Last page of a tale that is told: by a daughter of the soil
by Mrs Susan Nugent Wood
London: James Nisbet.
We bring our years to an end, as it were a tale that is told.
Yes! the tale is told, the volume is ended; and a sorrowful history it is. A tale of desperate endeavour, of indomitable bravery, of weary wanderings, and untimely death;- such is the sad and touching story of the exploring expedition.
But although every eye must be dimmed with tears for the loss we have sustained, surely every heart must throb with exulting pride as we hear of the victory so nobly won - the task so nobly achieved. Brave, true-hearted Burke! I can scarcely yet realize the fact that his life is over. It is hard, even when one is stricken down amongst us in the full tide of health and vigour, to feel that we have seen him for the last time; that he is gone to the silent darkness of the grave, never to return: but how much harder, when we have not looked upon the dead face, nor heard the testimony of the funeral bell; but can only think of him in all the glory of manhood, hope, and courage.
Such must be the prevailing sensation of those who witnessed the departure of Burke and his brave companions on their perilous journey. The starting of the exploring party from Melbourne was more like a rejoicing welcome than a farewell to men who, in all probability, would never come back; and now, after months of mingled hope and fear, come the tidings, long looked for yet sudden at last, that all but one of the little band of adventurers have perished. Perished, too, within reach of ourselves - after overcoming every difficulty - not by the hands of cruel savages, nor by the disease which carried off the first victims; but of actual starvation, when they were close to home! Would that such a dark page might be effaced from the volume; but I fear it never can be hidden or blotted out.
Much as I pity and admire all the explorers, I can only weep for one; there was only one I called my friend - the gallant leader of the party, Robert O'Hara Burke. I think I was the last lady-friend he ever spoke to in Victoria. I had known him well for years; had danced, and laughed, and enjoyed many an hour, with him; had seen much of the best part of his nature, which he generally kept so carefully concealed; had understood and appreciated him as he deserved. Oh, when I look back upon it now, and remember all the good qualities he possessed - the brightness which the earthly covering of the diamond could hide, but never tarnish - I long to make them known;
I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts which arise in me,
—thoughts of the unfeigned charity I have seen him show; thoughts of the candour and generosity lie so unconsciously displayed; thoughts of the almost childlike simplicity which characterized him in some things; and the unwearying love of truth and hatred of wrong which always roused his lion-spirit into action.
I had not met him for some months previous to his appointment and departure; I was a long way up the country, and had to travel many miles to see him once more before he crossed the Murray. Like every one else I almost forgot, in the pride and greatness of the undertaking, the danger and risk that attended it, and when I reached the camp I was laughing and talking merrily. My husband rode on to tell Mr Burke I had come, and bring him to me, as my pony would not pass the camels. I am sure I was the last person he expected to meet there, and that was probably the cause of my appearance affecting him so much. When he put his strong hand into mine I felt that it trembled, and swiftly as a dream all the bright hopes and dazzling visions that had filled my mind faded away, and left nothing there but the anguish of farewell! They were just preparing to start, and all was bustle and excitement. He walked up and down with me a few turns; then he took my hand and pressed it till it felt as if the bones were crushed; but he never looked at me. " Stay here," he said. "I must go back to the camp, but I will see you again presently." I stayed, watching quietly the preparations for departure I saw the horses harnessed, and the drivers of the great wagons mount into their seats; I saw Burke go amongst the people and shake hands with several, then he mounted his horse and gave the order "march!" The crowd set up a long, wild cheer, repeating it over and over again, and they were off. My husband joined me, and when the people had dispersed we set off on the road taken by the explorers, and soon overtook them. I cannot dwell on my friend's last words; I could not bear them to be written by my hand for a careless world to read carelessly; I have buried them with many precious things in the deep vault of the past, and night and day they echo through the chambers of my memory. Gentle, loving, and brave they were; not many, and spoken very low, for, like most people of much feeling, he could not trumpet the language of his heart. At length we could go no further with him, and he came and stood by my side, but I could not speak; I only held his hand and bent my head over it. He withdrew it, and took my husband's in both his. "Good bye, old fellow, good luck to us all," he said, and then came back to me; but my tears had blinded me, and my head was reeling. I felt the warm clasp of his hand, heard him say "God bless you," and knew that he was gone. He mounted his horse and rode away at full gallop; I stooped down and gathered the last blade of grass his foot had touched; I have kept and treasured it carefully, I will never part with it till I die.
