but it wasn't there, and before we were done looking, eleven o'clock went. We sat down round the fire, feeling pretty thirsty, and were just thinking about turning in when we heard a thump on the table behind us. We looked round, and there was that bag with two full bottles of English ale in it.
"Then I remembered that I'd left a bob in the bottom of the bag, and---"
The steward turned off the electric light.
There were some hundreds of cases of oranges stacked on deck, and made fast with matting and cordage to the bulwarks. That night was very dark, and next morning there was a row. The captain said he'd "give any man three months that he caught at those oranges."
"Wot, yer givin' us?" said a shearer. "We don't know anything about yer bloomin' oranges....I seen one of the saloon passengers moochin' round for'ard last night. You'd better search the saloon for your blarsted oranges, an' don't come round tacklin' the wrong men."
It was not necessary to search our quarters, for the "offside" steward was sweeping orange peel out of the steerage for three days thereafter.
And that night, just as we were about to fall asleep, a round, good-humoured face loomed over the edge of the shelf above and a small, twinkling, grey eye winked at us. Then a hand came over, gave a jerk, and something fell on our nose. It was an orange. We sent a "thank you" up through the boards and commenced hurriedly and furtively to stow away the orange. But the comedian had an axe to grind--most people have--wanted to drop his peel alongside our berth; and it made us uneasy because we did not want circumstantial evidence lying round us if the captain chanced to come down to inquire. The next man to us had a barney with the man above him about the same thing. Then the peel was scattered round pretty fairly, or thrown into an empty bunk, and no man dared growl lest he should come to be regarded as a blackleg--a would-be informer.
The men opposite the door kept a look out; and two Australian jokers sat in the top end berth with their legs hanging over and swinging contentedly, and the porthole open ready for a swift and easy disposal of circumstantial evidence on the first alarm. They were eating a pineapple which they had sliced and extracted in sections from a crate up on deck. They looked so chummy, and so school-boyishly happy and contented, that they reminded us of the days long ago, when we were so high.
The chaps had talk about those oranges on deck next day. The commercial traveller said we had a right to the oranges, because the company didn't give us enough to eat. He said that we were already suffering from insufficient proper nourishment, and he'd tell the doctor so if the doctor came on board at Auckland. Anyway, it was no sin to rob a company.
"But then," said our comedian, "those oranges, perhaps, were sent over by a poor, struggling orange grower, with a wife and family to keep, and he'll have to bear the loss, and a few bob might make a lot of difference to him. It ain't right to rob a poor man."
This made us feel doubtful and mean, and one or two got uncomfortable and shifted round uneasily. But presently the traveller came to the rescue. He said that no doubt the oranges belonged to a middleman, and the middleman was the curse of the country. We felt better.
Towards the end of the trip the women began to turn up. There were five grass widows, and every female of them had a baby. The Australian marries young and poor; and, when he can live no longer in his native land, he sells the furniture, buys a steerage ticket to New Zealand or Western Australia, and leaves his wife with her relatives or friends until he earns enough money to send for her. Four of our women were girl-wives, and mostly pretty. One little handful of a thing had a fine baby boy, nearly as big as herself, and she looked so fragile and pale, and pretty and lonely, and had such an appealing light in her big shadowed brown eyes, and such a pathetic droop at the corners of her sweet little mouth, that you longed to take her in your
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