The Romance of the Swag

The House that was Never Built

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—where 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 country.

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 I 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 down?”

“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 Sydney.

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 it slowly.”

I don’t suppose he looked at me half a dozen times the whole while I was is 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 together.

“You’ll never finish it by yourself,” I said. “Why don’t you put on some men?”

“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 general.

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 family.

“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 governoss at home and learn to help their mother ”

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?”

“I have.”

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 little damn.

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 gloomy loneliness.

“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 said.

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 ask you.”

“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.

The Romance of the Swag - Contents

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