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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.
1874.

The Explorers - Part Second

The sun is shining from a mid-day sky,
Over great woods which in strange silence lie,
Over vast wastes, (shaded by seas of leaves)
Around whose still retreats, no legend weaves
Its mystic terrors; all wrapped in repose,
While Time's unbroken river calmly flows.
Unnoted pass the days, unmarked the years,
That elsewhere come, laden with hopes and fears.
Millions may tremble at a tyrant's frown,
And despots plot to trample freedom down,
Kingdoms may rise, empires be overthrown,
Nations be conquered when enfeebled grown —
The passions of mankind may fiercely rage,
And peace or war their feverish thoughts engage,
Famine or plague in cities may be rife
Stalking abroad to feast on joyous life,
The great unresting world may laugh or weep,
Here but dim shadows fall, and onward creep.
No changes, save of tranquil nature's moods
Pass over those unbounded solitudes;
The mysterious stars and radiant moon,
Are mirror'd in the creek and dark lagoon;
The tall grey emu, with its piercing eyes,
May swiftly pass along with strange harsh cries;
The curlew may be heard with plaintive wail,
Telling the voiceless shades a piteous tale;
And where the nardoo in profusion grows,
And undried creek, with gladdening murmur flows,
There might be seen at times, perchance a trace,
Or wandering tribe, of the degraded race,
Naked and homeless, roaming in quest of food,
Or tracking out a foe, in savage wood.
These, and these only, are the sounds that break
The quiet intense, and answering echo wake.
But in the course of time, there came a day
When, treading through those wilds its silent way
A band of Pioneers persistent went,
With haggard faces, worn frames weakly bent,
With pain and famine following like blood-hounds,
To hunt them down, within strange distant grounds.
Scorched through the day with the fierce sun's fierce heat,
Which made the sand as coals beneath their feet;
Chilled through the night with the chill winds that blew,
While daily their provisions scantier grew —
A bloodless conflict, more appalling far
Than any fought when nations meet in war.
The hope of victory, in the wildest fray,
Will nerve each hand when drawn in close array;
But oh! to struggle on, from day to day,
When hope and strength are fleeting fast away;
When closing round them, like a living grave
The sombre foliage stretches, wave on wave
Rising for countless leagues on every side
Against the sky. Slowly the days on glide;
Slowly their lonely journey they pursue;
Despairingly, with wearied eyes they view
The changeless woods, the arid ground's scorch'd hue,
O'er which mute birds, with drooping pinions flew;
Dangers threaten them on every hand,
Yet on they pass, a stern, sad, silent band.


They were as one, who journeys all alone
Upon an unknown shore, when day has flown;
Who hastening on to gain a friendly door,
Hears cry of starving wolves, behind, before, —
Feels their hot breath upon his pale cold cheek,
And in his terror, scarce may breathe or speak;
Yet knowing, that a friendly roof is near
Hastes warily on, despite his growing fear.
So Famine, like those wolves, all lean and gaunt,
Pursued them swiftly, with quick laboured pant;
And they, with hopes fixed on the distant spot
Where help and succour needs must be their lot
Crept slowly on, through days and nights of gloom,
Hoping to flee the dark and dreaded doom
That filled with terror each foreboding heart,
Though each so bravely played his noble part.
What need to tell, this lonely forlorn band
Of four, that passed through the lone silent land
Was all now found, to struggle to the end
Of the Explorers, whom we erst saw bend
Their way unto these realms, amid the cheers
Of an assembled people, without fears
Or thought of failure?
Pause we now to tell
Of the events which on the way befell.
Two moons had scarcely waned when signs of strife
Amid the Expedition became rife.
Then some, ere the great task had well begun
Resigned their post, and by that act have won
Such measure of esteem as those deserve
Whose feet from duty's paths aside will swerve,
At the unworthy promptings of a heart
Unable e'er to act, a nobler part
Than that of self-interest. At Menindie
Burke left in charge of Wright, (as we shall see,
His choice of Wright to a post of command
Was in truth disastrous), a second band,
Which was to follow on to Cooper's Creek
When re-inforced. And now we need not seek
To trace their footsteps, as from day to day
Still strong and hopeful they passed on their way.
Now through great tracts, fertile in trees and grass,
Traversed by creeks, which as they onward pass
Widen into lagoons, then disappear
As though exhausted quite; anon in clear
Cool rills to rise again, shaded by trees
Of unknown name, o'er which the summer breeze
Swept with its sad refrain. Dense marshmallows,
Salt bushes, drooping shrubs o'er wide shallows
And small creeks, (which in those realms abound),
Cast an unbroken shade, the only sound
The cries of water-birds, that from afar
Sought those still banks. The light of moon and star
Replaced the beams of day; the circling year
Sped swiftly on, yet brought no changes here.


