A Bush Idyl [by Kenneth Mackay, 1888]

[Editor: This book-length poem by Kenneth Mackay was published in 1888.]

A Bush Idyl.


Kenneth Mackay,

Author of “Stirrup Jingles,” &c, &c.

Edwards, Dunlop & Co., Limited,
Sydney, Brisbane, and London.

my friend
James A. Mackinnon, Esq.,
M.L.A., &c., &c.

A Bush Idyl.

Part I.

I saw her first the newly-wedded bride
Of one who long had held her virgin heart —
A woman girt with tender homelike charms,
Upon whose forehead truth had set its seal.
Some wondered, gazing on her husband’s face
And handsome form, to find that he had ta’en
This gentle mate, when other fairer fruit
Hung all-expectant waiting to be plucked —
Forgetting that the face is but a mask —
Full often fairly gemmed that it may hide
The faults within, and that the inner life
Can warm with splendour all the outer clay.

Earth seemed for man and wife a pleasant chase,
Along whose comely stretches they might tread
To honoured age. Within their veins youth throbbed
With healthy pulse. A noble home was his
In fruitful acres set, wherein he reigned
A shepherd king beloved of men, while she
Who shared with him this sweet Arcadian spot
Stood binding all as some white corner stone.

Thus, with a ship well-garnished, sail they set
Across the changing ocean men call Life:
I looked and deemed the gods would guide these twain
Who late had reared a shrine to hope and love;
And for a too short season fortune’s barque
Seemed ever steered by hands that loved to bless
The mortals whom it bore ’neath summer skies
Forever onward o’er the sea of fate.
Nor were these transient gifts in aught abused
By those who floated on that golden sea,
Whose wayward tide — when it began to ebb —
Soon left them stranded on an adverse shore.

Yet this I hold as placed beyond dispute —
That he who poorer grows through kindness done
Is truer man than he who mounts to wealth
By hoarding what had saved his fellows’ lives;
At least I feel that at the bar of God
I’d sooner stake my soul upon the plea —
That I had made a hungry beggar glad,
Than piled up gold to gild a soulless shrine.

Fain would I linger on those first glad days,
When rich and poor had equal welcome warm,
When round the blazing logs the stockmen sat,
And told the tales of cattle, camp and yard,
When wrinkled miners drew a thread of gold
Across the stirring legends of the past,
And weary with the dull dead miles of bush
The squatter came to taste the joys of home,
And, listening to this gentle lady’s voice,
Call back the ghosts of long-forgotten years.
Here too the road-worn swagsman ever found
A tender hand to bind his bleeding feet —
For woe and hunger never knocked in vain
Upon a heart that throbbed for humankind:
So, of this wood-locked station home was made
A commonwealth for all the sons of men,
Where young and old alike found aid and rest,
And claims of birth and creed were all unknown.
For in these present sordid days of ours,
When men are valued but for gold or power,
This lord of flocks like his old brethren held
His best not worthy of his meanest guest.

But now the horn of plenty ceased its flow,
As though the fickle gods who guide and rule
The destinies of youth and love began
To grudge these mortals such a favoured lot;—
The drought-fiend lapped with thirsty sun-parched tongue
Each spring and tank, and sucked with ghoul-like lips
The very life-blood from the cracking soil;
Fire came to blacken earth and mar the sky
With charred and sable tokens of his wrath, —
Undimmed by miles of smoke his savage eyes
Gleamed like the outposts of the hosts of hell;—
Loud o’er the fall of forests rang his laugh,
As nature writhed beneath his molten breath;
High in mid-air the waiting eagle swung,
And watched with scornful eye man’s futile fight
To save the scorching flocks, — for well he knew
The fire-king soon would feed the lords of prey:—
So what the famine left the flame devoured,
Within the paddocks carcases were piled
As on a hard-fought field, while black with rage
The smoke clouds hung o’er nature’s funeral pyre.

Still, like a Phoenix from its own decay,
Nature will rise again with new-born strength, —
Rain must have birth however long delayed
Amid the furious travail of the skies;—
So, though at last their feet had reached the thorns,
Which sometime cross the path of every life,
They yet, perchance, had scaled the hills of woe,
And with reviving nature lived again,
Had not a man — who posed as friend and guide,
And who with lying lips had won their trust,
Now rent with ruthless arm the shadowy veil
Which hung between the spoiler and his prey.
Led by the traitor who his salt had shared,
On came a hungry flight of human hawks,
Who drove their claws into the squatter’s heart,
And from his acres plucked the very eyes.
At last, when but a skeleton remained,
One would have thought that e’en misfortune’s car
Had turned aside for the sweet sake of her
Who bore so nobly all this altered fate,
And that at least a remnant it had left
Of that fair home to which she came a bride:—
Vain hope! It stayed not till its iron tires
Had ground to powder all that greed had left.

Though well I know a land can ne’er be great,
Upon whose acres sheep outnumber men,
And that, in truth, the paltry acres held
By labour’s sons can never make return
For all the fruitful millions they have lost
Through fell corruption bred of brainless laws, —
Yet what availed the sacrifice of men,
Who at the worst but held a tenant’s right,
When those who boasted of an evil slain
Have conjured up a thousand in its stead?
Where is the river-land that years agone
Smiled as a virgin waiting to be won, —
From out whose ample loins life longed to spring,
And on whose flowing breasts a world might feed?
Tell me, false guardians of creation’s heir,
Unto whose hands gave ye your sacred trust,
When toil declared his bride must cease to lie
Within the arms of supine shepherd kings?
Not to her rightful spouse ye know full well, —
For labour’s sons to-day may starve or beg,
While acres that could bear a thousand homes
Are drained to feed the follies of a fool.

