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Leaves from Australian Forests (1869). 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. At night 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 hillside-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 brick-fielder 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 fish-pools 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. Anon 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 thunder-calls 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 realize 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 The dead. 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." * A tributary of the river Clarence, N.S.W.
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