Over the Sliprails
A Case for the Oracle
The Oracle and I were camped together. The Oracle was a bricklayer by trade, and had
two or three small contracts on hand. I was "doing a bit of house-painting". There were a
plasterer, a carpenter, and a plumber -- we were all T'othersiders, and old mates, and we
worked things together. It was in Westralia -- the Land of T'othersiders -- and, therefore,
we were not surprised when Mitchell turned up early one morning, with his swag and an
atmosphere of salt water about him.
He'd had a rough trip, he said, and would take a spell that day and take the lay of the land
and have something cooked for us by the time we came home; and go to graft himself
next morning. And next morning he went to work, "labouring" for the Oracle.
The Oracle and his mates, being small contractors and not pressed for time, had
dispensed with the services of a labourer, and had done their own mixing and hod-
carrying in turns. They didn't want a labourer now, but the Oracle was a vague fatalist,
and Mitchell a decided one. So it passed.
The Oracle had a "Case" right under his nose -- in his own employ, in fact; but was not
aware of the fact until Mitchell drew his attention to it. The Case went by the name of
Alfred O'Briar -- which hinted a mixed parentage. He was a small, nervous working-man,
of no particular colour, and no decided character, apparently. If he had a soul above
bricks, he never betrayed it. He was not popular on the jobs. There was something sly
about Alf, they said.
The Oracle had taken him on in the first place as a day-labourer, but afterwards shared
the pay with him as with Mitchell. O'Briar shouted -- judiciously, but on every possible
occasion -- for the Oracle; and, as he was an indifferent workman, the boys said he only
did this so that the Oracle might keep him on. If O'Briar took things easy and did no more
than the rest of us, at least one of us would be sure to get it into his head that he was
loafing on us; and if he grafted harder than we did, we'd be sure to feel indignant about
that too, and reckon that it was done out of nastiness or crawlsomeness, and feel a
contempt for him accordingly. We found out accidentally that O'Briar was an excellent
mimic and a bit of a ventriloquist, but he never entertained us with his peculiar gifts; and
we set that down to churlishness.
O'Briar kept his own counsel, and his history, if he had one; and hid his hopes, joys, and
sorrows, if he had any, behind a vacant grin, as Mitchell hid his behind a quizzical one.
He never resented alleged satire -- perhaps he couldn't see it -- and therefore he got the
name of being a cur. As a rule, he was careful with his money, and was called mean --
not, however, by the Oracle, whose philosophy was simple, and whose sympathy could
not realise a limit; nor yet by Mitchell. Mitchell waited.
. . . . .