by Marie Braithwaite, writing as “Jack Rugby” (circa 1861-1927)
The following short story, “Betty Pops the Question” (1906), was mentioned in a discussion of representations of Indigenous people earlier this week. [Note on vocabulary: “bumby”: by and by; “dhrackly”: directly; “gall”: girl.]
“Now be careful, Betty; that’s my white muslin jacket; you must not tear the lace. Yes; those go in, too – all the fine white things first.”
“What for you think’m big one stupid. All same, ’nother one black gin. Betty plenty big one wash long white lubra. No mixum dirty cloose longa white ones. What for too much tell Betty all same stupid?” And the old gin emitted a long, low gurgling laugh, in which Bathsheeba Macregor joined merrily, much to the satisfaction of Betty, who was a wise old gin, and loved all things to run smoothly. Bathsheeba was tall and finely formed, and with a stately carriage that would have dignified a princess. The face was neither beautiful nor lovely, but it was good, with an angelic sweetness of expression that mirrored the soul within.
“No use’m board, Betty?” she queried with the soft little cooing laugh that always thrilled Betty to the heart.
“No want ’em,” said Betty, shaking her head as she drank in the light of the dear eyes above her. “What for you thinkum me got hands – all same rub, rub, rub, rub?” suiting the action to the word, and rubbing with might and main.
A grin followed the musical, melodious gurgle that seemed to keep catching and escaping spasmodically in Betty’s dark interior.
From start to finish the whole wash was chatter, and rub, and gurgle. Bathsheeba was used to it, and chatted, and laughed, and rubbed with Betty. It was mostly Betty she had, as Betty was not so given to wandering as the rest of the tribe, she and Jimmy often being content to stay in their wurlie and live on ’possum, and snake, and fish, when the rest of the tribe went on their raids. Jimmy, too, was faithful and honest. Bathsheeba could always depend on Jimmy for wild fowl and fish when he was camping near. And Betty’s industrious fingers plaited most of the mats that covered Bathsheeba’s rooms. Dear, delightful old rooms, spotless and clean, in the low-thatched farmhouse on the hill, high and dry from ebb and flow of river floods. There was always a faint odour of crushed river rushes from the mats on the floor – oblong, and round, and square – whatever design took Betty’s fancy at the time.
At this precise moment Bathsheeba is putting snow-white linen, freshly washed, into a native-made rush clothes basket; and Betty under a large gumtree is standing at the rinsing and blueing tubs, working all the better for the rest of the tribe being away. She is watching wistfully the piled-up basket, and wondering how long the hanging out will take. Betty’s inner man is beginning to cry out.
“How much longer you bin, umph?”
“What for Betty; you all same,” and Bathsheeba gave the lowest part of her chest a slap in answer to Betty’s grunt of enquiry.
“Um – me too much big one all same drum.”
“Umph! Betty too much big one empty.”
“All right, Betty; you finish that one blue tub, then me put this fellow on line and make tea.”
“That good one, lady,” said Betty with much satisfaction; “me finish this one blue phellow then have’m tea. You thing’m got tewbacca long house?” This in the softest of soft insinuating tones that was irresistible in the way of begging.
“Oh, I think so,” laughed Bathsheeba, “me find ’bacca long house; you washum clean now Betty.”
“Yes; me wash’m clean. You berry good one, Missus longa Betty – plenty gib’m – me wash’m clean,” and once more the work went on harmoniously with the near prospect of tea and ’bacca to brighten it. The true native is nothing if not greedy.
“Now, Betty, come on. That one very nice and clean. Me put ’im out after. See; plenty tea ’long billy, nice cake – come on.”
Betty needed very little persuasion to eat. But the praise of “nice and clean” was sweet to her ears.
“You thinkum berry good one clean, Miss ’Sheeba?” she asked, holding up a snowy garment well blued, before dropping it into the basket. One watchful bleary eye on Bathsheeba, and the other on the cake.
“Oh, very good – nice and clean, Betty. There,” placing a pannikin of very sweet tea in one hand, and a large slice of cake in the other.
