The House that Was Never Built by Henry Lawson
There had been heavy rain and landslips all along the branch railway
which left the Great Western Line from Sydney just beyond the Blue
Mountains, and ran through thick bush and scrubby ridgy country and
along great alluvial sidings—were the hills on the opposite side of
the wide valleys (misty in depths) faded from deep blue into the pale
azure of the sky—and over the ends of western spurs to the little
farming, mining and pastoral town of Solong, situated in a circle of
blue hills on the banks of the willow-fringed Cudgegong River.
The line was hopelessly blocked, and some publicans at Solong had
put on the old coach-road a couple of buggies, a wagonette, and an old
mail coach—relic of the days of Cobb &Co., which had been resurrected
from some backyard and tinkered up—to bring the train passengers on
from the first break in the line over the remaining distance of forty
miles or so. Capertee Station (old time, “Capertee Camp”—a teamster's
camp) was the last station before the first washout, and there the
railway line and the old road parted company for the last time before
reaching Solong—the one to run round by the ends of the western spurs
that spread fanlike, and the other to go through and over, the rough
The train reached Capertee about midnight in broad moonlight that
was misty in the valleys and round the blue of Crown Ridge. I got a
“box-seat” beside the driver on the old coach. It was a grand old
road—one of the old main coach-roads of New South Wales—broad and
white, metalled nearly all the way, and in nearly as good condition as
on the day when the first passenger train ran into Solong and the
last-used section of the old road was abandoned. It dated back to the
bushranging days—right back to convict times: it ran through tall dark
bush, up over gaps or “saddles” in high ridges, down across deep dark
gullies, and here and there across grey, marshy, curlew-haunted flats.
Cobb &Co's coach-and-six, with “Royal Mail” gilded on the panels, had
dashed over it in ten and twelve-mile stages in the old days, the three
head-lamps flashing on the wild dark bush at night, and maybe
twenty-four passengers on board. The biggest rushes to richest
goldfields in the west had gone over this old road on coaches, on
carts, on drays, on horse and bullock wagons, on horseback, and on
foot; new chums from all the world and from all stations in life.
When many a step was on the mountains,
Marching west to the land of gold.
And a few came back rich—red, round-faced and jolly—on the
box-seat of Cobb &Co's, treating the driver and all hands, “going home"
to sweethearts or families. (Home people will never feel the meaning of
those two words, “going home,” as it is felt in a new land.) And many
came back broken men, tramping in rags, and carrying their swags
through the dusty heat of the drought in December or the bitter,
pelting rain in the mountains in June. Some came back grey who went as
boys; and there were many who never came back.
I remembered the old mile-trees, with a section of bark cut away and
the distances cut in Roman letters in the hardened sap—the distance
from Bowenfels, the railway terminus then. It was a ghostly old road,
and if it wasn't haunted it should have been. There was an old decaying
and nearly deserted coaching town or two; there were abandoned farms
and halfway inns, built of stone, with the roofs gone and nettles
growing high between the walls; the remains of an orchard here and
there—a few gnarled quince-trees—and the bush reclaiming its own
again. It was a haunted ride for me, because I had last ridden over
this old road long ago when I was young—going to see the city for the
first time—and because I was now on my way to attend the funeral of
one of my father's blood from whom t had parted in anger.
We slowly climbed, and almost as slowly descended, the steep siding
of a great hill called Aaron's Pass, and about a mile beyond the foot
of the hill I saw a spot I remembered passing on the last journey down,
long ago. Rising back from the road, and walled by heavy bush, was a
square clearing, and in the background I saw plainly, by the broad
moonlight, the stone foundations for a large house; from the front an
avenue of grown pines came down to the road.
“Why!” I exclaimed, turning to the driver, “was that house burnt
“No,” he said slowly. “That house was never built.”
I stared at the place again and caught sight of a ghostly-looking
light between the lines of the foundations, which I presently made out
to be a light in a tent.
“There's someone camping there,” I said.
“Yes,” said the driver, “some old swaggy or `hatter.' I seen him
comin' down. I don't know nothing about that there place.” (I hadn't
“shouted” for him yet.)
