The following marvelous story by Ashley Sterne recently appeared in Trove, the digitized newspaper website of the National Library of Australia. The story was originally published in The London Observer, Ashley Sterne's primary outlet in 1916, and was then republished in the Kangaroo Island Courier (Kingscote, South Australia) on October 7th 1916.
The story has touches of the macabre. By the middle of the story I was hoping that Sterne would veer off into Sweeney Todd territory. (This is sad proof that my character has been tainted by the decadence of our modern times.) Honorably, Sterne stayed within bounds of Edwardian taste.
I was surprised to see that Sterne imported a series of South African Dutch terms (kopje, kloof, spruit, etc.) into the Australian narrative. He must have enjoyed the comic sound of these exotic words.
Drumroll, please! Let the story begin!
Enoch and Arden: A Short Story
Old Ephraim Knocker had had one foot in the grave for so many years that at length he pulled himself together and inserted the other foot too, the neighbours, upon hearing the news, cried "Never!" And his heirs, executors and assigns, after trying artificial respiration for nearly half a minute, likewise exclaimed "Never!" Yet in spite of this wholesale incredulity they ran and drew the insurance money; and thus, in the person of Ephraim Knocker, Australia's richest squatter passed away.
For the old man had been a successful rabbit-farmer, and had squatted so industriously that at his death he was worth no less than 170,516,829 rabbits — most of them with power to add to their number — an inheritance which caused his two nephews and heirs, Enoch and Arden (who also squatted industriously, albeit on the floor in Jake Juggins' saloon), to be the most sought-after young men in the district. But Enoch and Arden had other inclinations than those of match-making squattresses, and they both loved the same girl — Winnie Welterwayte, the maddest, merriest maid in all Moolloowoojoo.
But (as so often happens in stories of this character) Winnie could not make up her mind as to which brother she preferred, until one day she accidentally overheard, whilst listening at the keyhole, that Enoch, the elder, had inherited the odd rabbit, thus making him one up on Arden. Then the truth flashed upon her, and deep down in her simple affectionate heart she knew that it was Enoch she loved. Hence, at his next weekly proposal, she accepted him, and in due course they were made as one as a fully choral service, numerous and costly guests, and the contents of Jake Juggins' cellar could possibly make them.
Arden bore his disappointment manfully. He did not leave the old farm, as many men under similar circumstances would have done. He stayed on, contributed three-and-six a week to the housekeeping, and strove to forget his sorrows in work. Every morning he rose at five, and fed his own and his brother's rabbits; cleaned out the opossum's nest in the blue-gum tree, and gave it fresh seed and water; groomed the kangaroo and the wallaby, and milked the Swiss condensed cow.
Then one day came the news of the war with Germany, and both brothers hastened to offer their services with the Colonial forces. But Enoch was rejected for knock-knees, and Arden for bow-legs; and together they returned to the old squat house fired with determination to — since they could not deal a blow for the Old Country (thus establishing the longest split infinitive on record) — serve the Motherland in some other way. Accordingly they resolved to sacrifice at the longest profit attainable the whole of their rabbits, and to enter the market as War Office caterers. This they found no difficulty in doing, as their prices were far and away the highest tendered; and in a very short time the farm presented an unwonted appearance.
On every kopje, kloof, spruit, sjambok, stoep, and vlet, the finest boomerang-throwers in Australia might have been seen, all employed in the slaughter of rabbits. From the cowl of the wash-house issued a constant cloud of smoke and steam; while in the seething cauldron beneath, the raw rabbits were boiled for tinnings. In the parlour Winnie, Enoch and Arden worked without pause at writing labels — "turkey and tongue," "chicken and ham," "liver and bacon," "spiced beef," "Yarmouth bloater," and so forth; and Dingo the old rabbit dog sat on his haunches in the midst of them, with his dear, faithful tongue hanging out, against which each label was pressed as soon as completed, and thence transferred to the tin.
At length the time came when the last rabbit had been boomeranged, boiled, canned and labelled, and Enoch had completed his preparations to accompany the goods to England. On this day Moolloowoojoo was appropriately decorated with bunting and little rabbit skins; and the Town Band, which for some days previously had devoted much time to rehearsing "It's a long way to ship a rabbit," had paraded the streets from an early hour — a procedure which had twice necessitated the Mayor's delivering an impassioned and dramatic rendering of that popular recitation, the Riot Act. Within the farmstead Enoch took a long farewell of his wife, and then seized his brother's toil-scarred, rabbit-stained hand.
"Good-bye, old man," he said in a voice husky partly with emotion, and partly with four small Basses. "Look after Winnie while I'm gone. Feed her three times a day, and wash her head on Saturday nights. Keep the home-fire burning; keep the butter churning ; keep the milk from turning till I'm home again."