With a grunt of satisfaction Betty doubled her spindleshanks beneath her, and sank on to the springy turf by the river side, overshadowed by an immense gum, where a flock of brilliant hued rosellas were screeching, almost hidden by the density of leaves. Near by was a lily pond, over which floated pure white water lilies with yellow hearts. At the farther end, where the lily leaves were not so thick Bathsheeba’s ducks were swimming.
Bathsheeba sat and looked on the scene with the eye of an artist. The river winding past them like a silver ribbon between its treeclad banks. The quiet homestead on the hill above them nestling among a shrubbery of green. The cattle browsing on the slope, kneedeep in grassy clover. Lower down towards the bridge, there grew phalignum bushes and clumps of reeds where little brown waterhens were playing hide and seek and an occasional ballcoot strutted in and out. To Bathsheeba it was like Eden – if only there was no sin.
She caught herself up with a sharp sigh, and turned to the silent native woman, who was watching her with wondering, bleary eyes –
“You think this nice place, Betty?”
“Oh, berry nice – berry good – plenty tucker. Catch’m ’possum, choot’m duck, cath’m fish, kill’m snake. Berry good place, this one long Jimmy and Betty.”
Bathsheeba sighed. Poor Betty. Betty held out her pannikin for another fill up, and her long claw-like hand for a fresh supply of cake.
“Bumby, come dhrackly, yo go way?” queried Betty, at the same time grunting thanks for the fresh helping.
“Why how, Betty?” asked Bathsheeba, with elevated brows.
Betty gave a long gurgling laugh, looking wonderfully sly and wise, and taking up a dry branch of the gum she tried to poke at Bathsheeba’s ribs.
“You think Betty big one stupid, all same ’nother one black gin. What for? Bumby sun go down, moon come. Then whitefellow come. Then gall come. What for?” Betty finished up with another catching laugh. And Bathsheeba, red and rosy, laughed too.
“That’s right, Betty. What for? That’s what I’ve been wanting to ask for the last 12 months, and you’ve done it for me. You fellows come to the scratch at once.” Bathsheeba sprang up with a little cry, looking rosier than ever. Betty merely gurgled out another laugh. She had seen him coming.
The newcomer leaned up against the tree, teasing Betty, and admiring the curves of Bathsheeba’s bared arms and the graceful contour of neck and head as she turned sideways to poke down the clothes in the boiler.
“You got’m ’bacca – leetle bit?” queried Betty in a stage whisper.
“Yes – here you are,” he answered good-naturedly tossing her half a twist.
And taking from some mysterious part of her most wonderfully adjusted dress a dirty broken clay pipe she began to puff away with the most vigorous satisfaction.
With dense face, and seemingly unseeing eyes, Betty sat smoking and watching with curious interest the ways of the man and the maid. This was not the way that Betty had been wooed. She had simply received a smart crack on the head with a well-seasoned waddy, and forthwith became Jimmy’s. One of the most persuasive arguments that she knew of.
Here with these white fellows it was altogether different. From boiler to clothesline and clothesline to tub Allan Frankfort followed, chatting and laughing, and offering ready assistance with tub or bucket. Taking them by force from Bathsheeba, and carrying them full of clear, shining water from the river. Lifting the overleaded boiler from the fire and turning his handsome head that the steam might not scald him.
And all the time Betty smoked and watched, and Bathsheeba looked cross. Like a small ray of sunshine, that gradually widens and spreads, the fact began to dawn in Betty’s mind that the “Queen o’ Sheeba” was “big one cross,” and this fellow had “better go ’long.”
There was another fellow she bin see long night time – that must be the one – this fellow better go ’long. She inserted the point of her black finger into the bowl of her pipe to put out the fire, and once more placing it into that mysterious region of her dress, she rose, and resumed operations, emphasizing each rib with a grunt of disapproval. Evidently the Adam that had come into this Eden had disturbed the inmates.
