The “Pro.”: A goldfields character [short story by “Dryblower” Murphy, 1 February 1903]

[Editor: A short story by “Dryblower” Murphy, published in The Sunday Times (Perth, WA), 1 February 1903.]

The “Pro.”

A goldfields character

By Dryblower.

Few disputed the claim of the “Professor” — or “Pro” as he was more commonly called — to the title of Westralia’s hardest case.

Many of the yarns now set down hereunder have appeared in fragmentary form in various prints, ont none have set forth with any degree of cohesion the chief incidents in the gold fields career of this amiable mystery.

Somewhere up in Mulgaland, the Pro, unless enjoying a spasm of prosperity, may be seen, like “the children coming home from school,” looking in at the open (pub.) door, in search of the kindly smile that betokens beer.

All the same Pro is no sot — far from it.

From Lefroy to Darlot, from Kurnalpi to the Cross, few old battlers there are who know not his round, rubicund face, his merry blue eyes, his partial (very convenient) deafness, and his rolling, spare-me-day trip of the tongue.

To meet Pro is to know him, to know him is to like him, and to like him is to shout for him.

Pro sees to that.

Pro never forgets a favor or injury conferred or inflicted on him when sober. He might find a Bonanza when “on the tonic,” as he termed it, and the event would be a blank for him when he relapsed into sobriety.

This was proved in many ways.

Early in ’94, when full of fusel, he planted a 12oz. slug.

When he awoke from his whisky nightmare, his mind was an aching void.

Knowing his own peculiarities, he traded joyously into beer, got semi-paralytic, and sought the slug.

For half a day he lurched vainly around. Then he encountered a brilliant thought.

When he planted it, he had been moistening his system with spirits.

He was now trying to find it on the common or garden gargle.

Wandering back to whisky he unearthed the slug.

In ’94 he made a rise and became the chief ingredient in a lurid spree of vast proportions, and during this jag parted with his interests for a ridiculous sum of money.

Knowing the Pro’s mental incapacity when on the spree, the Warden declared the deal off. He did worse at the Cross.

There he got married!

The unusual excitement shattered his nervous system, and he plunged into a howling debauch. When he recovered his reason he was aboard ship opposite the Leeuwin, the motion upset him. When he emerged from his torpor, his wondering blue eyes alighted on a female form in the bunk opposite.

“Here!” he commanded in husky tones, “clear out, whoever you are.”

His wife, for it was she, emitted a seasickly laugh, thinking he was joking.

“Now ’Enry,” she commanded, “sit quiet and I’ll bring you some beef tea.”

He stared at her in suspicious astonishment.

“Henry”? he repeated, “who told you my name”? which he had rarely been called since leaving home 10 years before.

His wife giggled, in due appreciation of the supposed joke.

“Yes,” he continued, as he rang for the steward, “and don’t you be so d——d familiar, and,” he proceeded, “if you’re after blackmail, you’ve got no hope.”

It took two days to convince him that he was connubially coupled. After that it came home to him with the intensity of a rock drill.

On arriving in Melbourne he proceeded to his ancestral home, leaving the partners of his hiccoughs in a close handy pub, the lady herself being a trifle “overcome.”

“Give her whatever she orders,” he said to the barman, leaving a sovereign for liquoring up purposes.

In a few minutes he returned with his delighted dad, the latter having forced him back to the house where he had planted his partner, the landlord of the shy-pooery being an old crony of Pro’s father. Entering the bar parlor where Pro’s helpmate was snoring heartily, the old man frowned in pained surprise at his son’s worse half.

“I trust,” he remarked severely, that there are very few dreadful examples like that in W.A.”

The Pro winced.

“No,” he answered with a wink at the barman, “there’s not so many there now as there used to be.”

“I forgot to ask, Henry my son,” said his father, “if you brought back many specimens.”

Not a smile crept over Pro’s countenance.

“Yes,” he answered boldly, “I brought one. There it is,” and he pointed to his dead to-the-world wife.

* * * * *

Three months later Pro fled stone-broke back to the West. She followed him, and caught him.

A few weeks of dull domesticity, and Pro struck out for fields afar and fusel new.

His way of going was racy of most of his manoeuvres.

Inviting a well-known Johnny Allsorts dealer home to bed, he introduced him to his matrimonial millstone as an English mining expert. Next day Pro left for the mulga with the £20 raised on the furniture and things, having sold them over his wife’s head. Having a little money she opened a boarding-house and also got out a warrant for the wanderer.

Away in the mulga Pro went prospecting, but with indifferent luck.

Three months saw him so short of shekels as to take on the duty and emoluments of general morgue-man and undertaker for the district. One day, just after the burial of a man who had perished of thirst out in the bush, he met the local mounted constable.

