New Year's Night
by Henry Lawson
An Extract from,
Over the Sliprails
It was dark enough for anything in Dead Man's Gap — a round, warm,
close darkness, in which retreating sounds seemed to be cut off
suddenly at a distance of a hundred yards or so, instead of growing
faint and fainter, and dying away, to strike the ear once or twice
again — and after minutes, it might seem — with startling
distinctness, before being finally lost in the distance, as it is on
clear, frosty nights. So with the sounds of horses' hoofs, stumbling
on the rough bridle-track through the "saddle", the clatter of
hoof-clipped stones and scrape of gravel down the hidden "siding", and
the low sound of men's voices, blurred and speaking in monosyllables
and at intervals it seemed, and in hushed, awed tones, as though they
carried a corpse. To practical eyes, grown used to such a darkness,
and at the nearest point, the passing blurrs would have suggested two
riders on bush hacks leading a third with an empty saddle on its back
— a lady's or "side-saddle", if one could have distinguished the
horns. They may have struck a soft track or level, or rounded the
buttress of the hill higher up, but before they had time to reach or
round the foot of the spur, blurs, whispers, stumble and clatter of
hoofs, jingle of bridle rings, and the occasional clank together of
stirrup irons, seemed shut off as suddenly and completely as though a
great sound-proof door had swung to behind them.
It was dark enough on the glaringest of days down in the lonely
hollow or "pocket", between two spurs, at the head of a blind gully
behind Mount Buckaroo, where there was a more or less dusty patch,
barely defined even in broad daylight by a spidery dog-legged fence
on three sides, and a thin "two-rail" (dignified with the adjective
"split-rail" — though rails and posts were mostly of saplings split
in halves) running along the frontage. In about the middle of it a
little slab hut, overshadowed by a big stringy-bark shed, was pointed
out as Johnny Mears's Farm.
"Black as — as charcoal," said Johnny Mears. He had never seen
coal, and was a cautious man, whose ideas came slowly. He stooped,
close by the fence, with his hands on his knees, to "sky" the loom of
his big shed and so get his bearings. He had been to have a look at
the penned calves, and see that all slip-rails were up and pegged, for
the words of John Mears junior, especially when delivered rapidly and
shrilly and in injured tones, were not to be relied upon in these
"It's hot enough to melt the belly out of my fiddle," said Johnny
Mears to his wife, who sat on a three-legged stool by the rough table
in the little whitewashed "end-room", putting a patch of patches over
the seat of a pair of moleskin knickerbockers. He lit his pipe, moved
a stool to the side of the great empty fireplace, where it looked
cooler — might have been cooler on account of a possible draught
suggested by the presence of the chimney, and where, therefore, he
felt a breath cooler. He took his fiddle from a convenient shelf,
tuned it slowly and carefully, holding his pipe (in his mouth) well up
and to one side, as if the fiddle were an inquisitive and restless
baby. He played "Little Drops o' Brandy" three times, right through,
without variations, blinking solemnly the while; then he put the
violin carefully back in its box, and started to cut up another
"You should have gone, Johnny," said the haggard little woman.
"Rackin' the horse out a night like this," retorted Johnny, "and
startin' ploughin' to-morrow. It ain't worth while. Let them come for
me if they want me. Dance on a night like this! Why! they'll dance in
"But you promised. It won't do you no good, Johnny."
"It won't do me no harm."
The little woman went on stitching.
"It's smotherin' hot," said Johnny, with an impatient oath. "I
don't know whether I'll turn in, or turn out, under the shed to-night.
It's too d——d hot to roost indoors."
She bent her head lower over the patch. One smoked and the other
stitched in silence for twenty minutes or so, during which time
Johnny might be supposed to have been deliberating listlessly as to
whether he'd camp out on account of the heat, or turn in. But he broke
the silence with a clout at a mosquito on the nape of his neck, and a
"I wish you wouldn't swear so much, Johnny," she said wearily —
"at least not to-night."
He looked at her blankly.
"Why — why to-night? What's the matter with you to-night, Mary?