Then on by stony rises, lofty peaks
Redden'd, sun-scorched, where the lean dingo seeks
His prey in vain, where birds with drooping wings
And eyes fast waxing dim, seek for the springs
Long parched with drought. On over spreading plains
Clothed with rank verdure — here, when kindly rains
Have fallen in their seasons, countless streams
Marked by dark lines of timber (through which beams
Of sunlight vainly seek to pass), are seen
On every hand. Plains clothed with vivid green,
Where bright plumaged birds their songs may sing
And starry flowers, with gorgeous dyes may spring;
And shoals of water-birds, with shrill loud cries,
Make their abode.


Still on, through arid regions, gauntly bare,
Shrivelled beneath the sun's remorseless glare:
Tracts of drear desolation, where the grass
Lay in bleached heaps, o'er which no creatures pass
On earth or air, saving great snakes that glide
With lustrous folds along. Here fissures wide
Rent the hot earth. Where water once had streamed
Naught save red-margined empty courses seamed
The ground. No sound of life around was heard,
No smoke of camp-fire seen. No bird was scared
By the unwonted ring of passing feet;
No shade of rustling leaves broke the fierce heat
Of the sand-laden air. Here naught drew breath.
All, all around wore the wan hue of death —
A burning heaven, above burning wastes,
Lit by the lurid sun, which onward hastes
Unto the blood-red west, as if to fly
The desolation of earth, air and sky, —
To cool his molten beams in Northern seas,
Margined by snow-clad heights and sombre trees —
To slake his maddening thirst where icebergs sail,
And the north winds unresting round them wail.
Then in the east, with wild, redoubled might,
To rise, scaring away pitiful night,
That o'er those regions scarr'd, her mantle drew.
On still, until again the country grew
Smiling and fertile. Thus through this great land
The Explorers past, a strong, vigorous band,
As yet exempt from want. At Cooper's Creek
They formed a depot, and through many a week
They waited for Wright's coming. Day by day
In deep suspense, chafing at the delay,
They scanned the wide horizon, but no trace
Of nearing forms was there, and then each face
Grew worn and anxious as the days sped on.


Then Burke and Wills, knowing the time thus flown
Was passing precious, could no longer brook
The wearying, long delay. “If we took” —
(Thus Burke one evening, when he long had stood
Gazing across the boundless, silent wood,
With Wills beside him), “If we took two men,
Six camels, and a horse with us, why then
I think that you and I might safely gain
The goal of all our hopes. Hardships and pain
May be our lot, but then, with Brahe here
Awaiting our return, we need not fear.
And I feel sure Wright will have gained the Creek
Ere our return. At all risks we must seek,
To compass the great aim we have in view.”