I thought and remembered. I remembered myself, as a boy, being sent
a coach journey along this road to visit some relatives in Sydney. We
passed this place, and the women in the coach began to talk of the fine
house that was going to be built there. The ground was being levelled
for the foundations, and young pines had been planted, with stakes
round them to protect them from the cattle. I remembered being mightily
interested in the place, for the women said that the house was to be a
two-storied one. I thought it would be a wonderful thing to see a
two-storied house there in the bush. The height of my ambition was to
live in a house with stairs in it. The women said that this house was
being built for young Brassington, the son of the biggest squatter then
in the district, who was going to marry the daughter of the next
biggest squatter. That was all I remember hearing the women say.
Three or four miles along the road was a public-house, with a post
office, general store, and blacksmith shop attached, as is usual in
such places—all that was left of the old pastoral and coaching town of
Ilford. I “shouted” for the driver at the shanty, but got nothing
further out of him concerning the fate of the house that was never
built. I wanted that house for a story.
However, while yarning with some old residents at Solong, I
mentioned the Brassingtons, and picked up a few first links in the
story. The young couple were married and went to Sydney for their
honeymoon. The story went that they intended to take a trip to the old
country and Paris, to be away a twelve-month, and the house was to be
finished and ready for them on their return. Young Brassington himself
had a big sheep-run round there. The railway wasn't thought of in those
days, or if it was, no Brassington could have dreamed that the line
could have been brought to Solong in any other direction than through
the property of the “Big Brassingtons,” as they were called. Well, the
young couple went to Sydney, but whether they went farther the old
residents did not know. All they knew was that within a few weeks, and
before the stone foundations for the brick walls of the house were
completed, the building contract was cancelled, the workmen were
dismissed, and the place was left as I last saw it; only the ornamental
pines had now grown to trees. The Brassingtons and the bride's people
were English families and reserved. They kept the story, if there was a
story, to themselves. The girl's people left the district and squatted
on new stations up-country. The Big Brassingtons came down in the world
and drifted to the city, as many smaller people do, more and more every
year. Neither young Brassington nor his wife was ever again seen or
heard of in the district.
I attended my relative's funeral, and next day started back for
Just as we reached Ilford, as it happened, the pin of the fore
under-carriage of the coach broke, and it took the blacksmith several
hours to set it right. The place was dull, the publican was not
communicative—or else he harped on the old local grievance of the
railway not having come that way—so about half an hour before I
thought the coach would be ready, I walked on along the road to stretch
by legs. I walked on and on until I came, almost unaware, to the site
of the house that was never built. The tent was still there, in fact,
it was a permanent camp, and I was rather surprised to see the man
working with a trowel on a corner of the unfinished foundations of the
house. At first I thought he was going to build a stone hut in the
corner, but when I got close to him I saw that he was working carefully
on the original plan of the building: he was building the unfinished
parts of the foundation walls up to the required height. He had
bricklayer's tools, a bag of lime, and a heap of sand, and had worked
up a considerable quantity of mortar. It was a rubble foundation: he
was knocking off the thin end of a piece of stone to make it fit, and
the clanging of the trowel prevented his hearing my footsteps.
“Good day, mate,” I said, close beside him.
I half expected he'd start when I spoke, but he didn't: he looked
round slowly, but with a haunted look in his eyes as if I might have
been one of his ghosts. He was a tall man, gaunt and haggard-eyed, as
many men are in the bush; he may have been but little past middle age,
and grey before his time.
“Good day,” he said, and he set the stone in its place, carefully
flush with the outer edge of the wall, before he spoke again. Then he
looked at the sun, which was low, laid down his trowel, and asked me to
come to the tent-fire. “It's turning chilly,” he said. It was a model
camp, everything clean and neat both inside the tent and out; he had
made a stone fireplace with a bark shelter over it, and a table and
bench under another little shed, with shelves for his tin cups and
plates and cooking utensils. He put a box in front of the fire and
folded a flour-bag on top of it for a seat for me, and hung the billy
over the fire. He sat on his heels and poked the burning sticks,
abstractedly I thought, or to keep his hands and thoughts steady.