But he of whom I sing, when cast by wrong
From that high place whence once he ceaseless sought
To aid his brethren not so richly dowered,
Assumed the duties of his low estate,
And firmly marched among life’s rank and file.
Dulled by the gathering gloom of angry clouds,
The eyes of summer friends grew strangely dim,
And those late sheltered by his spacious roof
Forgot the toiler in his humble cot:
Men who had pledged the cup around his board,
And who with wine-stained lips had bid him hold
Their lives and fortunes at his beck and call,
Now stood aloof as though he were unclean;
Wealth which had gladly bowed to one who gave
So much and asked but friendship in return,
Now with a sneering pity called him fool
Who, if triumphant, had been still a god;
The worms of earth, the very powers of heaven,
Seemed leagued to bring their idol to the dust;
Commercial greed upon his vitals preyed,
And shoddy thieves howled for their pound of flesh.

And now, when all the future seemed a hell,
Before whose open gates he hopeless stood,
An angel placed her hand within his own,
And whispered — “We will up and face the storm!”
In truth an angel, yet no glorious shape —
With accents tuned to far immortal choirs —
But one, upon whose form the Master hand
Had left but little imprint of His skill,
Yet one who, born with human wants and ills,
Upheld the glory of her womanhood:—
For there be heavenly spirits here on earth,
Who dwell in tenements of plainest mould,
As though their higher natures bid them scorn
The grosser charms that bind material love.

So, when he deemed all lost he woke to find
A jewel rarer than the gems of earth, —
Which bore the test of ruin’s ruthless wheels,
And brighter shone amid misfortune’s fires;—
For lo! in probing at her husband’s heart
Fate chanced in her to tap a well of love,
Which times of trouble stirred to fuller life,
As days of drought awaken sleeping springs;—
Her smile was brighter in the humble home
Where now they dwelt than ’neath the ample roof
Which he had fondly hoped would ever shield
His darling from ill fortune’s fervent glare;
Hers was the voice that now with accents firm
Bade him defy the blows of adverse fate,
And hers the love that in his bleeding heart
Made purpose strong which woe had rendered weak.
When, broken with some fresh access of care,
He shunned the gibing foes misfortune brings,
She bravely stood before him, took their darts,
And by her gentle pleading stilled their wrath:
It mattered not how late the hour whose chimes
Were echoed by his steed’s returning hoofs, —
From out the gloom love’s beacon ever shone
To guide his weary soul to home and rest;
For him the tempting board was ever spread,
The fire that lit his room was always bright,
His horse’s stall was littered — so that he
Might ne’er delay in coming to her arms;
However fierce the pain that gnawed her heart, —
The brow he kissed was always smooth and white, —
The voice that bade him lay his burden down
Was soft as though it came from realms of peace;
Such glowing welcome did she spread around
The lintel where they met, that frowning Care
Sprang from his crupper — dazzled by a light
That filled with radiance all the nether gloom.

So passed the years: Around them children grew
Who, while they twined about the mother’s heart,
Yet never strained the stouter cords that bound
It to her first and still supremest love.
Blown from his path by sorrow’s purging fans,
Life’s worthless chaff lay scattered far afield,
And in its stead remained some precious seeds,
Which grew and ripened into friendships true:
Nerved by a voice more potent than the cry
Of arméd thousands still he fought the fight,
And aided by the people’s willing hands
Won back a portion of his rifled home;—
His kindness to the poor in prosperous times
So warmed their hearts that still they felt its glow,
And as in earlier days his purse was theirs,
So now they mourned his troubles as their own.
Again he stood erect — prepared to rise
Above misfortune’s slough: Not now his flight
On quickly-garnered wealth with waxen wings,
That melt beneath the glare of adverse suns,
But borne on labour’s sturdy arms he rose
Triumphant o’er the solid front of gold,
And with no watchword save the people’s love
Within the Senate stood as their elect.

No gifted powers of silver speech were his —
To waft the senses on sweet waves of sound,
No golden glamour dazed the eyes of those
Who strove to seat him in this place of trust,—
They only knew that he had been their friend,
And — for his heart excused his halting tongue —
The very poverty that wealth despised
But fanned their nobler instincts into flame:
With what triumphant scorn was cast aside
The taunt that freemen’s votes by gold are bought,
When, closing round one poorer than themselves,
They raised him to the Tribune’s lofty seat.

What boundless power for good or ill is theirs
Who till the soil and slave while idlers sit
On silken seats and sneer with pampered lips
At forces which could grind them into dust! —
These will awake; but, nobler than the fools
Who deem that gold can fill the cracks of crime,
The sons of labour will but set aside
Earth’s useless dross and honour what is pure.