What's to-night more than any other night to you? I see no harm —
can't a man swear when a mosquito sticks him?"
"I — I was only thinking of the boys, Johnny."
"The boys! Why, they're both on the hay in the shed." He stared
at her again, shifted uneasily, crossed the other leg tightly,
frowned, blinked, and reached for the matches. "You look a bit
off-colour, Mary. It's the heat that makes us all a bit ratty at
times. Better put that by and have a swill o' oatmeal and water, and
"It's too hot to go to bed. I couldn't sleep. I'm all right.
I'll — I'll just finish this. Just reach me a drink from the
water-bag — the pannikin's on the hob there, by your boot."
He scratched his head helplessly, and reached for the drink. When
he sat down again, he felt strangely restless. "Like a hen that
didn't know where to lay," he put it. He couldn't settle down or keep
still, and didn't seem to enjoy his pipe somehow. He rubbed his head
"There's a thunderstorm comin'," he said. "That's what it is; and
the sooner it comes the better."
He went to the back door, and stared at the blackness to the east,
and, sure enough, lightning was blinking there.
"It's coming, sure enough; just hang out and keep cool for another
hour, and you'll feel the difference."
He sat down again on the three-legged stool, folded his arms, with
his elbows on his knees, drew a long breath, and blinked at the clay
floor for a while; then he twisted the stool round on one leg, until
he faced the old-fashioned spired wooden clock (the brass disc of the
pendulum moving ghost-like through a scarred and scratched marine
scene — Margate in England — on the glass that covered the lower
half) that stood alone on the slab shelf over the fireplace. The
hands indicated half-past two, and Johnny, who had studied that clock
and could "hit the time nigh enough by it," after knitting his brows
and blinking at the dial for a full minute by its own hand, decided
"that it must be getting on toward nine o'clock."
It must have been the heat. Johnny stood up, raking his hair,
turned to the door and back again, and then, after an impatient
gesture, took up his fiddle and raised it to his shoulder. Then the
queer thing happened. He said afterwards, under conditions favourable
to such sentimental confidence, that a cold hand seemed to take hold
of the bow, through his, and — anyway, before he knew what he was
about he had played the first bars of "When First I Met Sweet Peggy",
a tune he had played often, twenty years before, in his courting days,
and had never happened to play since. He sawed it right through (the
cold hand left after the first bar or two) standing up; then still
stood with fiddle and bow trembling in his hands, with the queer
feeling still on him, and a rush of old thoughts going through his
head, all of which he set down afterwards to the effect of the heat.
He put the fiddle away hastily, damning the bridge of it at the same
time in loud but hurried tones, with the idea of covering any
eccentricity which the wife might have noticed in his actions. "Must
'a' got a touch o' sun," he muttered to himself. He sat down, fumbled
with knife, pipe, and tobacco, and presently stole a furtive glance
over his shoulder at his wife.
The washed-out little woman was still sewing, but stitching
blindly, for great tears were rolling down her worn cheeks.
Johnny, white-faced on account of the heat, stood close behind her,
one hand on her shoulder and the other clenched on the table; but the
clenched hand shook as badly as the loose one.
"Good God! What is the matter, Mary? You're sick!" (They had had
little or no experience of illness.) "Tell me, Mary — come now! Has
the boys been up to anything?"
"No, Johnny; it's not that."
"What is it then? You're taken sick! What have you been doing
with yourself? It might be fever. Hold up a minute. You wait here
quiet while I roost out the boys and send 'em for the doctor and
"No! no! I'm not sick, John. It's only a turn. I'll be all right
in a minute."
He shifted his hand to her head, which she dropped suddenly, with
a life-weary sigh, against his side.
"Now then!" cried Johnny, wildly, "don't you faint or go into
disterricks, Mary! It'll upset the boys; think of the boys! It's only
the heat — you're only takin' queer."
"It's not that; you ought to know me better than that. It was — I
— Johnny, I was only thinking — we've been married twenty years
to-night — an' — it's New Year's Night!"
