Australian Tales

by Marcus Clarke

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Chapter 3 - The Sumpitan

The Romance of Lively Creek The Sumpitan

I went about my business that morning rather more satisfied than I had been. It was evident that, however infamous, from a moral point of view, might be the behaviour of Sporboy, the woman was an adventuress who merited exposure, and that the action proposed would liberate my foolish friend. I resolved to wait events.

The first event was the arrival of Sporboy to pay me for the Hall. "Our charming friend--I knew her poor dear mother in 'Frisco--is unwell and cannot play. Genius, dear boy, is often a trying burden. I have taken upon myself to show her about the township, to take her for a drive to the dam--to amuse her mind in fact. Is that whisky in that bottle? No? Ink! Ah, I will not trouble you. Till we meet, dear boy! Ho, 'let me like a soldier fall.' Tum, tum! Te, tum! Tum, tum!"

The second was the report started at the "Main Reef Hotel," that Sporboy was going to marry Mademoiselle Pauline, and that he was taking her down his claims to show her his wealth.

The third was the appearance of the pair themselves in Merry-jingle's new buggy, to "look at the museum." "We have done the dam, seen the claims, been down shafts, and exhausted nature generally," said Sporboy. "Ma'amselle is almost expiring."

In truth she looked so. She was very white and nervous, and glanced about her with the stare of a hunted animal. Knowing that which I did know, I thought that Sporboy might esteem himself fortunate in not having been precipitated down a shaft by a little hand which so nervously twitched at the magnificent shawl of Angora goat's hair, which had been the envy of Main Street for the last three days. I almost pitied the poor creature.

"Show us the wonders of the Museum," cried the vivacious Sporboy (smelling strongly of the elegant simplicity of hot whisky). "Let us see your fossils, your emu eggs, your Indian shields, and your savage weapons of war! Ho, ho! Here is a canoe, Ma'amselle. How would you like to be floating in it away back to your native land? Here we have a model of the Great Lively Creek Nugget. How would you like to have that now, and live in luxury all your days?"

If this was the method of torment he had put in practice since morning, she must have had more than human patience to endure it in silence.

"Here we have a club from New Caledonia. How nice to cleave the skull of your enemies! Our charming friend, Pauline, if she has enemies, might long to be able to use so effective a weapon! Or this spear! Adapted even to a woman's hand! Ho, ho! Miami, would you like to draw this little bow, and spit your foe with this arrow? By the way, how goes the time?"

It was two o'clock, and I told him so.

"The coach for Melbourne passes at three; would you like to go by it?" he asked her. "But no, I would not recommend it. And yet the company is paid a week in advance. They would not stop you. Shall we make a trip?"

She turned to him half hopefully, as though deceived by his tones, but catching the malignant glance of his eye flushed and turned away.

Skipping from case to case like an overgrown bee, he paused at last.

"Ho, ho! What have we here! Oh! My gift. The Sumpitan, or blow-pipe, the weapon of the natives of Central America, presented together with a case of poisoned arrows, by John Sporboy. Tra-la-la! Observe this:--The fellow takes one of these little wooden needles stuck into a pith ball, puts it into the pipe, blows, and puff!--down falls his dinner!"

He commenced capering about with the long reed to his lips, swelling out his cheeks as in the act of blowing, and looking--with his big belly and tightly-buttoned coat--like a dissipated bullfrog.

Mademoiselle seemed roused to some little interest by this novel instrument.

"But how can they eat poisoned meat?" asked she.

"The poison does not injure the meat," I replied, with the gravity proper to a Secretary. "It is the celebrated Wourali poison, and effects no organic change in the body of the animal killed by it. You fire at him; he feels the prick of the needle, and, as Captain Sporboy says--puff--he falls dead in a few minutes!"