O mighty force that has for ages slept,
Disturbed at intervals by feverish dreams!
The chains that bind you to Oppression’s thrones
Grow weak and rusted with the blood of years;—
In ages when the light of reason burned
So dimly that the masses lay in gloom,
Your forebears served a throne because around
It shone a halo — born of gold and steel;
But now that science on refulgent wing
Has shaped its flight across the world of space,
The humblest hamlet lighting with the glow
Of slave-destroying, soul-ennobling thought,
’Tis time ye banished slumber from your eyes,
’Tis time upon your feet ye stood erect,
’Tis time ye taught your knees that they may bend
To God but not to images of clay,
Which are the tottering columns of a power —
Upreared in lawless days by spoilers’ hands —
Whose stones were cut from labour’s quivering flesh,
Whose mortar was the sweat of human lives;—
The countless acres which your sires enriched,
By pouring out their blood in kingcraft’s cause,
Call you, their rightful heirs, to rise and say
“We will have peace!”

In Northern parts,
Behold, upon the sea and on the land
The fierce-fanged dogs of war are gathering now, —
One spark will set creation all ablaze,
And plunge the world in turmoil and despair:—
Mankind, awake before it be too late,
United rise and down the fabric hurl
That totters now beneath its weight of crime! —
For tyranny will bury in its fall
The fell corruption that hath need of swords,
And from its grave the screams of war will merge
Into the strains of universal peace.

Lo! in the West, remote from slavish yoke,
A glorious Commonwealth uprears its front,
Where man’s ambition may not mar his race,
And peace and plenty laugh at war’s alarms;—
Where he who rules has but a passing right
Of man’s obedience — born of office held,
And should he e’er degrade the Consul’s chair
Must answer to the people for his fault.

Here in the South a sister State will rise;
But lest its growth be marred, its future lost,
Remember ye who bear upon your backs
The burdens of the land, ye also shape
Her destinies, for Empires are not made
From gold, but by the hands and brains of toil.

But I have let my wandering fancy stray
O’er realms whose broad expanse is far beyond
The limits of my halting verse, so now
I stay its course and to my tale return.
How he into whose hands the people gave
A sacred charge performed his single part
Is not for me to judge — enough for me
The people’s verdict is, “He has done well!” —
But this I know, that, ’mid the lawless scenes
Which now, alas! degrade our public life,
This man has not forgot the honour due
Alike to public place and private name,
Nor joins those brawlers who disturb the calm
Of reason with their wild insensate cries,
And fill the birthplace of their country’s laws
With clamour worthy of a Circe’s feast,
Who babble — “We are pure!” with gold-clogged lips,
And mix high moral saws with ruffian oaths,
Who use their freedom but to chain debate,
And know no reason but the words “You lie!”

But from the contemplation of such scenes
As make the spirit faint with future fears,
I glad return to one whose stainless life
Had power to fill the soul again with hope;—
She — while her heart’s dear lord his country served —
Like some pure Roman matron of the years
Before Imperial license bred decay,
Guarded his home, and shaped his children’s lives:—
By cords of love she drew their infant steps
Along the path that leads to higher things,
And by the simple grandeur of her days
Gave them a pattern and a priceless guide.
No narrow creed e’er held her judgment bound,
No fierce sectarian fire her mercy seared, —
With her the road to heaven was all too broad
For either sect or creed to bar the way.
No task however hard by her was shunned
That might perchance advance her husband’s course, —
The lines that blamed with those that wished him well
Alike were scanned by her untiring eyes;
His meagre herds increased beneath her care
More surely than they had beneath his own, —
For those who would have laboured well for him
Were proud to slave in answer to her smile;
None ever read her name emblazoned forth
Among the list of dames who thirst to see
Their charities before the eyes of men,
But in the homes of such as owned a roof,
And in the hearts of thousands not so blessed,
Her name was deep engraved by Mercy’s hand —
As one in truth whom Christ had called His own.

Oh women standing on the vasty shore
Of old Creation’s youngest, fairest son!
Ye breathe a free-born air that yet will swell
The lungs of millions and the sails of fleets, —
A god-like task is yours, for from your loins
Must spring the builders of a mighty race,
And Austral’s founders at your knees must learn
The precepts that will make or mar their work.
Each nation that has left its name enrolled
Upon the scroll of fame has also left
This record:— When its sons had hero souls,
Its women’s lives were plain as they were pure,
But later, when, enriched with rifled worlds,
These nations fell before barbarian foes,
It was because the sons by weaklings born
Could not withstand the cubs of sturdy dams.
Therefore, ye mothers of our future race,
So shape your lives that in the years to come
The world may mark your sons as valiant men!

So through the darksome gloom of wintry
The star of love illumed the husband’s path;
And as with sturdy steps he surely climbed
The rugged way that led to peace and love,
The coward traitor — who had fondly hoped
To see his victim crushed — awoke to find
A man who held his fate upon his tongue,
And who had but to speak to be avenged;—
For in the days, when, false to friendship’s oath,
He had with practised hand broad acres marred, —
This man, through virtue of an office held,
By deeds corrupt had broke his country’s trust, —
So now, when, conqueror over greed and crime,
His victim rose to tear the veil aside,
Beneath whose sable folds a band of thieves
Had filched a kingdom while its owners slept,
This man, whose little soul had not the power
To mount above the baseness of itself,
Sought out and abject begged the brother wronged
To spare him for the sake of wife and child.
“There was no need to come and ask me this,”
He nobly said — to whom was made this prayer,
“Think not that I have spent my manhood’s years
“And scorched my heart in nursing useless wrath;
“The wrong that you have done is past recall,
“And I alone have felt its dire results,
“The cause I plead is far too great to ask
“The sacrifice of one so weak as you;
“I would not take the bread from helpless lips,
“No, not to keep starvation from my gates,
“Think not that I will offer up your hearth
“Upon the altar of an endless hate, —
“The woes you helped to make my children feel
“But fill my soul with pity for your own, —
“The deeds that reft my wife of treasured roof
“But bid me leave to yours a spot so dear,
“The spirit, which has deemed my heart so small
“That it would stoop to spite, I too forgive.”

