[Editor: A short story by “Dryblower” Murphy, published in The Sunday Times, 13 August 1922.]
A story of a woman’s sacrifice
Should you ever go to Albany, ask for Peter. Tell him you know of Sweet Boronia, and hear his story. You will climb the hill and with him look towards the East.
The unthinking will tell you he is mad. That he is, undoubtedly, if madness be the holding sacred the memory of one of the best and bravest of God’s creatures, one of the fair flowers that blossom and bloom but seldom in the desert wastes of the world’s humanity.
Even the doctor will frown professionally when you tell him you have taken the steep zig-zag path with Peter. Hours he spends upon the summit that in winter splits the antarctic storms, and in summer bestows the sweetness of its wild-flowers on the passing zephyr.
The mighty hill is to Peter the high altar of his cherished dreams, the temple of his adoration, and the threshold from which he hopes to some day behold the return from exile of the angel of his life’s romance.
Rarely does a loyal love such as Peter’s soothe rugged nature into gentleness, sing the soul-song heard but once amid the clangor of the life unbeautiful, and chasten the passions of man, the animal.
Look into Peter’s grave, brown eyes, hear his simple narrative, and you shall lay aside your machine-made novel and leave uncut the pages of the magazine with which you yawn away God’s hours.
Go with him to the granite-capped crest of the hill that sentinels the town sprawling away down its landward slopes.
Look to the East with Peter. He looks nowhere else than at that point in the glorious panorama where the ships roll and race to and from the port cities of the East.
Perhaps he will show you a smudge on the grey line where the blue arch bends to meet the green of the Bight. By and bye, from the smudge a coaster will gradually take shape, her bows smashing the seas into silver, her funnel smoke pluming away in the wash of the waters astern.
Before even the look-out on Breaksea has reported the newcomer, Peter’s signal is hoisted — a bush of boronia on a sapling.
“Peter is looking to the East,” wheezes the old fisherman on the jetty.
“Peter is looking to the East,” repeats the steam launch engineer, as he trims his craft in case the long low hull over the horizon should nose her way into the port.
“Poor Peter’s love is as strong as ever,” sighs the sad-eyed woman whose husband deserted her a year ago, and cries softly to herself, the while a chubby boy at her knee stares wonderingly. Down from the lofty granite hill Peter comes, breathless and buoyant with hope. It is his day of days.
The steamer swings in from its long warfare with the waters into the peace of the inner anchorage, and cautiously sidles to the pier. The big liners hold on their way contemptuously. Peter is at the pier-head.
“She has come from the East,” he murmurs, as he scans the faces staring at the port of promise from over the bulwarks. The ship shudders in under the strain of the hawsers and makes fast.
Half an hour later, Peter with bent head, walks dejectedly back to the town. A few murmurs of mock sympathy follow him, and sting, not so much his ears as his unswervingly loyal heart.
“Not yet, Peter?” asks the kindly-souled old lady whose son Peter saved from drowning near the breakwater. “Not yet, Peter?”
“No, not yet.” echoes Peter, with the spirit of hope in his glance, “but she will come some day. She will come here — here, where the sweet boronia grows.”
* * * *
A full year before Peter had been brought into the Coolgardie hospital to be nursed back to life through her skill and tenderness, I had met her on the steamer between Adelaide and Albany.
Wallowing to the plimsoll with cargo and swarming with early-day swampers for Bayley’s Find, the coffin-ship floundered and lurched to the long, sullen roll of the Bight. Far down in the waist the engines panted and groaned at their overwork. For’ard and aft the passengers huddled, praying and blaspheming at every lurch of the unseaworthy old ashpan that should years ago have left her rusty bones in the ship-breaker’s yard.
On deck a hundred bullocks rolled and bellowed in the pain and terror of broken logs and horns. Amid this hurly-burly of horror, from the swampy, steamy steerage to the scarcely better saloon Sweet Boronia had moved, working cheerily and incessantly, comforting, helping the sick, and rebuking, by her gentle womanliness, the human fiends who hurled drunken imprecations on the Almighty for their expected, and in most cases well-deserved, doom. The less brutal had prepared to recognise her self-sacrifice, but at Fremantle she had slipped off the boat unnoticed, and made her way to the goldfields.
I next saw her in the Coolgardie tent hospital, softly passing from stretcher to stretcher, bearing comfort to the hearts of the stricken, soothing the raving, and replacing the terror of death with the confidence born of her powers of noble self-sacrifice.
We called her “Sweet Boronia,” a bunch of the fragrant flower from a nook in the Albany hills adorning the front window of her camp near the hospital ward.
