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Title: Marsupial Bill
Author: J. Brunton Stephens
eBook No.: 2100421h.html
Date first posted: 2021
Most recent update: 2021
This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore
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J. Brunton Stephens
Illustrated by J. A. Clarke
IT was the time when geese despond,
And turkeys make their wills;
The time when Christians, to a man
Forgive each other’s bills;
It was the time when Christmas glee
The heart of childhood fills.
Alas! that, when the changing year
Brings round the blessed day,
The hearts of little Queensland boys
Wax keen to hunt and slay,—
As if the chime of Christmas time
Were but a call to prey.
Alas! that when our dwellings teem
With comfits and with toys—
When bat and ball and wicket call
To yet sublimer joys—
Whatever can’t be caught and killed
Is stale to certain boys.
Strange that, with such instructive things
From which to pick and choose,
With moral books and puzzle maps
That “teach while they amuse,”
Some boys can find no pleasure save
In killing kangaroos.
Where Quart Pot creek to Severn’s stream
Its mighty tribute rolls,
There stands a town—the happiest town,
I think, betwixt the poles;
And all around is holy ground;
In fact, it’s full of holes.
And there, or thereabouts, there dwelt,
(Still dwells, for aught I know),
A little boy, whose moral tone
Was lamentably low;
A shocking scamp, with just a speck
Of good in embryo.
His name was Bill; to wallabies
He bore an evil will;
All things that hop on hinder legs
His function was to kill,
And from his show of scalps he won
The name, Marsupial Bill.
His face and form were pinched and lean,
And dim his youthful eye:
Tis well that growing Queensland boys
Should know the reason why;—
My little lads, ’twas all along
Of smoking on the sly.
Through this was William small and lean,
Through this his eye was dim,
Nor biceps rose on nerveless arm,
Nor calf on nether limb;—
Ye growing boys and hobbledehoys,
Be warned by me—and him.
His elevated shoulders stood
But little way apart;
His elbow joints—but why rely
On mere descriptive art?
Come hither, hither, artist man,
And show them William’s “carte!”
There. That’s the moral of himself;
And if from it you guess
That Bill had thirteen summers seen,
I beg to acquiesce,
And further state his fighting weight
As five stun more or less.
And should you ask how such a one
A mighty hunter grew,
So many flying does outsped,
So many boomers slew—
Bill owned a canine mate, to which
His victories were due.
A brute so complex that he set
“The fancy” all agog;
Of breed that ne’er found name in
Come hither, hither artist man,
And show them William’s dog!
On Christmas-eve, at set of sun,
A hollow tree he sought;
A match, a scratch, a puff, and Bill
Was lost in smoke and thought,
And “all his battles o’er again”
In fervid fancy fought.
No ha’penny thing, no penny thing,
No thing of common clay
Such brilliant memories evoked,
With hopes as bright as they—
It was his father’s Sunday pipe
That Bill had stolen away.
For many a time and oft had he
Admired the wondrous bowl,
The stem, the mouthpiece, and the tout
Ensemble of the whole,
Until desire of it had grown
A portion of his soul—
Until desire o’ergrew the fear
Of kick, or cuff, or stripe.
That eve, when Bill stepped forth from home
The guilty scheme was ripe—
His right-hand trouser-leg concealed
His father’s Sunday pipe.
And now within a heaven of smoke
Against the tree he leant,
The while the mellow influence
Through all his vitals went,
And for the first time in his life
He knew what meerschaum meant.
So subtly stole the influence
His inmost being through,
He did not mark the sudden bark
That signalled kangaroo,
Nor noted that his constant mate
Had vanished from his view.
His mind and eye were on the pipe,
And he had just begun
To count how many scalps would go
To purchase such a one,—
When turning round his head, he saw,
Against the setting sun,
A Boomer! . . . and, as when the waves
Close o’er a drowning head,
Sudden the whole forgotten past
Before the soul lies spread,
And all the charge-sheet of a life
In one brief glance is read—
Ev’n so in instant tumult thronged,
About his wildered mind,
A thousand shapes of wounded things,
Of every size and kind;
And some were scalped, and some were maimed,
And some were docked behind.
The kangaroo, the wallaroo,
The wallaby was there;
The ’possum jabbered in its fright,
Sore wept the native bear;
The stricken paddamelon moaned
Its ineffectual prayer;
The battered ’guana fixed on him
Its dull remonstrant stare;
While tail-less lizards swarmed and crawled
About him everywhere;
And limbless frogs denounced him with
The croaking of despair;
And tortured bats with ghostly wings
Clung to his stiffened hair;—
But suddenly the vision passed,
And Bill became aware
That he was in the Boomer’s arms,
And bounding through the air.
