Andrew Robertson.

Nuggets in the devil's punch bowl, and other Australian tales online

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* * * * * *

_Crown 8vo. cloth. 6s._


And Other Australian Tales




* * * * * *




Author of "The Kidnapped Squatter," etc.

Longmans, Green, and Co.
And New York: 15 East 16th Street

Melville, Mullen, and Slade

(All rights reserved)

Printed by
Hazell, Watson, and Viney, Ld.,
London and Aylesbury.








Bill Marlock had been shearing all the morning, with long slashing cuts
before which the fleece fell, fold upon fold. He was the "ringer" of the
shed, and his reputation was at stake, for Norman Campbell was running
him close. To-day was Saturday, and it was known from the tally that
Bill was only one sheep ahead, and that Norman was making every effort
to finish the week "one better" than the record shearer of Yantala
woolshed. The two men were working side by side, and eyeing each other
from time to time with furtive glances. Norman suddenly straightened
himself, and, quick as a frightened snake, thrust his long body across
the "board," with the sheep he had shorn in his sinewy hands, and shot
it into the tally pen among the white, shivering sheep. Then he dashed
into the catching pen, and seized the smaller of two sheep that
remained. At almost the same moment Bill had his hands upon the same
sheep, but took them off when he saw the other man was before him, and
was obliged to content himself, much to his chagrin, with the "cobbler,"
a grizzled, wiry-haired old patriarch that every one had shunned.

When Bill carried out this sheep there was a loud roar from all the
shearers who caught from that pen, followed by derisive laughter.

"Who shaved the cobbler?" was shouted from one end of the shed to the

When almost every man had slashed and stabbed Bill with these cutting
words, a whisper ran round the "board" that Norman had beaten Bill in
his tally, and that the beaten man was groaning over his defeat and
climbing down from the position of the fastest shearer in the shed.

Bill did not like this: that was clear. He had known all the morning
that his pride of place was slipping from him, for his wrist ached and
was giving way under the strain. He finished shearing the "cobbler" when
the manager shouted "Smoko!" Then Bill slid down on the slippery floor
without a word, and laid his head upon his outstretched arm.

The sun was hot. Everything was frizzling, frying, or baking. The
stunted white-gums drooped and yawned; the grass hung limp; the tall
thistles bowed their heads and shut their eyes; the lizards were as
quiet as the granite boulders on which they lay; the crows sat
motionless on the fences; and the clouds were too lazy to move.

"Ee takes es gruel without choking, an' doesn't find no bones in't,"
said Jack Jewell, with a jerk of his left thumb towards Bill.

"Ol' Bill's panned out. Ef ee isn't ringer 'is porridge 'as no salt
in't," said Tom Wren.

"He! he!" giggled a weak little man; "it's like ridin' in a kerridge,
an' comin' down to hobblin' on yer own trotters."

Peter Amos, a greybeard, shook his head solemnly as he buried his nose
in a pannikin of tea, and said, "Let him that thinketh he standeth take
heed lest he fall - that's gospel wisdom; an' don't 'it a man wen's
down - that's worldly wisdom, an' looks like as it 'ad jumped out o' the
Bible stark naked."

"Mair like the man i' the parable, Peter," said Sandy McKerrow, "wha
took the highest room wi' a swagger, an' had to climb down to the lowest
room wi' his tail 'tween his legs."

"Aye, man, that's verra true, verra true," said another known as

Here a stalwart giant, with a shock of red hair, stood up, with doubled
fists, and spat on the floor; then said, "If any of you mongrel mules
says another word against Bill, I'll rattle your teeth down your throat
like dice in a box."

Meanwhile the subject of this conversation had closed his eyes, and was
fast asleep. All his senses were locked, bolted, and barred. Sheep,
shears, tallies, and pride of place were forgotten. He was in the land
of dreams, that ancient land of gold, precious stones, ivory castles,
battle, murder, and sudden death.

Silence reigned in the shed. The men quietly ladled the tea out of the
buckets into their pannikins, or struck a match on the seat of their
trousers, lit their pipes, and smoked.

Bill slept on, but suddenly his brow was knitted and his hands were
clenched. Then he opened his eyes, and looked round with a scared face.

"Boys," he said, "I've had a dream! I'll never shear another sheep!"