“I see you're doing a bit of building,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, keeping his eyes on the fire; “I'm getting on with
I don't suppose he looked at me half a dozen times the whole while I
was in his camp. When he spoke he talked just as if he were sitting
yarning in a row of half a dozen of us. Presently he said suddenly, and
giving the fire a vicious dig with his poker:
“That house must be finished by Christmas.”
“Why?” I asked, taken by surprise. “What's the hurry?”
“Because,” he said, “I'm going to be married in the New Year—to the
best and dearest girl in the bush.”
There was an awkward pause on my part, but presently I pulled myself
“You'll never finish it by yourself,” I said. “Why don't you put on
“Because,” he said, “I can't trust them. Besides, how am I to get
bricklayers and carpenters in a place like this?”
I noticed all through that his madness or the past in his mind was
mixed up with the real and the present.
“Couldn't you postpone the marriage?” I asked.
“No!” he exclaimed, starting to his feet. “No!” and he looked round
wildly on the darkening bush. There was madness in his tone that time,
the last “No!” sounding as if from a man who was begging for his life.
“Couldn't you run up a shanty then, to live in until the house is
ready?” I suggested, to soothe him.
He gave his arm an impatient swing. “Do you think I'd ask that girl
to live in a hut?” he said. “She ought to live in a palace!”
There seemed no way out of it, so I said nothing: he turned his back
and stood looking away over the dark, low-lying sweep of bush towards
sunset. He folded his arms tight, and seemed to me to be holding
himself. After a while he let fall his arms and turned and blinked at
me and the fire like a man just woke from a doze or rousing himself out
of a deep reverie.
“Oh, I almost forgot the billy!” he said. “I'll make some tea—you
must be hungry.”
He made the tea and fried a couple of slices of ham; he laid the
biggest slice on a thick slice of white baker's bread on a tin plate,
and put it and a pint-pot full of tea on a box by my side. “Have it
here, by the fire,” he said; “it's warmer and more comfortable.”
I took the plate on my knee, and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed
that meal. The bracing mountain air and the walk had made me hungry.
The hatter had his meal standing up, cutting his ham on a slice of
bread with a clasp-knife. It was bush fashion, and set me thinking of
some old times. He ate very little, and, as far as I saw, he didn't
smoke. Non-smokers are very scarce in the bush.
I saw by the way his tent was pitched and his camp arranged
generally, and by the way he managed the cooking, that he must have
knocked about the bush for some years.
He put the plates and things away and came and sat down on the other
empty gin-case by my side, and fell to poking the fire again. He never
showed the least curiosity as to who I was, or where I came from, or
what I was doing on this deserted track: he seemed to take me as a
matter of course—but all this was in keeping with bush life in
Presently he got up and stood looking upwards over the place where
the house should have been.
“I think now,” he said slowly, “I made a mistake in not having the
verandas carried all round the house.”
“I—I beg pardon!”
“I should have had the balcony all round instead of on two sides
only, as the man who made the plan suggested; it would have looked
better and made the house cooler in summer.”
I thought as I listened, and presently I saw that it was a case of
madness within madness, so to speak: he was mad on the idea that he
could build the house himself, and then he had moods when he imagined
that the house had been built and he had been married and had reared a
“You could easily get the balcony carried round,” I said; “it
wouldn't cost much—you can get good carpenters at Solong.”
“Yes,” he said. “I'll have it done after Christmas.” Then he turned
from the house and blinked down at me. “I am sorry,” he said, “that
there's no one at home. I sent the wife and family to Sydney for a
change. I've got the two boys at the Sydney Grammar School. I think
I'll send the eldest to King's School at Parramatta. The girls will
have to get along with a governess at home and learn to help their
And so he went on talking away just as a man who has made money in
the bush, and is married and settled down, might yarn to an old
bachelor bush mate.
