A Death in the Bush.
The hut was built of bark and shrunken slabs
That wore the marks of many rains, and showed
Dry flaws, wherein had crept and nestled rot.
Moreover, round the bases of the bark
Were left the tracks of flying forest-fires,
As you may see them on the lower bole
Of every elder of the native woods.
For, ere the early settlers came and stocked
These wilds with sheep and kine, the grasses grew
So that they took the passing pilgrim in,
And whelmed him, like a running sea, from sight.
And therefore, through the fiercer summer months,
While all the swamps were rotten — while the flats
Were baked and broken; when the clayey rifts
Yawned wide, half-choked with drifted herbage past,
Spontaneous flames would burst from thence, and race
Across the prairies all day long.
The winds were up, and then with four-fold speed,
A harsh gigantic growth of smoke and fire
Would roar along the bottoms, in the wake
Of fainting flocks of parrots, wallaroos,
And ’wildered wild things, scattering right and left,
For safety vague, throughout the general gloom.
Anon, the nearer hill-side growing trees
Would take the surges; thus, from bough to bough,
Was borne the flaming terror! Bole and spire,
Rank after rank, now pillared, ringed, and rolled
In blinding blaze, stood out against the dead
Down-smothered dark, for fifty leagues away.
For fifty leagues! and when the winds were strong,
For fifty more! But, in the olden time,
These fires were counted as the harbingers
Of life-essential storms; since out of smoke
And heat there came across the midnight ways
Abundant comfort, with upgathered clouds
And runnels babbling of a plenteous fall.
So comes the Southern gale at evenfall
(The swift “brickfielder” of the local folk)
About the streets of Sydney, when the dust
Lies burnt on glaring windows, and the men
Look forth from doors of drouth, and drink the change
With thirsty haste and that most thankful cry
Of “here it is — the cool, bright, blessed rain!”
The hut, I say, was built of bark and slabs,
And stood, the centre of a clearing, hemmed
By hurdle-yards, and ancients of the blacks:
These moped about their lazy fires, and sang
Wild ditties of the old days, with a sound
Of sorrow, like an everlasting wind,
Which mingled with the echoes of the noon,
And moaned amongst the noises of the night.
From thence a cattle-track, with link to link,
Ran off against the fishpools, to the gap,
Which sets you face to face with gleaming miles
Of broad Orara, winding in amongst
Black, barren ridges, where the nether spurs
Are fenced about by cotton-scrub, and grass
Blue-bitten with the salt of many droughts.
’Twas here the shepherd housed him every night,
And faced the prospect like a patient soul;
Borne up by some vague hope of better days,
And God’s fine blessing in his faithful wife;
Until the humour of his malady
Took cunning changes from the good to bad,
And laid him lastly on a bed of death.
Two months thereafter, when the summer heat
Had roused the serpent from his rotten lair,
And made a noise of locusts in the boughs,
It came to this, that as the blood-red sun
Of one fierce day of many slanted down
Obliquely past the nether jags of peaks
And gulfs of mist, the tardy night came vexed
By belted clouds, and scuds that wheeled and whirled
To left and right about the brazen clifts
Of ridges, rigid with a leaden gloom.
Then took the cattle to the forest camps
With vacant terror, and the hustled sheep
Stood dumb against the hurdles, even like
A fallen patch of shadowed mountain snow;
And ever through the curlew’s call afar
The storm grew on, while round the stinted slabs
Sharp snaps and hisses came, and went, and came,
The huddled tokens of a mighty blast
Which ran with an exceeding bitter cry
Across the tumbled fragments of the hills,
And through the sluices of the gorge and glen.
So, therefore, all about the shepherd’s hut
That space was mute, save when the fastened dog,
Without a kennel, caught a passing glimpse
Of firelight moving through the lighted chinks;
For then he knew the hints of warmth within,
And stood and set his great pathetic eyes,
In wind and wet, imploring to be loosed.
Not often now the watcher left the couch
Of him she watched; since, in his fitful sleep,
His lips would stir to wayward themes, and close
With bodeful catches. Once she moved away,
Half-deafened by terrific claps, and stooped,
And looked without; to see a pillar dim
Of gathered gusts and fiery rain.
The sick man woke, and, startled by the noise,
Stared round the room with dull delirious sight,
At this wild thing and that; for, through his eyes,
The place took fearful shapes, and fever showed
Strange crosswise lights about his pillow-head.
He, catching there at some phantasmic help,
Sat upright on the bolster with a cry
Of “Where is Jesus? — it is bitter cold!”
