[Editor: This poem by Charles Harpur was published in The Bushrangers; A Play in Five Acts, and Other Poems (1853).]
’Twas night — and where a watery sound
Came moaning up the Flat,
Six rude and bearded stockmen round
Their blazing hut-fire sat,
And laughed as on some starting hound
The cracking fuel spat.
And merrier still the log-fire cracks
As night the darker falls,
While not a noisy tongue there lacks
To tell of drunken brawls,
But most of battle with the Blacks
Some bloody tale appals.
Amongst them then Ned Connor spoke,
And up his form he drew:—
What is there in an open stroke
To boast of? You but slew
Those who’d have done, each hell-black one,
The same or worse to you.
But lost among the hills, one day,
Which then was well nigh shut,
I met a Black upon my way,
And thus the matter put
Unto him:— “See! this knife’s for thee,
Come, guide me to my hut.”
His savage eyes grew huge with joy
As on the prize they bent,
And leading, even like a boy
He capered as he went:
But think you, men, to give the toy
Ned Connor ever meant?
An hour had brought us many a mile
And then, as closed the day,
The savage pointed with a smile,
To where my Station lay:
“There! give to me the knife,” said he,
“And let me go my way.”
I never meant that he should touch
The thing, as I have said,
And when he stretched his hand to clutch,
A thought came in my head:
I raised my gun, as though in fun —
I fired —— and he was dead!
The ruffian laughed in his pitiless mood
When ended thus his tale,
But all the rest though men of blood,
With horror seemed to quail,
And saw though he stood boastfully
That Connor too was pale:
For through the moaning of the trees
He seemed to hear the sound
Of his own laughter in the breeze
Keep roaming out till drowned
In wild and bitter mockeries
Up-answering from the ground.
Now what to hear had made them fear,
Had also made them dry:
But strange! the water-pail that late
Brimm’d in the corner nigh
Was empty! In amazement great
There’s not a drop, they cry!
Their thirst grew bitter and they said
Come, this will never do!
It is your turn for water, Ned,
Then why not go? He drew
Full hard his breath and from his head
There dripped a sudden dew.
But shaming to be taxed with fear,
He seized the pail and said
What care I? Though the night be drear,
Who ever saw the dead?
And if I fail to fill this pail,
The devil shall, instead.
He sallied forth. A sudden blast
Went sobbing by the door,
Through which they heard his footsteps fast
Recede — and when no more
They heard them, round the fire aghast
They gathered as before.
“I would not go alone to-night
The way that he is gone,”
Said one, “for all the gold my sight
Hath ever fallen upon:
To slay that creature was not right,
I’d say’t were he my son!”
And now impatient all and wild
They wondered at his stay,
Till one outspake: “A weanling child
Could not make more delay:
If longer slack in coming back,
He’ll bring with him the day.”
But while they thus were wondering — hark!
They hear a frantic shriek,
Then nearing footsteps through the dark,
Come waywardly and weak:
And as the dogs did howl and bark,
They stared but feared to speak.
Against the door, that to had swung,
One rushed then and ’twas split;
’Twas Connor! who amid them sprung
And fell into a fit:
And long that night in ghastly plight,
He struggled there in it.
And when his sense returned — again
The sun was rising bright,
But shuddering as in mental pain
He turned him from the light,
And pointing, said — “To bed! to bed!
For Death is in my sight!”
They bore him to his bed straightway,
Those horror-stricken men,
And questioned him as there he lay,
Of what had met his ken:
Within himself he seemed to pray,
And thus bespake them then:—
“I went (you heard), with impious boast
For water to the brook,
But when the threshold I had crost,
All strength my heart forsook;
Each forward step seemed fate — but most
I feared behind to look.
Long murky clouds were hurrying fast
Across the starless sky,
Strange sounds came drowning up the blast
That piped by fits so high:
A winding gleam, and lo! the stream
Went wildly moaning by.
I knew not why, but it struck mine eye
With a dull damp sense of awe,
And bankward densely crawling by,
Crude Shapes methought I saw!
But I must not back, I said, alack!
But down at once and draw.
Now standing at the water’s edge,
Mine eyes thereon I threw,
And, lo! distinctly through the sedge,
What is it there I view? —
Not mine own shadow from the ledge,
But him! — the Black I slew!
’Twas no delusion! There he stood
Within the gleaming brook,
The same as when I shed his blood,
His stature and his look,
Even to the dread accusing shade
His dying aspect took!
With backward bound I started round
And up the bank did flee,
But, ah! as swiftly in my track
Bare footfalls seemed to be!
Step, step, for mine, close at my back
I heard, but nought could see!
It was a horrible thing to hear
Behind me still the sound
I could not bear to have it there,
And desperate, faced me round,
When through the dark a sudden spark
Shot upward from the ground!
Staggered as with a stunning stroke
I could not turn again,
But saw whence came the spark, a smoke
Arise — I saw it plain,
And from it an earthy odour broke
That bit me to the brain!
At first I saw it bloating out
In size not o’er a span,
Then as it slowly wreathed about
To heighten it began,
Until it took in bulk and look
The stature of a man!
No stir was near — I might but hear
The beating of my blood
And there within my reach almost,
The horrid Phantom stood!
I stared till fear in fear was lost
So awful was my mood.
I spoke — I know not what — and lo!
The diabolic birth
’Gan wildly writhing to and fro
As if in ghostly mirth
And then against me rushing so,
It dashed me to the earth!
Mine eyes flashed out with sputtering flame —
The ground kept swimming fast —
And roaming round about there came
Wild laughter in the blast!
A moment — and then all was tame,
Forgotten, painless, past.
At length my brain began to swim
As consciousness regrew,
But when with eyeballs strained and dim,
I looked again — I knew
A form stood o’er me, it was him, —
The savage that I slew!
I shrieked, and bounding to my feet,
I fled, but as before,
Bare footsteps tracked me beat for beat
With mine, even to the door:
What then befel I cannot tell —
I know of nothing more!”
He ceased and turning in his bed,
Aloud for mercy cried,
And for three days and nights, ’tis said,
He uttered nought beside;
When raving out with sudden dread,
The haunted Murderer died.
The fearful men around him then,
Each one of them did say,
It was a damnëd wrong in Ned,
The savage so to slay,
And where he said he saw the dead,
They buried him next day.
Charles Harpur, The Bushrangers; A Play in Five Acts, and Other Poems, Sydney: W. R. Piddington, 1853, pages 81-86
ken = knowledge, perception, understanding (also means “know”, particularly as used in Scotland)
o’er = over (pronounced the same as “oar”, “or”, and “ore”)
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)
sedge = a grass-like plant with a solid three-sided stem, which grows in tufts, typically found in wet ground or near water, such as marshes; any of the grass-like plants of the family Cyperaceae (especially those of the of the genus Carex)
station = a large rural holding for raising sheep or cattle; the term “property” is used for smaller holdings
Old spelling in the original text:
methought (I thought)
say’t (say it)
Vernacular spelling in the original text: