A death in the family brought about
my fatal acquaintance with Bilger. A few days
after the funeral, as my sister and I sat talking on
the verandah of our cottage (which overlooked the
waters of Sydney Harbour) and listened to the pouring
rain upon the shingled roof, we saw a man open the
garden gate and come slowly up to the house. He
carried an ancient umbrella, the tack lashings of
which on one side had given way entirely, showing
six bare ribs. As he walked up the path, his large,
sodden boots made a nasty, squelching sound, and my
sister, who has a large heart, at once said, ’Poor
creature; I wonder who he is. I hope it isn’t
the coal man come for his money.’
He went round to the back door and,
after letting himself drain off a bit, knocked gently
and with exceeding diffidence.
I asked him his business. He
said he wanted to see my wife.
‘Not here. Gone away for a month.’
’Dear, dear, how sad! Broken
down, no doubt, with a mother’s grief. Is
there any other lady in the family whom I could see?’
‘What the deuce do you want?’
I began angrily; then, as he raised his weak, watery
eyes to mine, and I saw that his grey hairs were as
wet as his boots, I relented. Perhaps he was
someone who knew my wife or her people, and wanted
to condole with her over the death of her baby.
He looked sober enough, so, as he seemed much agitated,
I asked him to sit down, and said I would send my
sister to him. Then I went back to my pipe and
chair. Ten minutes later my sister Kate came to
me with her handkerchief to her eyes.
’Do go and see the old
fellow. He has such a sympathetic nature.
I’m sure I should have cried aloud had I stayed
any longer. Anyone would think he had known poor
little Teddie ever since he was born. I’ve
asked Mary to make him a cup of tea.’
‘Who is he?’
’I don’t know his name,
but he seems so sympathetic. And he says he should
be so pleased if he might see you again for a few minutes.
He says, too, that you have a good and kind face.
I told him that you would be sure to take at least
a dozen of those in cream and gold. There’s
nothing at all vulgar; quite the reverse.’
’What are you talking
about, Kate? Who is this sodden old lunatic, and
what on earth are you crying for?’
My sister nearly sobbed. ’I
always thought that what you derisively termed “mortuary
bards” were horrid people, but this old man has
a beautiful nature. And he’s very wet and
hungry too, I’m sure; and Mary looks at him
as if he were a dog. Do try and help him.
I think we might get one or two dozen cream and gold
cards, and two dozen black-edged.
And then he’s a journalist,
too. He’s told me quite a sad little story
of his life struggle, and the moment I told him you
were on the Evening News he quite brightened
up, and said he knew your name quite well.’
‘Kate,’ I said, ’I
don’t want to see the man. What the deuce
does he want? If he is one of those loafing scoundrels
of undertakers’ and mortuary masons’ touts,
just send him about his business; give him a glass
of whisky and tell Mary to clear him out.’
My sister said that to send an old
man out in such weather was not like me.
Surely I would at least speak a kind word to him.
In sheer desperation I went out to
the man. He addressed me in husky tones, and
said that he desired to express his deep sympathy with
me in my affliction, also that he was ‘a member
of the Fourth Estate.’ Seven years before
he had edited the Barangoora News, but his determined
opposition to a dishonest Government led to his ruin,
‘All right, old man; stow all that. What
do you want?’
He was such a wretched, hungry-looking,
down-upon-his-beam-ends old fellow, that I could not
refuse to inspect his wares. And then his boots
filled me with pity. For such a little man he
had the biggest boots I ever saw baggy,
elastic sides, and toes turned up, with the after part
of the uppers sticking out some inches beyond the frayed
edges of his trousers. As he sat down and drew
these garments up, and his bare, skinny legs showed
above his wrecked boots, his feet looked like two
water-logged cutters under bare poles, with the water
running out of the scuppers.
Mary brought the whisky. I poured
him out a good, stiff second mate’s nip.
It did my heart good to see him drink it, and hear
the soft ecstatic ‘Ah, ah, ah,’ which
broke from him when he put the glass down; it was
a Te Deum Laudamus.
Having briefly intimated to him that
I had no intention of buying ’a handsome granite
monument, with suitable inscription, or twelve lines
of verse, for L4, 17d.,’ I took up his packet
of In Memoriam cards and went through them.
The first one was a hand-drawn design in cream and
gold Kate’s fancy. It represented
in the centre an enormously bloated infant with an
idiotic leer, lying upon its back on a blue cloud
with scalloped edges, whilst two male angels, each
with an extremely vicious expression, were pulling
the cloud along by means of tow-lines attached to
their wings. Underneath were these words in MS.:
’More angels can be added, if desired, at an
extra charge of 6d. each.’
N represented a disorderly flight
of cherubims, savagely attacking a sleeping infant
in its cradle, which was supported on either hand by
two vulgar-looking female angels blowing bullock horns
in an apathetic manner.
N rather took my fancy there
was so much in it four large fowls flying
across the empyrean; each bird carried a rose as large
as a cabbage in its beak, and apparently intended
to let them drop upon a group of family mourners beneath.
