[Editor: This is a chapter from On the Track (1900) by Henry Lawson.]
A vision of Sandy Blight
I’d been humping my back, and crouching and groaning for an hour or so in the darkest corner of the travellers’ hut, tortured by the demon of sandy blight. It was too hot to travel, and there was no one there except ourselves and Mitchell’s cattle pup. We were waiting till after sundown, for I couldn’t have travelled in the daylight, anyway. Mitchell had tied a wet towel round my eyes, and led me for the last mile or two by another towel — one end fastened to his belt behind, and the other in my hand as I walked in his tracks. And oh! but this was a relief! It was out of the dust and glare, and the flies didn’t come into the dark hut, and I could hump and stick my knees in my eyes and groan in comfort. I didn’t want a thousand a year, or anything; I only wanted relief for my eyes — that was all I prayed for in this world. When the sun got down a bit, Mitchell started poking round, and presently he found amongst the rubbish a dirty-looking medicine bottle, corked tight; when he rubbed the dirt off a piece of notepaper that was pasted on, he saw “eye-water” written on it. He drew the cork with his teeth, smelt the water, stuck his little finger in, turned the bottle upside down, tasted the top of his finger, and reckoned the stuff was all right.
“Here! Wake up, Joe!” he shouted. “Here’s a bottle of tears.”
“A bottler wot?” I groaned.
“Eye-water,” said Mitchell.
“Are you sure it’s all right?” I didn’t want to be poisoned or have my eyes burnt out by mistake; perhaps some burning acid had got into that bottle, or the label had been put on, or left on, in mistake or carelessness.
“I dunno,” said Mitchell, “but there’s no harm in tryin’.”
I chanced it. I lay down on my back in a bunk, and Mitchell dragged my lids up and spilt half a bottle of eye-water over my eye-balls.
The relief was almost instantaneous. I never experienced such a quick cure in my life. I carried the bottle in my swag for a long time afterwards, with an idea of getting it analysed, but left it behind at last in a camp.
Mitchell scratched his head thoughtfully, and watched me for awhile.
“I think I’ll wait a bit longer,” he said at last, “and if it doesn’t blind you I’ll put some in my eyes. I’m getting a touch of blight myself now. That’s the fault of travelling with a mate who’s always catching something that’s no good to him.”
As it grew dark outside we talked of sandy-blight and fly-bite, and sand-flies up north, and ordinary flies, and branched off to Barcoo rot, and struck the track again at bees and bee stings. When we got to bees, Mitchell sat smoking for awhile and looking dreamily backwards along tracks and branch tracks, and round corners and circles he had travelled, right back to the short, narrow, innocent bit of track that ends in a vague, point — like the end of a long, straight, cleared road in the moonlight — as far back as we can remember.
* * * *
“I had about fourteen hives,” said Mitchell — “we used to call them ‘swarms,’ no matter whether they were flying or in the box — when I left home first time. I kept them behind the shed, in the shade, on tables of galvanised iron cases turned down on stakes; but I had to make legs later on, and stand them in pans of water, on account of the ants. When the bees swarmed — and some hives sent out the Lord knows how many swarms in a year, it seemed to me — we’d tin-kettle ’em, and throw water on ’em, to make ’em believe the biggest thunderstorm was coming to drown the oldest inhabitant; and, if they didn’t get the start of us and rise, they’d settle on a branch — generally on one of the scraggy fruit trees. It was rough on the bees — come to think of it; their instinct told them it was going to be fine, and the noise and water told them it was raining. They must have thought that nature was mad, drunk, or gone ratty, or the end of the world had come. We’d rig up a table, with a box upside down, under the branch, cover our face with a piece of mosquito net, have rags burning round, and then give the branch a sudden jerk, turn the box down, and run. If we got most of the bees in, the rest that were hanging to the bough or flying round would follow, and then we reckoned we’d shook the queen in. If the bees in the box came out and joined the others, we’d reckon we hadn’t shook the queen in, and go for them again. When a hive was full of honey we’d turn the box upside down, turn the empty box mouth down on top of it, and drum and hammer on the lower box with a stick till all the bees went up into the top box. I suppose it made their heads ache, and they went up on that account.
“I suppose things are done differently on proper bee-farms. I’ve heard that a bee-farmer will part a hanging swarm with his fingers, take out the queen bee and arrange matters with her; but our ways suited us, and there was a lot of expectation and running and excitement in it, especially when a swarm took us by surprise. The yell of ‘Bees swarmin’!’ was as good to us as the yell of ‘Fight!’ is now, or ‘Bolt!’ in town, or ‘Fire’ or ‘Man overboard!’ at sea.
“There was tons of honey. The bees used to go to the vineyards at wine-making and get honey from the heaps of crushed grape-skins thrown out in the sun, and get so drunk sometimes that they wobbled in their bee-lines home. They’d fill all the boxes, and then build in between and under the bark, and board, and tin covers. They never seemed to get the idea out of their heads that this wasn’t an evergreen country, and it wasn’t going to snow all winter. My younger brother Joe used to put pieces of meat on the tables near the boxes, and in front of the holes where the bees went in and out, for the dogs to grab at. But one old dog, ‘Black Bill,’ was a match for him; if it was worth Bill’s while, he’d camp there, and keep Joe and the other dogs from touching the meat — once it was put down — till the bees turned in for the night. And Joe would get the other kids round there, and when they weren’t looking or thinking, he’d brush the bees with a stick and run. I’d lam him when I caught him at it. He was an awful young devil, was Joe, and he grew up steady, and respectable, and respected — and I went to the bad. I never trust a good boy now. . . . Ah, well!
