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Authors: Douglas Stewart,Beatrice Davis

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Best Australian Short Stories

BOOK: Best Australian Short Stories
6.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub



Edited by Douglas Stewart
& Beatrice Davis




Copyright © 2008 New Holland Publishers

Published in Australia by
New Holland Publishers (Australia) Pty Ltd
Sydney Auckland London Cape Town
1/66 Gibbes Street Chatswood NSW 2067 Australia
218 Lake Road Northcote Auckland New Zealand
86 Edgware Road London W2 2EA United Kingdom
80 McKenzie Street Cape Town 8001 South Africa

First published in Adelaide by Rigby, 1975, as
Best Australian Short Stories
ISBN 9317819000161
This condensed edition published 2008, New Holland Publishers

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publishers and copyright holders.

A CIP record of this title is available from the National Library of Australia

ISBN 9781741108057
e-ISBN 9781921655135


The Drovers Wife
The Bush Undertaker

A Golden Shanty
A Visit to Scrubby Gully

The Deeply Poetic Account of a Midsummer Night’s Idyll

Piety’s Monument

The Cast-iron Canvasser

The Wharf Labourers

The Outcasts


The Duel

The Cooboo

The Vine-dweller
Song of the Flea

The Enthusiastic Prisoner

Jacob’s Escape

Our New Properties
Father Clears Out

The Road to Yesterday

The Rectors Wife Tempts the Bishop with a Brew of Nyppe

The Persimmon-tree

Come On, Billy

The Day at Brown Lakes

The Pilgrimage Year

The Tractor

The Pelican

Tree’s Can Speak


A Schoolie and a Ghost

A Really Splendid Evening

Three Jolly Foxes

The Pepper-tree

The Ant-lion



Henry Lawson


THE two-roomed house is built of round timber, slabs, and stringy-hark, and floored with split slabs. A big bark kitchen standing at one end is larger than the house itself, veranda included.

Bush all round–bush with no horizons, 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 civilization —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 into the woodheap!” 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 self. 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.

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 arm-fuls of firewood into the kitchen, and then takes the children there. The kitchen has no floors–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 them some supper, and then, before it gets dark, she goes into the house, and snatches up some pillows and bedclothes—expecting to see or lay her 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 him 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?”

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 “skeeze”. 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 toward 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.

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 mean-time, 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 com-partment, 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 a 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 alonga creek.”

BOOK: Best Australian Short Stories
6.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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