Bilger, of Sydney by Louis Becke

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, and now—

'All right, old man; stow all that. What do you want?'

He looked at me reproachfully, and taking up a small leather bag, said that he represented Messrs ———, 'Monumental Masons and Memorial Card Designers and Printers,' and should feel pleased if I would look at his samples.

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 £4, 17s. 6d.,' 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.'

No. 2 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.

No. 3 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 is. 6d. 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,

     'Oh children, dear, when I was alive,
     To get you bread I hard did strive;
     I now am where I need no bread,
     And wear a halo round my head.
     Weep not upon my tomb, I pray,
     But do your duty day by day.'

The last but one was still more beautiful,—

For a Child who suffered a Long Illness before Decease.

[I remarked casually that a child could not suffer even a short illness after decease. Bilger smiled a watery smile and said 'No.']

     '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 so fair,
     That the angels envied her,
     And whispered in her ear,
     "We will take you away on [Tuesday] night."'

["Drawing of angels carrying away deceased child, is. 6d. 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 dignified sarcasm.

'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:—

       Journalist and Littérateur

 Formerly Editor of the 'Barangoora News'

      Real Aylesbury Ducks for Sale
      Book-keeping Taught in Four Lessons

          4a Kellet Street,
          Darlinghurst, Sydney

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 son.

'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 line.

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 wept.

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 to them.

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 him.

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 my words.