He slowly rose and stood up, then he took his oilstone, and with it
smashed his shears into fragments.

"Good-bye all," he said; then slid into the count-out pen, vaulted two
fences, got his saddle and swag. When he caught his horse, he saddled
up, mounted, and rode away across the ranges.

"There's a roaring fire in that volcano," said Peter Amos, keeping the
words well between his teeth, for fear of the giant with the shock of
red hair.


Whether the dream or the hand of fate gave him his course I know not,
but Bill rode a straight line, up hill and down dale. When he came to a
fence or a log he made his horse jump it. There was no going round or
turning back, till he found himself descending a steep, rugged spot,
known as the Devil's Punch Bowl.

"This is the place I saw in my dream," he said aloud; "but where is the
dead man?"

A little stream wound in and out among the rocks. The hum of bees and
the smell of honey filled the air. Wattles waved their yellow tassels,
and reflected splashes of gold on the water. Wild mint, fennel, and
chamomile dipped their feet in the water, and wove two ribbons of green
on the margin of the brook, as far as the eye could measure them.

He came to a little track which his bush experience taught him was made
by man. He followed it to the water's edge. Here it had a grim ending. A
bucket and an old pannikin stood on a stone; a fresh footmark was
printed, sharp and clear, on a patch of damp earth; and the body of a
man, motionless, asleep or dead, was half hidden among the herbage,
growing lush and tall, as if trying to screen it with loving hands.

Bill jumped off his horse, and gently turned the man over on his back
and looked at him. One glance was enough. Two eyes, wide open, and
horrible to behold, met his gaze. A faint smile seemed to linger about
the mouth. The face appeared to be chiselled marble. It was easy to see
that Death had aimed true, and that his dart had struck home.

Bill, nevertheless, instinctively put his finger on the dead man's
pulse, and placed his hand over the heart. They were both still as a
rundown clock, and stopped for ever.

A letter had fallen from the man's pocket when he was being turned
over. Bill took it up in the hope that it would disclose something. The
writing was in a woman's hand, full of affection, repetition, and
platitude. It wound up with, "Your loving daughter, Mary." There was a
date on the top, but no address. There was an envelope, and the postmark
was Melbourne.

"Not much clue," said Bill; "nameless, so far." The man, evidently, by
the clay smears on his trousers, and by the general appearance of his
clothes, was a digger.

"I saw a tent in my dream, so I'll look for it," said Bill.

He went along the little track for a hundred yards, and there, behind
some stunted bushes, stood a weather-stained, ragged tent. Everything
about it was squalid, unkempt, unwashed, and unlovely. The only bit of
sentiment, or romance if you will, was a photograph of a girl, pinned to
the tent, at the head of the bed. There was a pathetic look about the
eyes which seemed to follow him wherever he turned. They haunted him,
and illumined the tent. After a short time he went up to the portrait,
and stared at it for five minutes, studying every feature.

"I suppose you are Mary," he said; "I feel we are to meet some day, and
you are to come into my life."

Below the photograph, and also pinned to the canvas, was a rude diagram.
At one end of a line was a triangle; at the other end a curious tree
with two branches touching the ground. Between the triangle and the tree
was a big dot, and at the dot were two figures, but whether 45 or 65 he
could not tell. An arrow pointed to them.

He kissed the photograph, unpinned it carefully, and put it in his

Then he took down the diagram and examined it more carefully. There was
an almost undecipherable scrawl at the bottom, which he made out to be,
"For Mary." He put the diagram in his purse.

"This morning," he whispered, "I thought I was tied to shearing for
life; now I am harnessed, in some mysterious way, to a romance. This
dead man clutches me like the Old Man of the Mountain. He has me in his
grip; and this Mary moves me strangely. Shall we ever meet?"

He mounted his horse, and cantered down the valley till he came to the
main road, where he stood uncertain where to turn. At first he thought
of going to the nearest township, twelve miles to the east, to report
the finding of the body, so that an inquest might be held; but it
occurred to him that his movements this morning might savour of madness,
or worse, and he might be called upon to show why he left the shed so
abruptly. He might be accused of causing the old man's death. These and
suchlike thoughts ran up and down his brain for some time; then he
slowly turned his horse to the west, and rode furiously till he came to
the Yantala woolshed.

