The Drover’s Wife – Intermediate Level
The house has two rooms. It is built of round logs and wooden boards, and has a bark roof. A big outside kitchen standing at one end is larger than the house itself, veranda included.
Bush all round… bush as far as the eye can see, for the country is flat and there are no mountains in the distance. The bush is made up of small, sick-looking native apple trees. There is nothing growing under them. Nothing to break the view other than the darker green of a few taller trees growing beside the narrow, almost dry creek. It is nineteen miles to the nearest neighbour – another small house on the main road.
The drover is away with sheep. His wife and children are left here alone.
Four dried-up looking children in old, torn clothes are playing about the house. Suddenly one of them shouts: “Snake! Mother, here’s a snake!”
Thin and brown from working in the sun, his mother runs from the kitchen. She picks her baby up from the ground, holds it on her left hip, and reaches for a stick.
“Where is it?”
“Here! Gone into the wood pile!” shouts the boy of eleven with a sharp face. “Stop there, mother! I’ll get him. Stand back! I’ll kill it!”
“Tommy, come here, or you’ll be bitten. Come here at once when I tell you!” The youngster comes unhappily, carrying a stick bigger than himself.
“There it goes – under the house!” he shouts, and runs away again with club in the air. At the same time Alligator, a big, black, yellow-eyed mongrel dog, breaks his chain and runs after the snake. He is a moment late, however, and his nose reaches the hole in the wall just as the end of its tail disappears. Almost at the same moment the boy’s club comes down and hits the end of Alligator’s nose. The dog takes small notice of this, and starts to dig under the building. However, he is brought under control after a struggle and chained up again. They cannot afford to lose him.
The drover’s wife makes the children stand together near the dog while she watches for the snake. She gets two small dishes of milk and sets them down near the wall to try to get it to come out. An hour goes by and it does not show itself.
It is getting dark, and a storm is coming. The children must be brought inside. She will not take them into the house. She knows the snake is there, and may at any moment come up through a space between the boards in the rough floor. So she carries several lots of firewood into the outside kitchen and takes the children there. The kitchen has no floor – or, rather, an earth floor – 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 – little more than babies. She gives them some dinner. Then, before it gets dark, she goes into the house. She quickly picks up up some pillows and blankets, 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 wall between the kitchen and the house, and a club laid in readiness on the cupboard by her side. Also her sewing basket and a copy of the ‘Young Ladies’ Journal’. She has brought the dog into the room.
Tommy lays down. He doesn’t want to, but is told that he must. He tells his mother that he’ll not sleep all night and kill that damned snake.
His mother asks him how many times she has told him not to swear.
He has his club with him under the blanket.
“Mummy!” Jacky cries. “Tommy’s club is hurting me. Make him take it out.”
“Shut up, you little…!” says Tommy. “Do you want to be bitten by the snake?”
Jacky shuts up.
“If you are bitten,” Tommy continues, “you’ll get bigger and bigger, and smell, and turn red and green and blue all over till you explode. 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 not having enough room. More room is made for him. “Mother! listen to them damn possums,” says Tommy. “I’d like to screw their damn necks.”
“But they don’t hurt us, the damn possums,” says Jacky sleepily!”
“There!” says mother. “I told you you’d teach Jacky to swear.” But she smiles as she speaks. Jacky goes to sleep.
“Mother?” asks Tommy soon afterwards. “Do you think they’ll ever get rid of the damn kangaroos?”
“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 looks round the floor and up at the space where the roof of the kitchen and the roof of the house join. Whenever she hears a noise, she reaches for the stick. The storm comes on and the wind, blowing through holes in the wall, almost puts out her candle. She places it on part of the cupboard where there is less wind and fixes up a newspaper to protect it. Lightning cracks, thunder rolls, and it rains heavily.
Alligator lies at full length on the floor, with his eyes turned towards the bottom of the wall. She knows by this that the snake is there. There are large holes in that wall under the floor of the house.
She is not usually scared of anything, but recent events have shaken her up. A little son of her husband’s brother was lately bitten by a snake and died. Besides, she has not heard from her husband for six months, and is worried about him.
He was a drover, but gave it up and started farming this land when they were married. They lost all their money in a drought. He had to sell what was left of his sheep and go droving again. He plans to move his family into the nearest town when he comes back.
