A Vision of Sandy Blight by Henry Lawson
I'd been humping my back, and crouching and groaning for an hour
or so in the darkest corner of the travellers' hut, tortured by the
demon of sandy blight. It was too hot to travel, and there was no one
there except ourselves and Mitchell's cattle pup. We were waiting till
after sundown, for I couldn't have travelled in the daylight, anyway.
Mitchell had tied a wet towel round my eyes, and led me for the last
mile or two by another towel — one end fastened to his belt behind,
and the other in my hand as I walked in his tracks. And oh! but this
was a relief! It was out of the dust and glare, and the flies didn't
come into the dark hut, and I could hump and stick my knees in my eyes
and groan in comfort. I didn't want a thousand a year, or anything; I
only wanted relief for my eyes — that was all I prayed for in this
world. When the sun got down a bit, Mitchell started poking round,
and presently he found amongst the rubbish a dirty-looking medicine
bottle, corked tight; when he rubbed the dirt off a piece of notepaper
that was pasted on, he saw "eye-water" written on it. He drew the cork
with his teeth, smelt the water, stuck his little finger in, turned
the bottle upside down, tasted the top of his finger, and reckoned the
stuff was all right.
"Here! Wake up, Joe!" he shouted. "Here's a bottle of tears."
"A bottler wot?" I groaned.
"Eye-water," said Mitchell.
"Are you sure it's all right?" I didn't want to be poisoned or
have my eyes burnt out by mistake; perhaps some burning acid had got
into that bottle, or the label had been put on, or left on, in mistake
"I dunno," said Mitchell, "but there's no harm in tryin'."
I chanced it. I lay down on my back in a bunk, and Mitchell
dragged my lids up and spilt half a bottle of eye-water over my
The relief was almost instantaneous. I never experienced such a
quick cure in my life. I carried the bottle in my swag for a long
time afterwards, with an idea of getting it analysed, but left it
behind at last in a camp.
Mitchell scratched his head thoughtfully, and watched me for a
"I think I'll wait a bit longer," he said at last, "and if it
doesn't blind you I'll put some in my eyes. I'm getting a touch of
blight myself now. That's the fault of travelling with a mate who's
always catching something that's no good to him."
As it grew dark outside we talked of sandy-blight and fly-bite,
and sand-flies up north, and ordinary flies, and branched off to
Barcoo rot, and struck the track again at bees and bee stings. When
we got to bees, Mitchell sat smoking for a while and looking dreamily
backwards along tracks and branch tracks, and round corners and
circles he had travelled, right back to the short, narrow, innocent
bit of track that ends in a vague, misty point — like the end of a
long, straight, cleared road in the moonlight — as far back as we can
"I had about fourteen hives," said Mitchell — "we used to call
them `swarms', no matter whether they were flying or in the box —
when I left home first time. I kept them behind the shed, in the
shade, on tables of galvanised iron cases turned down on stakes; but
I had to make legs later on, and stand them in pans of water, on
account of the ants. When the bees swarmed — and some hives sent out
the Lord knows how many swarms in a year, it seemed to me — we'd
tin-kettle 'em, and throw water on 'em, to make 'em believe the
biggest thunderstorm was coming to drown the oldest inhabitant; and,
if they didn't get the start of us and rise, they'd settle on a branch
— generally on one of the scraggy fruit trees. It was rough on the
bees — come to think of it; their instinct told them it was going to
be fine, and the noise and water told them it was raining. They must
have thought that nature was mad, drunk, or gone ratty, or the end of
the world had come. We'd rig up a table, with a box upside down, under
the branch, cover our face with a piece of mosquito net, have rags
burning round, and then give the branch a sudden jerk, turn the box
down, and run. If we got most of the bees in, the rest that were
hanging to the bough or flying round would follow, and then we
reckoned we'd shook the queen in. If the bees in the box came out and
joined the others, we'd reckon we hadn't shook the queen in, and go
for them again. When a hive was full of honey we'd turn the box upside
down, turn the empty box mouth down on top of it, and drum and hammer
on the lower box with a stick till all the bees went up into the top
box. I suppose it made their heads ache, and they went up on that
"I suppose things are done differently on proper bee-farms. I've
heard that a bee-farmer will part a hanging swarm with his fingers,
take out the queen bee and arrange matters with her; but our ways
suited us, and there was a lot of expectation and running and
excitement in it, especially when a swarm took us by surprise. The
yell of `Bees swarmin'!' was as good to us as the yell of `Fight!' is
now, or `Bolt!' in town, or `Fire' or `Man overboard!' at sea.
"There was tons of honey. The bees used to go to the vineyards at
wine-making and get honey from the heaps of crushed grape-skins thrown
out in the sun, and get so drunk sometimes that they wobbled in their
bee-lines home. They'd fill all the boxes, and then build in between
and under the bark, and board, and tin covers. They never seemed to
get the idea out of their heads that this wasn't an evergreen country,
and it wasn't going to snow all winter. My younger brother Joe used
to put pieces of meat on the tables near the boxes, and in front of
the holes where the bees went in and out, for the dogs to grab at.