Oh, noblest power, to erring mortals given —
Triune in splendour, for, enthroned with thee
Sits gentle Mercy in her robes of snow,
And priceless Charity with arms outspread!
Oh, pure elixir, welling from the fount
Of love supreme — a mother’s changeless heart, —
You moisten e’en the withered roots of crime,
And wash the robes of frailty with tears, —
Thy broadness scorns all bounds, thy depths all leads,
One single heart-beat, if inspired by thee,
Brings purer happiness to human souls
Than cities sacrificed to poor revenge!
Spirit, that lingered on the lips of Christ,
When thine immortal Master died for men,
Speed on thy god-like wings till all mankind
Bow down and own Forgiveness as divine!

Part II.

The years still came, and with their burdens passed
Beneath the portals of the halls of time;
Yet through both time and change the people held
Their hearts’ elect as worthy of their trust;—
E’en gaunt misfortune turned its chargers’ heads,
As though at last it wearied of a road
Where those it bruised rose ever and again
To front the onset of its cruel wheels.
Wealth held its hand to one whose heart had proved
Too strong to wither under cold neglect, —
And now at last from out the sundering clouds
Came glorious glimpses of his one-time home.
Full well I mind me of the even hour
When o’er the glass-lit board I heard him tell
With joy and honest pride how soon he hoped
To pledge me ’neath his roof-tree once again;—
So true the ring of love it made his tones
Sound mellow ’mid the lazy rings of smoke,
As, speaking of his wife’s long hours of toil,
He thanked his God that she would soon have rest —
Ah me! I little dreamed, as thus he spoke,
That soon her rest would be an endless one.

Back pallid Death! thy sickle lay aside!
The harvest thou would’st reap is shielded yet, —
For lo! a rider bears to one he loves
The full fruition of their years of toil;—
Those solemn trees — whose shadows shroud his path —
Once waved a welcome as his bride swept by
To yon fair home, — the road he now hath ta’en
One day long dead was watered with her tears.
Amid the cheery calls of strong-voiced hounds
He springs with ardent glance and outstretched arms
To clasp his wife with all the joy of one
Whose passion has but fed on hope deferred;—
Together up the narrow path they pass
Through winding ways arrayed with ranks of flowers,
That gently press with velvet lips the robes
Of one who is their lover and their queen.
And now while side by side they slowly pace,
As though they grudge the moments when alone
Are drained deep draughts of pure connubial bliss,
He tells her how the fight at last is won.

Day’s weary king had sought a red-robed couch
Beyond the tree-crowned ranges of the West,
And all the thousand eyes of queenly Night
Grew dim with waiting for another dawn,
Ere from the nook, where sitting hand in hand
They formed a future from the shattered past,
Each rose — to rear in wond’rous dreams a home
More glorious than their waking thoughts had limned.

But their uprising saw no hungry forms
Stalk through the fading mists of vanished night
To mock the senses kindly sleep has lulled —
By baseless visions from the realms of care;—
The mansion of their dreams defied the test
Of sunlight and the flood of wakened thoughts;
The spring-kissed acres late in fancy trod
Still wooed the pressure of their gladsome feet,
As through the voiceful stillness of the trees
They passed to where amid its gardens stood
A home that they in hope had gained, — and lost
And mourned in after days and nights of pain.
Fair still it seemed from where they silent watched
The sunlight jewel all its burnished panes,
And kiss with glowing lips the rambling roofs,
Till all the walls were capped with silver helms;
The trees that threw their shadows thwart the paths —
The very paths themselves that graceful curved
Through mimic fields of odour-laden flowers —
All owed existence to the gazers’ hands.
Those rooms had heard the feeble quavering cry
Which told the advent of their first-born babe,
And there the fountains of their mutual love
Had flowed above the cot where childhood slept;
Each shaded nook had some endearing thought
Of earlier days entwined among its leaves,
And every rod of earth had known the ring
Of tiny footfalls in a happier time.
In yonder long low room each seat recalled
The memory of some fair or manly form, —
The very boards still bore upon their face
The fading marks of old-time merry feet;
Now ’mid the trees it stood a rifled shrine,
Whence e’en the weary pilgrim turned aside,
For lo! its priests were gone, its altars cold,
Its gateways rusted, and its courts o’ergrown;
And yet to-day the lonely gardens smiled
A scented greeting from their rose-hued lips,
While all the gleaming windows brightly flashed
A welcome to the watchers’ filling eyes;—
Before them rose a future — radiant-robed,
Its joys enhanced by thoughts of bygone grief, —
Again upon yon cold deserted hearth
Blazed high the fires of kindness and of love,
Once more the grass-grown paths grew bare and bright
Beneath their children’s fleet and joyous sport,
While through the portals of the wide-swung gates
Came all who listed, as in days of yore.
Long on the scene they gazed, then turned them back
With halting steps to that less stately spot,
Where, after first defeat, they twain had held
Love’s citadel against the shafts of fate.