“I suppose I'll have to get a good piano,” he went on. “The girls
must have some amusement: there'll be no end of balls and parties. I
suppose the boys will soon be talking of getting `fivers' and `tenners'
out of the `guvner' or `old man.' It's the way of the world. And
they'll marry and leave us. It's the way of the world—”
It was awful to hear him go on like this, the more so because he
never smiled—just talked on as if he had said the same thing over and
over again. Presently he stopped, and his eyes and hands began to
wander: he sat down on his heel to the fire again and started poking
it. I began to feel uneasy; I didn't know what other sides there might
be to his madness, and wished the coach would come along.
“You've knocked about the bush a good deal?” I asked. I couldn't
think of anything else to say, and I thought he might break loose if I
let him brood too long.
“Yes,” he said, “I have.”
“Been in Queensland and the Gulf country, I suppose?”
His tone and manner seemed a bit more natural. He had knocked about
pretty well all over Australia, and had been in many places where I had
been. I had got him on the right track, and after a bit he started
telling bush yarns and experiences, some of them awful, some of them
very funny, and all of them short and good; and now and then, looking
at the side of his face, which was all he turned to me, I thought I
detected the ghost of a smile.
One thing I noticed about him; when he spoke as a madman, he talked
like a man who had been fairly well educated (or sometimes, I fancied,
like a young fellow who was studying to be a school-teacher); his
speech was deliberate and his grammar painfully correct—far more so
than I have made it; but when he spoke as an old bushman, he dropped
his g's and often turned his grammar back to front. But that reminds me
that I have met English college men who did the same thing after being
a few years in the bush; either they dropped their particular way of
speaking because it was mimicked, because they were laughed and chaffed
out of it, or they fell gradually into the habit of talking as rough
bushmen do (they learnt Australian), as clean-mouthed men fall, in
spite of themselves, into the habit of swearing in the heat and hurry
and rough life of a shearing-shed. And, coming back into civilized
life, these men, who had been well brought up, drop into their old
manner and style of speaking as readily as the foulest-mouthed man in a
shed or camp—who, amongst his fellows, cannot say three words without
an oath—can, when he finds himself in a decent home in the
woman-and-girl world, yarn by the hour without letting slip a solitary
The hatter warmed up the tea-billy again, got out some currant buns,
which he had baked himself in the camp-oven, and we were yarning
comfortably like two old bushmen, and I had almost forgotten that he
was “ratty,” when we heard the coach coming. I jumped up to hurry down
to the road. This seemed to shake him up. He gripped my hand hard and
glanced round in his frightened, haunted way. I never saw the eyes of a
man look so hopeless and helpless as his did just then.
“I'm sorry you're going,” he said, in a hurried way. “I'm sorry
you're going. But—but they all go. Come again, come again—we'll all
be glad to see you.”
I had to hurry off and leave him. “We all,” I suppose, meant himself
and his ghosts.
I ran down between the two rows of pines and reached the road just
as the coach came up. I found the publican from Ilford aboard—he was
taking a trip to Sydney. As the coach went on I looked up the clearing
and saw the hatter standing straight behind the fire, with his arms
folded and his face turned in our direction. He looked ghastly in the
firelight, and at that distance his face seemed to have an expression
of listening blindness. I looked round on the dark bush, with, away to
the left, the last glow of sunset fading from the bed of it, like a bed
of reddening coals, and I looked up at the black loom of Aaron's Pass,
and thought that never a man, sane or mad, was left in such a depth of
“I see you've been yarning with him yonder,” said the publican, who
seemed to have relaxed wonderfully.
“You know these parts, don't you?”
“Yes. I was about here as a boy.”
He asked me what my name might be. I told him it was Smith. He
blinked a while.
“I never heard of anyone by the name of Smith in the district,” he
Neither had I. I told him that we lived at Solong, and didn't stay
long. It saved time.
“Ever heard of the Big Brassingtons?”
“Ever heard the yarn of the house that wasn't built?”
I told him how much I had heard of it.
“And that's about all any on 'em knows. Have you any idea who that
man back yonder is?”
“Yes, I have.”
“Well, who do you think it is?”
“He is, or rather he was, young Brassington.”
“You've hit it!” said the publican. “I know—and a few others.”
“And do you know what became of his wife?” I asked.
“I do,” said the shanty-keeper, who had a generous supply of whisky
with him, and seemed to have begun to fill himself up for the trip.