The MS. inscribed said, ’If photographs are
supplied of members of the Mourning Family, our artist
will reproduce same in group gathered round the deceased.
If doves are not approved, cherubims, angels, or floral
designs may be used instead, for small extra charge.’
Whilst I was going through these horrors
the old man kept up a babbling commentary on their
particular and collective beauties; then he wanted
me to look at his specimens of verse, much of which,
he added, with fatuous vanity, was his own composition.
I did read some of it, and felt a
profound pity for the corpse that had to submit to
such degradation. Here are four specimens, the
first of which was marked, ’Especially suitable
for a numerous family, who have lost an aged parent,
gold lettering id. extra,’
’Mary and May
and Peter and John [or other names]
Loved and honoured him
[or her] who has gone;
White was his [or her]
hair and kind was his [or her] heart,
Oh why, we all sigh,
were we made thus to part?’
For an Aunt, (Suitable verses for
Uncles at same rates.)
’Even our own
sweet mother, who is so kind,
Could not wring our
hearts more if she went and left us behind;
A halo of glory is now
on thy head,
Ah, sad, sad thought
that good auntie is dead.’
For a Father or Mother,
dear, when I was alive,
To get you bread I hard
I now am where I need
And wear a halo round
Weep not upon my tomb,
But do your duty day
The last but one was still more beautiful,
For a Child who suffered a Long Illness before
[I remarked casually that a child
could not suffer even a short illness after
decease. Bilger smiled a watery smile and said
’For many long months did we
fondly sit, And watch our darling fade bit by
bit; Till an angel called from out the sky,
“Come home, dear child, to the Sweet By-and-By.
Hard was your lot on earth’s sad plain,
But now you shall never suffer again, For
cherubims and seraphims will welcome you here.
Fond parents, lament not for the loss of one so
dear."’ [N.B. “These
are very beautiful lines.”]
The gem of the collection, however, was this:
Suitable for a child of any age.
The beautiful simplicity of the words have brought
us an enormous amount of orders from bereaved parents.
’Our [Emily] was
That the angels envied
And whispered in her
“We will take
you away on [Tuesday] night."’
["Drawing of angels carrying away
deceased child, id. extra.”]
The old imbecile put his damp finger
upon this, and asked me what I thought of it.
I said it was very simple but touching, and then, being
anxious to get rid of him, ordered two dozen of Kate’s
fancy. He thanked me most fervently, and said
he would bring them to me in a few days. I hurriedly
remarked he could post them instead, paid him in advance,
and told him to help himself to some more whisky.
He did so, and I observed, with some regret, that
he took nearly half a tumblerful.
‘Dear, dear me,’ he said,
with an apologetic smile, ’I’m afraid I
have taken too much; would you kindly pour some back.
My hand is somewhat shaky. Old age, sir, if I
may indulge in a platitude, is ’
’Oh, never mind putting any
back. It’s a long walk to the ferry, and
a wet day beside.’
‘True, true,’ he said
meditatively, looking at Mary carrying in the dinner,
and drinking the whisky in an abstracted manner.
Just then my sister beckoned me out.
She said it was very thoughtless of me to pour gallons
of whisky down the poor old fellow’s throat,
upon an empty stomach.
‘Perhaps you would like me to
ask him to have dinner with us?’ I said with
‘I think we might at least let
Mary give him something to eat.’
Of course I yielded, and my sister
bade Mary give our visitor a good dinner. For
such a small man he had an appetite that would have
done credit to a long-fasting tiger shark tackling
a dead whale; and every time I glanced at Mary’s
face as she waited on my sister and myself I saw that
she was verging upon frenzy. At last, however,
we heard him shuffling about on the verandah, and
thought he was going without saying ‘thank you.’
We wronged him, for presently he called to Mary and
asked her if I would kindly grant him a few words
after I had finished dinner.
‘Confound him! What the deuce ’
My sister said, ’Don’t
be cruel to the poor old fellow. You may be like
him yourself some day.’
I said I didn’t doubt it, if
my womenfolk encouraged every infernal old dead-beat
in the colony to come and loaf upon me. Two large
tears at once ran down Kate’s nose, and dropped
into the custard on her plate. I softened at
once and went out.
‘Permit me, sir,’ he said,
in a wobbly kind of voice, as he lurched to and fro
in the doorway, and tried to jab the point of his umbrella
into a knot-hole in the verandah boards in order to
steady himself, ’permit me, sir, to thank you
for your kindness and to tender you my private card.
Perhaps I may be able to serve you in some humble way’ here
the umbrella point stuck in the hole, and he clung
to the handle with both hands ’some
humble way, sir. Like yourself, I am a literary
man, as this will show you.’ He fumbled
in his breast pocket with his left hand, and would
have fallen over on his back but for the umbrella handle,
to which he clung with his right. Presently he
extracted a dirty card and handed it to me, with a
bow, which he effected by doubling himself on his
stomach over the friendly gamp, and remained in that
position, swaying to and fro, for quite ten seconds.