The men had finished dinner, had washed and brushed up a bit, and were
catching their horses preparatory to dispersing till Sunday night.

Constable Duffus was coming out of the manager's hut, where he had
dropped in for dinner. Bill told his tale to him, and the manager,
coming up at that moment, listened with all his ears. One by one the
shearers and the rouseabouts clustered, like a swarm of bees round their
queen, and hung about Bill with open mouth, while he told of finding
the dead body at the Devil's Punch Bowl.

"Fwhat's this?" said the constable; "a man kicked de bucket widout
benefit av clargy. Och! the lonely man. To turn yer toes up to de sky,
an' nobody handy to close yer eyes, is gashtly creepy."

"But what's to be done?" said Bill. "We must give the poor man decent
burial, an' find out where he came from, an' whether he has a wife or
children, an' all about him."

"Them lonely buffers never have wife, nor chick, nor child, nor uncle,
nor aunt, nor any other frind," said the constable. "They've got a story
tacked on their back like a clout, every mother's son av thim. Or maybe,
every patch on their trousers is stitched wid a mother's tears or a
wife's groans. They've generally been turned out av the family for the
drink or the disgrace av them. Tin to wan you'll find he's prison
cropped, or you'll percaive a broad arrow on his small clothes."

"He looks as if he had been a decent old chap; respectable like, honest,
but poor," said Bill.

"We must have an inquisht," said the constable "on Monday morning, at
tin o'clock, say, at the Pretty Sally Inn. I'll requisition a cart av
ye, Mr. McDonald."

"All right," said the manager.

A cart was obtained, and the constable requested Bill to accompany him
to the spot where the corpse was lying. He was nothing loth, as he hoped
to find out where the dead man came from, and discover the whereabouts
of the girl whose portrait had so strangely moved him.

The body was taken to the inn the same afternoon.


Next day Bill rode to the place where the dead man's tent was still
standing. The place had a grim fascination for him. Something about the
old man's face and staring eyes held him in thrall. The appealing look
of the girl in the photograph enchained him. The dream spoke strangely
to his imagination. He felt that something had entered into his life. He
did not feel a free man. Compulsion appeared to be laid upon him, and he
could not shake off the feeling that a course was being shaped for him,
a pattern was being woven which he did not design.

He lingered about the Devil's Punch Bowl all day, and wondered what was
being brewed for him. He hoped it was something pleasant: a cup to his

Monday came, and the coroner arrived in a hired buggy. The constable
seized upon the publican and one of his men, to serve on the jury. Then
he stationed himself at the door of the inn, and impounded every man who
passed along the road, until he counted ten upon his fingers, whereupon
he doubled up his fists. His hands were full - the jury was complete.

The publican hustled the "good men and true" into the bar, like a flock
of sheep, and was ready to "lamb" them down.

"Who stands drinks?" he said.

A man who had just finished painting the house, and was going to be paid
that day, spoke up, and said, "I will; for I sees from that placard,"
pointing his thumb at it, "that drinks is to be redooced to-day from a
shillin' to sixpence, so we'll wet the occasion."

"Give your commands, gentlemen!" said the publican; "keep the ball

"Gin for me, some'at stiff, for I can't stand a corp," said one of the

"Brandy for me, as I feel a sinkin'," said another.

"Whisky for me; I've a qualm in the stummick."

"Beer, that's good for a buryin'," said the wag.

The publican and his wife handed out the drinks in a surprisingly short
time. In some unaccountable way the news that free drinks were about had
run round the place with fleet foot, and seventeen thirsty men and women
stood up to receive them; then they drank and smacked their lips, for
free drinks are sweet to the taste.

The publican poured out some brandy for himself, and immediately bawled:
"Eighteen drinks, painter; hand us over the stiff."

"Here you are," said the painter, putting a sovereign into the
publican's hand; at the same time trying to look pleased, but his mouth
wouldn't go into the right position. The drawing was all wrong.

"Eighteen drinks, eighteen shillin's," said the publican.

"'Old 'ard," said the painter; "look at your own placard - sixpence each,
if _you_ please. I figur' it at nine shillin's, accordin' to Cocker."