There are many in Victoria who knew him quite as intimately, who were better acquainted with his history; but there is not one, man or woman, who mourns him more bitterly and sincerely. And yet I feel so proud that he has achieved what no other had done that no stain can ever rest on his memory, no doubt arise of the perfect completion of his work. All is over now, and he is the conqueror the hard-fought victory is won and as long as language remains in which to tell of heroic deeds, as long as the love of bravery and fidelity is kept alive in the human heart, as long as the sun shines, and the days succeed each other, so long will the memory of O'Hara Burke and his comrades be adored and reverenced by every child of Australia.
We may well be proud of our native land as we tell of her mines, nay fields of shining gold her hidden stores of sparkling gems, which may one day glitter in a royal diadem her wealth of flocks and herds, of fair valleys and fruitful fields : but now has been added the pearl of great price, the one gem which was required to give brilliancy to the whole - the precious jewel of a patriotic spirit, ready to give up home, fortune, life itself, for the sake of its fellow-men. May God keep its light ever steady and clear among us, and teach us how to value such an inestimable gift ! Alas we have shewn but little thankfulness as yet even in the midst of the halo which encircles Victoria's name to-day there broods a dark shadow of remorse, disgrace, and shame. Our first hero is one who can never be surpassed his achievement is as great as any that has ever been recorded, in bravery, devotion, and endurance; but when his task was done, when the perils of his journey ought to have been over, when he had twice crossed the country hitherto deemed impassable, when anxiety had given place to hope, and doubt had changed to full satisfaction, he and his gentle, faithful companion were suffered to die of starvation on the very threshold of home. Let what will be said (and probably some conscience- stricken individuals may talk loudly to conceal their own neglect) of Burke's rashness and want of prudence in the use of what provisions they had; no sufficient excuse can ever be made, no living voice can ever carry conviction to the unprejudiced heart like those sad words in poor Wills's handwriting, "We are in this fix on account of the depot party having left contrary to instructions." The past, however, cannot be recalled; theirs is now the joy, ours the sorrow; they fell like tried warriors at their post, like martyrs who "loved not their lives unto the death;" and we would hardly recall them if we could.
But there is one remaining yet to whom justice may be done one man has survived to tell the sad story, and after all that he has gone through he is indeed as one risen from the dead. He shared in the success as well as the difficulties of the undertaking ; he was faithful to his comrades to the last ; he watched, and fed, and tended them as long as he could, and received their dying words ; what will mitted to receive the last breath of that brave, generous man; but there was One close beside His patient servant whose love is able to supply every need - "As rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land."
And when Burke's strong frame gave way before the combined attacks of protracted fatigue and hunger when he who had steadily persevered and so well performed the work he had undertaken, who had cheered on his faithful assistants through so many weary hours, sank down feeble and exhausted, saying to his companion, "Stay with me, do not let me die alone;" what were his thoughts, his last glimmerings of earthly light ? Were there any sweet visions of a happy home in dear old Ireland, which once was his, which might have been his again; any recollections of joyous days and merry evenings; any sparkling flashes from the bright world he was leaving? Did death creep upon that noble spirit with cold and stealthy tread, clad in the sable garments of woe or did he appear in robes of majesty and beauty, come as a deliverer mighty to save? Alas how unavailing is all earthly love, how powerless are we to alter the decrees of fate! Perhaps at the very moment when Burke's brave heart ceased to beat, there were tender thoughts being wafted to him on the dewy morning air; soft messages from gentle spirits far away, who would have given their own lives to have supported his drooping head, and his weary eyes. He did not die alone; one poor, feeble man, himself almost dying, was the only attendant of earthly mould but around that rude couch bright angels hovered, waiting their Master's bidding to bear the tired wanderer to his home; to lift him gently far beyond the reach of pain, hunger, and sorrow, to the land where "he that overcometh shall be made a pillar in the eternal temple, and shall eat of the tree of life which is in the midst of the paradise of God."
Peace to Victoria's best and greatest adopted son ! peace to as brave and true a gentleman as ever breathed I peace to my kind old friend I little thought, in the days we spent together, that I should have to mourn for his death I little thought that my weak woman's hand would have power for its work when his strong, useful arm was mouldering in the dust." The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong;" but we must be sure all is for the best. The mysterious Power which directs the world will one day be His own interpreter, and make all plain to our glorified vision.
And now I leave my hurried sketch of "our dear
brother departed." I could with pleasure have lingered
over the past, recalling many incidents and expressions
which would have told of the sweet music his soul gave
forth to those who could awaken the breeze which had
power to call it into life ; but our loss is so recent, our
sorrow so fresh yet, that I dare not lightly lift the veil
from the face of our dead. So I send to those who knew
and loved him this garland of affection, to mingle with the cypress and laurel which will deck his tomb. It is a flower of true sorrow, watered by many tears, and kept ever fresh and green in the heart from which it sprang a simple tribute, from a daughter of Australia, to the memory of Hara Burke.