“Did yer snare ’ee’s crabs?” asked the trooper.

“No,” replied Pro, gazing down at his own dilapidated “blutchers.” “Were they any good?”

“Best English make,” replied the policeman, “and worth two quid.”

“They’re mine,” observed Pro.

When next the trooper met him he was wearing the two quid crabs!

A month later a comparatively newly-arrived Englishman succumbed to fever. Pro. approached another son of Albion, an assayer, who had known the deceased.

“Better bury him decently,” suggested Pro., who then explained that by diggers’ custom in the mulga it was the right thing to attire the corpse in a brand suit of clothes.

“Anything you like,” assented the assayer, “as long as I don’t have to bear a hand to do it. I really couldn’t stand it.”

Pro took good care to foster this aversion.

A few days later the assayer came over to Pro’s camp about a slab to the memory of his friend.

Pro saw him coming.

“Tell him I’m out,” commanded Pro to his camp mate.

When the visitor had left a message and gone, the mate demanded an explanation. Pro had it ready.

“I’ve got the suit on,” he said.

Despite his grim callousness, Pro had the heart of a tender woman for the sick and needy, and the pluck of a bull-ant when occasion demanded.

He proved this at a fire which destroyed an out-back hotel much patronised by himself.

The flames and smoke were bursting from every chink in the doomed grog-shop when Pro hurried up and burst into the furnace, carrying cut of certain death a sick swagman who had been forgotten in the mad rush.

As he passed through the bar with his burden, he snatched the “tick” book from the shelf.

Next day it was returned to the burnt-out bung, but Pro, who was smart at figures, had transferred his beer liabilities to the accounts of other customers more financial than himself.

Soon after this Pro’s wife obtained a £1-a-week maintenance order against him, and, failing to turn up with the lucre, a warrant was issued for his arrest.

One day he met a half-wild nigger with whose pigeon-patter Pro was familiar, and was told that a white pfella was lying dead out in the bush.

Announcing himself as going out on a solitary prospecting trip, Pro found the corpse, put it in the way to be discovered, and changed coats with it, leaving in the cadaver’s pockets his wife’s threatening letter, and other easily identified correspondence.

In two weeks he read an official intimation that he was a corpse, and the maintenance order and warrant were cancelled!

For two months Pro was officially a dead man, frequently cracking ghoulish jokes at the Government Coroner who had pronounced him cold meat. One day he came before the Government official on mining business.

Here he had to produce his miner’s right.

“Whose miner’s right is this?” asked the official.

“Mine,” answered Pro confidently.

“Indeed,” snapped the fierce functionary; “and how do you come by a miner’s right belonging to a dead man?”

Pro prevaricated.

“It’s no use,” snapped the official; “you’re dead and can’t possibly hold mining interests. There’s money coming to you out of this case,” he proceeded; “but unless you send half of it to your wife I must regard you as dead and buried.”

Pro stared in outwitted astonishment.

“In which case,” added the person on the bench with a malicious grin, “your wife is entitled to the lot by inheritance.”

Slowly and sorrowfully Pro left the court to think things over.

In an hour he returned, and agreed to send half the money to his wife.

“You can enclose it in this letter,” he said, as he handed the official an open, black-bordered envelope, with a note inside. The man of the law who had cornered Pro read the missive at the latter’s invitation.

“My dear widow,” it began, and after four pages of penitance for his ghoulish gambols, it concluded with “Love from ‘Your affectionate Corpse!’”

The Sunday Times (Perth, WA), 1 February 1903, p. 15

A shorter version (claiming it to be a true story) was published in:
The Sunday Times (Perth, WA), 19 September 1915, p. 8

Editor’s notes:
assayer = someone who analyses metal or ore, such as to determine its components or purity

blutchers = dress shoes for men, distinguished by open lacing; or a high shoe or half boot; named after the Prussian military leader Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, who fought against Napoleon at Waterloo

bung = a publican, hotel keeper, hotel landlord (also to throw or toss; also a payment for a dishonest act; also a stopper, such as made from cork or rubber, used for closing up a hole of a barrel, cask, or other container; also broken, damaged)
See: 1) “He’s a good fellow”, The Worker (Brisbane, Qld.), 23 September 1915, p. 16
2) “Violence at the vine: Pushites take possession of a pub: Bung scares them with a “squirt.””, Truth (Melbourne, Vic.), 27 May 1916, p. 8
3) “Bold boy Brown boobed”, Truth (Melbourne, Vic.), 8 June 1918, p. 6
4) “Pub pother: Bobby Berriman bumped: Bung pays dearly for losing his head”, Truth (Melbourne, Vic.), 12 October 1918, p. 2
5) “Chiefly personal”, Adelong and Tumut Express and Tumbarumba Post (Tumut, NSW), 27 July 1923, p. 2
6) “Just an old bush custom — passing the hat: Heaven helps those who help themselves”, Queensland Country Life (Brisbane, Qld.), 11 February 1937, p. 6
7) “A Long Wait”, The Western Mail (Perth, WA), 8 September 1938, p. 51

connubial = of or relating to marriage; conjugal

crabs = boots or shoes (“crabs” was slang for feet; boots and shoes were known as “crab-shells”, or just “crabs”) [See: Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English 8th edition (Routledge, 1984), Digital Printing 2006, [unnumbered pages 879-881?, see: crab, crab-shells, crabs] (accessed 19 January 2013)]

emolument = recompense; compensation, fees, payment, profit, salary, tips, or wages arising from one’s employment or from fulfilling the duties of an office or post

fusel = (or “fusel oil”) an exaggerated term for alcoholic spirits, such as whiskey, used in a similar fashion to other exaggerated terms for alcoholic spirits, such as “jet fuel” (fusel oils, also known as fusel alcohols, are a mixture of several alcohols, mainly amyl alcohol, created as a by-product of alcoholic fermentation; whilst any drink with a high a level of fusel oils is toxic, they can be found in alcoholic drinks in low levels) [see: “Fusel Oil (Higher Alcohols)”, Monash Scientific Glassblowing Services (accessed 19 January 2013)]

grog-shop = a pub, hotel, or any business selling alcohol (the phrase refers to common or ordinary businesses, but is not used to refer to exclusive and high-class establishments); in earlier times the phrase especially referred to “sly grog shops” (places illegally selling alcohol), whilst in later times especially referring to businesses that sell alcohol for off-site consumption

jag = a spree, binge, or period of overindulgence, especially a drunken spree; a state of intoxication arising from the use of alcohol drinks or drugs (may also refer to a sharp point, a barb; to cut, jab, pierce, prick, slash, or stab; to catch fish by using an unbaited hook)

Leeuwin = Cape Leeuwin, Western Australia, the most south-westerly point of the Australian mainland

lucre = money, financial gain, or wealth, especially used in a negative sense, such as when money has been obtained in a distasteful or dishonourable fashion (the negativity inherent in the phrase “filthy lucre” arose from the King James version of the Bible, where it warns against “filthy lucre” in 1 Peter 5:2, 1 Timothy 3:3 & 3:8, Titus 1:7 & 1:11)

mulga = in a geographic context “mulga” refers to an area where mulga grows, i.e. an unsettled area

out-back = remote rural areas; sparsely-inhabited back country; often given as one word and capitalized, “Outback”

penitance = (also spelt “penitence”) feeling, or showing regret or sorrow, for having committed a sin or wrongdoing; repentance

pfella = an Aboriginal pronunciation of “fellow” (man)

pigeon-patter = talking in near-English phraseology; talking in Pidgin (Pidgin English is a simplified form of English, mixed with another language, which is used as a contact language to enable communication; used with Australian Aborigines, Chinese, New Hebrides natives, etc.)

pub = hotel; an establishment where the main line of business is to sell alcoholic drinks for customers to consume on the premises (“pub” comes from the abbreviation of “public house”)

rubicund = having a red, rosy, or ruddy complexion

shekels = money; derived from the ancient measurement of weight, especially referring to coins of a shekel weight; shekels of various types are mentioned in the Bible, such as shekels of gold (e.g. 1 Chronicles 21:25), silver (Judges 17:2), and bronze (1 Samuel 17:5), as well as being a general measurement of weight (Numbers 7:31) [See: The New Jerusalem Bible, Veritas Bible (accessed 17 January 2014)]

shy-pooery = (also known as a “shy-poo shop”) a low-class pub [See: Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 8th edition (Routledge, 1984), Digital Printing 2006, page 1066 (accessed 19 January 2013)]

slab = a broad, flat, thick piece of material (e.g. a slab of cheese, stone, or wood); in the context of a burial, “slab” refers to a grave marker (also known as a gravestone, headstone, or tombstone)

slug = a lump of metal, such as gold

son of Albion = an Englishman

sot = an habitual drunkard

spree = a drinking spree; in general terms, a “spree” refers to an outburst of, or period of, an activity or indulgence (e.g. a crime spree, a spending spree)

tick = credit; often expressed as to buy something “on tick” (from the term “ticket”, used for a written acknowledgment of a debt)

trooper = a mounted policeman, in the Australian colonies (in the military, it refers to a rank equivalent to private in an armoured or cavalry unit, or to a member of the Special Air Service)

[Editor: Corrected “and,’ he” to “and,” he”; “functionary; and” to “functionary; “and”.]

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