The darnce [by P. R. Stephensen]

[Editor: This is a short story from The Bushwhackers: Sketches of Life in the Australian Outback (1929) by P. R. Stephensen.]

The darnce

Women in the Bush flowered early, and bore fruit at once, and withered quickly, and died slowly — all because the sun was hot, and food was plentiful, and the men were strong. There were no sex problems, only sex facts. When a Bush girl came to flower, she was seduced and probably married; but the fact was procreation, not a practice of erotics. Amidst nature’s fecundity, humans were fecund, and the idea was hardly sentimentalised at all. So the Bush girls and the women of the Bush were respected by the bushwhackers rather as heifers and cows in a herd than as orchids in a hothouse. Love in the Bush was always practical, overlaid with mating.

So when Billy MacLachlan desired Sal Bunting, who was only sixteen, Old Man Bunting was enraged at the possible loss of a valuable help in the house and in the cow-yard, and on the farm; and he chased Billy MacLachlan from the houses with menaces, and Billy had to think hard about ways and means of acquiring Sal.

Then came the Grand Darnce in Starkie’s barn, to which the whole district was invited. It was Mr. and Mrs. Starkie’s Golden Wedding, and it is spoken of to this day, chiefly on account of the trick which Billy MacLachlan played on all the girls present, the cunning fellow; though even without this it would have been a remarkable darnce, so lavish were Mr. and Mrs. Starkie in their hospitality.

It was hot. A sultry dry night such as only the sub-tropical Bush knows. Hot and dry and invigorating. So hot that after the very first darnce, Radel’s Band were in their shirtsleeves, sweating at their music. The two accordion-players, the two fiddlers, the tin-whistler, the flautist, the cornetist, all Mr. Radel’s sons; and then Mr. Radel himself, thumping the piano: such a band! Real swinging music beating out till the rafters of the vast barn shook to the stamping of bucolic feet in those lusty old English dances which Englishmen have abandoned nowadays to go nigger.

The old-time dances, square and round. Lancers, Schottische, Waltz; Quadrilles, Mazurka, Waltz; Alberts, Polka, Waltz-cotillion; Lancers, Schottische, Waltz; Quadrilles, Mazurka, Varsovienna; Alberts, Barn-Dance, Waltz. The programme pinned to the wall. Select your partners, gents. Swing Corners. Ladies’ chain. Energy soaked into the blood from god the sun was released in health’s sweat; energy which the jazz-age does not know, energy of Dionysos; energy of the Kermesse.

Malcolm MacConochie, Master of Ceremonies, blowing his whustle and bawling the figures, controlled the whirling, stamping, laughing-and-squealing couples. The barn floor had been polished smooth as glass. Candle-grease had been worked into the hardwood boards till they were a slippery danger to the clumsy, a gliding delight to the nimble. Thump, thump, ti-thump, thump, thump, Radel’s band had them whirling and whirling, till the kerosene-lamps suspended from above seemed to rock also to a swirling rhythm. Often in the square dances, when the lads joined hands in fours, the girls clinging to the locked arms would be swung clean off their feet, squealing, long white skirts flying in the air. And the mothers, sitting watchful around the walls on benches, would nod approvingly and reminiscently, and gossip, and watch their daughters.

Thump, thump, ti-thump, thump, thump. And such heat! A heat to induce perspiration in beads and in rivulets upon lusty, sun-soaked bodies, hot within and without from the released energy of the darnce. The gents began taking off their coats, tucking large white, and also coloured, handkerchiefs inside their celluloid collars. Red faces; flushed palms; thump, ti-thump, ti-thump, ti-thump, ti-thump thump, thump!

Billy MacLachlan was there, cavorting and rollicking, dancing every third darnce with Sal Bunting; not entirely approved by Old Mrs. Bunting, but she couldn’t help it; and Old Man Bunting was outside helping to boil the billy, occasionally, frequently, stopping to have a nip of the abundant whisky available to drink the Golden Wedding in.

Let the young people enjoy themselves, say I,” said he.

Then came the supper-darnce. Everyone to his favourite girl, because supper, out in the open air, gave quite a chance to talk and flirt quietly, a chance denied during the darnces, which were public gaiety.

Everybody trooped outside to the trestles spread with thick sandwiches and large cups of steaming tea. Everybody was glad to get out of the hot barn for a breather in the fresh air. All the lamps were taken outside to light the trestles. The barn was in darkness.

Into that darkness, furtively by the back door, and carrying a huge bulky bag on his shoulder, crept Billy MacLachlan the determined wooer; Billy MacLachlan the practical joker; deserting Sally with the others at supper with an explanation that he couldn’t help it, but would be back later. And in the great bag was lucerne chaff, finely chopped, which he scattered fiendishly over every square inch of the slippery surface of the darnce-floor. Then, a minute later, chuckling like a demon, he was back at Sally’s side, eating sandwiches, gulping tea, waiting for the results of his devilishness.

After supper the darncers went back, taking with them the lights, and again to the swing of Radel’s band they were stamp ti-stamping, energy replenished.

Stamp, stamp, ti-stamp, stamp.

The particles of lucerne chaff, invisible, rose like a swarm of motes, brushed up by long skirts.

Stamp-ti-stamp-ti-stamp, ti-stamp, ti-stamp, stamp, stamp!

The particles rose in the hot air to settle on sweaty bodies like an Itch of Satan. And the barn grew hotter and hotter, and Billy MacLachlan grinned unmentionably, thinking of the invisible stimulants of energy’s release.

The Bush girls at that darnce began going outside in pairs more frequently than had ever been known, escaping from the drowsing eyes of the mothers as the night grew to weariness for the old. And, outside in the shadows of tall trees, the Bush girls were met by their youths more frequently, twenty times more frequently than is considered right and proper, even at a Bush darnce.

I do not condone the tactics of Billy MacLachlan, but I am happy to report, that, of seven shotgun weddings traceable in origin to his diabolical use of lucerne chaff, Billy MacLachlan’s was one, the girl being Sally Bunting.

P. R. Stephensen, The Bushwhackers: Sketches of Life in the Australian Outback, Mandrake Press, London, [1929], pp. 75-83

Editor’s notes:
darnce = dance (as pronounced with a long “a”, especially as enunciated by someone with an affected tone, or with a regional accent)

Dionysos = (also spelt “Dionysus”) in Greek mythology, the god of fruitfulness and vegetation, particularly known as the god of ecstasy and wine (also known as “Bacchus” in Roman mythology)

kermesse = (also spelt “kermis” and “kirmess”) a type of festival held in north-western European countries, celebrating the anniversary of the foundation of a local church (originally a reference to the mass (messe, mis) held on the anniversary of the dedication or foundation of a church (kerk, kirk); hence kirkmass

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