The Creek of the Four Graves [poem by Charles Harpur]

[Editor: This poem by Charles Harpur was published in The Bushrangers; A Play in Five Acts, and Other Poems (1853).]

The Creek of the Four Graves.

I verse a Settler’s Tale of the old times, —
One told me by our friend, the kindly sage,
Old Egremont, who then went forth with four
Of his most trusty and adventurous men
Into the wilderness, — went forth to seek
New streams and wider pastures for his fast
Augmenting flocks and herds. On foot were all,
For horses then were cattle of too great price
To be much ventured upon mountain routes
And into brush lands perilously pathless.

So went they forth at dawn: and now the sun
That rose behind them as they journeyed out,
Was firing with his nether rim a range
Of unknown mountains that like rampires towered
Full in their front, and his last glances fell
Into the gloomy forest’s eastern glades
In golden masses transiently, or flashed
Down on the windings of a nameless creek
That fringed with oaks and the wild willow ran
Noiselessly on, between the pioneers
And those new eminences.

Wilder grew
The scene each moment — beautifully wilder!
For when the sun was all but sunk below
Those barrier mountains, then, within a breeze
That o’er their rigid and enormous backs
Deep fleeced with wood, came whispering down, the wide
Slant sea of leaves stirred in the slanting rays —
Stirred interdazzlingly, as though the trees
That bare them were all thrilling, — tingling all
Even to the roots, for very happiness —
So prompted from within, so sentient, seemed
The bright quick motion.

Halting wearied here,
Our travellers kindled for their first night’s camp
The brisk and crackling fire, which also looked
A wilder creature than ’twas elsewhere wont,
Because of the surrounding savageness,
And soon in pannikins the tea was made,
Fragrant and strong, the fresh-sliced rasher broiled
On the live embers, and as soon dispatched
By the keen tooth of healthful appetite.

And as they supped, birds of new shape and plume
And wild strange voice, nestward repairing by,
Oft took their wonder, or between the boles
Of the upslanting forest trees they saw
Perched on the bare abutments of those mountains
The wallaroo look forth: till eastward all
The view had faded into formless gloom,
Night’s front; and westward, the high massing woods
Steeped in a dusk and deepening beauty, lay
Heaped all the more distinctly for their darkness
Against the twilight heaven, — a cloudless depth
Yet luminous from the sunset’s fading splendor:
And thus for a brief interval they looked
Even like a mighty picture of themselves
Hung in some vaster world.

Their supper done,
The echoes of the solitary place
Came as in wonder round about to meet
Strange voices moulding a strange speech, as then
Lifted in glee — but to be hushed ere long,
As with the night, in kindred darkness came
O’er the adventurers, each and all, a sense
Of lurking danger.

But all settled soon
About the well-built fire whose nimble tongues
Sent up continually a strenuous roar
Of fierce delight, and from their fuming pipes
Drawing rude satisfaction, grave discourse
Of their peculiar business brought to each
A steadier mood that reached into the night.

The simple subject to their minds at length,
Fully discussed, their couches they prepared
Of the green tresses of the willows near,
And four, as pre-arranged stretched out their limbs
Under the dark boughs of the forest high
O’erdoming and traced out against the clear
Wide gaze of heaven, and trustful of the watch
Kept near them by their thoughtful master, soon
Drowsing away forgetful of their toil
And of the perilous vast wilderness
Around them, slept; whilst all things there as well
Showed slumbrous, — yea, the circling forest trees,
Their foremost boles carved from a crowded mass
Less visible, by the watch-fire’s bladed gleam
And even the shaded and enormous mountains,
Their bluff brows glooming through the stirless air,
Looked in their quiet solemnly asleep:
Yea, thence surveyed, the universe might have seemed
Coiled in vast rest, — only that one dim cloud
Diffused and shapen like a mighty spider,
Crept as with scrawling legs across the sky
And that the stars in their bright companies,
Cluster by cluster glowingly revealed
As this slow cloud mov’d on, high over all,
Look’d thoughtfully awake.