"Placard be blowed!" said the publican; "everybody knows that, in legal
dociments, the day begins at twelve o'clock. The price of drinks before
twelve is a shillin', after twelve they is sixpence. Here's two
shillin's change, painter!"

"All right!" said the painter in a whisper, and with a cunning wink to
the constable, "Hark you, I'll be even with him! I'll charge him nine
shillin's extra in my bill for turpentine and putty."

"The Crowner is sittin', the jury is summoned! Quick; every mother's son
av yees!" said the constable.

The inquest was soon over. The local doctor had made a _post mortem_
examination. The verdict of the jury was, "Died from natural causes."

The clock in the bar cuckooed eleven times. Drinks were still a shilling
each, so no one would venture his nose within smell of liquor for an
hour at least. The jury preferred a draught of fresh air just now, as
the room in which they had sat was close and stuffy. Their courage had
been uncorked and spilt in the presence of the "corp," and they felt as
limp as a wet rag.

Bill was anxious to get away, and he was about to jump on his horse,
when the constable rushed out of the bar, wiping his mouth with the back
of his hand.

"Bill Marlock," he said, "is it running yees are, an' lavin' me wid de
corp, stark an' shtiff, to rattle his bones over the logs and boulders
to de cimetery. Yees found him above ground, an' de laste yees can do is
to see him under de turf."

"I don't mind if I do, seein' you put it in that way," said Bill.

"I thought yees would; shure he'd do the same for you any day!"

The coffin, with the dead man in it, was carried out. When the jurymen
saw it they rushed forward to lend a hand, and buzzed about like flies
round carrion. They felt they had an interest in the poor body within.
They had "sat" upon it, and given their verdict. They had carried out
the law's behest, and they would carry out the "remains" on their
shoulders. Bill took off his hat, and every man followed his example.
Then the coffin was reverently laid on a cart, and covered with old
sacks. The constable climbed into the seat, gathered the reins in his
left hand, and reminded the horse by a flick on the ear that it must
look alive when it was carrying a dead man. The horse awoke with a
start, and dashed down the road. Half a dozen horsemen, with Bill at
their head, galloped after, enveloped in a cloud of dust - dust before
and behind.

The funeral procession passed on at a quick pace, but had not gone many
miles when the constable looked back and found that Bill was the only
mourner. The other men had dropped out of the ranks, and had silently
disappeared, one to his farm, and another to his merchandise.

In about two hours the constable and Bill arrived at the village of
Mopoke. The only clergyman in the place was hastily summoned to read the
burial service. He was writing his next Sunday's sermon, with a pipe in
his mouth. He jumped up immediately, stuck his pen absently behind his
ear, pulled his surplice from a peg, and hitched it over his shoulders
as he made for the door. The prospect of a fee unstiffened his
rheumatic joints. There had been no burial in Mopoke for a year.

Funerals were as rare and far between as white kangaroos. The unwonted
strokes of the gravedigger's axe, cutting some saplings, had rung like a
knell from the cemetery in the morning, and the whole population had
turned out to know the why and the wherefore. Boys and girls had played
truant, and hid behind the tombs, until the school bell had ceased to
tinkle and trouble their consciences; then they kicked up their heels
like a flock of lambs. They had about as little reverence for the dead
as hyenas. The boys played leapfrog over the graves, and the girls ran
up and down the mounds or had a game of hop-scotch on the weedy paths.
Suddenly they were hushed by a solemn voice chanting the words, "I am
the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord."

The children dashed away, tumbling over each other as they rushed to the
grave, and clustered about it like rabbits round a water-hole in a
drought. The cart came up slowly, and the horse looked solemn. The
clergyman took his stand at the grave, reading the burial service,
while the pebbles crunched under his feet and rattled below.

The constable represented the law, the clergyman the gospel.

With the help of Bill, the gravedigger lowered the coffin to its
resting-place. "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," was said, and the earth
was shovelled in right merrily. Very soon the old man was covered up,
and tucked in his narrow bed. Only a little mound of earth showed the
swelling of the puffed-up earth, proud of having swallowed another
victim. Insatiable is the grave!

As soon as the gravedigger turned his back, the boys and girls proceeded
to attest their presence as witnesses by writing their names, with
knives, rusty nails, and pins, on the smooth black mound. Then there was
a general exodus, and a fearful looking forward to punishment from the
schoolmaster in the morning. The taskmaster was waiting for them.
Pharaoh and all his host seemed to be in pursuit.

