An Incident at Stiffner’s by Henry Lawson (1867-1922)
An Incident at Stiffner’s
They called him “Stiffner” because he used, long before, to get a living by poisoning wild dogs near the Queensland border. The name stuck to him closer than misfortune did, for when he rose to the proud and independent position of landlord and sole proprietor of an out-back pub he was Stiffner still, and his place was “Stiffner’s” — widely known.
They do say that the name ceased not to be applicable — that it fitted even better than in the old dingo days, but — well, they do say so. All we can say is that when a shearer arrived with a cheque, and had a drink or two, he was almost invariably seized with a desire to camp on the premises for good, spend his cheque in the shortest possible time, and forcibly shout for everything within hail — including the Chinaman cook and Stiffner’s disreputable old ram.
The shanty was of the usual kind, and the scenery is as easily disposed of. There was a great grey plain stretching away from the door in front, and a mulga scrub from the rear; and in that scrub, not fifty yards from the kitchen door, were half a dozen nameless graves.
Stiffner was always drunk, and Stiffner’s wife — a hard-featured Amazon — was boss. The children were brought up in a detached cottage, under the care of a “governess”.
Stiffner had a barmaid as a bait for chequemen. She came from Sydney, they said, and her name was Alice. She was tall, boyishly handsome, and characterless; her figure might be described as “fine” or “strapping”, but her face was very cold — nearly colourless. She was one of those selfishly sensual women — thin lips, and hard, almost vacant grey eyes; no thought of anything but her own pleasures, none for the man’s. Some shearers would roughly call her “a squatter’s girl”. But she “drew”; she was handsome where women are scarce — very handsome, thought a tall, melancholy-looking jackeroo, whose evil spirit had drawn him to Stiffner’s and the last shilling out of his pocket.
Over the great grey plain, about a fortnight before, had come “Old Danny”, a station hand, for his semi-annual spree, and one “Yankee Jack” and his mate, shearers with horses, travelling for grass; and, about a week later, the Sydney jackeroo. There was also a sprinkling of assorted swagmen, who came in through the scrub and went out across the plain, or came in over the plain and went away through the scrub, according to which way their noses led them for the time being.
There was also, for one day, a tall, freckled native (son of a neighbouring “cocky”), without a thought beyond the narrow horizon within which he lived. He had a very big opinion of himself in a very small mind. He swaggered into the breakfast-room and round the table to his place with an expression of ignorant contempt on his phiz, his snub nose in the air and his under lip out. But during the meal he condescended to ask the landlord if he’d noticed that there horse that chap was ridin’ yesterday; and Stiffner having intimated that he had, the native entertained the company with his opinion of that horse, and of a certain “youngster” he was breaking in at home, and divers other horses, mostly his or his father’s, and of a certain cattle slut, &c. . . . He spoke at the landlord, but to the company, most of the time. After breakfast he swaggered round some more, but condescended to “shove” his hand into his trousers, “pull” out a “bob” and “chuck” it into the (blanky) hat for a pool. Those words express the thing better than any others we can think of. Finally, he said he must be off; and, there being no opposition to his departure, he chucked his saddle on to his horse, chucked himself into the saddle, said “s’long,” and slithered off. And no one missed him.
Danny had been there a fortnight, and consequently his personal appearance was not now worth describing — it was better left alone, for the honour of the bush. His hobby was that he was the “stranger’s friend”, as he put it. He’d welcome “the stranger” and chum with him, and shout for him to an unlimited extent, and sympathise with him, hear of jobs or a “show” for him, assure him twenty times a day that he was his friend, give him hints and advice more or less worthless, make him drunk if possible, and keep him so while the cheque lasted; in short, Danny would do almost anything for the stranger except lend him a shilling, or give him some rations to carry him on. He’d promise that many times a day, but he’d sooner spend five pounds on drink for a man than give him a farthing.
Danny’s cheque was nearly gone, and it was time he was gone too; in fact, he had received, and was still receiving, various hints to that effect, some of them decidedly pointed, especially the more recent ones. But Danny was of late becoming foolishly obstinate in his sprees, and less disposed to “git” when a landlord had done with him. He saw the hints plainly enough, but had evidently made up his mind to be doggedly irresponsive. It is a mistake to think that drink always dulls a man’s feelings. Some natures are all the more keenly sensitive when alcoholically poisoned.
Danny was always front man at the shanty while his cheque was fresh — at least, so he was given to understand, and so he apparently understood. He was then allowed to say and do what he liked almost, even to mauling the barmaid about. There was scarcely any limit to the free and easy manner in which you could treat her, so long as your money lasted. She wouldn’t be offended; it wasn’t business to be so — “didn’t pay.” But, as soon as your title to the cheque could be decently shelved, you had to treat her like a lady. Danny knew this — none better; but he had been treated with too much latitude, and rushed to his destruction.
It was Sunday afternoon, but that made no difference in things at the shanty. Dinner was just over. The men were in the mean little parlour off the bar, interested in a game of cards, and Alice sat in one corner sewing. Danny was “acting the goat” round the fireplace; as ill-luck would have it, his attention was drawn to a basket of clean linen which stood on the side table, and from it, with sundry winks and grimaces, he gingerly lifted a certain garment of ladies’ underwear — to put the matter decently. He held it up between his forefingers and thumbs, and cracked a rough, foolish joke — no matter what it was. The laugh didn’t last long. Alice sprang to her feet, flinging her work aside, and struck a stage attitude — her right arm thrown out and the forefinger pointing rigidly, and rather crookedly, towards the door.
“Leave the room!” she snapped at Danny. “Leave the room! How dare you talk like that before me-e-ee!”