Few would call her pretty, none but would call her beautiful, her clear eyes shining in a sweet homely face on which the lines of care were encroaching on the departing bloom of youth.
Half the emaciated wrecks whom her loving tenderness and unwearying work had saved from a hasty grave offered her marriage. Peter among them. I also.
Peter was a fairly well-to-do farmer owning several teams who had come to the fields to speculate. Time and again Peter pressed her to cast down her burden of work, and as often she refused, sobbing silently when she imagined no one near. Peter’s hopeless dejection wounded her soft woman’s heart deeper than his insistent passion.
One day the drunken doctor, who undid much of her good work, caught her in his arms and kissed her. Peter saw the struggle from outside.
Weak and wasted as he was, he gripped the medical sot by the throat and a wardsman arrived just in time to stave off a tragedy. Peter had a peep over the Great Divide, the shock and strain of the struggle benumbing his brain and setting his convalescence back a month.
One evening after I had been turned down gently but irrevocably for the twentieth time, she told me her story.
“I know I can trust you as I can trust him,” she whispered hoarsely, “him” being the lucky man beyond the Bight.
The story took long to tell, but when she had finished I knew the gulf between us to be an unbridgeable one, the links of her loyalty being unbreakable and forged in the gold of a true woman’s affection.
* * * * * *
Over in the East lived her lover — under a cloud. They were to have been married, and he had embezzled trust funds. Given a chance to make reparation, he had been allowed to repay the deficiency. And this brave bride that was to be had come to the West to slave as a hospital nurse to help refund the amount.
“Surely,” I said, as she had hesitatingly sobbed out the last sentence of her sacrifice, “surely not all the angels live in Heaven!”
Peter never knew. “He would not understand,” she said.
* * * * * *
In a year the money was almost paid off, when she received a telegram telling her he had speculated well and she need send no more. Then after a hurried note to say he was going on a trip to an unnamed health resort his letters ceased entirely.
“He is ill,” she whispered to me, her only confidant, “and he will be prosecuted and disgraced”.
“Let me see him and try to help him out,” I urged, as I was leaving for Melbourne on a business trip. I went straight to his old address.
He had succeeded well financially, and was married to the daughter of the man he had formerly robbed! He was now his partner. Much as I loved Boronia, the news appalled me.
Before she could receive my guarded message, she had started for Victoria, leaving Peter at Albany. He had followed her there.
“I may come back,” she sobbed, as the love-hunger in poor Peter’s eyes smote her. “Watch for me, Peter; watch for me,” and with that she was gone.
* * * * * *
She was carried ashore at Melbourne in the grip of the malady she had so often and fearlessly fought for others, but she never knew of her lover’s perfidy, and died believing in him.
It was in the holy hush of Christmas Eve that her poor, tired soul fluttered out towards the Great Beyond, her requiem the chiming and clanging of the church bells.
She lies at rest in a quiet corner of God’s Acre under the shadow of the Dandenong Ranges. At the head of her grave is a granite stone. The inscription is simple —
* * * * * *
And on the great hill at Albany Peter still looks towards the East.
The Sunday Times (Perth, WA), 13 August 1922, p. 17
ashpan = a metal tray that is placed underneath a fire grate so as to collect ash; however, the term “old ash-pan” was used in several instances by “Dryblower” Murphy to refer to worn-out ships
See: 1) “Ten Years After”, The Sunday Times (Perth, WA), 14 June 1903, p. 4 [“old ash-pan”]
2) “Verse and worse”, The Sunday Times (Perth, WA), 9 January 1921, p. 4 [“old ash-pan”]
3) “‘Sweet Boronia’: A story of a woman’s sacrifice”, The Sunday Times (Perth, WA), 13 August 1922, p. 17 [“old ashpan”]
4) “A Westerner goes East: Fremantle to Sydney via Ports”, The Sunday Times (Perth, WA), 29 March 1936, p. 22 [“old ash-pan”]
Bayley’s Find = an area now known as Coolgardie (a large find of gold by Arthur Bayley and William Ford in 1892 triggered a gold rush to the area)
plimsoll = Plimsoll line, a waterline marked on the side of ships, which must be visible above the water (so as to prevent ships being overloaded, subsequently settling too low in the water, and thus being liable to capsize in turbulent seas); named after Samuel Plimsoll (1824-1898), a British Member of Parliament who campaigned to make such waterlines compulsory by law, so as to prevent the heavy loss of life caused by ships being overloaded
swamper = a general assistant or labourer, especially one who works in mines carrying out general duties associated with hauling ore and rock