Later in the day, when he had gone, native curiosity asserted its powers over Betty. She fully intended getting to the bottom of things. As there was s dim inkling in her mind that she too was out of favour with “Miss ’Sheeba.”
“What’s the matter, Betty?”
It was well on towards afternoon, and perhaps the old gin was getting tired. Bathsheeba had been thinking of other things.
“You no crass long ool Betty?”
“Dear, oh, dear no. What make you think me cross long Betty? Very good one Betty – plenty wash and scrub, and sweep ’long Miss Sheeba. No cross Betty.” Assured Bathsheeba in her sweetest tones.
“Onny crass long that nother fello cary’m bucket? Uch?” The last word is simply a quick sudden indrawing of the breath, used as an anxious interrogation.
Before answering this question Bathsheeba began to consider. Had she been cross? She certainly had been annoyed – and she did not like Allan Frankfort with his free and easy style, and his over-readiness to take advantage. Still, she did not know that she had seemed undignified enough to show it even to this untutored black woman. Had he noticed it? She hoped so, he was getting too intrusive.
And then she sighed as she thought of the long standing coldness that lay between her and some one that had once been very dear – nay, even now.
“Uch?” Betty was waiting for an answer. “No like’m, Miss Sheeba. Uch?”
“You no like him Betty,” anxious to gain time, as the watchful eyes read her face. “Me no like’m,” she answered, with a vigorous shake of the head.
“Berry good phellow, giv bacca – some-time. Too much yabber yabber long gall. Too much dam phool.”
“Oh, Betty,” cried Bathsheeba, with shocked face and uplifted hands. “That is wicked! Why, that’s swearing.”
“Me know, that phellow little one swear – not say that one nother time me crass long that phellow tease you. What for? Big one cheeky phool! Where that ’nother genlem’s long time come long house. Nice horse, plenty dog, catch’m kangaroom, gib’m Jimmy one. Oh, very good phellow that.”
“Ah, yes, Betty,” said Bathsheeba in soft and loving tones; “he was good. He good man now. Me nasty girl one day. Me say – Go ’way. He go; no more come back,” and Bathsheeba’s hand went up to wipe away a tear.
A coloured shirt – the last of the wash – dropped from Betty’s hands, and she slowly and thoughtfully began to wipe from each skinny black arm the frothy suds.
“Think me go now,” she remarked in a tone of decision which Bathsheeba knew there was no gainsaying.
“Poor Betty tired?” queried Bathsheeba, trying to brighten her countenance with a smile, while she was secretly surprised at this sudden suspension of washing arrangements. But one never knows when to depend on a native.
“No tired. Think’s leesy” – (lazy) – “me go now.”
And she went. Drawing her blue blanket with the broad Government arrow in the approved style around her sparse limbs, with a “So long, Miss Sheeba. Bymby come dhrackly; bring’m duck.”
But Bathsheeba knew she would not come again till she felt inclined. Not, indeed, till she needed “’bacca, tea, sugar, or flour” – four luxuries they would not go without.
We will now take the liberty of following Betty. She does not go to her wurlie, but straight up the steep bank, past the house, through the paddock, and out on the road, up either side of which is planted a thick acacia hedge, which at present is one brilliant mass of yellow bloom.
But the beauties of Nature have no charm for Betty. She came out for something more important than to go in raptures over yellow hedges, as Bathsheeba would have done. Indeed, no. Betty had come out on business, and she was not the one to let the grass grow under her feet. With many an inward grunt she adjusted the large net bag around her shoulders, lit her pipe, and marched on with easy, quick strides peculiar to the native woman. There is no grace in their movements unless they are stout and big, as very few of them are, and then their movements are as easy and dignified as that of a Duchess. But Betty does not come under this head. Spindle shanks and skinny arms are her heritage. But she has a good heart.
For quite four miles she trudged on without pause or break till she found herself in a scrubby part of the country.