And thus each sunlit day that saw him free
From Senate cares beheld him at her side,
As through some portion of their old domain
They roamed — the past renewing ’mid its glades.
So sped the weeks, whose lagging moments kept
Them from the crowning triumph of their toil, —
When, through the fair estate they once had lost,
Their march would lead to conquest and to home.

But now — ah, cruel fate! When earthly powers
Lay prostrate in the dust, a fearsome foe
Encased in sable armour slowly rode
His pallid steed to meet the victors’ march.
From tottering age he turned, as though he scorned
To dye his gleaming blade with blood so poor,
And passed the haunts of crime and madness by,
That he might meet and slay a nobler life.
’Tis passing strange that she of whom I sing
Caught some faint echo of that coming tread; —
For, as it chanced, a horse they both loved well
Fell ill and died, and, when he told her so,
She whispered, as they grieved its hapless end,
“I know not why, but I will leave you next.”

How oft the feeble pipe of infant life
But wakes the horrent blare of death’s stern call,
And triumphs o’er man’s direst foe become
So costly, that we mourn them as defeats!
What fears must rack the anxious mother’s heart,
Whose feet have reached the confines of that vale,
Where, scythe in hand, life’s fiercest foeman waits
To add another to his garnered sheaves!
On such a border-land this woman stood,
O’ermastered for a moment by the gloom,
And filled with dark forebodings that arose
Like warning spectres in her pain-wrung path;—
Yet, ere her words had time to strike and chill
Her listener’s soul, the love that reigned supreme
Within her being bade her rise and meet
The gruesome chieftain for her husband’s sake;—
And e’en as in the warrior’s heart there grows
A sterner courage, as the smoke-clad mouths
Of cannon roll their thunders to his ears,
So, death’s approach but roused her latent strength, —
Fear’s numbing grasp from round her heart she tore,
And, rising o’er a weakness now despised,
Entrenched herself behind the walls of hope,
And with calm courage braved the coming strife.

All things on which she gazed now bade her live;
The trusting eyes of childhood looked to her, —
As seamen driving on an unknown coast
Steer through the gloom for some fair beacon light —
The home her husband had so late re-won
With arm that owed its prowess to her love
Without her presence would but to him bring
The direful picture of the place of tombs;
The very pangs that racked her feebled frame,
Presaging helpless infanthood’s approach,
But steeled the mother’s heart with high resolve —
To live that she might guard her loved one’s child.

Lulled by the hopeful tones that daily fell
As peaceful chimes upon his anxious ears,
Her mate pursued the path he fondly hoped
Would lead to years of joy on dual thrones.
Yet mid the hurrying tramp of those who seek
A vantage ground on fortune’s slippery road,
He ever held the hours as far too long
That stood between him and the day of rest.
And, when the moment struck which saw him free,
Not all the thousand tongues of mirth had power
To stay his footsteps from the lightning steed,
Whose hoofs of fire to him were all too slow;
For, on each Sabbath morn his wife he drove
Through all the sunny glades she loved the best, —
In hope that there might cling about her cheeks
Some wooing of the hardy forest air.

Sweet resting time! in all the wond’rous code
That mighty nature’s Maker hath evolved,
I know no truer boon to man than this —
“One day in seven thou shalt cease from toil!”
The drones of earth who sleep while others slave,
The painted flowers which toil not — neither spin,
Count this a weary space from pleasure robbed, —
But for the countless hosts who strive and plan
With hands and brains to sow the fields of God
This day is as a lull on foughten field,
A grateful shadow in a thirsty land.
Remember ye! — who seek to teach mankind
How best to use the hours from work reserved —
Some have no need of temples made with hands
For whom all nature is a matchless shrine.
Though many love the mellow call to prayer
That floats from some old stern and beaten tower,
And healthful sign I hold it still to be,
When chancel steps are worn with willing feet, —
Yet there be lives so wilted with the press
Of struggling crowds, and hearts so faint and sick
With human wrong, that healing best is found
When they commune with nature’s God alone.
So, if some weary worker wanders past
Your temple to another purer fane,
Where he may feast his toil-dimmed eyes with flowers,
And cleanse his dust-clogged lungs with draughts of air,
Deem not that he is worse than those who kneel
And hear a feeble tongue a task essay,
Which, lo! the Master’s hand has plainly writ
On nature’s forehead so that all may read.
In truth he may be wiser, for I hold
The laws of Christ so warped by forms and creeds,
That man hath need of subtle sense who seeks
The glow of love ’mid fierce sectarian flames.
Yet though the wings of peace are soiled with blood,
And golden keys have locked the tongues of truth,
Till angels weep to hear the name of Christ
Upon the lips of some who serve His shrines, —
Deem not the star of love is waxing weak
Because of bigot hands that mar its beams,
Or that the light for which a Saviour died
Will fade because the fires they fan grow cold,
For days will come when warring sects must end,
And from the dying flames of priestly hate
A heaven-born commonwealth of peace will rise,
Whose deathless motto will be “Christ, not creed!”