Wills stood some moments silent: “If we knew,”
He answered slowly, “whether Wright's delay
Proceeds from some mishap! But day by day
Drags on its weary length, and still no sign
Nor tidings come — Yes, let us resign
The Depot unto Brahe, that we may
Pass on to-morrow, on our destined way
Equipped as you have said.” Upon that night,
They sat around the camp-fire's flickering light,
Preparing for their journey. “Three moons may wane,”
The Leader said, “ere we return again,
But Wright may join you now, at any hour,
And though great dangers round our path may lower,
Yet knowing for our coming you will wait
We will not fear, although forlorn our state
May be, ere we return unto this spot,
Where succour and relief will be our lot.”
And thus at dawn, on the succeeding day
The small devoted band went on its way.
Once more o'er spreading plains, by winding creeks
And sombre forests, where the scarr'd tree speaks
Of the great havocs, wrought by the fierce fire,
Which ofttimes made a lofty, leafy pyre
Of the wide branching gum. Verdant and fair
Now were the realms o'er which they went; though care
And dark uncertainty, weighed on each mind
At times, yet were they overjoy'd to find
How goodly were the regions which they trod —
How fitted to become the fair abode
Of affluence and health. With gladden'd eyes
They passed fresh vales, where winding creeks arise
And flowers bloom, and countless birds loud sing,
While the dark foliag'd trees' wide branches fling
Deep shadows ever round. Solemn and strange
It was to pass, where life's unpitying change
And garish restlessness, were all unknown
Since the first day, that found the great waves flown
In sudden panic, from the mighty isle,
Wide and far reaching, which was seen to smile
Amid the ocean's swell. Then as days fled,
And they in hurried marches onward sped;
They left luxuriant pastures, and arrive
At great sand ridges, which now seem to strive
To block their way, with abrupt heights and bare.
Water they sought in vain amid the glare
Which dazed the wearied gaze on every hand.
Yet onward still, pressed the undaunted band,
Scanning with eager eyes the parch'd up ground
That broke beneath their feet, with grating sound;
Then turned they to the west — an earthy plain,
Streaked with dark timbered channels — where in vain
They seek for water — lay before them there.
When they had pass'd this plain, again steep bare
Sand ridges met their view. Creek and lagoon
Were wholly parch'd; and thus a second noon
Still found them toiling on. Evening drew near
And saw them grazing round in doubt and fear,
As o'er a gaunt sand-ridge the sun's last rays
Were streaming redly, through a coppery haze
That in one sullen tint wrapp'd earth and sky.
And still no rising cloud was seen on high;
No wakening breeze swept through the sombre mass
Of foliage, which on the hueless grass,
Cast but a blurred uncertain shade. And still
No trace of water found in swamp or rill.
With dim dazed eyes the Explorers paused to rest.
The crimson sun had left upon the west
A blood-red gleam, fierce as deep passion's glare
Upon a wild swart face. All — all was bare.
No sound of life the heavy silence broke,
And in that lonely group, no one yet spoke;
For each feared to give words to the great dread
That weighed upon him. Two long days had sped
Since they had entered on this sterile waste.
Could they pursue their journey? Should they haste
Backward or forward? Debating thus they stood,
When through the gloaming, (low across the wood
That stretched unto the north), with plaintive cries
A flock of doves rose up to the quiet skies;
And still another flock upon their wake
Flew swiftly on; with joy the Explorers take
The course the flying doves thus pointed out
With their unerring instinct. Fear and doubt
Still lingered near them, as through weary hours
They passed o'er dreary flats, while deep night lowers
Above those death-still realms. This Christmas Eve
(For such it was), will surely with them leave
Strange memories, for all coming festal times.
When they mayhap may hear, in far-off climes
The joyous peals that hail the natal day
Of Christ of Nazareth, will they not stray
On fancy's wings, unto each silent spot
That they explored? Varied may be their lot,
Yet at this holy season evermore,
They will remember, how in need and sore
Perplexity, the wood doves in their flight
Led them on safely, as the beacon light
That brightly gleams above the rugged cliff,
To warn the mariner how near the reef;
For in the dawning of that Christmas morn
Which found them tramping on, weary and worn,
They saw afar, lit by the deepening glow
Of coming day, a creek with even flow
Straying through verdant pastures. When they gain
Its banks, forgetful of their toil and pain,
They drink of the deep gladd'ning stream
Bordered with densest shrubs, and trees which seem
To screen its crystal depths with jealous care,
From the insatiate sun's fierce thirsty glare.


