Over the Sliprails
The Shanty-Keeper's Wife
There were about a dozen of us jammed into the coach, on the box seat and hanging on to
the roof and tailboard as best we could. We were shearers, bagmen, agents, a squatter, a
cockatoo, the usual joker -- and one or two professional spielers, perhaps. We were tired
and stiff and nearly frozen -- too cold to talk and too irritable to risk the inevitable
argument which an interchange of ideas would have led up to. We had been looking
forward for hours, it seemed, to the pub where we were to change horses. For the last
hour or two all that our united efforts had been able to get out of the driver was a grunt to
the effect that it was "'bout a couple o' miles." Then he said, or grunted, "'Tain't fur now,"
a couple of times, and refused to commit himself any further; he seemed grumpy about
having committed himself that far.
He was one of those men who take everything in dead earnest; who regard any
expression of ideas outside their own sphere of life as trivial, or, indeed, if addressed
directly to them, as offensive; who, in fact, are darkly suspicious of anything in the shape
of a joke or laugh on the part of an outsider in their own particular dust-hole. He seemed
to be always thinking, and thinking a lot; when his hands were not both engaged, he
would tilt his hat forward and scratch the base of his skull with his little finger, and let his
jaw hang. But his intellectual powers were mostly concentrated on a doubtful swingle-
tree, a misfitting collar, or that there bay or piebald (on the off or near side) with the sore
Casual letters or papers, to be delivered on the road, were matters which troubled him
vaguely, but constantly -- like the abstract ideas of his passengers.
The joker of our party was a humourist of the dry order, and had been slyly taking rises
out of the driver for the last two or three stages. But the driver only brooded. He wasn't
the one to tell you straight if you offended him, or if he fancied you offended him, and
thus gain your respect, or prevent a misunderstanding which would result in life-long
enmity. He might meet you in after years when you had forgotten all about your trespass
-- if indeed you had ever been conscious of it -- and "stoush" you unexpectedly on the
Also you might regard him as your friend, on occasion, and yet he would stand by and
hear a perfect stranger tell you the most outrageous lies, to your hurt, and know that the
stranger was telling lies, and never put you up to it. It would never enter his head to do
so. It wouldn't be any affair of his -- only an abstract question.
It grew darker and colder. The rain came as if the frozen south were spitting at your face
and neck and hands, and our feet grew as big as camel's, and went dead, and we might as
well have stamped the footboards with wooden legs for all the feeling we got into ours.
But they were more comfortable that way, for the toes didn't curl up and pain so much,
nor did our corns stick out so hard against the leather, and shoot.