The end now swift approached, for to the bounds
Of mortal pain the heir of love had come,
While death stood leaning on his whetted scythe
To filch a sheaf from out the fields of life,
Yet, seated by her husband’s side, she felt
So closely knit by all the cords of love
To him, that e’en the gnawing teeth of pain
Had not the power to rend such chains apart;
And, as they strayed amid the solemn calm
Which reigns supreme among the Austral trees,
She mapped a future such as those foretell
Whose feet are far remote from grass-grown mounds,
And listening to her husband’s fond lament —
That when the laggard hours had brought once more
Man’s resting time and his release from toil,
She might not gaze with him upon such scenes —
Replied with love-born blush — “Such must be so,
“Yet here I pledge you, when its fellow dawns,
“That you will drive me o’er the selfsame road,
“Which owns to-day the pressure of our wheels.”
Ah fatal pledge! from smiling lips let fall, —
Well had it been for him to whom ’twas given
If tongue, that ne’er before in aught deceived,
Had played its mistress false, and lied in this, —
For by the sorrowing trees in truth they came
Upon that day whose dawn she spoke of now,
He by her side, and yet, alas! alone,
For she was gone, and lo! he drove her clay.

No power have I to limn life’s closing scenes,
For women’s tears and sobs of sturdy men
Belong to seas whose depths I may not sound
And chords of woe my fingers fear to strike;
Yet, as in halting measure I have sought
To follow true love’s course through calm and storm,
So now ’mid mists of tears I feebly paint
The journey’s ending and the last farewell.

Hushed were the children’s voices as they roamed
With wondering eyes amid their wonted haunts —
But dimly conscious of a coming mate
From some, to them, unknown and mystic shore;
The very lungs of nature held their breath,
As though expectant of an issue dread
From out the curtained room, where love and skill
Stood marshalled as against the front of death.
Without the husband stood, his soul ablaze
With all the varied fires that sink and rise
Within the human heart, as hope and fear
Alternate light or quench the shrine of love;
Alone he ceaseless paced with nervous feet —
As fettered lion who beholds his mate
Within the jaws of some ensanguined foe,
Yet hath no power to stay the venomed teeth.
All, all was still, save when the crouching hounds
Awoke the air with long sad notes of pain,
As though the instinct which had bid them love,
Now bade them mourn for one who wept their ills.
Above, the pitying angels floated — poised
On noiseless wings to bear with lightning flight
Up to the great white throne each pleading cry,
In hope that God would stretch his arm and save.

Now from the darkened chamber slowly came
Death’s noblest foe — immortal Poean’s heir,
Whose god-like mission is to heal and save,
Whose glittering knife but gleams in life’s defence.
With halting steps he gained the watcher’s side,
As one whose triumph hath so neared defeat
That he had liefer left its gruesome tale,
In truth, for other tongue than his to tell;—
“Friend, I have saved your child,” he said, then stopped,
And dropt his eyes, for in the other’s orbs
He caught a question and a fear that chilled
The words which hung upon his quivering lips;
No need was there for more, for, in a voice
Whose chords vibrated with a nameless pain,
His hearer, with his hands about his eyes,
Cried out, that it were better it had died.
Alas! few words remained to tell, yet those
Were as so many darts — enough to know
His infant child had ’scaped the flashing scythe,
Whose cruel blade had struck the mother sore.
Yet, though she lay so near the borderland,
That man might count the days she had to live,
Death had in mercy numbed the final blow —
As serpents charm their victims ere they crush —
So now, while all around beheld the shape
Of sable pinions o’er her chamber door,
She only saw the deathless wings of hope
Outspread above her surely dimming eyes;
And, as a valiant soldier scorns to yield
His post while aught remains he may defend,
So now, death’s foeman in the shattered breach
Still sought a triumph which his soul despaired.
“Steel well your heart, and fix your wayward lips!
“So that your kiss no lurking fears awake,”
Was his command, “for else your tears may drown
“Life’s feeble flicker — ere its oil be done;
“ Smile on her babe, and with her fancies stray
“O’er future scenes, as though they were to be,
“For though you may not cheer your soul with hope,
“Still best it is that she should feel its glow.”

Such were the words that burst as war-winged shells
Within the husband’s now dismantled heart,
For hope had fled its ramparts, and its gates
Were darkened with the banners of despair;
Yet in its last recesses still there stood,
Midst human passions’ dead and dying chiefs,
Bleeding but still defying fate itself,
The golden-haired and peerless lord of love;
And now through bloodless lips his clarion voice
Rang out above the sobs of human pain —
“I will obey, e’en though the tears I stem
“Flow back and flood the chambers of my soul!”

So, like an Indian chief who seeks his pyre
Calmly, as though it were his robe-lined couch,
He passed with features set, and smiling face
Up through the room and to the bed of death;
O’er it he bent, and kissed the pallid brow,
Whose marble whiteness glowed beneath his touch,
As when a shaft of sunlight strikes the front,
Of some, till then, enshadowed, snow-clad peak,
Long in his eyes she looked, as though to drink
Fresh draughts of life and love from out their depths,
While round his neck she wound her wasted arms,
As wave-tossed swimmers clasp a sturdy spar,
Then turned her gaze, — but slowly, as one leaves
Some well-loved picture, anxious so to fill
The soul with bright reflections of its parts,
That in its chamber they may ever dwell.
Sadly he trod the pathway of her eyes
To where upon her guardian bosom slept
The puny life for which, ah me! he knew
Her precious one was “as a tale that’s told”;
Again he bent his bead — to greet her babe,
But lo! his lips had grown so white and cold,
That with a wailing cry the child awoke,
Chilled by the deadness of his icy touch.
Then, while the mother soothed its first alarms,
With spells that only mother’s hands can weave,
He cheered her with a smile more sad than tears,
Kissed her again, — and fled to feed his woe.

