What the Overseer Told Me [poem by Agnes L. Storrie]

[Editor: This poem by Agnes L. Storrie was published in Poems, 1909.]

What the Overseer Told Me.

You want to know something of Billy? You hear there’s a story to tell,
Let’s heap on the fire, for it’s chilly, and this room is as cold as a well.
I thought him the worst little nigger I’d had the misfortune to meet,
Though even before he was bigger than the kangaroo-pup at your feet,
He could ride any horse on the station, we’d plenty of buckjumpers, too,
But he stuck on — the black incarnation of reckless defiance — like glue.
Why! when I first broke the bay filly — and she was a nice cup of tea —
No one dared mount her but Billy, by jove! ’twas a caution to see!
The men crowded up after shearing and sat in a circle around
And watched the mare wildly careering and bet on how soon he’d be downed,
But there he sat on, his eyes flashing, his thick woolly hair all on end,
And she, in a fury, was lashing her heels about, you may depend.
She might just as well have aspired to shake off her mane or her skin!
And so she caved in, mighty tired, and Billy continued to grin.
He was up to some mischief for ever, and brimful of lying and tricks,
And though he was handy and clever, he got fewer ha’pence than kicks.
He’d yard up the sheep like a collie, and shear with the best of the men,
But unless he’d a mind to, ’twas folly to think you could force him to then,
For when he found civilisation no longer amused him well
He’d visit some dusky relation, and stay in the scrub for a spell.
One day the mail brought us a letter from Chapman, the owner, to say
He thought that he couldn’t do better than take a short trip up our way,
’Twas years since he ‘d been on the station, and he knew it would be pretty rough,
But could we find accommodation for a lady? and there sure enough
He arrived with his daughter, Marquita, a tall, slender slip of a girl
With a face like a flower, only sweeter, and soft shining hair all acurl.
’Twas just at the end of September that I drove them from Mimbado Creek,
Billy had cleared, I remember, and been away over a week,
But what with the bustle and worry of having a lady you know
We were all in too much of a flurry to care if he came back or no.
And one evening, when shadows were flitting across the great grey silent sky,
And the whole earth was still, we were sitting there smoking, old Chapman and I,
A creeper trailed pale yellow blossoms all up the verandah post tall,
We heard the soft nibbling of ’possums in a wattle tree close to the wall,
The lamplight fell white like a river of light, through the door opened wide
There came a soft violin quiver — Marquita was singing inside —
Her gown in its exquisite whiteness, her smile and the gleam of her hair
Seemed all just a part of the brightness surrounding her everywhere.
All at once I saw something come sliding up through the bushes, and knew
It was Billy come back, softly gliding with naked feet over the dew.
He stole to the window and listened, his face full of wondering awe,
I saw his black eyes as they glistened, he thought ’twas a spirit he saw.
God knows what remarkable notions he had in the Deity line
But I’ve seen wiser men pay devotions to goddesses far less divine.

Ah, beautiful star-eyed Marquita! she seemed like a flower among weeds,
Rough breezes blew gently to greet her, rough hearts stirred to chivalrous deeds;
And wherever she rode on the station — she sat her horse, too, like a queen —
You might reckon without hesitation Billy was there to be seen,
For some magic that lay in her laughter, some spell of her voice or her face,
Bewitched the boy, drawing him after to follow her over the place,
But, to cut the tale short, after staying a few weeks they left us again
And after some little delaying we started to drive to the train.
I thought I had better take Billy to help with the horses and that,
For the track was a rough one, and hilly, and we had to camp out on the flat.
I remember ’twas fine sunny weather, with a blue sky and warm, scented air,
The horses pulled staunchly together, I had in the young chestnut pair,
And the track, like a ribbon gleamed whitely thro’ the sand, or glowed red through the clay,
The wild hop shrubs bent to us lightly, the mallees arched over our way,

And through the still air all ashimmer with sunlight, and soft shifting haze,
We saw phantom water-lakes glimmer, then vanish and melt from our gaze;
It seemed to me like a land dreaming in silence, unbroken, and deep,
Not the silence of death, rather seeming the warm throbbing silence of sleep.
And when the crimson sun-splendour flushed the sky, like the cheek of a girl,
Then faded to pinks and greys tender that melted in opal and pearl,
You’d spy by a great rocky boulder a soft-footed grey kangaroo,
Then you’d long for a gun on your shoulder, or a horse and a good dog or two.
When the shadows gave way to the glamour of the uprising ambient moon
There came a soft fluttering clamour of clucks from the reedy lagoon,
And then the day suddenly breaking with sleepy bird-cries in the trees
And the perfume of gum blossoms shaking their plumes on the petulant breeze.
At last we arrived at the station, which, save for a pointsman or two
Seemed almost without habitation, and indeed there was little to do.

I remember Marquita stood, slender and upright, and close by her side,
And seeming by contrast to lend her more beauty, stood Billy, wide-eyed.
I knew by her face she was thinking how the black boy would stare at the train,
Already his black eyes were blinking, mouth opening and shutting again,
For, on with a loud, hollow roaring, its windows like great glaring eyes
And a volume of smoke fiercely pouring, the train thundered over the rise
Like a black hissing serpent devouring the still summer landscape it came
With a quick blaze of sparks redly showering, and its copper crest shining like flame.
And then, when it suddenly whistled, — a short, sharp, shrill, echoing scream —
Poor Billy ‘s hair actually bristled, I saw his white teeth all agleam,
He seized his thick wattle-tree waddy, his eyes seemed to start from his head,
A quiver ran right through his body, as he turned to Marquita and said,
“Yah! seeum, one big Debbil-Debbil! No catch you, me kill um,” and then
With a shout in his quavering treble, and before we could even count ten,
He had leapt down the rails and was springing in frenzied assault on the train,
A faint thud — a slight clog in its swinging — then it swept on untrammelled again.
Ah, poor little Billy! for ever cut off by the passionless force
Of great iron wheels that can never know pity, nor touch of remorse.
And Marquita? She fainted, no wonder, she had clutched at his arm as he ran,
And stumbled and fell almost under the wheels of the passenger van.
Yes, that’s all. Have you heard of the station where black boys are trained on the run,
And, as well as a good education, get plenty of tucker and fun?
Well, that scheme is Marquita’s, she raised it instead of a cold, useless stone
In remembrance of one little nigger who gave up his life for her own.

Agnes L. Storrie. Poems, J. W. Kettlewell, Sydney, 1909, pages 123-131

Editor’s notes:
ha’pence = half-penny; a coin worth one half of a penny

mallees = various low-growing shrubby Australian trees, of the genus Eucalyptus

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