And there they stayed to celebrate the birth
Of our most Blessed Lord. There was a dearth,
Doubtless, of noisy mirth and dainty cheer —
And on each heart weighed the unspoken fear
As to their future fate, but the story,
Grandly simple, of the Son of Glory,
Which they had heard, when on a mother's breast
The wondrous tale had lulled them to quiet rest,
Came back on that still day with soothing power,
Recalling there the strange and solemn hour
When in the eastern sky a great lone star
Led the gift-laden magi from afar,
Unto the virgin-mother with her child,
To gaze upon the babe, benignly mild,
To bow the knees in adoration meet,
And lay their costly offerings at his feet.
Through the long hours of that bright summer day,
Which in those woods so quietly sped away,
Past Christmas memories fondly they recall
Beneath the shades which round them softly fall.
And so they sat, until the fading light
Had given place to the chill shades of night,
Still dwelling on the memories of the past,
While all around fantastic shades were cast
By the great wood fire's flames, that leapt on high
With a strange glow, beneath the star-lit sky.
Ah! those unclouded festive days of yore;
Those happy faces, gone for ever more —
Or strangely changed — with sad care-laden brow —
Those gladsome voices, hushed and silent now,
Or speaking alien tongues in distant lands!
The home is silent, and the sacred bands
Of household love are torn. Perchance alone,
Beside a silent hearth, making her moan
Unto the great white throne, a mother kneels
Pleading for those afar. Ah! well she feels,
Low kneeling there, with sorrow-riven soul,
That ne'er again the circle will be whole
Which clustered round her knees in bygone years,
With beaming eyes, undimm'd by sorrow's tears.
Next day at dawn, once more their steps they bent
O'er fertile varied realms. Again they went
By winding creeks, o'er spreading well grass'd plains
And clayey flats, on which the recent rains
Yet lingered in still pools. And now they drew
Near to their journey's goal. Then the way grew
Well nigh impassable, from heavy falls
Of rain. Water fowls, with strange loud calls
In hundreds, on the spreading marsh were seen.
Lagoons o'erflooded, strips of vivid green
Beside broad channell'd creeks, with palms, whose shade
Of oriental curves, o'er shrub-strew'd glade
Fell picturesquely cool.


And now alone,
(The way unsafe and dang'rous having grown)
Onward pressed Burke and Wills on foot. One horse
They with them led. Their weary way they force
O'er flooded flats, sandstone rock, and quicksand,
Until they reach some open tableland
With shallow gravelly soil, cloth'd with swamp gum.
Which leaving, next unto a plain they come
Covered with water, here with pain and toil
They stumble on, over uneven soil
(Amid great tufts of grass), wet to the knee.
Through this for many miles, and then they see
A great dim forest, with o'erarching trees
That shut out sun, and light, and cold. The breeze
Passed with faint shiver through their limbs, then died
In a low moan, while fluttering on each side
The crimson gum leaves circling fell. Around
The Explorers gazed, till a mysterious sound
Of distant mingled notes, now low, now shrill,
Broke the vast solitude. With a great thrill
Those two worn lonely men, now standing there,
Heard the hoarse murmur borne upon the air,
Then whispered in low tones:—“The sea! The sea!”
The circling sea-birds high above them flee,
As they press onward, in the evening light,
Until the ocean burst upon their sight.
Ay then, they knew they had travers'd the land
From shore to shore. Burke grasp'd his comrade's hand;
“Thank God!” each murmured, with o'erflowing eyes,
As with bared brow they looked unto the skies.
Then again on the sea while the sun stole
Unto his rest. Majestic was the roll
Of the grand ocean, round the mighty rocks
That sentinelled the land, and met the shocks
Of foaming billows, with the unmoved front
Of fearless vet'rans, who long in the brunt
Of war have stood. O'er them the fierce waves break,
And in great caverns, mystic echoes wake —
Around for aye is heard, the ocean's wail,
Breaking against the shore. No snowy sail
Was ever seen to gleam across the waste
Of boundless waters. Nought but sea-birds haste,
With drooping wings, unto those hoary cliffs,
Or pause to rest upon the giant reefs,
Against which breakers, with eternal knell
Rise up, with frenzied wrath and ceaseless swell.
Long the Explorers gazed with thankful joy:
As the victorious shout anew will buoy
The wounded soldier, when his comrades rush
To victory, so now, in the calm hush
Of placid evening, in that lonely spot
This sight nerved them afresh. Aye, though their lot
Might be uncertain, and their future fate
Wrapped in obscurity — though dangers wait
Upon their path on every side, yet this
Ardently longed-for moment, bears the bliss
Which a great work accomplished, needs must bring
Unto the soul, that dares aside to fling
The meaner cares of life for one great aim.
Their task was done! Obloquy or high fame
Might be their portion — yes, their bones might lie
Whitening, mayhap, beneath the sunny sky,
Yet Fate's most deadly shaft could ne'er undo
The work they had achiev'd. Full well they knew
How great the dangers that now o'er them lower,
Yet, gratitude and joy, in that proud hour,
Unmixed were theirs, as on the shore they stood,
Upon the borders of the dark vast wood,
Within whose sheltering shade, they camped that night;
Then ere the cloud-wrapped east was tinged with light,
The two retraced their slow and toilsome way,
And reached their comrades on the second day.