Through all his friends he passed with hurried step, —
Enshrouded by such sombre robes of grief
As tied the tongues that strove to cheer his heart —
And stayed the hands which would have barred his way;
Nor did he halt till forest shadows wrapped
His form in gloom in keeping with his soul,
And depths that gave no answer to his call
Proclaimed that here at last he was alone.
Then, ’gainst a blistered trunk he leaned his hands,
And fiercely sobbed till all the sleeping birds
Woke mid the leaves, — and fled with startled cries
This scene of mental anguish and despair.

But vain his tears, unheard his heart-wrung prayers,
An angel’s task was done, and He she served
Had need of her, so hungry death might claim
The useless shroud her soul no more required.
Three more long days the direful contest raged,
For moments such as these have slower feet
Than years which bear upon their hurried march
Fair Fortune’s favourites to the shores of time.
Each day into her room he had to step
With smiling lips and cheering words, although
He knew full well his hope was more forlorn
Than ever hero led through death-filled breach,
And, sitting as it were before the walls,
Of that untrod and coldly silent town,
Whose gates, alas! were even now ajar,
He had to plan with her their future home;
For, though her pulse had reached its lowest ebb,
And life’s last sands were trembling to their fall,
Undying love still bade her death defy,
And live that she might labour for his sake.

At last the hand of skill let fall his blade,
And science sadly left a beaten field —
To bid the husband warn a dying wife
That death had conquered, and that life was slain.
The poignant anguish wrapped in such request
So far transcends what I have felt or seen,
That heart and brain refuse to aid my pen
In tapping wells whose depths they have not known.
In truth I deem that he who stands beside
The one who for his sake desires to live,
And from his lips proclaims her certain doom,
Drains cup more bitter than death’s bowl itself.

As to her side he came in vain she sought
The smile that ever banished lurking fear,
For woe hung as a pall about his face,
And paled his lips, and dimmed his yearning eyes.
Then — fellest dart of all, forgetting self,
The dying woman sought to cheer her love,
And with life’s lingering breath began to paint
A future that would win his smiles again;
But, like a bank o’ermastered with the weight
Of adverse floods, his heartstrings burst in twain,
And, falling on his knees before her couch,
He hid his face amid her pain-tossed hair,
While through the torrent of a fierce lament
That rent his frame as whirlwinds shake the trees,
He told her that the future was a land
Which he, alas! must wander through alone.

As one who slowly wakes to find a scene
Of glorious radiance but a baseless dream,
Yet shuns to see the beauteous stretches fade
Before the cruel feet of garish day,
So she to whom this fearsome message came
Lay still awhile, as one who scarcely hears,
Then, throwing both her arms about him, cried —
“I cannot leave you now, my love, my love!”
And such to all his words was her refrain,
Till death’s remorseless feet had grown so near
That round the bed her friends and children stood,
That, while life lingered, they might say good-bye.

The sad farewells were o’er; her children’s lips
Were warm with fond maternity’s last kiss,
For now, in truth she heard her Master’s voice
Call to her o’er the narrow stream of doom;
So, meek she bowed her head, though fierce the strain
That snapped the cords about the mother’s heart,
And let her helpless children outward drift
Across life’s sea — bereft of chart or helm;
For, though to life she had so wildly clung,
It was not that her soul had fear of death,
Or that she wished to live because the Styx
Had no fair mansions on its nether shore;—
Far other thoughts than these had nerved her will, —
To her it seemed the work she had been set
Remained undone while yet her children’s lives
Unshapen lay within the womb of time;
And in her heart one even dearer task
Than all beside had bid her strive to live —
It was to cheer and aid the upward flight
Of him who reigned without a fellow there.

But One she truly served the boon withheld;
So, grieving — but for others, not herself, —
She swiftly sank into the place of shades,
Her closing eyes still fixed upon one face.
No sound awoke the stillness, save when some
Rebellious sob from ’mong the watchers came,
Till, as her husband kissed her brow she said —
“Around me put your arms, for death draws near,
“And from them I would pass to his embrace,
“As in them I have lain these happy years.”
So to his breast he held her till her head
Sank low upon his shoulder — and she slept.

So ends the song — ’mid strains of mortal pain —
Whose opening notes re-echoed bridal bells;
On Winter gloom the curtain slowly falls
That rose amid the radiance of the Spring;
Yet, though her mortal form who woke my lay
Now mingles with the dust from whence it came,
The memory of her deeds will live and grow
Through all the shifting scenes of change and time;
For, as a Poet sang — who left for us
The rare example of a blameless course —
“A noble life in living carves a track
“Which those who follow after well may tread.”
And this I hold — that she whose death I mourn
So shaped her life in dark and summer days
That in its book there lies no single page
On which some noble lesson is not writ.
Why she was ta’en is not for me to judge;
I only know our land in her has lost
A daughter such as it can little spare —
A mother born to rear a noble stock;
And, gazing o’er her life, I fearless point
Its course as one that well may guide the path
Of those whose god-like task it is to be
The wives and mothers of Australia’s dawn.