And then, because the thundercalls outside
Were mixed for him with slanders of the Past,
He called his weeping wife by name, and said,
“Come closer, darling! we shall speed away
Across the seas, and seek some mountain home,
Shut in from liars, and the wicked words
That track us day and night, and night and day.”
So waned the sad refrain. And those poor lips,
Whose latest phrases were for peace, grew mute,
And into everlasting silence passed.
As fares a swimmer who hath lost his breath
In ’wildering seas afar from any help —
Who, fronting Death, can never realise
The dreadful Presence, but is prone to clutch
At every weed upon the weltering wave;
So fared the watcher, poring o’er the last
Of him she loved, with dazed and stupid stare;
Half conscious of the sudden loss and lack
Of all that bound her life, but yet without
The power to take her mighty sorrow in.
Then came a patch or two of starry sky;
And through a reef of cloven thunder-cloud
The soft Moon looked: a patient face beyond
The fierce impatient shadows of the slopes,
And the harsh voices of the broken hills!
A patient face, and one which came and wrought
A lovely silence like a silver mist
Across the rainy relics of the storm.
For in the breaks and pauses of her light
The gale died out in gusts; yet, evermore
About the roof-tree, on the dripping eaves,
The damp wind loitered; and a fitful drift
Sloped through the silent curtains, and athwart
There, when the glare had dropped behind
A mighty ridge of gloom, the woman turned
And sat in darkness face to face with God,
And said — “I know,” she said, “that Thou art wise;
That when we build and hope, and hope and build,
And see our best things fall, it comes to pass
For evermore that we must turn to Thee!
And therefore now, because I cannot find
The faintest token of Divinity
In this my latest sorrow, let Thy light
Inform mine eyes, so I may learn to look
On something past the sight which shuts, and blinds,
And seems to drive me wholly, Lord, from Thee.”
Now waned the moon beyond complaining depths;
And, as the dawn looked forth from showery woods
(Whereon had dropped a hint of red and gold),
There went about the crooked cavern-eaves
Low flute-like echoes, with a noise of wings
And waters flying down far-hidden fells.
Then might be seen the solitary owl,
Perched in the clefts; scared at the coming light,
And staring outward (like a sea-shelled thing
Chased to his cover by some bright fierce foe)
As at a monster in the middle waste.
At last the great kingfisher came and called
Across the hollows, loud with early whips,
And lighted, laughing, on the shepherd’s hut,
And roused the widow from a swoon like death.
This day, and after it was noised abroad
By blacks, and straggling horsemen on the roads,
That he was dead “who had been sick so long,”
There flocked a troop from far-surrounding runs
To see their neighbour and to bury him.
And men who had forgotten how to cry
(Rough flinty fellows of the native bush)
Now learned the bitter way, beholding there
The wasted shadow of an iron frame
Brought down so low by years of fearful pain;
And marking, too, the woman’s gentle face,
And all the pathos in her moaned reply
Of “masters, we have lived in better days.”
One stooped — a stockman from the nearer hills —
To loose his wallet-strings, from whence he took
A bag of tea, and laid it on her lap;
Then, sobbing, “God will help you, missus, yet,”
He sought his horse with most bewildered eyes,
And, spurring swiftly, galloped down the glen.
Where black Orara nightly chafes his brink,
Midway between lamenting lines of oak
And Warra’s gap, the shepherd’s grave was built.
And there the wild-dog pauses, in the midst
Of moonless watches: howling through the gloom
At hopeless shadows flitting to and fro,
What time the East Wind hums his darkest hymn,
And rains beat heavy on the ruined leaf.
There, while the Autumn in the cedar trees
Sat cooped about by cloudy evergreens,
The widow sojourned on the silent road,
And mutely faced the barren mound, and plucked
A straggling shrub from thence, and passed away,
Heart-broken on to Sydney; where she took
Her passage, in an English vessel bound
To London, for her home of other years.
At rest! Not near, with Sorrow on his grave,
And roses quickened into beauty — wrapt
In all the pathos of perennial bloom;
But far from these, beneath the fretful clay
Of lands within the lone perpetual cry
Of hermit plovers and the night-like oaks,
All moaning for the peace which never comes.
At rest! And she who sits and waits behind
Is in the shadows; but her faith is sure,
And one fine promise of the coming days
Is breaking, like a blessed morning, far
On hills “that slope through darkness up to God.”
Henry Kendall, Leaves from Australian Forests, Melbourne: George Robertson, 1869, pages 48-57