The Drover’s Wife
The two-roomed house is built of round timber, slabs, and stringy-bark, and floored with split slabs. A big bark kitchen standing at one end is larger than the house itself, veranda included.
Bush all around – bush with no horizon, for the country is flat. No ranges in the distance. The bush consists of stunted, rotten native apple-trees. No undergrowth. Nothing to relieve the eye save the darker green of a few she-oaks which are sighing above the narrow, almost waterless creek. Nineteen miles to the nearest sign of civilisation – a shanty on the main road.
The drover, an ex-squatter, is away with sheep. His wife and children are left here alone.
Four ragged, dried-up-looking children are playing about the house. Suddenly one of them yells: “Snake! Mother, here’s a snake!”
The gaunt, sun-browned bushwoman dashes from the kitchen, snatches her baby from the ground, holds it on her left hip, and reaches for a stick.
“Where is it?”
“Here! Gone in the wood-heap;” yells the eldest boy – a sharp-faced urchin of eleven. “Stop there, mother! I’ll have him. Stand back! I’ll have the beggar!”
“Tommy, come here, or you’ll be bit. Come here at once when I tell you, you little wretch!”
The youngster comes reluctantly, carrying a stick bigger than himself. Then he yells, triumphantly:
“There it goes – under the house!” and darts away with club uplifted. At the same time the big, black, yellow-eyed dog-of-all-breeds, who has shown the wildest interest in the proceedings, breaks his chain and rushes after that snake. He is a moment late, however, and his nose reaches the crack in the slabs just as the end of its tail disappears. Almost at the same moment the boy’s club comes down and skins the aforesaid nose. Alligator takes small notice of this, and proceeds to undermine the building; but he is subdued after a struggle and chained up. They cannot afford to lose him.
Explanation … It would be apt to term the two-roomed house, a shack. It had no brick, no mortar. A few timbers, slabs, and logs were assembled with the minimum cost and sophistication to build the shelter. The floor had ill-fitted stone slabs. The kitchen had none. This was the drovers’ home.
The lone ramshackle dwelling stood defiantly in a huge plain ground where wild bushes grew in the parched soil. Some dried-up apple trees with shrivelled leaves stood the in the arid soil, lamenting the lack of rain in the area. No forests could be seen even in the farthest horizon.
A few casuarinas stood on the banks of near-dry creek. On the whole, everything living in the surroundings seemed to crave for water. A shanty stood on the highway nineteen miles away to the north proclaiming the fringe of civilization. On the whole, the place bore a ghoulishly deserted look.
In the shack lived the drover’s wife and her two sons and two daughters. The drover had been away from home for six months with his heard of sheep.
The family just managed to scratch a living from whatever was there. The living conditions were basic, to say the least. The constant struggle to stay alive had made the woman in the house and her four children to look rough and tattered. They had a big black pet dog whom they called Alligator.
The eldest of the four children was a boy of eleven, named Tommy. Living in the wild had made him daring. He would instinctively dash off to fend off any danger to the family.
On one occasion, he spotted a snake inside the room and cried out loud to alert his mother. She rushed in, picked up the youngest child to hold her on her left hip. Tommy saw the snake sneaking in under the wood heap. With a large staff, he screamed to tell the mother. The dog sprang to its feet and chased the snake, but it managed to hide itself under the pile of wood. Unfortunately, Tommy hits the dog’s nose with his stick while trying to bring down his stick on the fleeing snake.
Alligator, the brave dog, is the least ruffled by the hit. It moves around the house to hunt down the snake. It takes some effort for the mother to chain him back. He is too precious to be lost through a snake bite.
The drover’s wife makes the children stand together near the dog-house while she watches for the snake. She gets two small dishes of milk and sets them down near the wall to tempt it to come out; but an hour goes by and it does not show itself.