F. W. White,
General printer,
Market street.

Kenneth Mackay, A Bush Idyl, Sydney: Edwards, Dunlop & Co., 1888

Editor’s notes:
Part I of A Bush Idyl was published on pages 7-41; Part II on pages 42-81.

Arcadia = paradise; utopia; a serene place of simple pleasure (derived from Arcadia, an ancient region of Greece)

agone = (archaic) ago

aught = anything; anything at all, anything whatsoever

Austral = of or relating to Australia or Australasia; Australian, Australasian; an abbreviation of Australia, Australian, Australasia, Australasian; in a wider context, of or relating to the southern hemisphere; southern, especially a southern wind

barque = (also spelt “bark”) a small sailing ship in general, or specifically a sailing ship with three (or more) masts, in which the aftmost mast is fore-and-aft rigged, whilst the other masts are square-rigged

borderland = (in the context of death) the border area between live and death, or the border area between the land of the living and the land of the afterlife

car = an abbreviation of “carriage”

Circe = a goddess in Greek mythology (sometimes portrayed as an enchantress or sorceress)

clay = in the context of mankind, a reference to the idea that God made man out of clay; from Genesis 2:7 in the Old Testament of the Bible, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul”, which has sometimes been referred to as God making man out of clay

connubial = of or relating to marriage; conjugal

dower = a natural endowment or gift (in a legal context, a dower is that portion of a deceased man’s estate which was allocated to his widow by law)

e’en = even

e’er = ever

ere = before (from the Middle English “er”, itself from the Old English “aer”, meaning early or soon)

fain = happily or gladly; ready or willing; obliged or compelled

fane = a church or temple

fell = bad, cruel, destructive, fierce, or sinister (as used in the phrase “one fell swoop”)

filch = to take something in a furtive manner, especially something of small value

gild = to cover something with a thin layer of gold, gold leaf, or a gold-coloured substance, or to make something look that way (an archaic meaning is to make something bloody or red)

He = in a religious context, and capitalized, a reference to God

lay = song, tune; ballad (may also refer to ballads or narrative poems, as sung by medieval minstrels or bards)

limn = to draw or paint on a surface; or to outline in clear sharp detail; or describe in words (from Middle English “limnen”, to illuminate, with regard to manuscripts, possibly derived from the Latin “illuminare”)

listed = (archaic) listened

Master = in a religious context, and capitalized, a reference to Jesus or God

’mid = an abbreviation of “amid” or “amidst”: of or in the middle of an area, group, position, etc.

midst = of or in the middle of an area, group, position, etc.

mind = (British dialect) remember

’neath = beneath

ne’er = never

o’er = over (pronounced the same as “oar”, “or”, and “ore”)

o’ergrown = overgrown

o’ermastered = overmastered

One = in a religious context, and capitalized, a reference to Jesus or God

own = confess; admit or affirm that something is true

pinion = a bird’s wing; in more specific usage, the outer section of a bird’s wing; in broader usage, “pinions” refers to the wings of a bird (“pinion” may also refer specifically to a feather, especially a flight feather, or a quill)

reft = to reave, bereave, to deprive someone of something; plunder, rob

sable = a colour that is black, dark, or gloomy (“sables” was an archaic term for garments worn for mourning; “sable” in heraldry refers to black); arising from the colour of dark sable fur, as taken from a sable (a furry mammal, Martes zibellina, which is primarily found in Russia and northern East Asia, and noted for its fur which has traditionally been used for clothing); in the context of the Australian Aborigines or African Negroes, a reference to their skin colour as being black

’scape = (archaic) escape

squatter = in the context of Australian history, a squatter was originally someone who kept their livestock (mostly cattle and sheep) upon Crown land without permission to do so (thus illegally occupying land, or “squatting”); however, the practice became so widespread that eventually the authorities decided to formalise it by granting leases or licenses to occupy or use the land; and, with the growth of the Australian economy, many of the squatters became quite rich, and the term “squatter” came to refer to someone with a large amount of farm land (they were often regarded as rich and powerful)

Styx = the river Styx (in Greek mythology, a river which formed the boundary between the land of the living and the underworld)

swagsman = an alternative spelling of “swagman”

ta’en = taken

travail = work, especially strenuous work or work involving painful effort

twain = (archaic) two (from the Old English word “twegen”, meaning “two”); especially known for the phrase “never the twain shall meet” (from the line “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”, as used by the poet Rudyard Kipling, at the start of the poem “The Ballad of East and West”; included in Barrack-room Ballads and Other Verses, 1892)

wax = grow or increase gradually in intensity, number, size, strength, or volume (e.g. “the moonlight waxed and waned”); or to take on a particular characteristic or state (e.g. “to wax poetic”)

wonted = usual

yon = an abbreviation of “yonder”: at a distance; far away

yonder = at a distance; far away

Old spelling in the original text:
dropt (dropped)
’gainst (against)
hath (has)
’mong (among)
ne’er (never)
oft (often)
shalt (shall)
thee (you)
thine (your)
thou (you)
thy (your)
’twas (it was)
would’st (would)
ye (you)

[Editor: Changed “illfortune’s” to “ill fortune’s” (p. 21); “life s fiercest” to “life’s fiercest” (p. 53).]

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