The Western Road [poem by E. J. Brady]

[Editor: This poem by E. J. Brady was published in Bells and Hobbles (1911).]

The Western Road.

My camp was by the Western Road — so new and yet so old —
The track the bearded diggers trod in roaring days of old;
The road Macquarie and his wife, a hundred years ago,
With warlike guard and retinue, went down in regal show.

The moon had silvered all the Bush; now, like an arc light high,
She flickered in a scattered scud that dimmed the lower sky;
And, dreaming by my dying fire, whose embers fainter glowed,
I saw their shadows flitting by — the People of the Road.

I heard the clank of iron chains, and, as an evil blast
From some tormented nether world, the convict gangs went past
With sneering lips and leering eyes — gray ghosts of buried crime,
Who built a way for honest feet to tread in later time.

I heard the cruel click of steel; the trained and measured tread
Of soldiers of King George the Third, in coats of British red;
The moon upon their muskets gleamed, as, marching two by two,
They might have marched in better case the eve of Waterloo.

But, dreaming by my camp-fire still, uprose the merry horn;
A heavy stage came lumb’ring up from Penrith in the morn:
In beaver hats, the gentlemen their driver sat beside,
The ladies in hooped petticoats and quaint chignons inside.

Ta-ran-ta-ra! Blue Mountains hills reechoed as they sung
A lilt of love and long ago — when all the world was young.
Ta-ran-ta-ra! Their shades went by, the bravest and the best,
The first Australian pioneers — whose graves are in the West.

A night wind whispered in the gums; afar out went the cry
Of mourning curlews on the flats, as madly galloped by
A fugitive with pallid face and pistol butt to hand:
Came, hard behind with ringing hoofs, a close pursuing band.

Then — well-remembered in my dream — a picture came to me
Of bitter fruit that ripened once upon a roadside tree;
How trav’llers shunned the haunted spot and evermore forbode
To camp beside the hangman’s tree along the Western Road. . .

White-tilted in the moonlight went rough waggons, one by one,
Piled high with household goods and stores of settlers dead and gone —
Blithe British yeomen and their wives, and sons of younger sons,
Who took tradition to the West, and axes, ploughs and guns.

These new-chum settlers tramped beside their dusty, creaking teams,
Their minds were filled with marvels new and olden hopes and dreams;
Their sons’ tall sons still yeomen be, but mostly in the West
They ride their silken thoroughbreds, and ruffle with the best.

A motley crowd of eager folk, with tools and tents in fold,
Came on Adventure’s early quest to Gulgong, grief, or gold;
They passed me in a jostling host, with anger or with mirth,
The fortune-seekers gathered from the ends of all the earth.

Yea, sailormen and tailormen, and prostitutes and peers,
Some honest and of good intent, some rogues and buccaneers.
Their camp-fires lit the darkened range, where, by the creeks, they lay
And dreamed of nuggets in their sleep — impatient for the day.

Came down the road a swaying coach, with troopers ’hind and fore —
The mounted escort thundered on by Lapstone Hill once more,
Their rifles at the shoulder slung, their scabbards long and bright;
They swung around the mountain side and rumbled out of sight.

Came up the road a swaying coach: his ribbons holding free,
The perfect driver tilted back his cherished cabbage-tree.
His girl will meet him at the rails to-night in Hartley Vale —
So, clear the track, and let her pass, the mid-Victorian mail!

Long shadows fell across the road; the morepoke in the still
And solemn midnight voiced aloud his warnings on the hill.
Yet, tramping slow and riding fast along that winding track,
The People of the Road went West, and coached and footed back.

My camp-fire died in ashes gray, as through my dream there went
That strange procession of the Past, on pay or plunder bent;
The teamsters, drovers, swagsmen, “lags;” the lovers and the thieves —
Until the East was red with Dawn, the dew upon the leaves.

They vanished with the haunted Night; their hope and high desire,
As ashen as the grey, cold heap that erstwhile made my fire:
Across the tree tops in the morn the golden sunlight showed;
And clearly rose another day — along the Western Road.

E. J. Brady, Bells and Hobbles, Melbourne: George Robertson & Co., 1911, pp. 167-171

Editor’s notes:
cabbage-tree = in the context of headwear, this is a reference to a cabbage tree hat (a type of straw hat, made from the leaves of the Australian cabbage tree; they were commonly worn in colonial Australia)

digger = a gold digger, a man seeking gold by digging in the ground

fore = situated in front of, at the forefront, at or near the front

’hind = (vernacular) behind

lag = a convict or ex-convict; an “old lag” may refer to an older “lag”, or to someone who has been in jail several times

lumb’ring = (vernacular) lumbering

Macquarie = Lachlan Macquarie, Governor of New South Wales (1810-1821)

morepoke = a small brown owl, the Southern Boobook (Ninox novaeseelandiae), also known as the Tasmanian spotted owl (also spelt mopoke, morepork)

morn = morning

new-chum = a newly-arrived immigrant, especially a British immigrant (also spelt without a hyphen: new chum)

scud = clouds, mist, rain, or spray driven by the wind; a gust of wind; to move fast in a straight line when driven by the wind, or in a manner similar to being driven by the wind

shade = ghost; disembodied spirit

stage = stagecoach, i.e. a large enclosed horse-drawn vehicle used to carry passengers (and often mail) along a regular route, travelling in stages, from staging post to staging post

trav’ller = (vernacular) traveller

waggon = an archaic spelling of “wagon”

Waterloo = the Battle of Waterloo, a major battle fought on 18 June 1815, near Waterloo, Belgium, between the French forces of Napoleon Bonaparte and the allied forces of the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and several German states, including Prussia; Napoleon was decisively defeated, he abdicated on 22 June 1815

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

yeomen = plural of yeoman: a farmer who owns and runs his own farm; historically, part of a social class of Britain, comprising of men who possessed land (owned or leased, to the value of 40 shillings), who were entitled to certain rights (serving on juries and voting for the knight of their shire), and who were regarded as being above the peasantry, but below the gentry (may also refer to: an attendant, servant, or minor official in a noble or royal household; part of a class of fighting men, being above knaves, but below knights and squires; a type of naval petty officer)

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