Hop, hop, they went o’er broken wilds,
Where, stacked in many a mound,
The hoards of clay-embedded ore
Rose grimly all around:—
Unheeding miners’ rights, they jumped
A claim at every bound.
Then on o’er wastes so very bare
That even “stripping” ceased;
And as they neared the hill countrie,
The frightful pace increased;
Nor granite slope nor timbered ridge
Told on the tireless beast.
The sun went down, the full-orbed moon
Came swimming up the East,
Nor yet the “old man” slackened speed,
Nor yet his prey released.
Still on and on, till from a cliff
A sentry challenged near,—
Though what the challenge or reply
No mortal man may hear;
We only know that for a sign
Each drooped his dexter ear.
Whate’er it meant, the “old man” checked
His onward course thereat,
Dropped Bill, and dragged him by the wrists
Across a wooded flat,
To where the KANGAROO-GEMOT
In full assembly sat.
Ringed by the fathers of the tribe,
Surrounded yet alone,
The Bossaroo superbly posed
Upon a granite throne—
A very old “old man” who had
Four generations known.
Upon his mournful eye the woes
Of all his race were writ;
Yet age and sorrow had not dimmed
His majesty a whit;—
And, oh, his metatarsal bones
Displayed the real grit!
Nor unattended sat the sires;
Behind them crouched their mates;
Nor kangaroos alone composed
The Congress of the States,
But all proscribed marsupial breeds
Had sent their delegates.
Lo, at a signal from the boss
The serried ring gave way,
And through an opening in the throng
The captor dragged his prey,
Bowed to the chair, then called to aid
A strapping M.L.A.
And thus, betwixt a double guard,
The prisoner found his place;
And all around were wrathful eyes
Without a gleam of grace;—
One wide concatenated scowl
Was focussed on his face.
Now hitherto poor Bill had been
As dumb as dumb could be,
But at that pandomoniac scowl
His struggling tongue got free;
He lifted up his voice and cried,
“Oh, please, it wasn’t me;”
A tumult rose; but with a sign
The boss the riot checked,
Then cleared his throat, and bade the guard
The prisoner’s clothes inspect:—
“Ay, ay, Sir!” came the prompt reply,
Or words to that effect.
They spake the language that was heard
While yet the world was young;
And he who knows it knows all speech
That out of it hath sprung:—
(With compliments to Doctor Hearn,
It was the Aryan tongue).
And should you ask how Bill was up
To every word they said,
And how such antiquated lore
Had got into his head—
’Twas his pre-natal memory
That served him in such stead.
They searched the prisoner’s clothes, and first
They brought the pipe to view,—
For, though it is a mystery
To me as well as you,
It is a solemn fact that Bill
Had stuck to it all through.
Then one by one his poor effects
Were collared by his guards,—
Peach-stones, fig-chew, a catapult,
A greasy pack of cards,
A half-cut cake of cavendish,
But when from out a leathern sheath
A bloodstained knife they drew,
All round the court, from hand to hand,
They passed it in review;
Each sniffed the blade in turn, and each
In turn said—“Kangaroo.”
And last, a printed document
Their simple souls perplexed;
Each eyed the paper learnedly,
And passed it to the next;
But not an Aryan of them all
Could even guess the text.
At length they summoned to their aid
An old and learned clerk,
Who, as tradition told, had been
With Noah in the ark—
Though possibly tradition here
Had overshot the mark.
And while a murmur of applause
Through all the Congress ran,
Bowed with the weight of many years
Hopped forth that gray “old man,”
Mounted his moonlight barnacles
Sneezed thrice, and thus began:—
“Whereas it is expedient to
Encourage the destruc-
-tion of marsupial animals—
(Sensation, and a ruc-
-tion in the court, with groans and cries
From joey, doe, and buck)—
“Be it enacted therefore by
The Queen’s most Excellent
—er—Majesty—er—by and with
The advice and the consent
Of Council and Assembly of
Queensland in Parliament—
“In the construction of this Act—”
But here arose a sort
Of interruption from the Right,
Betwixt a cough and snort,
While from the less fastidious Left
Came cries of “Cut it short!”
Then clause on clause with careless haste
The learned clerk despatched;
But when he read, “The scalps when shown
Must have the ears attached,”
The whole assembly rushed the guard,
And at the prisoner snatched.
But when the reader raised his voice,
And thus gave forth the sense,
“For kangaroo scalps ninepence each,
For wallabies’ three pence,”
Division rose amongst his foes,
And stayed their violence.
For those at ninepence each, elate
At such a mark of fame,
Drew back, and left the threepenny mob
To do the deed of shame;
But the low-quoted wallabies,
Disgusted, dropped the game.
Bill strove to speak; his voice was drowned
With catcall, groan, and hiss,
Until the Bossaroo, with slow
What say you to all this?”