While he is away, his brother, who has a house on the main road, comes over about once a month with food and other things they might need. The wife has still a couple of cows, one horse, and a few sheep. The man kills one of the sheep occasionally. He gives her what she needs of it, and takes the rest as payment for the things he brought.
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 dreams have long been dead. She finds all the excitement and enjoyment she needs in the ‘Young Ladies’ Journal’. And, Heaven help her, she takes great pleasure in the fashion pictures.
Her husband is an Australian, and so is she. He is careless, but a good enough husband. If he had the money 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 worrying about it,” 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 the money to her. When he had money he took her to the city several times and they stayed at the best hotels. He also bought her a buggy, but they had to sell that along with the rest.
The last two children were born in the bush – one while her husband was bringing a drunk doctor, by force, to help her. She was alone on this occasion, and very weak. She had been ill and had a high temperature. She prayed to God to send her assistance. God sent Black Mary – the ‘whitest’ aboriginal woman in all the land. Or, at least, God sent King Jimmy first, and he sent Black Mary. Jimmy put his black face round the door post and took in the situation at once. “All right, missus,” he said in calm voice. “I’ll bring my old woman, she’s down along the creek.”
One of the children died while she was here alone. She rode nineteen miles for assistance, carrying the dead child.
It must be near one or two o’clock. The fire is burning low. Alligator lies with his head down, and watches the wall. He is not a very beautiful dog, and the light shows marks from many old fights where the hair will not grow. He is afraid of nothing on the face of the earth or under it. He will attack a bullock as readily as he will attack a flea. He hates all other dogs – except kangaroo-dogs – and has a marked dislike to friends or relations of the family. They do not visit often, however. He sometimes makes friends with strangers. He hates snakes and has killed many, but he will be bitten some day and die. Most dogs that fight snakes end that way.
Now and then the woman lays down her work and watches, and listens, and thinks. She thinks of things in her own life, for there is little else to think about.
The rain will make the grass grow, and this makes her think about how she fought a grass fire once while her husband was away. The grass was long, and very dry, and it looked like the fire might burn the house down. She put on an old pair of her husband’s trousers and tried to beat out the fire with a green tree branch. Drops of blackened sweat stood out on her head and ran down her arms. Tommy worked bravely by her side. He thought the sight of his mother in trousers was very funny, but the scared baby cried loudly for his ‘mummy’. The fire would have won but for four men riding by who arrived just in time.
They all had a good laugh when she went to take up the baby. He screamed and tried to get away, thinking she was an aborigine. Alligator, trusting more to the child’s cries than his own feelings, charged angrily. Being old and not able to hear very well, in his excitement he did not at first recognize her voice. He continued to hang on to the trousers until pulled off by Tommy. You could see how sorry the dog was for his mistake from his fast moving tail and twelve-inch smile. It was a great day for the boys; a day to look back to, and talk about, and laugh over for many years.
She thinks how she fought a flood while her husband was away. She stood for hours in the heavy rain, and tried to save the dam across the creek by digging a path around it for the water to follow. But she could not save it. There are things that a woman of the bush cannot do. Next morning the dam was broken, and her heart was nearly broken too. She knew how her husband would feel when he came home and saw the result of years of hard work washed away. She cried then.
She also fought the cattle flu. She tried hard to save the few remaining cattle, and cried again when her two best cows died.
Again, she fought a mad bullock that wouldn’t let them out of the house for a day. She made bullets and fired at him through holes in the wall with an old shotgun. He was dead in the morning. She cut him up for meat and sold the skin.
She also fights the crows and eagles that have designs on her chickens. Her plan of war is very original. The children cry “Crows, mother!” and she runs out, points a stick at the birds as though it were a gun, and shouts “Bang!” The crows leave in a hurry. They are clever, but not as clever as a woman.
Occasionally a drunk rider, or an evil looking swagman, stops by and nearly scares the life out of her. They always ask for the boss to see if she is alone. She generally tells them that her husband and two sons are at work below the dam, or over at the stockyard.