"And I've never thought of it!" said Johnny (in the afterwards).
"Shows what a God-forgotten selection will make of a man. She'd
thought of it all the time, and was waiting for it to strike me. Why!
I'd agreed to go and play at a darnce at Old Pipeclay School-house
all night — that very night — and leave her at home because she
hadn't asked to come; and it never struck me to ask her — at home by
herself in that hole — for twenty-five bob. And I only stopped at
home because I'd got the hump, and knew they'd want me bad at the
They sat close together on the long stool by the table, shy and
awkward at first; and she clung to him at opening of thunder, and they
started apart guiltily when the first great drops sounded like
footsteps on the gravel outside, just as they'd done one night-time
before — twenty years before.
If it was dark before, it was black now. The edge of the awful
storm-cloud rushed up and under the original darkness like the best
"drop" black-brushed over the cheap "lamp" variety, turning it grey by
contrast. The deluge lasted only a quarter of an hour; but it cleared
the night, and did its work. There was hail before it, too — big as
emu eggs, the boys said — that lay feet deep in the old diggers'
holes on Pipeclay for days afterwards — weeks some said.
The two sweethearts of twenty years ago and to-night watched the
retreat of the storm, and, seeing Mount Buckaroo standing clear, they
went to the back door, which opened opposite the end of the shed, and
saw to the east a glorious arch of steel-blue, starry sky, with the
distant peaks showing clear and blue away back under the far-away
stars in the depth of it.
They lingered awhile — arms round each other's waists — before
she called the boys, just as they had done this time of night twenty
years ago, after the boys' grandmother had called her.
"Awlright, mother!" bawled back the boys, with unfilial
independence of Australian youth. "We're awlright! We'll be in
directly! Wasn't it a pelterer, mother?"
They went in and sat down again. The embarrassment began to wear
"We'll get out of this, Mary," said Johnny. "I'll take Mason's
offer for the cattle and things, and take that job of Dawson's, boss
or no boss" — (Johnny's bad luck was due to his inability in the past
to "get on" with any boss for any reasonable length of time) — "I
can get the boys on, too. They're doing no good here, and growing up.
It ain't doing justice to them; and, what's more, this life is
killin' you, Mary. That settles it! I was blind. Let the jumpt-up
selection go! It's making a wall-eyed bullock of me, Mary — a
dry-rotted rag of a wall-eyed bullock like Jimmy Nowlett's old
Strawberry. And you'll live in town like a lady."
"Somebody coming!" yelled the boys.
There was a clatter of sliprails hurriedly thrown down, and
clipped by horses' hoofs.
"Insoide there! Is that you, Johnny?"
"Yes!" ("I knew they'd come for you," said Mrs. Mears to Johnny.)
"You'll have to come, Johnny. There's no get out of it. Here's
Jim Mason with me, and we've got orders to stun you and pack you if
you show fight. The blessed fiddler from Mudgee didn't turn up. Dave
Regan burst his concertina, and they're in a fix."
"But I can't leave the missus."
"That's all right. We've got the school missus's mare and
side-saddle. She says you ought to be jolly well ashamed of yourself,
Johnny Mears, for not bringing your wife on New Year's Night. And so
Johnny did not look shame-faced, for reasons unknown to them.
"The boys couldn't find the horses," put in Mrs. Mears. "Johnny
was just going down the gully again."
He gave her a grateful look, and felt a strange, new thrill of
admiration for his wife.
"And — there's a bottle of the best put by for you, Johnny,"
added Pat McDurmer, mistaking Johnny's silence; "and we'll call it
thirty bob!" (Johnny's ideas were coming slowly again, after the
recent rush.) "Or — two quid! — there you are!"
"I don't want two quid, nor one either, for taking my wife to a
dance on New Year's Night!" said Johnny Mears. "Run and put on your
best bib and tucker, Mary."
And she hurried to dress as eager and excited, and smiling to
herself as girlishly as she had done on such occasions on evenings
before the bright New Year's Night twenty years ago.