It is near sunset, and a thunderstorm is coming. The children must be brought inside. She will not take them into the house, for she knows the snake is there, and may at any moment come up through a crack in the rough slab floor; so she carries several armfuls of firewood into the kitchen, and then takes the children there. The kitchen has no floor – or, rather, an earthen one – called a “ground floor” in this part of the bush. There is a large, roughly-made table in the centre of the place. She brings the children in, and makes them get on this table. They are two boys and two girls – mere babies. She gives some supper, and then, before it gets dark, she goes into house, and snatches up some pillows and bedclothes – expecting to see or lay or hand on the snake any minute. She makes a bed on the kitchen table for the children, and sits down beside it to watch all night.
She has an eye on the corner, and a green sapling club laid in readiness on the dresser by her side; also her sewing basket and a copy of the Young Ladies’ Journal. She has brought the dog into the room.
Tommy turns in, under protest, but says he’ll lie awake all night and smash that blinded snake.
His mother asks him how many times she has told not to swear.
He has his club with him under the bedclothes, and Jacky protests:
“Mummy! Tommy’s skinnin’ me alive wif his club. Make him take it out.”
Tommy: “Shet up you little —! D’yer want to be bit with the snake?”
Explanation …. The mother herded the children near the dog house and got two small milk pots. She placed the milk near the crack as bait for the snakes to come out. An hour elapsed and nothing happened. The snakes didn’t bite the bait.
Darkness was descending and a thunderstorm seemed to be gathering. Fearing the snakes, the mother hesitated to take the children inside. She wanted them kept out of the harm’s way. Finally, she took some firewood and went inside the room. The presence of the snakes was always at the back of her mind. The kitchen’s floor had no slabs – just plain ground, flattened manually. They called it the ‘Ground floor’. A large coarse looking table stood at the centre of the room. For safety, she made the children sit on the table. They eat their supper there before being carried into the bed room.
She knew the snakes would make their appearance any moment. She grabbed a few bed sheets and pillow that she planned to trap the snakes with. With a club near to her, she rested with a copy of the Young Ladies Journal in hand. The dog was brought into the room for surveillance.
Tommy is excited. He wants to lead the ‘search and destroy’ mission. He says some swear words, only to be admonished by his mother. Jacky protests as he finds the cub hidden by Tommy under the bed uncomfortable.
The mother pulls up Tommy again.
Jacky shuts up.
“If yer bit,” says Tommy, after a pause, “you’ll swell up, an smell, an’ turn red an’ green an’ blue all over till yer bust. Won’t he mother?”
“Now then, don’t frighten the child. Go to sleep,” she says.
The two younger children go to sleep, and now and then Jacky complains of being “skeezed.” More room is made for him. Presently Tommy says: “Mother! Listen to them (adjective) little possums. I’d like to screw their blanky necks.”
And Jacky protests drowsily.
“But they don’t hurt us, the little blanks!”
Mother: “There, I told you you’d teach Jacky to swear.” But the remark makes her smile. Jacky goes to sleep.
Presently Tommy asks:
“Mother! Do you think they’ll ever extricate the (adjective) kangaroo?”
“Lord! How am I to know, child? Go to sleep.”
“Will you wake me if the snake comes out?”
“Yes. Go to sleep.”
Near midnight. The children are all asleep and she sits there still, sewing and reading by turns. From time to time she glances round the floor and wall-plate, and, whenever she hears a noise, she reaches for the stick. The thunderstorm comes on, and the wind, rushing through the cracks in the slab wall, threatens to blow out her candle. She places it on a sheltered part of the dresser and fixes up a newspaper to protect it. At every flash of lightning, the cracks between the slabs gleam like polished silver. The thunder rolls, and the rain comes down in torrents.
Alligator lies at full length on the floor, with his eyes turned towards the partition. She knows by this that the snake is there. There are large cracks in that wall opening under the floor of the dwelling-house.
Explanation ….. In his elder brotherly way, Tommy tried to drive fear into Jacky’s mind as to how a snake bite could cripple the victim. The mother asked him to desist from such fear-mongering. The two younger children fell asleep. Only Tommy and Jacky remained awake. Jacky felt jittery.
Tommy complained agitatedly to his mother about the noise made by the possums (large jungle rats). His mother sternly ticked him off. Jacky joined the chatter heavy-eyedly.