Only last week a dangerous looking swagman came to the door. Having satisfied himself that there were no men on the place, he threw his things down on the veranda and demanded food. She gave him something to eat; then he expressed his plan to stay for the night. It was sundown then. She got a heavy stick, loosened the dog, and walked up to the stranger. She held the stick in one hand and the dog’s chain in the other. “Now you go!” she said. He looked at her, and then at the dog. “All right, mum,” he said in a scared voice, and left. She looked as if she meant what she said, and Alligator’s yellow eyes shone angrily. Besides, the dog’s mouth looked very much like that of the animal he was named after.
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 to her. But on Sunday afternoon she dresses herself, tidies the children, and smartens up baby. She takes them for a lonely walk along the bush track, pushing an old pram 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 for a walk in the city. There is nothing to see, however, and no one to meet. You might walk for twenty miles along this track without being able to know where you are, unless you know the bush. This is because of the everlasting, maddening sameness of the small trees. The sameness which makes a man long to get away and travel as far as trains can go, and sail as far as ships can sail – and farther.
But this woman of the bush is used to the loneliness of it. When she was young and they first came here, she had hated it. But now she would feel strange away from it.
She is glad when her husband returns, but she does not act as if it is anything special. She gets him something good to eat, and tidies up the children.
She seems happy with her life. She loves her children, but has no time to show it. She seems hard on them. Life in the bush is not favourable to the development of the womanly side of nature.
It must be near morning now, but the clock is in the 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 walks quickly round to the wood pile. The rain has cleared off. She takes a stick, pulls it out, and crash! The whole pile falls down.
Yesterday she paid a passing aboriginal man to bring her some wood. While he was at work she went in search of a missing cow. She was gone an hour or so, and the native black made good use of his time. On her return she was surprised at how much wood he had collected. She paid him extra, and said nice things about him for not being lazy. He thanked her, and left with head high and chest well out. He was the last of his tribe and a ‘King’, but he had built that wood pile so that it was empty inside.
She is hurt now, and tears spring to her eyes as she sits down again by the table. She takes up a handkerchief to wipe the tears away, but pokes her eyes with her fingers instead. The handkerchief is full of holes, and she finds that she has put her thumb through one, and a finger through another. This makes her laugh, to the surprise of the dog. She has a good, very good, sense of things that are funny; and some time or other she will entertain people with the story.
This sort of thing had happened before. One day she sat down ‘to have a good cry’ – and the old cat rubbed against her dress and ‘cried too’. Then she had to laugh.
It must be near daylight now. The room is very hot because of the fire. Alligator still watches the wall from time to time. Suddenly he becomes greatly interested and draws himself a few inches nearer the wall. Excitement runs through his body. The hair on the back of his neck begins to stand up, and the battle light is in his yellow eyes. She knows what this means, and puts her hand on the stick. The lower end of one of the boards in the wall has holes on both sides. An evil pair of small, round eyes shine at one of these holes. The snake – a black one – comes slowly out, about a foot, and moves its head up and down. The dog lies still, and the woman sits watching carefully. The snake comes out a foot farther. She lifts her stick.
The snake, as though suddenly aware of danger, sticks his head in through the hole on the other side of the board. He hurries to get his tail round after him. Alligator attacks, and his teeth come together with a snap. He misses, for his nose is large, and the snake’s body close to where the board meets the floor. He snaps again as the tail comes round. He has the snake now, and pulls it out eighteen inches. Bang, bang comes the woman’s club on the ground. Alligator pulls again. Bang, bang. Alligator gives another pull and he has the snake out – a big, black one, five feet long. The head rises to move about, but the dog has the enemy close to the neck. He is a big, heavy dog, but can move very quickly. He shakes the snake. Tommy wakes up, picks up his stick, and tries to get out of bed. His mother forces him back. Bang, bang – the snake’s back is broken in several places. Bang, bang – its head is crushed, and poor Alligator’s nose is hit again.
She lifts the broken body of the snake on the point of her stick, carries it to the fire, and throws it in. Then she puts on more wood and watches the snake burn. The boy and dog watch too. She lays her hand on the dog’s head, and all the battle light dies out of his yellow eyes. The younger children are quietened, and soon go to sleep.
Tommy stands for a moment in his shirt, watching the fire. He then looks up at her, sees the tears in her eyes, and throws his arms round her neck. “Mother, I won’t ever go droving,” he cries, “damn me if I do!” She pulls him to her worn-out breast and kisses him. They sit thus together while the sickly daylight breaks over the bush.