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Across The Straits
by [?]

The first thing that struck us was the jagged top edge of that iron hood-like arrangement over the gangway. The top half only of the scuttle was open. There was nothing to be seen except a fog of spray and a Newfoundland dog sea-sick under the lee of something. The next thing that struck us was a tub of salt water, which came like a cannon ball and broke against the hood affair, and spattered on deck like a crockery shop. We climbed down again backwards, and sat on the floor with emphasis, in consequence of stepping down a last step that wasn’t there, and cracked the back of our heads against the edge of the table. The Maori helped us up, and we had a drink with him at the expense of one of the half-casers mentioned in the beginning of this sketch. Then the Maori shouted, then we, then the Maori again, then we again; and then we thought, “Dash it, what’s a half-sovereign? We’ll fall on our feet all right.”

We went up Queen Charlotte’s Sound, a long crooked arm of the sea between big, rugged, black-looking hills. There was a sort of lighthouse down near the entrance, and they said an old Maori woman kept it. There were some whitish things on the sides of the hills, which we at first took for cattle, and then for goats. They were sheep. Someone said that that country was only fit to carry sheep. It must have been bad, then, judging from some of the country in Australia which is only fit to carry sheep. Country that wouldn’t carry goats would carry sheep, we think. Sheep are about the hardiest animals on the face of this planet–barring crocodiles.

You may rip a sheep open whilst watching for the boss’s boots or yarning to a pen-mate, and then when you have stuffed the works back into the animal, and put a stitch in the slit, and poked it somewhere with a tar-stick (it doesn’t matter much where) the jumbuck will be all right and just as lively as ever, and turn up next shearing without the ghost of a scratch on its skin.

We reached Picton, a small collection of twinkling lights in a dark pocket, apparently at the top of a sound. We climbed up on to the wharf, got through between two railway trucks, and asked a policeman where we were, and where the telegraph office was. There were several pretty girls in the office, laughing and chyacking the counter clerks, which jarred upon the feelings of this poor orphan wanderer in strange lands. We gloomily took a telegram form, and wired to a friend in North Island, using the following words: “Wire quid; stumped.”

Then we crossed the street to a pub and asked for a roof and they told us to go up to No. 8. We went up, struck a match, lit the candle, put our bag in a corner, cleared the looking-glass off the toilet table, got some paper and a pencil out of our portmanteau, and sat down and wrote this sketch.

The candle is going out.


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.

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)