She had long since left Macgregor’s yellow hedges behind. The rough scrubby road here was bounded on either side by strong post and rail fences. And through the rails to the right of her she crept, making a beeline across the scrubby paddock. The geography of the place here was so well known to her that she could have traversed it blindfolded. After walking a quarter of a mile she struck the track again – an uneven one, winding in and out among the trees. Something bright on the road attracted her attention. Picking it up with her toes she examined it, and with a grunt of satisfaction she went on, holding it tightly in her hand.
Betty did not need to go quite so far as she had thought. The quick, sharp trot of a horse struck on her ears, and, turning to look, she gave a “glumph, berry good now,” and stood waiting by the side of the track.
“Hullo, Betty! Where in the dickens is Jimmy? You run away?”
“No run away – what for? Come see you.”
“See me?” he exclaimed. “Well, I am honoured. What for, Betty?”
“You know this one,” and she held up the trinket she had found.
“Why, yes; that’s part of my watch-chain. Where did you get it?”
“Oh, me bin find’m, think’m yours. Berry good then.”
“Oh, my word, yes: very good. What you want um, Betty?”
“Oh, me no want’m. You got’m ’bacca?”
“Here – this is all I’ve got. Next time you shall have plenty.” And Jack Morgan held out to her all that was in his possession. Still, she did not seem satisfied.
“Why, Betty; what now? You go long house get tea, flour, sugar.”
“No want’m,” answered Betty, curtly.
“What’s wrong then? What do you want.”
“You no more like that one gall? Uch?” This in a soft, tender undertone, the black face being almost illumined with the expectation of her answer.
Jack Morgan sprang down from the restive chestnut, holding him firmly by the bride.
“Who you talk about, Betty? Queen o’ Sheeba?”
“Umph! all same – berry nice lady. Berry good long Betty. Me no like’m that phellow larn’m piccannini long schoolhouse. Miss Sheeba – she no like’m. What for he come tease her?” and Betty’s bleary eyes burned like smouldering coals.
“What!” thundered Jack. “You tell me all about it. By heavens, I’ll punch the life out of him. Quick Betty, tell me all the row!” and he caught the blue blanket, and shook it, to the indignation of Betty.
“High – you let go plenkit! What for you touch plenkit?” stepping back in high dudgeon and adjusting herself.
“Oh, damn the blanket.”
“You say tam Miss Sheeba no speak long a you.”
The whites of her eyes were turning yellow – a very dangerous sign.
“Never mind, Betty; I shan’t say it again,” said Jack soothingly. “I shan’t say it again. How did he tease Miss Sheeba?”
“You like see gall do this? and Betty began to dig her knuckles into her eyes as if crying very hard.
Jack opening his mouth to speak, but nothing came save a quickdrawn breath. Betty was satisfied.
“You like that one gall?” very softly.
“By jingo, rather, Betty. She is my old sweetheart. Long time ago. Only I’m going away in a day or two – she no like me any more – she won’t have me.”
“You no like marry that one gall?”
“I should think I would, Betty. I’d marry her to-morrow; only she won’t have me, I tell you.”
“Oh you big one stupid, you big phool. That gall been do this when she tell me you no come any more.” (Again there was a vigorous knuckling of the eyes.) But Jack did not fly in a rage and shake her blanket. In fact, he looked almost heavenly.
“By Jove, Betty, you’re a brick – you’re a jewel. You shall have a white silk dress to dance in at the wedding. You shall have a ton of tobacco.”
Jack put his hands into his pockets and rifled himself of all his loose silver, and flung it at Betty. He could wait no longer.
Springing on his horse, he turned and galloped down the track.
The sun had gone, and the moon had come, so also had two very loving figures that strolled down by the river. A dark shadow pursued them from tree to tree, till quite satisfied that the couple ahead were the right parties. And then, with many grunts of satisfaction it withdrew.
“Berry good, that one – berry good. Miss Sheeba no go ’way now. Plenty more wash long ribber.”
Marie Braithwaite writing as “Jack Rugby”
“Betty Pops the Question“, The Observer (Adelaide, 16 Jun 1906: 9-10)
Bibiographical information about the author can be found here.