Then silence fell upon the peers,
And on the threepenny mob,
The while this wicked little boy
Said, snivelling through a sob,
“Oh please, I never done it, Sir—
No, never; sepmebob!
“I am a gentle orphan boy,
Nor never jines no row:
My father is a tributer,
My mother keeps a cow:
We always lives respectable:
We tries it, anyhow:
The bill as that old bloke has read
I never seen till now;
And that ’ere blood’s on that ’ere knife
Since father killed the sow.
Then spake the Boss:—“The quality
Of mercy is not strained;
Yet there is still a point or two
We’d like to have explained,
Ere we absolve you from the charge
Whereon you stand arraigned.
“But since the law is merciful,
And hastes not to condemn,
If witnesses to character
Exist, go, fetch us them:
The court will sit to-morrow night
At nine fifteen, p.m.
And since without your father’s pipe
You dare not home return,—
(Our ancient brother with the specs
Has twigged the whole concern;
And, truly, what he doesn’t know
Ain’t worth your while to learn):—
And further, since the oath of man
Is but of scant avail,
And few like Regulus return
Spontaneously to jail—
(My fit is coming on; I feel
The symptoms in my tail)—
We will dispense with oaths, and keep
The meerschaum as your bail.
“To-morrow—(oh my vertebra!)—
To-morrow night at eight,
At the Wheal Edith, by the flume,
A corp’ral’s guard will wait;
These shall escort your witnesses,
Blindfolded. Don’t be late.
“And this remember—(oh my joints!)—
Not one of all the race
Whose leaders boss this scalping job
May stand before my face;
The witness of a Britisher
Will prejudice your case
Now he who brought you will reverse
The process—(oh my toe!)—
Your downward path is up above,
Your upward down below:
Stand not upon the order of
Your going, sir; but go.
“And take this for thy dowry, boy,
‘Existence is a sell,’
I once was bitten by a dog,
Since which I am not well.
Methinks my speech already shows
Symptoms of doggerel.”
Fast flew the hours. We may not tell
Of William’s weary quest,
How round the outskirts of the town
He roamed like one possessed—
Nor with what guileful arts he plied
The foreign interest.
Enough that at the appointed hour,
With backers at his back,
He faced the noble Bossaroo,
And introduced his witnesses,
A yellow and a black;
A placid-eyed Mongolian
From sandy Pechelee,
Who’d stimulate an inch of soil
To do the work of three,
Or make a metamorphic rock
Sprout into cabbagee;
“A big buck nigger” next; who once
Bowed down to stocks and stones,
(For years digested captives formed
The tissue of his bones),
But now he is an Anglican,
Who a live “Bissop” owns,
Besides a gorgeous suit of slops,
And the proud name of Jones.
Slow rose the lordly Bossaroo,
And bade unveil their eyes;
And, when those aliens gazed around
On all that dread assize,
They howled in unison and made
Night hideous with their cries.
For Bill had lured them lyingly—
But why should we explain;
The whole thing was exceptional,
And can’t occur again.
Besides, to poke at mysteries
Is wanton and profane.
With single will they turned on Bill,
And blazed his evil name;
With double tongue their charge they flung,
And swore unto the same;
With treble spite did both unite
To spoil his little game.
“Me see him catchce kangaloo,”
Deponed on oath Ah Chee;
“Me see him—hi! hst!—soolem dog,
No mind my cabbagee—
Me lose hap clown, him knockee down
Ten twenty lettucee!”
“Massoopy Bill, him wicked boy,”
Deponed the South Sea swell;
“Two moon, come Bissop preach in chuch,
Him loaf outside an’ yell;
Me run—him run—me catch—him say
Tree scalp if you no tell.”
So, when the learned clerk had both
Their depositions read,
The judge drew forth his judgment cap,
And put it on his head,
And sentenced poor Marsupial Bill
To hang till he was dead.
“But since”—so spake the Bossaroo—
“From evidence we know
That many a scalped and gory head
This night through him lies low,
We’ll scalp him first!”—and all the house,
Nem. con., cried “Be it so!”
And as a sign and seal of doom,
Turned down the right thumb-toe.
“With his own knife,” the Boss resumed,
“Ah Chee shall do the deed.
The gods are just (oh, my poor back!)
And make the assassin bleed
By his own proper instrument.
What followed next, who gave the word
For mate to link with mate,
Nor Bill, nor Jones, nor yet Ah Chee
Can very clearly state;
But that ’twas a corroboree
All three corroborate.
In vain poor William prayed—in vain
His suppliant knees he bowed,
And by a pile of sacred names
For mercy cried aloud—
The point was at his occiput,
When, lo! from out the crowd
Stepped forth a rare and radiant dame,
The Boss’s pride and stay,
(The dam of the Bossárovitch,
Still young, though somewhat gray,
An elegant marsupial,
Well-mannered, bien née)—
Stepped forth before them, and remarked
Then, kneeling by the judgment seat,
Thus sweetly said her say:—
“Most Noble Grand, have you forgot
That this is Christmas Day?
