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A Chronicle of the Burke and Wills Expedition (In Four Parts)

by Catherine Martin

The Explorers and Other Poems
Melbourne: George Robertson.

The Explorers - Part First

The sound of many voices fills the air,
A festal look people and city wear;
And all around, the tread of hurrying feet
Rings ceaselessly along each throngëd street.
The sun is shining from a cloudless sky,
Glad expectation beams in every eye,
And now and then a burst of laughter loud
Breaks through the hum of small talk in the crowd.
Towards one spot in haste it seems to tend,
In one quick moving stream the masses blend.
Then one who joined the crowd with searching gaze,
Seemed to regard the scene with deep amaze;
He was a stooped grey man in bush costume,
Guiltless of gloves, or studs, or rare perfume;
Bronzed was his face with an Australian sun,
And as he went he turned to speak to one
Who walked beside him: “Say, friend, I pray,
Why are the people crowding all this way?”
This one answered — “In what distant spot
Hast thou been living, that thou knowest not
Of the great Expedition now sent forth
To explore our mighty isle from south to north?”
The Bushman's eyes lit with a twinkling gleam,
“Within the Bush life passes like a dream
In strange oblivion of the wondrous strides
The world at large is making. He who bides
Through many years within the drowsy shade
Of lonely haunts, will find the great world fade
In mem'ry's tablets, till such far-off hum,
And scraps of information, as may come
Through newspapers, and rumours unto him,
From its unceasing whirl, will seem as dim
And vague, as the faint lines trac'd by a hand
Long, long returned to dust.

Unto this land
I came from England, fifteen years ago.
The Yarra passed as now, with even flow,
From Baw Baw's shady heights; Macedon's brow
Was dark with the same trees that shade it now;
But in the place of this great stately town,
(This city, rather), gleaming like a crown,
Superbly fair, for these far Southern lands,
Set by the mighty ocean, by the hands
Of sturdy toil, with its grand streets and squares,
And round it, many a home that proudly wears
The aspect of great wealth, there were rude huts
And tents, and where we walk were gaping ruts,
Over which rumbled laden bullock-drays,
Instead of landaus, with sleek prancing greys;
And where soft knuckled dandies lisp and drawl,
And would-be exquisites, at snail's pace crawl,
With eye-glass fixed, in idiotic stare,
And locks front parted with stupendous care,
Who think the tasks of life have been well done
When they a ballet-dancer's smiles have won;
Whose fittest duties are to guard the pets
Ladies call poodles, from life's jars and frets,
And to proclaim a luckless tailor's skill
When sallying forth, (unfit to think or till,)
In Dent's best kids, to keep their hands from harm, —
There stalked the digger with his brawny arm,
The hardy pioneer, who, with his axe,
Hew'd trees as quickly as the fire melts wax.
In place of dainty Dames, in silk and lace,
Who flirt in drawing-rooms, with well-bred grace,
Whose weightiest care is, how to dress the hair,
And wear a shawl with a becoming air;
Whose fate the milliner holds in her hands
When she decides on puffs, or rigid bands;
Whose version of a man's chief aim and end,
Is purring flattery, with a courtly bend —
You then might see helpmates in word and truth,
Who staggered not at work, hard and uncouth;
The foremost article of whose homely creed
Was not, that God gave hands in very deed,
To serve them as soft-jewelled toys through life,
But to do battle in the daily strife
Of a prosaic, and hard-working world,
Instead of jingling tunes, ribboned and curl'd.
Truly the change is great, but greater still
The tireless energy, unflinching will
That wrought such changes, in so short a time.
I have liv'd ere now in many a clime — ”