Mid night was approaching. The mother kept her sleep away by sewing and reading alternately. The thunderstorm began to pound the area. Cold wind rushed through the gaps in the wall. The candle’s flame fluttered. She hooded the candle with a newspaper so that it didn’t get extinguished. The downpour was punctuated by lightening, whose blinding light set the gaps in the wall aglow. The thunder was deafening. I t was a dreadful night.
The dog Alligator eyed the partition vigilantly. The cracks in the floor stared gapingly at her.
She is not a coward, but recent events have shaken her nerves. A little son of her brother-in-law was lately bitten by a snake, and died. Besides, she has not heard from her husband for six months, and is anxious about him.
He was a drover, and started squatting here when they were married. The drought of 18– ruined him. He had to sacrifice the remnant of his flock and go droving again. He intends to move his family into the nearest town when he comes back, and, in the meantime, his brother, who keeps a shanty on the main road, comes over about once a month with provisions. The wife has still a couple of cows, one horse, and a few sheep. The brother-in-law kills one of the latter occasionally, gives her what she needs of it, and takes the rest in return for other provisions.
She is used to being left alone. She once lived like this for eighteen months. As a girl she built the usual castles in the air; but all her girlish hopes and aspirations have long been dead. She finds all the excitement and recreation she needs in the Young Ladies’ Journal, and Heaven help her! Takes a pleasure in the fashion plates.
Her husband is an Australian, and so is she. He is careless, but a good enough husband. If he had the means he would take her to the city and keep her there like a princess. They are used to being apart, or at least she is. “No use fretting,” she says. He may forget sometimes that he is married; but if he has a good cheque when he comes back he will give most of it to her. When he had money he took her to the city several times – hired a railway sleeping compartment, and put up at the best hotels. He also bought her a buggy, but they had to sacrifice that along with the rest.
The last two children were born in the bush – one while her husband was bringing a drunken doctor, by force, to attend to her. She was alone on this occasion, and very weak. She had been ill with fever. She prayed to God to send her assistance. God sent Black Mary – the “whitest” gin in all the land. Or, at least, God sent King Jimmy first, and he sent Black Mary. He put his black face round the door post, took in the situation at a glance, and said cheerfully: “All right, missus – I bring my old woman, she down along a creek.”
Explanation .. The drover’s wife was a gutsy woman, but a number of mishaps had undermined her self-confidence. A son of her brother-in-law succumbed to a snake bite. To make matters worse, her husband had not communicated anything to her for six months.
Her husband was devastated by a drought a few years ago. Left with just a few sheep, he settled in the present location building a makeshift shelter. He had no option to be a roaming shepherd. His brother lived likewise in a shanty on the main road. She had a few sheep, a horse and a few cows. They would kill a sheep on some occasions, keep some meat for herself, and give the rest to her brother-in-law in exchange of some provisions. It was a hard, frugal living, just managing somehow.
She had lived alone once earlier for eight months. The loneliness was painful, but she saw it through with fortitude. Her companion, Young Ladies Journal provided her the escape from boredom. Her youthful fantasies of luxury and comfort have dried up.
The couple is Australian. He is careless, but caring.
The wife had fond memories of her husband. He was loving, generous, although somewhat carefree. When he had money, he took her to the town in a reserved railway compartment, and put her up in a pricey hotel. Hard days had brought suffering to her, but she hardly complained against him.
She gave birth to the twins — Jimmy and Mary. It was a difficult birth. She weathered the hard time with remarkable stoicism. Her husband had gone to bring a doctor who was drunk on that occasion.
She thinks how she fought a flood during her husband’s absence. She stood for hours in the drenching downpour, and dug an overflow gutter to save the dame across the creek. But she could not save it. There are things that a bushwoman cannot do. Next morning the dam was broken, and her heart was nearly broken too, for she thought how her husband would feel when he came home and saw the result of years of labour swept away. She cried then.
She also fought the pleuro-pneumonia – dosed and bled the few remaining cattle, and wept again when her two best cows died.