"Ho, ho!" cries the exhilarated Sporboy from the other end of the room. "See me slay the Secretary with his own weapons," and wheeling about, he blew at me a pellet of paper, propelled with such force that, narrowly missing my face, it struck and knocked to the ground a little Indian figure, which shivered into fifty pieces.

The gross old villain was somewhat sobered by this incident, and taking the quiver from the hands of Mademoiselle, replaced it, together with the reed in its accustomed rack.

"I am an ass," he said. "Let us return to the hotel and see the coach come in. We may have news of absent friends, who knows? My Pauline, thy Sporboy awaits thee!"

Paler and colder than ever, she allowed him to lead her away, and they departed. The manner in which Sporboy treated the wretched woman whom he had vowed to unmask disgusted me. It was unmanly, cruel. That she should be prevented from ruining a young and wealthy fool was right and necessary, but there was no need to torment her, to play with her as the cat plays with the mouse. Surely the best thing to do with her would be to let her go her own ways back into the great world out of which she had come. I determined to see Sporboy, inform him of that which I had overheard, and beg his mercy.

At four o'clock, the hour for closing the Museum, I went down to the hotel. At the door I saw Stunning Joe Banks.

"I was coming to see you," he said; "I want to take the Hall."

"Oh certainly, but I must see Mademoiselle Christoval first."

"She's gone!"


"Gone to Melbourne."


"By the three o'clock coach. It's all right. We're all square."

"But," said I bewildered, "what about Sporboy?"

"Which?" asked Joseph, with one of those fine touches of humour for which he was so distinguished. "What?"

"Excuse me a few minutes," I said. "There is something strange here," and I hastened down Main Street, "Captain Sporboy in?" I asked Chips.

"He was here this afternoon, sir."

"When did Mademoiselle Christovel leave?"

"She came down with the Captain in his buggy, and went upstairs with him. Presently she rang the bell and told me to take her passage by the coach. She paid her bill, sent down her boxes, and was O.P.H., sir."

"And was not Captain Sporboy with her?"

"No. Sir. Didn't see him after he went upstairs with her. P'raps he's in his room."

I went upstairs and knocked at the Great Man's door. No answer. I opened the door, and nearly fell over Sporboy's body. He was lying on the floor, just inside his room--DEAD!

My hurried summons filled the room with people in a few seconds. We lifted the corpse from the ground. There was on it no mark of violence, save that in falling the dying man had struck his nose against the floor, and the blood had slightly spotted his shirt front, and that his right hand doubled under him was bruised and discoloured.

"I wonder," said the Coroner, taking his "Three Star" afterwards in the bar, "that a man of his habits was so apparently healthy. He drank whisky enough to have killed a regiment of dragoons. Those sort of subjects almost always die suddenly."

Suddenly, indeed, when he was last seen by Mr. Butt, in perfect health, shaking hands with Mademoiselle Christovel at the threshold of the room that was his death-chamber.

The romance of Lively Creek was over, buried in the grave of the friendless adventurer. No one ever knew the nature of the secret which bound the Great Sporboy to the travelling actress, for when Harry Beaufort returned by the morning coach, he found a letter awaiting him, containing three lines of farewell from the unworthy woman he had hoped to marry, and who disappeared into the unholy mystery out of which she had emerged.

Was it accident or murder which removed the profligate prosecutor of Pauline of Manuelita so opportunely and so suddenly from her path? In common with the rest of the world I believed the former--until yesterday.

Despite the strong motive for the crime, the absolute absence of all testimony, medical or circumstantial, against her had compelled me to adjudge her innocent of the deed. I thought so then--I hope so now--but the reason I have recalled upon paper the details of this unfinished history is, that upon taking down yesterday, for some official purposes, the Sumpitan quiver, which had hung upon its accustomed nail for the last ten years under the noses of all the world, I found that the tiny, poisoned, thorn-point of one of the wooden needles had been broken off, and caught by a splinter in the little cane ring which sustained the mutilated shaft was a fine white thread--the hair of the Angora goat.

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