“I remember the first swarm we got. We’d been talking of getting a few swarms for a long time. That was what was the matter with us English and Irish and English-Irish Australian farmers: we used to talk so much about doing things while the Germans and Scotch did them. And we even talked in a lazy, easy-going sort of way.
“Well, one blazing hot day I saw father coming along the road, home to dinner (we had it in the middle of the day), with his axe over his shoulder. I noticed the axe particularly because father was bringing it home to grind, and Joe and I had to turn the stone; but, when I noticed Joe dragging along home in the dust about fifty yards behind father, I felt easier in my mind. Suddenly father dropped the axe and started to run back along the road towards Joe, who, as soon as he saw father coming, shied for the fence and got through. He thought he was going to catch it for something he’d done — or hadn’t done. Joe used to do so many things and leave so many things not done that he could never be sure of father. Besides, father had a way of starting to hammer us unexpectedly — when the idea struck him. But father pulled himself up in about thirty yards and started to grab up handfuls of dust and sand and throw them into the air. My idea, in the first flash, was to get hold of the axe, for I thought it was sun-stroke, and father might take it into his head to start chopping up the family before I could persuade him to put it (his head, I mean) in a bucket of water. But Joe came running like mad, yelling:
“‘Swarmer — bees! Swawmmer — bee—ee—es! Bring — a — tin — dish — and — a — dippera — wa-a-ter!’
“I ran with a bucket of water and an old frying-pan, and pretty soon the rest of the family were on the spot, throwing dust and water, and banging everything, tin or iron, they could get hold of. The only bullock bell in the district (if it was in the district) was on the old poley cow, and she’d been lost for a fortnight. Mother brought up the rear — but soon worked to the front — with a baking-dish and a big spoon. The old lady — she wasn’t old then — had a deep-rooted prejudice that she could do everything better than anybody else, and that the selection and all on it would go to the dogs if she wasn’t there to look after it. There was no jolting that idea out of her. She not only believed that she could do anything better than anybody, and hers was the only right or possible way, and that we’d do everything upside down if she wasn’t there to do it or show us how — but she’d try to do things herself or insist on making us do them her way, and that led to messes and rows. She was excited now, and took command at once. She wasn’t tongue-tied, and had no impediment in her speech.
“‘Don’t throw up dust! — Stop throwing up dust! — Do you want to smother ’em? — Don’t throw up so much water! — Only throw up a pannikin at a time! — D’yer want to drown ’em? Bang! Keep on banging, Joe! — Look at that child! Run, someone! — run! you, Jack! — D’yer want the child to be stung to death? — Take her inside! . . . Dy’ hear me? . . . Stop throwing up dust, Tom! (To father.) You’re scaring ’em away! Can’t you see they want to settle?’ [Father was getting mad and yelping: ‘For Godsake shettup and go inside.’] ‘Throw up water, Jack! Throw up — Tom! Take that bucket from him and don’t make such a fool of yourself before the children! Throw up water! Throw — keep on banging, children! Keep on banging!’ [Mother put her faith in banging.] ‘There! — they’re off! You’ve lost ’em! I knew you would! I told yer — keep on bang—!’
“A bee struck her in the eye, and she grabbed at it!
“Mother went home — and inside.
“Father was good at bees — could manage them like sheep when he got to know their ideas. When the swarm settled, he sent us for the old washing stool, boxes, bags, and so on; and the whole time he was fixing the bees I noticed that whenever his back was turned to us his shoulders would jerk up as if he was cold, and he seemed to shudder from inside, and now and then I’d hear a grunting sort of whimper like a boy that was just starting to blubber. But father wasn’t weeping, and bees weren’t stinging him; it was the bee that stung mother that was tickling father. When he went into the house, mother’s other eye had bunged for sympathy. Father was always gentle and kind in sickness, and he bathed mother’s eyes and rubbed mud on, but every now and then he’d catch inside, and jerk and shudder, and grunt and cough. Mother got wild, but presently the humour of it struck her, and she had to laugh, and a rum laugh it was, with both eyes bunged up. Then she got hysterical, and started to cry, and father put his arm round her shoulder and ordered us out of the house.
“They were very fond of each other, the old people were, under it all — right up to the end. . . . . . Ah, well!”
Mitchell pulled the swags out of a bunk, and started to fasten the nose-bags on.
Henry Lawson, On the Track, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1900, pages 18-25
awhile = for a time; in modern times it is usually rendered as two words, “a while”
pannikin = a small metal pan, or a small metal cup
ratty = (slang) mad, crazy, insane (may also refer to being bad-tempered, irritable, or nasty; or dilapidated, ramshackle, shabby, or in a wretched condition)
Vernacular spelling in the original text:
dy’ (do you)
d’yer (do you)
shettup (shut up)
[Editor: Added a quotation mark before “They were very fond”.]
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