Danny made a step and paused irresolutely. He was sober enough to feel the humiliation of his position, and having once been a man of spirit, and having still the remnants of manhood about him, he did feel it. He gave one pitiful, appealing look at her face, but saw no mercy there. She stamped her foot again, jabbed her forefinger at the door, and said, “Go-o-o!” in a tone that startled the majority of the company nearly as much as it did Danny. Then Yankee Jack threw down his cards, rose from the table, laid his strong, shapely right hand — not roughly — on Danny’s ragged shoulder, and engineered the drunk gently through the door.
“You’s better go out for a while, Danny,” he said; “there wasn’t much harm in what you said, but your cheque’s gone, and that makes all the difference. It’s time you went back to the station. You’ve got to be careful what you say now.”
When Jack returned to the parlour the barmaid had a smile for him; but he didn’t take it. He went and stood before the fire, with his foot resting on the fender and his elbow on the mantelshelf, and looked blackly at a print against the wall before his face.
“The old beast!” said Alice, referring to Danny. “He ought to be kicked off the place!”
“HE’S AS GOOD AS YOU!”
The voice was Jack’s; he flung the stab over his shoulder, and with it a look that carried all the contempt he felt.
She gasped, looked blankly from face to face, and witheringly at the back of Jack’s head; but that didn’t change colour or curl the least trifle less closely.
“Did you hear that?” she cried, appealing to anyone. “You’re a nice lot o’ men, you are, to sit there and hear a woman insulted, and not one of you man enough to take her part — cowards!”
The Sydney jackeroo rose impulsively, but Jack glanced at him, and he sat down again. She covered her face with her hands and ran hysterically to her room.
That afternoon another bushman arrived with a cheque, and shouted five times running at a pound a shout, and at intervals during the rest of the day when they weren’t fighting or gambling.
Alice had “got over her temper” seemingly, and was even kind to the humble and contrite Danny, who became painfully particular with his “Thanky, Alice” — and afterwards offensive with his unnecessarily frequent threats to smash the first man who insulted her.
But let us draw the curtain close before that Sunday afternoon at Stiffner’s, and hold it tight. Behind it the great curse of the West is in evidence, the chief trouble of unionism — drink, in its most selfish, barren, and useless form.
. . . . .
All was quiet at Stiffner’s. It was after midnight, and Stiffner lay dead-drunk on the broad of his back on the long moonlit verandah, with all his patrons asleep around him in various grotesque positions. Stiffner’s ragged grey head was on a cushion, and a broad maudlin smile on his red, drink-sodden face, the lower half of which was bordered by a dirty grey beard, like that of a frilled lizard. The red handkerchief twisted round his neck had a ghastly effect in the bright moonlight, making him look as if his throat was cut. The smile was the one he went to sleep with when his wife slipped the cushion under his head and thoughtfully removed the loose change from about his person. Near him lay a heap that was Danny, and spread over the bare boards were the others, some with heads pillowed on their swags, and every man about as drunk as his neighbour. Yankee Jack lay across the door of the barmaid’s bedroom, with one arm bent under his head, the other lying limp on the doorstep, his handsome face turned out to the bright moonlight. The “family” were sound asleep in the detached cottage, and Alice — the only capable person on the premises — was left to put out the lamps and “shut up” for the night. She extinguished the light in the bar, came out, locked the door, and picked her way among and over the drunkards to the end of the verandah. She clasped her hands behind her head, stretched herself, and yawned, and then stood for a few moments looking out into the night, which softened the ragged line of mulga to right and left, and veiled the awful horizon of that great plain with which the “traveller” commenced, or ended, the thirty-mile “dry stretch”. Then she moved towards her own door; before it she halted and stood, with folded arms, looking down at the drunken Adonis at her feet.
She breathed a long breath with a sigh in it, went round to the back, and presently returned with a buggy-cushion, which she slipped under his head — her face close to his — very close. Then she moved his arms gently off the threshold, stepped across him into her room, and locked the door behind her.
There was an uneasy movement in the heap that stood, or lay, for Danny. It stretched out, turned over, struggled to its hands and knees, and became an object. Then it crawled to the wall, against which it slowly and painfully up-ended itself, and stood blinking round for the water-bag, which hung from the verandah rafters in a line with its shapeless red nose. It staggered forward, held on by the cords, felt round the edge of the bag for the tot, and drank about a quart of water. Then it staggered back against the wall, stood for a moment muttering and passing its hand aimlessly over its poor ruined head, and finally collapsed into a shapeless rum-smelling heap and slept once more.
The jackeroo at the end of the verandah had awakened from his drunken sleep, but had not moved. He lay huddled on his side, with his head on the swag; the whole length of the verandah was before him; his eyes were wide open, but his face was in the shade. Now he rose painfully and stood on the ground outside, with his hands in his pockets, and gazed out over the open for a while. He breathed a long breath, too — with a groan in it. Then he lifted his swag quietly from the end of the floor, shouldered it, took up his water-bag and billy, and sneaked over the road, away from the place, like a thief. He struck across the plain, and tramped on, hour after hour, mile after mile, till the bright moon went down with a bright star in attendance and the other bright stars waned, and he entered the timber and tramped through it to the “cleared road”, which stretched far and wide for twenty miles before him, with ghostly little dust-clouds at short intervals ahead, where the frightened rabbits crossed it. And still he went doggedly on, with the ghastly daylight on him — like a swagman’s ghost out late. And a mongrel followed faithfully all the time unnoticed, and wondering, perhaps, at his master.
“What was yer doin’ to that girl yesterday?” asked Danny of Yankee Jack next evening, as they camped on the far side of the plain. “What was you chaps sayin’ to Alice? I heerd her cryin’ in her room last night.”
But they reckoned that he had been too drunk to hear anything except an invitation to come and have another drink; and so it passed.