Here, as the garrulous and stooped old man
Spoke with uplifted hand, a youth who ran
With unthinking haste, push'd him aside
And stopped his speech. The people ran, and cried,
And jostled onward, in a mighty throng
Unto the verdant glades, where the glad song
Of birds is heard the livelong summer day;
Where from the turmoil of the dusty way,
And the loud grating noises of the street,
A wearied soul might find a quiet retreat,
Till wand'ring in the gum-tree's lengthened shade,
The feverish discords of life might fade
From the tired heart, while, softly as the kiss
Prest by fond lips, that fear to break the peace
Of a dear sleeper, the warm slumbrous breeze
Strays dreamily amid the stately trees.
But none of this unnumbered multitude
Have sought the leafy Park for solitude;
Yet all the discord, and the jarring strife
That oft mar the highest purposes of life,
Were on this day laid aside, forgotten,
While gazing on the group of stalwart men
That were to venture forth upon this day,
On the danger fraught, and toilsome way,
(Till they should reach the strange and far-off shore,
Where mortal foot had never trod before,)
Through unknown hardships, through unrecked-of pain.
It was no narrow question of mere gain
That prompted the enterprise. From the first
Lone pioneers that gained this shore, none durst
Pierce the vast and trackless realms that lay
Wrapped in mystery from day to day.
If fertile regions, or vast deserts bare,
Bleached by the great fierce sun's insatiate glare;
If fair watered vales, or plains of sand,
Formed the interior of this mighty land —
These were the questions men were wont to ask,
In vague conjecture. Now, the arduous task
Of solving these was to be carried out,
Points long disputed placed beyond a doubt;
The man of science and of busy trade,
And the philanthropist, who long had made
The cause of humanity his first care,
To all the enterprise deep interests bear.

But see! Among the crowd one rises now,
Earnestly speaking, with uncovered brow.
His voice is broken with emotion deep —
“Ay, they are pledged, through every change to keep
The memory of this day, within their heart,
Whate'er privations yet may be their part;
Howe'er the expedition yet may end,
As through unknown realms their way they wend,
The enthusiasm of this mighty crowd,
The ringing echoes of their plaudits loud,
The mighty cheer — the tremulous God-speed,
Will urge them to success, through pain and need,
Until the goal of all their hopes is won,
And the great work on which they are bent is done.”
Thus spake the leader, then upon their way
Through the vast crowd, the Explorers passed away.
Now, pressing to the front, the old man went,
And on the passing train his keen gaze bent,
And said aloud — “A score in all but three
Of men, and thirty camels; if on me
Rested the weighty burden of command,
I should have chosen a much smaller band.
Ah, I can see, Robert O'Hara Burke,
That ere success is thine, thou hast thy work
To do. And those same camels — friend dost think,”
(This to one near, for bushmen do not shrink
From strangers — nor stand on etiquette,
Nor let formalities their souls much fret,)
“Those animals should be so much esteemed?
From what I've seen of them, they seemed
(Away from the Bedouin's skilful hand,
And the accustomed routes o'er burning sand)
To be most obstinate.”
“There I agree
With you,” the stranger said. “Aye, I foresee
No little trouble to be laid in store
For our Explorers by the brutes. The lore
Of Eastern lands has thrown a marvellous haze
Around them, so that when one fain would gaze,
And judge them with impartial eyes, a train
Of childish, crude beliefs rises again
From memory's mystic realms, and we perceive
Them, not as they are, but as we believe
They ought to be. But, notwithstanding this,
I feel sure our Explorers will not miss
The aim in view. There is my young friend Wills —
His presence in the expedition fills
Me with confidence. I daresay you deem
My judgment over fond, and that I seem
To overrate his worth. Ah, if you knew
How courageous and brave, how leal and true,
How modest, yet determined — but I know
When I speak of him, that my words will grow,
Despite, myself, too warm, I would that all
Who start were like him! I don't wish to pall
The general joy, with auguries of dark ill,
Nor play the raven, 'mid glad birds — but still
Incompetence and self-will have ofttimes been
The ruin of great purposes, and I ween
Such fatal qualities are not wanting here.”

The crowd surged onward, and now loud and clear
The last cheer floated to the sunny skies:
And thousands gazed, with eager, wistful eyes
On the retreating forms, that slowly wound
Out from the city, while each clamorous sound
Quietly died away, as out of sight
The Explorers passed. Then in the fading light
Of that first evening, lit their first camp fire.
While sitting round one said; — “'Ere we retire
(That I believe is the genteelest phrase)
On the long nights, we might recite some lays
And stories of the Bush as a pastime.”
To which all were agreed; of these in rime
A few are here set down.

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