[Editor: This is a short story from The Bushwhackers: Sketches of Life in the Australian Outback (1929) by P. R. Stephensen.]
Sorrow of Black Alf
The aboriginal blackfellows in the Bush knew how to die easily, because they were a dying race, particularly after the white bushwhackers came to replace them as inhabitants of the Bush. Nevertheless, little black Alfie Proctor did not die so easily, though admittedly more easily than a white man could.
Most of his tribe had been shot down in the earliest days to teach them not to spear sheep, which ruminants, to their simple minds, were quite legitimate game, comparable to wallabies — perhaps, even, a new kind of stabilised kangaroo. Then measles, more virulent in their blood than plague, wiped out nearly all the rest; whisky rotted others; and the few remaining just lay down and died. Sorrow killed these neanderthal children: an unnameable sorrow, the last straw — the coming of the white men.
For hundreds of thousands of years they had roamed in the Bush, and they had learned something. They built no cities, and invented nothing except the boomerang — the most perfect missile, which returns to the hand of the hunter if it misses the mark — but in their liquid black eyes, deepset, was a knowledge white men have not cared to acquire, an acquaintance with the simplicity of death. They cared nothing for death. To them it was simply a gesture of despair. They were so close to the earth that one sigh could sink them into it.
Only a few lived on after the white men came to whack the bush; lived as adjuncts, almost as spectators of the bushwhacking; and of these few in our district Alfie Proctor was the last to die.
He had been raised, as it were, in captivity. Old Proctor had actually shot the mother during the Tay Wah reprisals, but had stayed vengeance upon the little black naked thing he found crawling in ashes nearby. Carried home on the pommel, the piccaninny grew up as Alfie Proctor, and became quite tame, even learned to be useful; and at last he became old Proctor’s stable-lad with two interests in life — cricket and horses — just like a white man, but more quietly and sorrowfully.
His job was looking after Starlight, Old Proctor’s famous blood stallion, by Red Star out of Midnight. Alfie had slept in the stable with Starlight for twelve years, had fed and watered and groomed and exercised the horse ever since he was a yearling; had been present moreover at the horse’s begetting, when Midnight was taken for service to Red Star; had been present at the foal’s birth, and had fondled the young thing first amongst men. Nobody else could speak to Starlight successfully when the raging mood was on the stallion. Nobody else could lead the great sire to the service paddock when the mares were squealing. A great consolation that horse was to Alfie Proctor, and his sorrow was less than that of the rest of his tribe, who had died.
On Sundays only would Alfie leave the stables for any length of time. Absurd in white trousers and shirt, he would play cricket down on the flat. His inherited fleetness of foot and hunter’s agility of hand and eye made him one of the very best players in the district. His feat in once catching a man at leg from his own slow bowling is still related when yarns are swopped. At the annual Married versus Single match he was invariably top-scorer for the Singles. An absurd little fellow, a loveable little fellow, too, in living and in dying.
It was bad luck, indeed, damn bad luck, that Starlight should have broken his leg just three days before the Married v. Single match that year. Galloping in the paddock, with Alfie on his back, the great Sire had put his foot in a stump-hole, and had crashed, with fetlock broken. Bad luck, indeed; damn bad luck for Old Proctor, as everyone agreed, because the horse was worth a lot of money, and it was a real shame to have him destroyed.
Old Proctor sent Alfie up to the homestead to get his military rifle with all speed; and there and then drilled a clean hole in the lovely beast’s forehead to put him out of his misery. Then he told Alfie to help the other men get a load of wood, to pile it high upon the body, big logs, and to empty a tin of kerosene on it, and to burn up the stallion where he lay. Then Old Proctor went back to the homestead, and drank himself silly with whisky, shut up in his room; and little black Alf did as he was bid.
Bad luck indeed, damn bad luck, when the little black nigger just sat down in the empty stable, and refused food, and sank his head on his chest, and pined for the horse. Everybody agreed it was damn bad luck for the Singles if Alfie peaked and pined and refused to play in the match on Sunday: so close is tragedy to comedy.
Yet Alfie played, as though there was nothing the matter with him. More, as though he was enjoying himself thoroughly, which, perhaps, who knows, he was? His bowling was more deadly accurate than it ever had been. He was top-scorer in the first innings. Then, in the late afternoon, when the match was uphill for the Singles, his turning of batting defence into attack won the match with a couple of wickets to spare, and even old Proctor said:
“Well, I’m glad! It will help the little feller forget that ’orse.”
As he came trotting in from the crease, swinging his bat, the bushwhackers all cheered him roisterously, and clapped him on the back, and said, Well done, Alfie! Well done, Alfie! and then they thirstily sucked at the mugs of beer provided for players; while little Black Alf, being a teetotaller, just sat down in the shade of a tree, some little distance apart, to take off his pads, and cool down.
It must have been half an hour later before the beer was all finished, and the lads began to move off homewards. Old Proctor shouted to Alfie, where the little fellow lay cooling off in the shade:
“Hey, Alfie! Come ahn!”
There was no answer.
Suddenly frightened, Old Proctor went over and shook the little black fellow — but he was dead, lying there under the tree.
Bad luck indeed; damn bad luck, the fellows all agreed. He must have had a sunstroke, running about all that hot day.
“Sunstroke be damned!” roared Old Proctor. “The boy is dead of sorrow — sorrow for that bloody horse of mine. He just kept alive by will-power for this bloody match, can’t you see, you fools?”
And Old Proctor sobbed, with remorse and a fear.
The Doctor said death was due to heart-failure.
P. R. Stephensen, The Bushwhackers: Sketches of Life in the Australian Outback, Mandrake Press, London, , pp. 66-74
roisterous = high-spirited and noisy merrymaking; boisterous
swop = to exchange (a variant spelling of “swap”)
Tay Wah reprisals = reprisals against Aborigines for the killing of a Chinese shepherd named Tay Wah; see the short story “Willy Ah Foo” in The Bushwhackers: Sketches of Life in the Australian Outback, by P. R. Stephensen
teetotaller = someone who does not drink alcoholic beverages (also spelt “teetotaler”)