The Shanty-Keeper's Wife
by Henry Lawson (1867-1922)
. . . the story ends with . . .
"I say, Mister – Mister man,” said the Joker suddenly to the driver, “Was his missus sick at all?”
“See here,” said the cannibalistic individual to the driver, in the tone of a man who has made up his mind for a row, “has that shanty-keeper got a wife at all?”
“I believe he has.”
“And is she living with him?”
“No, she ain’t – if yer wanter know.”
“Then where is she?”
“I dunno. How am I to know? She left him three or four years ago. She was in Sydney last time I heard of her. It ain’t no affair of mine, anyways.”
“And is there any woman about the place at all, driver?” inquired a professional wanderer reflectively.
“No – not that I knows on. There useter be a old black gin come pottering round sometimes, but I ain’t seen her lately.”
“And excuse me, driver, but is there anyone round there at all?” enquired the professional wanderer, with the air of a conscientious writer, collecting material for an Australian novel from life, with an eye to detail.
“Naw,” said the driver – and recollecting that he was expected to be civil and obliging to his employers’ patrons, he added in surly apology, “Only the boss and the stableman, that I knows of.” Then repenting of the apology, he asserted his manhood again, and asked, in a tone calculated to risk a breach of the peace, “Any more questions, gentlemen – while the shop’s open?”
There was a long pause.
“Driver,” asked the Pilgrim appealingly, “was them horses lost at all?”
“I dunno,” said the driver. “He said they was. He’s got the looking after them. It was nothing to do with me.”
“Twelve drinks at sixpence a drink” – said the Joker, as if calculating to himself – “that’s six bob, and, say on an average, four shouts – that’s one pound four. Twelve beds at eighteen pence a bed – that’s eighteen shillings; and say ten bob in various drinks and the stuff we brought with us, that’s two pound twelve. That publican didn’t do so bad out of us in two hours.”
We wondered how much the driver got out of it, but thought it best not to ask him.
We didn’t say much for the rest of the journey. There was the usual man who thought as much and knew all about it from the first, but he wasn’t appreciated. We suppressed him. One or two wanted to go back and “stoush” that landlord, and the driver stopped the coach cheerfully at their request; but they said they’d come across him again and allowed themselves to be persuaded out of it. It made us feel bad to think how we had allowed ourselves to be delayed, and robbed, and had sneaked round on tiptoe, and how we had sat on the inoffensive Pilgrim and his mate, and all on account of a sick wife who didn’t exist.
The coach arrived at Dead Camel in an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and distrust, and we spread ourselves over the train and departed.