Again, she fought a mad bullock that besieged the house for a day. She made bullets and fired at him through cracks in the slabs with an old shot-gun. He was dead in the morning. She skinned him and got seventeen-and-sixpence for the hide.
She also fights the crows and eagles that have designs on her chickens. He plan of campaign is very original. The children cry “Crows, mother!” and she rushes out and aims a broomstick at the birds as though it were a gun, and says “Bung!” The crows leave in a hurry; they are cunning, but a woman’s cunning is greater.
Occasionally a bushman in the horrors, or a villainous-looking sundowner, comes and nearly scares the life out of her. She generally tells the suspicious-looking stranger that her husband and two sons are at work below the dam, or over at the yard, for he always cunningly inquires for the boss.
Only last week a gallows-faced swagman – having satisfied himself that there were no men on the place – threw his swag down on the veranda, and demanded tucker. She gave him something to eat; then he expressed the intention of staying for the night. It was sundown then. She got a batten from the sofa, loosened the dog, and confronted the stranger, holding the batten in one hand and the dog’s collar with the other. “Now you go!” she said. He looked at her and at the dog, said “All right, mum,” in a cringing tone and left. She was a determined-looking woman, and Alligator’s yellow eyes glared unpleasantly – besides, the dog’s chawing-up apparatus greatly resembled that of the reptile he was named after.
Explanation .. On one occasion, there was torrential rain. The dam near her makeshift house overflowed. She quickly dug a diversion to let the excess water pass. However, it was a lost battle for her. The next morning, the dam gave in, under the pressure of water. She was crestfallen, more so because her husband could think her to be inept.
Pleuro-pneumonia struck ravaging her herd of cattle. She fought the calamity, single-handed.
On another occasion, a mad bullock laid siege to her hovel. She killed the menacing animal firing bullets. Later, she skinned the animal and sols off the hide for a small amount.
She used to scare away the crows and predatory eagles so that her chickens are kept out of the harm’s way.
She also had to face off dangerous-looking locals who came to her house with harmful intentions. Alligator, the dog came in very handy while confronting strangers who dared to take liberty with her.
She has few pleasures to think of as she sits here alone by the fire, on guard against a snake. All days are much the same for her; but on Sunday afternoon she dresses herself, tidies the children, smartens up baby, and goes for a lonely walk along the bush-track, pushing an old perambulator in front of her. She does this every Sunday. She takes as much care to make herself and the children look smart as she would if she were going to do the block in the city. There is nothing to see, however, and not a soul to meet. You might walk for twenty miles along this track without being able to fix a point in your mind, unless you are a bushman. This is because of the everlasting, maddening sameness of the stunted trees – that monotony which makes a man long to break away and travel as far as trains can go, and sail as far as ship can sail – and farther.
But this bushwoman is used to the loneliness of it. As a girl-wife she hated it, but now she would feel strange away from it.
She is glad when her husband returns, but she does not gush or make a fuss about it. She gets him something good to eat, and tidies up the children.
She seems contented with her lot. She loves her children, but has no time to show it. She seems harsh to them. Her surroundings are not favourable to the development of the “womanly” or sentimental side of nature.
It must be nearing morning now; but the clock is in the dwelling-house. Her candle is nearly done; she forgot that she was out of candles. Some more wood must be got to keep the fire up, and so she shuts the dog inside and hurries around to the woodheap. The rain has cleared off. She seizes a stick, pulls it out, and – crash! The whole pile collapses.
Yesterday she bargained with a stray blackfellow to bring her some wood, and while he was at work she went in search of a missing cow. She was absent an hour or so, and the native black made good use of his time. On her return she was so astonished to see a good heap of wood by the chimney, and she gave him an extra fig of tobacco, and praised him for not being lazy. He thanked her, and left with head erect and chest well out. He was the last of his tribe and a King; but he had built that wood-heap hollow.
Explanation .. On Sunday afternoons, to get some respite from the drudgery of her humdrum daily life, she goes out with her children for a long walk.
——————————————To be continued—————————–