I read the card:
Formerly Editor of the ‘Barangoora News’
Ducks for Sale
in Four Lessons
I said I should bear him in mind,
and, after helping him to release his umbrella, saw
him down the steps and watched him disappear.
‘Thank Heaven!’ I said
to Kate, ‘we have seen the last of him.’
I was bitterly mistaken, for next
morning when I entered the office, Bilger was there
awaiting me, outside the sub-editor’s room.
He was wearing a new pair of boots, much larger than
the old ones, and smiled pleasantly at me, and said
he had brought his son Edward to see me, feeling sure
that I would use my influence with the editor and manager
to get him put on as a canvasser.
I refused point blank to see ‘Edward’
then or at any other time, and said that even if there
was a vacancy I should not recommend a stranger.
He sighed, and said that I should like Edward, once
I knew him. He was ’a noble lad, but misfortune
had dogged his footsteps a brave, heroic
nature, fighting hard against unmerited adversity.’
I went in and shut the door.
Two days later Kate asked me at supper
if I couldn’t do something for old Bilger’s
’Has that infernal old nuisance
been writing to you about his confounded son?’
’How ill-tempered you are!
The “old nuisance,” as you call him, has
behaved very nicely. He sent his son over here
to thank us for our kindness, and to ask me to accept
a dozen extra cards from himself. The son is
a very respectable-looking man, but rather shabby.
He is coming again to-morrow to help Mary to put up
the new wire clothes line.’
‘Is he? Well, then, Mary can pay him.’
’Don’t be so horrid.
He doesn’t want payment for it. But, of
course, I shall pay his fare each way. Mary says
he’s such a willing young man.’
In the morning I saw Mr Edward Bilger,
helping Mary. He was a fat-faced, greasy-looking
youth, with an attempted air of hang-dog respectability,
and with ‘loafer’ writ large on his forehead.
I stepped over to him and said,
’Now, look here. I don’t
want you fooling about the premises. Here’s
two shillings for you. Clear out, and if you
come back again on any pretence whatever I’ll
give you in charge.’
He accepted the two shillings with
thanks, said that he meant no offence, but he thought
Mary was not strong enough to put up a wire clothes
Mary (who was standing by, looking
very sulky) was a cow-like creature of eleven stone,
and I laughed. She at once sniffed and marched
away. Mr Bilger, junior, presently followed her
into the kitchen. I went after him and ordered
him out. Mary was leaning against the dresser,
biting her nails and looking at me viciously.
Half an hour later, as I walked to
the ferry, I saw Mr Bilger, junior, sitting by the
roadside, eating bread and meat (my property).
He stood up as I passed, and said politely that it
looked like rain. I requested him to make a visit
to Sheol, and passed on.
In the afternoon my sister called
upon me at the Evening News office. She
wore that look of resigned martyrdom peculiar to women
who have something unpleasant to say.
‘Mary has given me notice of course.’
‘Why “of course!"’
Kate rose with an air of outraged
dignity. ’Servants don’t like to be
bullied and sworn at not white servants,
anyway. You can’t expect the girl to stay.
She’s a very good girl, and I’m sure that
that young man Bilger was doing no harm. As it
is, you have placed me in a most unpleasant position;
I had told him that he could let his younger brothers
and sisters come and weed the paddock, and ’
’Why not invite the whole Bilger
family to come and live on the premises?’ I
began, when Kate interrupted me by saying that if I
was going to be violent she would leave me. Then
she sailed out with an injured expression of countenance.
When I returned home to dinner at
7.30, Mary waited upon us in sullen silence.
After dinner I called her in, gave her a week’s
wages in lieu of notice, and told her to get out of
the house as a nuisance. Kate went outside and
From that day the Bilger family proved
a curse to me. Old Bilger wrote me a note expressing
his sorrow that his son quite innocently had
given me offence; also he regretted to hear that my
servant had left me. Mrs Bilger, he added, was
quite grieved, and would do her best to send some
‘likely girls’ over. ’If none
of them suited, Mrs Bilger would be delighted to come
and assist my sister in the mornings. She was
an excellent, worthy woman.’ And he ventured,
with all due respect, to suggest to me that my sister
looked very delicate. His poor lad Edward was
very sad at heart over the turn matters had taken.
The younger children, too, were sadly grieved to
be in a garden, even to toil, would be a revelation
That evening I went home in a bad
temper. Kate, instead of meeting me as usual
at the gate, was cooking dinner, looking hot and resigned,
I dined alone, Kate saying coldly that she did not
care about eating anything. The only other remark
she made that evening was that ’Mary had cried
very bitterly when she left.’
I said, ‘The useless, fat beast!’
The Curse of Bilger rested upon me
for quite three months. He called twice a week,
regularly, and borrowed two shillings ‘until
next Monday.’ Then one day that greasy
ruffian, Bilger, junior, came into the Evening
News office, full of tears and colonial beer, and
said that his poor father was dead, and that his mother
thought I might perhaps lend her a pound to help bury
The sub-editor (who was overjoyed
at Bilger’s demise) lent me ten shillings, which
I gave to Edward, and told him I was sorry to hear
the old man was dead. I am afraid my face belied