But one old dog, `Black Bill', was a match for him; if it was worth
Bill's while, he'd camp there, and keep Joe and the other dogs from
touching the meat — once it was put down — till the bees turned in
for the night. And Joe would get the other kids round there, and when
they weren't looking or thinking, he'd brush the bees with a stick and
run. I'd lam him when I caught him at it. He was an awful young
devil, was Joe, and he grew up steady, and respectable, and respected
— and I went to the bad. I never trust a good boy now. . . . Ah,
"I remember the first swarm we got. We'd been talking of getting a
few swarms for a long time. That was what was the matter with us
English and Irish and English-Irish Australian farmers: we used to
talk so much about doing things while the Germans and Scotch did them.
And we even talked in a lazy, easy-going sort of way.
"Well, one blazing hot day I saw father coming along the road, home
to dinner (we had it in the middle of the day), with his axe over his
shoulder. I noticed the axe particularly because father was bringing
it home to grind, and Joe and I had to turn the stone; but, when I
noticed Joe dragging along home in the dust about fifty yards behind
father, I felt easier in my mind. Suddenly father dropped the axe and
started to run back along the road towards Joe, who, as soon as he saw
father coming, shied for the fence and got through. He thought he was
going to catch it for something he'd done — or hadn't done. Joe used
to do so many things and leave so many things not done that he could
never be sure of father. Besides, father had a way of starting to
hammer us unexpectedly — when the idea struck him. But father pulled
himself up in about thirty yards and started to grab up handfuls of
dust and sand and throw them into the air. My idea, in the first
flash, was to get hold of the axe, for I thought it was sun-stroke,
and father might take it into his head to start chopping up the family
before I could persuade him to put it (his head, I mean) in a bucket
of water. But Joe came running like mad, yelling:
"`Swarmer — bees! Swawmmer — bee—ee—es! Bring — a — tin —
dish — and — a — dippera — wa-a-ter!'
"I ran with a bucket of water and an old frying-pan, and pretty
soon the rest of the family were on the spot, throwing dust and water,
and banging everything, tin or iron, they could get hold of. The only
bullock bell in the district (if it was in the district) was on the
old poley cow, and she'd been lost for a fortnight. Mother brought up
the rear — but soon worked to the front — with a baking-dish and a
big spoon. The old lady — she wasn't old then — had a deep-rooted
prejudice that she could do everything better than anybody else, and
that the selection and all on it would go to the dogs if she wasn't
there to look after it. There was no jolting that idea out of her.
She not only believed that she could do anything better than anybody,
and hers was the only right or possible way, and that we'd do
everything upside down if she wasn't there to do it or show us how —
but she'd try to do things herself or insist on making us do them her
way, and that led to messes and rows. She was excited now, and took
command at once. She wasn't tongue-tied, and had no impediment in her
"`Don't throw up dust! — Stop throwing up dust! — Do you want
to smother 'em? — Don't throw up so much water! — Only throw up a
pannikin at a time! — D'yer want to drown 'em? Bang! Keep on
banging, Joe! — Look at that child! Run, someone! — run! you,
Jack! — D'yer want the child to be stung to death? — Take her
inside! . . . Dy' hear me? . . . Stop throwing up dust, Tom! (To
father.) You're scaring 'em away! Can't you see they want to settle?'
[Father was getting mad and yelping: `For Godsake shettup and go
inside.'] `Throw up water, Jack! Throw up — Tom! Take that bucket
from him and don't make such a fool of yourself before the children!
Throw up water! Throw — keep on banging, children! Keep on
banging!' [Mother put her faith in banging.] `There! — they're off!
You've lost 'em! I knew you would! I told yer — keep on bang—!'
"A bee struck her in the eye, and she grabbed at it!
"Mother went home — and inside.
"Father was good at bees — could manage them like sheep when he
got to know their ideas. When the swarm settled, he sent us for the
old washing stool, boxes, bags, and so on; and the whole time he was
fixing the bees I noticed that whenever his back was turned to us his
shoulders would jerk up as if he was cold, and he seemed to shudder
from inside, and now and then I'd hear a grunting sort of whimper like
a boy that was just starting to blubber. But father wasn't weeping,
and bees weren't stinging him; it was the bee that stung mother that
was tickling father. When he went into the house, mother's other eye
had bunged for sympathy. Father was always gentle and kind in
sickness, and he bathed mother's eyes and rubbed mud on, but every now
and then he'd catch inside, and jerk and shudder, and grunt and cough.
Mother got wild, but presently the humour of it struck her, and she
had to laugh, and a rum laugh it was, with both eyes bunged up. Then
she got hysterical, and started to cry, and father put his arm round
her shoulder and ordered us out of the house.
"They were very fond of each other, the old people were, under it
all — right up to the end. . . . Ah, well!"
Mitchell pulled the swags out of a bunk, and started to fasten the