He said no more for a while, and when I had remained silent long
enough, he went on, very deliberately and impressively:
“One yarn is that the girl wasn't any good; that when she was
married to Brassington, and as soon as they got to Sydney, she met a
chap she'd been carrying on with before she married Brassington (or
that she'd been married to in secret), an' she cleared off with him,
leaving her fortnight-old husband. That was one yarn.”
“Was it?” I said.
“Yes,” said the publican. “That yarn was a lie.” He opened a flask
of whisky and passed it round.
“There was madness in the family,” he said, after a nip.
“Whose?” I asked. “Brassington's?”
“No,” said the publican, in a tone that implied contempt at my
ignorance, in spite of its innocence, “the girl's. Her mother had been
in a 'sylum, and so had her grandmother. It was—it was heridited. Some
madnesses is heridited, an' some comes through worry and hard graft
(that's mine), an' some comes through drink, and some through worse,
and, but as far as I've heard, all madnesses is pretty much the same.
My old man was a warder in a 'sylum. They have their madnesses a bit
different, the same as boozers has their d.t.'s different; but, takin'
it by the lump, it's pretty much all the same. The difference is
accordin' to their natures when they're sane. All men are—”
“But about young Mrs Brassington,” I interrupted.
“Young Mrs Brassington? Rosy Webb she was, daughter of Webb the
squatter. Rosy was the brightest, best, good-heartedest, an' most
ladylike little girl in the district, an' the heriditry business come
on her in Sydney, about a week after she was married to young
Brassington. She was only twenty. Here—” He passed the flask round.
“And what happened?” I asked.
“What happened?” he repeated. Then he pulled himself together, as if
conscious that he had shown signs of whisky. “Everything was done, but
it was no use. She died in a year in a 'sylum.”
“How do you know that?”
“How do I know that?” he repeated in a tone of contempt. “How do I
know that? Well, I'll tell you how. My old wife was in service
at Brassington's station at the time—the oldest servant—an' young
Brassington wired to her from Sydney to come and help him in his
trouble. Old Mrs Brassington was bedridden, an' they kep' it from her.”
“And about young Brassington?”
“About young Brassington? He took a swag an' wandered through the
bush. We've had him at our place several times all these years, but he
always wandered off again. My old woman tried everything with him, but
it was all no use. Years ago she used to get him to talk of things as
they was, in hopes of bringin' his mind back, but he was always worse
after. She does all she can for him even now, but he's mighty
independent. The last five or six years he's been taken with the idea
of buildin' that cursed house. He'll stay there till he gets short of
money, an' then he'll go out back, shearin', stock-ridin', drovin',
cookin', fencin'—anything till he gets a few pounds. Then he'll settle
down and build away at that bloody house. He's knocked about so much
that he's a regular old bushman. While he's an old bushman he's all
right an' amusin' an' good company;—but when he's Brassington he's
mad—Don't you ever let on to my old woman that I told you. I allers
let my tongue run a bit when I get out of that hole we're living in.
We've kept the secret all these years, but what does it matter now?—I
“It doesn't matter much,” I said.
“Nothing matters much, it seems to me, nothing matters a damn. The
Big Brassingtons come down years ago; the old people's gone, and the
young scattered God knows where or how. The Webbs (the girl's people)
are away up in new country, an' the girls (they was mostly all girls)
are married an' settled down by this time. We kept the secret, an' the
Webbs kept the secret—even when the dirty yarns was goin' round—so's
not to spoil the chances of the other girls. What about the chances of
their husbands? Some on 'em might be in the same hell as Brassington
for all I know. The Brassingtons kept the secret because I suppose they
reckoned it didn't matter much. Nothing matters much in this world—”
But I was thinking of another young couple who had married long ago,
whose married life was twenty long years of shameful quarrels, of
useless brutal recrimination—not because either was bad, but because
their natures were too much alike; of the house that was built, of the
family that was reared, of the sons and daughters who “went wrong,” of
the father and mother separated after twenty years, of the mother dead
of a broken heart, of the father (in a lunatic asylum), whose mania was
not to build houses, but to obtain and secrete matches for the purpose
of burning houses down.