Then amid the blaring of the band, the weeping of his wife, the blessings of his brother, the "pip-pips" of the populace, and the rattling of the rabbits in their little old tin cans, Enoch started on his journey.
A fortnight later a black-edged telegram arrived at the farm. It was from the owners of the ship in which Enoch had sailed, and was to the effect that when in mid-ocean the vessel had shied at a shoal of flying sardines, taken the rudder between her teeth, run into the kerb and foundered with all hands.
On learning the sad news Winnie did not throw up her hands and give way to the ordinary, vulgar hysteria. Maintaining her self-control she put aside Arden's pants which she had been darning, lay down upon the hearthrug, and with great presence of mind calmly and deliberately fainted. Arden ran to her side, and kneeling down forced a little tomato chutney between her lips. As the potent stimulant coursed down her oesophagus she presently revived sufficiently to sit up; and Arden, with his arm supporting her, patted her, petted her, pitied her, and from sheer force of rabbit — I should say habit —very nearly potted her. But he remembered in time, and confined himself to the patting, petting and pitying stunts.
These little attentions continued for some days, and it was really not very surprising when one day Arden asked Winnie if she was doing anything next Tuesday, and receiving a reply in the negative asked if she would marry him, and received a reply in the affirmative. "Enoch must nearly be an ammonite by this time,' Arden said simply; "and anyhow I promised him to look after you. Your trousseau is practically unused. There is no reason why the marriage should be delayed." And Winnie, realising that Arden spoke with the authority of the richest squatter in Australia, agreed with him. Thus it was that on the day appointed the fully choral service was once more heard in Moolloowoojoo, the guests were numerous and costly for the second time in six months, and Jake Juggins' Waterloo port and Bannookburn usquebaugh were again requisitioned.
As Winnie emerged from the porch leaning on Arden's arm, a figure appeared from behind one of the exceedingly complimentary tombstones with which the churchyard was studded, and advanced towards her. His clothes were wringing wet. A barnacle hung from his left ear. A jelly-fish was firmly enmeshed in his matted hair, and numerous bivalves clung tenaciously to his long, unkempt beard. Winnie gave one glance and then with a shriek that drowned the organist's efforts with the Wedding March, flung her arms round Arden's neck.
"Enoch!" she cried. "Enoch has some back — he is not dead. And I — miserable, unhappy woman — I have committed trigonometry!'
That evening Enoch, Arden and Winnie were once again seated in the farmhouse parlour. Supper was on the table, and what was to have been the piece de resistance of Arden and Winnie's wedding feast — a tin of their own canned rabbit — lay open and inviting.
"Come," said Enoch, taking his place at the groaning board. "Let us eat. Perhaps some solution of the difficulty will occur to us between the hors d'oeuvres and the liqueure. I only wish to affirm that I absolutely refuse to go away again like the man in the poem."
"And I," said Arden, "as resolutely decline to give up Winnie whom I married in all good faith. Your rescue by the Fiji lifeboat has been a most unfortunate occurrence for us all."
"While I," observed Winnie, seating herself between her two husbands, "have a perfectly open mind on the whole matter. Enoch, cut the rabbit, darling. Arden, pass the salad, dearest."
Yet even as they ate and discussed the problem in all its bearings, Fate was working out the solution through a medium which none of them expected. Little did they know that the rabbit they were so innocently assimilating had for years before the lethal boomerang laid its head in the dust been suffering from that most insidious of rabbit diseases, ptomaine. Subtly and silently the fell toxin did its work. Winnie was the first to go. In the act of passing her plate for a third helping she collapsed upon the Charlotte Russe, and died with the name of "Arnoch" on her lips. In vain did the brothers dash the contents of the cruet in her face. She gave no response, and Enoch, realising what had happened, borrowed two pennies from his brother, placed them on her eyelids, and carried her to the sofa to dry.
Then returning to the supper table he asked Arden for two meringues.
"Did you say two meringues or boomerangs?" the latter inquired, striving to impart a note of gaiety into the gloom which the ill-timed death of Winnie had caused to settle over the proceedings. But before he could frame a suitable reply, Enoch fell with a sickening thud on to the College pudding; and with the Christian name of the stewardess on the vessel from which he was wrecked upon his lips, breathed his last.
Aghast at the tragedy neatly spread out in rows before him, Arden staggered to his feet, lurched across to the sofa, and removing the pennies from Winnie's now fast-closed eyes was about to place them upon Enoch's when he felt himself going. With commendable presence of mind he clapped them on his own, and falling gracefully backward, he was fortunate enough to select the spot where somnolent and recumbent, lay Dingo, the old rabbit dog. The force of his fall knocked the breath out of the somnolent and recumbent hound, and thus the four occupants of the old Moolloowoojoo farmhouse, even as they had lived, all died together happily ever after. — Ashley Sterne, in London Opinion.