“Beseech you, bid that heathen hand
Withhold the bloody knife!
Recall your fearful words of doom—
Nay turn not from your wife,
But give me as a Christmas Box
The little captive’s life.”
Then quickly from his granite throne
Down leaped the Noble Grand,
And, kneeling, kissed right courteously
His royal lady’s hand;
Then, as he raised her up, pronounced
The joyful countermand;
Whereat the rest turned up their toes,
That Bill might understand
The Congress willed his days should yet
Be long upon the land.
Then raged, the revelry anew,
With sound of drum and fife;
The Boss himself forgot his woes,
And danced as if for life;
While the old clerk forgot himself.
And kissed the Boss’s wife.
And when there fell a weariness
On all the panting throng,
And Bossaroo and ancient clerk
Alike had nigh “gone bong,”—
Amid a jaded pause was heard
A call for “Joey’s Song!”
And presently a little head,
As from a little nest,
Peeped o’er a snug maternal pouch,
And sang its little best;
(The song is very rare, and full
Of antique interest)
He ceased; the pre-diluvian clerk
Rose on his quivering shanks,
And with a well-turned compliment
Proposed a vote of thanks—
Just then a breathless picket broke
All gory through the ranks!
But ere his trembling tongue had time
To tell his tale of woe,
And why thus grimly he disturbed
The happy status quo,—
With giant bound, Bill’s faithful hound
Leaped madly on the foe!
Ah, then and there was sudden scare
The swiftest took the lead;
Ah, there and then—but oh, the pen
Is impotent indeed!
Come hither, hither, artist man,
And show the Great Stampede!
What next befel may somewhat strain
The limits of belief;
But where so many marvels are,
Why boggle at the chief?
’Twere shame if lack of faith should cause
Our moral come to grief.
From all the flying ruck the dog
Had singled out the queen;
Another instant, and the Boss
A widower had been,
When—(that’s a pithy saw that bids
Expect the unforeseen)—
Bill CALLED HIM OFF! The dog drew back,
And on a boulder leant.
’Twas months ago, and still that dog
Is pondering the event,
And even to this very hour
Can’t fathom what it meant;
It was a thing so utterly
Without a precedent.
But Bill, the Chinaman, and Jones,
The queen, and you, and I,
We know the secret of the change,
We know the reason why;
And—may I be allowed to add?—
The moral hangs thereby.
But since nor boy nor man receives
Advice without a pang,
And this narrator’s muse hath failed
To catch the proper twang,—
The moral hanging plainly there,
Suppose we let it—hang.
“Marsupial Bill” was preceded in the Queenslander by the following paragraph, which is here quoted, in order to show that the story is not altogether without foundation in fact:—
We (Stannum Miner) are indebted to Mr. James Warrell, of Sugarloaf, a gentleman on whose veracity we place the best reliance, for the following account of a most extraordinary occurrence. We give the statement as nearly as possible in Mr. Warrell’s own words:—“I give you the details of a very rare occurrence. A boy of mine, about 11 years old, was sent a message last Saturday week, about 1 o’clock, p.m. About half-way between my place and Connolly’s, on a well used road, a kangaroo came from behind, took him up, and carried him, without stopping, to the Maryland Company’s ground—about a mile and a-half—over some very rough country. The lad got back home about dusk, his face bloody, and seemingly half mad. He soon became sensible, however, and by the time I got home—an hour afterwards—he was sufficiently recovered to be interviewed.” “Well, Willie, did you not see the kangaroo before he caught you?” “ No, he was just on to me before I knew.” “Were there any more kangaroos ?” “Not then, but about half-way there was a big mob of kangaroos, and we all went together.” “I suppose you were crying?” “ Yes, all the way.” “When he dropped you, what did he do?” “Nothing; stood and looked at me for a minute, and then went off with the mob.” “What did you do then?” “I don’t remember anything after that. After sundown I found myself at the Lincolnshire mine, near where the engine was, and then I made for home.” I think the lad must have been crazy for awhile; his coat was split open down the back, but, although his face was covered with blood when he got home, there was not a scratch on him. The kangaroo must have been a good sized one to carry him (about 65lbs. weight) so far, and without a spell; and it seems strange that in the act of jumping he did not strike the boy with his foot. I have not the slightest reason to doubt the truth of the boy’s statement. What was the motive that prompted the action? Some say that if there had been any water convenient he would have drowned the boy. I have a notion that the kangaroo was one that had lost its joey, and was making an attempt to adopt one. Moral: When a child of tender years goes alone where kangaroos may be, a dog, large or small, is very good company.
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