And now the moon
Up from behind an eastern hill was seen
Conglobing, till a mighty mass she brought
Her under border level with its cone
As thereon resting edge to edge, when straight
Its solid bulk seemed inwardly to grow
Impregnate with her radiance, whilst the trees
That fringed its outline, their huge statures dwarfed
By distance into brambles and yet all
Clearly defined against her ample orb
Even to their sprays, out of its very disk
Appeared to swell in bold relief, as they
Were sculptured from her substance.

Egremont
On all this solemn beauty of the night
Looked out, still wakeful, for sweet thoughts of home
Ingathered to his heart, as by some nice
And subtile interfusion that connects
The loved and cherished (then the most, perhaps,
When past or absent) with the beautiful
And lasting things of Nature. So then thought
The musing Egremont, when suddenly — hark!
A bough cracked loudly in a neighbouring brake,
And drew at once as with a larum, all
His spirits thitherward.

He listened long
With head bent forward, till his held breath grew
A pang and his ears rung. But Silence there
Had recomposed her ruffled wings and now
Brooded it seemed even stillier than before,
Nested in darkness: so that he ere long
To his sweet mood of museful memory
Calmly recurred. ——

But there, again! And hark! —
Oh God! have hell’s worst fiends burst howling up
Into the doomed world? Or whence, if not
From diabolic rage, could surge a yell
So horrible as that which now affrights
And upward sends the shuddering air? Alas!
Beings in their enmity as vengeful, come
In vengeance! — For, behold, from the long grass
And nearer brakes, at once, a semi-belt
Of stript and painted savages divulge
Their bounding forms! — full in the flaring light
Thrown forth then suddenly by the fire, as though
Even it had felt the shock the air received
From their so terrible cries!

A moment seen
Thus as they bounded up, on then they came
Closing with weapons brandished high, and so
Rushed in upon the sleepers! three of whom
But started and then weltered quivering under
The first fell blow dealt down on each, by three
Of the most stalwart of their merciless foes!
But one again and yet again heaved up —
Up to his knees, under the crushing strokes
Of the huge nulla-nulla till his own
Warm brains were blinding him! For he was one
Who had with Misery nearly all his days
Lived lonely, and who therefore after hope
Hungered, and thirsted for some taste of good
And now he could not but dispute the fact
Of death even in the fact. For oft ’tis seen
That Fortune’s gay and pleasure-pampered child
Consents to his untimely power, with less
Reluctance, less despair, than does the wretch
Who hath been ever blown about the world,
The straw-like sport of Fate’s unkindliest blast,
Vagrant and tieless, — ever still in him
The craving spirit thus grieves unto itself:

“I never yet was happy — never yet
Tasted unmixed enjoyment and I would
Yet pass on the bright Earth that I have loved,
Some season, though most brief, of happiness,
So should I walk thence forward to my grave,
Whenever in her green and motherly breast
It might await me, more than now prepared,
To house me in its gloom — resigned at heart,
Soothed and subjected to its certainty
Even by the consciousness of having shaped
Some good in being. But to have lived and now
To die thus desolate, is horrible!”

And feeling thus by habit, that poor man
Though the black shadow of untimely death
Hopelessly thickened under every stroke,
Upstruggled desperate, until at last,
One, as in mercy, gave him to the dust,
With all his sorrows.

Egremont, transfixt
With horror — struck as into stone, saw this,
Then turned and fled! Fast fled he, but as fast
His deadly foes went thronging on his track!
Fast! for the merciless yelled in the chase!
And as he fled the forest beasts as well,
In general terror, through the brakes a-head
Crashed scattering, or with madd’ning speed athwart
His course came frequent. On, still on he flies,
Flies for dear life! And still behind him — yea,
Nearer and nearer, hears the rapid dig
Of many feet! ——

And now, what should he do?—
Abruptly turning, the wild creek lay right
Before him! But no time was there for thought,
So on he kept, and plunging from the brink
Sunk to his middle in the flashing stream —
In which the imaged stars seemed all at once
To burst like rockets into one wild blaze
Of writhing light. Then strongly wading through
The ruffled waters he sprung forth and clenching
With iron clutch a stake-like root, that from
The opponent bank protruded up its dark
O’erjutting ledge, went clambering, in his blind
And breathless hurry when —— O, surely God
Has a peculiar care of those for whom
The daily prayers of spotless womanhood
And helpless infancy are offered up! —
When in its face a cavity he felt,
The upper earth of which was held fast bound
By the close implication of the roots
Of two old tea-trees. Into this he crept,
Just as the dark forms of his hunters thronged
The brink whence he had plunged.