Bill Marlock heaved a sigh when he stood alone outside the cemetery
gate. The old man was buried, but his spirit seemed to haunt him. He
felt as if it were floating by his side, and pushing him in the
direction of the Devil's Punch Bowl.

Bill stood in the middle of the road uncertain where to go. He took from
his pocket the photograph of the girl with the pathetic eyes. Then he
looked at the letter, signed "Mary," and at the diagram. He felt
bewitched, for the eyes appeared to glance for a moment towards the
north-west, where the old man died; the writing of the letter seemed to
slope towards the same point; and the arrow on the diagram shot straight
for that goal.

Fate was too strong for him, but he would give himself another chance.
He would throw his stick in the air and see how it pointed when it fell.
If it pointed to the north-west, he would go to the Devil's Punch Bowl;
if not, he would go to Melbourne. He threw the stick, with many a twirl,
and it fell, aiming at the north-west.

"Double, double toil and trouble," he said; "the dream and the omens are
too much for me. To the Devil's Punch Bowl I must go."

He jumped on his horse, which had been cropping the short sweet grass,
and rode as fast as he could till he came to the Pretty Sally Inn, where
he had some bread and cheese, and bought some chops to carry with him;
then he rode slowly up the gulley which led to the Devil's Punch Bowl.


The tent was standing, just as he had left it on Sunday. There seemed to
be a disconsolate, pathetic droop in the limp folds of the ragged
canvas. Pathos and expression are not confined to living things. Some
inanimate objects are invested with joy, others with a heritage of woe.
A deserted digger's tent is the mournfullest thing in the world, the
embodiment of misery in every fibre - desolation painted on canvas, as
never limner's brush equalled.

He unpinned the tent flap and looked in. He almost expected to see the
dead man, prone on the bed, staring with glassy eyes at the ridge-pole.
He went into the tent and sat down on a block of wood which had served
as a seat. Then he took the portrait from his pocket, and pinned it in
the place where he had found it. He examined the diagram once more, and
tried to get at the heart of it. It had a story to tell - a riddle might
be guessed from it. He was here to learn what fate would unfold.

The sun was going down full of fire: long, inky shadows were creeping up
the hills. Bill watched one of them going, inch by inch, nearer and
nearer to the rim of the Devil's Punch Bowl, when, lo! just at the edge,
hit by the last patch of red, stood a tree, with two branches touching
the ground, as in the diagram, one on either side, as if two men were
hanging there.

"That is the tree, at any rate," he said. "Happy discovery! I'm on the

Darkness began to come down like a shroud; a dingo howled up the gulley;
a gun cracked in the distance, and echoed among the hills; a bittern
boomed its dreary call; and a mopoke drawled its woebegone cry.
Everything was weird and uncanny. Bill's hearing seemed preternaturally
acute to-night. The sounds thrilled every nerve; he felt them in his
bones and marrow. He was unutterably wretched, up here, above
civilisation, warmth, and human society. He feared to be alone in the
dead man's tent.

He had been pushed into his present position - mere clay in the hands of
a higher Power. He felt in the presence of his Maker. He went into the
tent, groped about for a candle, lit it, and fell upon his knees. When
he arose there was a great peace in his soul. He was not doing his own
will, but the will of Him who had sent him here for some purpose not yet
apparent. It was hidden, but he had no doubt it would be made plain. It
would develop as a bird develops in the shell.

He was tired, so he unwrapped his blankets, spread them on the bed,
undressed himself, lay down, and was soon fast asleep.

When he awoke the sun was up, and shining cheerily through the thin
canvas. Three magpies were chattering on the ridge-pole, telling the
news of the night and all talking at once - all mouth and noise, like a
cannon on the Queen's birthday, or like boys let loose from
school - plenty of shouting, but no listening; pearls of wisdom dropping,
and no one picking them up.

He rose, and made a fire by the side of a log; then filled the kettle
and put it on; then he went to the creek and had a wash. He felt fresh

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Online LibraryAndrew RobertsonNuggets in the devil's punch bowl, and other Australian tales → online text (page 1 of 9)