Thereon a space
They paused, to mark what bent his course might take
Over the further bank, so to hold on
The chase more surely. But no form was seen
To shoot up from its outline, nought there stirred,
Wherefore they augured that their prey was yet
Somewhere between; and the whole group, with that,
Plunged forward till the fretted current boiled
Amongst their crowding trunks from bank to bank,
And searching thus the stream across and then
Lengthwise, along the ledges, one by one
Athwart the cavity they passed — so near
That as they waded by, the fugitive
Felt the strong odour of their wetted skins
Pass with them.

But the search was vain. And now
Those wild men marvelled and in consultation,
Then coupling his strange vanishment with one
Of their crude superstitions, fear-struck all
And silent they withdrew. And when the sound
Of their receding steps died from his ear,
Our friend slid forth, and springing up the bank,
Renewed his flight, nor rested from it till
He gained the welcoming shelter of his home.

Return we for a moment to the scene
Of recent death. There the late flaring fire
Now smouldered, for its brands were strewn about
And four stark corses, plundered to the skin
And brutally mutilated, seemed to stare,
With frozen eyeballs up into the pale
Round countenance of the moon, who high in heaven
With all her starry multitude looked down,
As peacefully down — as on a bridal, there,
Of the warm living, not, alas! on them
Who kept in ghastly silence through the night
Untimely spousals with a desert death!

There afterwards, for many changeful years,
Within a glade that sloped into the bank
Of that wild mountain creek — midway within,
In partial record of a terrible hour
Of human suffering and loss extreme,
Four grassy mounds stretched lengthwise, side by side,
Startled the wanderer; — four grassy mounds
O’erstrewn with skeleton boughs and bleaching leaves
Stript by the wintry-winged gales that roamed
Those solitudes from the old trees which there
Moaned the same leafy dirges that had caught
The heed of dying ages: these were all;
And thence the place was called — passingly called, —
The Creek of the Four Graves. Such was the tale
Egremont told us of the wild old times.



Source:
Charles Harpur, The Bushrangers; A Play in Five Acts, and Other Poems, Sydney: W. R. Piddington, 1853, pages 63-70

Also published in:
Charles Harpur, Poems, Sydney: George Robertson, 1883, pages 47-59 (a massively different version of the poem)

Editor’s notes:
athwart = across

bole = the trunk of a tree (may also refer to clays of various colors which are used to create pigments, or a red-brown color made from those clays)

corse = (archaic) corpse

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

larum = archaic spelling of “alarm”

nulla-nulla = a wooden club used by Australian Aborigines (also spelt “nullah nullah”)

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

oft = often

pannikin = a small metal pan, or a small metal cup

rude = primitive, raw, or rough, or in an unfinished state or natural condition (not to be confused with the modern usage of “rude” as someone being discourteous or ill-mannered)

slumbrous = (an alternative spelling of “slumberous”) asleep; drowsy, lethargic, or sleepy

wallaroo = a type of macropod, bigger than a wallaby but smaller than a kangaroo (the word “wallaroo” is a combination of “wallaby” and “kangaroo”); there are three species: the Common Wallaroo, Black Wallaroo, and the Antilopine Wallaroo

wont = custom, habit, practice; accustomed; apt, inclined

yea = yes; indeed; truly; an affirmation (especially an affirmative vote), an indication of assent

Old spelling in the original text:
look’d (looked)
madd’ning (maddening)
o’erjutting (overjutting)
o’erstrewn (overstrewn)
stript (stripped)
transfixt (transfixed)

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