And now began that conflict stern and long,
While man's most deadly foes around them throng,
And follow in their wake. Famine and cold,
Heat, nakedness, and weariness untold
All met them, in gaunt pitiless array,
Yet, each with desperate strife, they kept at bay.
They had miscalculated time and strength,
With scant food, long marches, till at length
Their camels all had perished, saving two;
Daily, their lagging footsteps slower grew,
From morn till night, they walked with stiff'ning limbs,
Weary and faint, beneath the scorching beams
That o'er them beat. Anon the way grew wet,
And heaven was darkened, with the armies met
Of sable clouds, above the dark still woods
Which, even under nature's gentlest moods,
Looked stern and sombre in their changeless green,
Varied by leafless trees in gaunt groups seen;
Bare skeleton forms, with each twisted limb,
Seeming to whisper of some secret grim, —
Some awful deed, of savage bloody crime,
Whose mem'ry clung and haunted, through all time
The spot that witnessed, and the trees whose shade
A sheltering covert, for the deed had made.
Rising at times into a shuddering moan,
Then passing, in a wailing monotone
The wind crept coldly over them, through days
And nights of chill discomfort. A grey haze
Wrapped earth and sky. Their clothes in wretched rags
Now hung around them, and as each day drags
O'er them in its wearying hours, their stores wax less;
Yet being confident, their dire distress
Would be relieved, when they the spot should gain
Where succour waited them, despite their pain,
Their want and weariness, their souls with hope
Were still upheld, albeit now they cope
With foes that daily wax more fierce and strong,
As they wax weaker. Ah, what dark fears throng
At times through each sad mind, as each long day
Found them more worn and helpless!


At length Gray
Lags wearily behind. He strives in vain
To struggle on, till overcome with pain
One morn he speechless sank, with failing breath;
There was no need to whisper, “This is death!”
There was no need to practise secret wiles,
No need to hide the truth with feignëd smiles.
The gum-trees' branches o'er them darkly droop,
A gauntly haggard, weak, and lonely group —
There were no fretful murmurs, tears, nor sighs,
But yet they feared to meet each other's eyes;
Over them an appalling silence fell,
And loneliness, of which no words may tell.
It was a calm, clear morning, long and loud
Rose the glad notes of birds, with brows low bow'd
The Explorers sat; while sad thoughts of the past —
Of far distant homes, come hurrying fast;
Of those peaceful mornings, when light broke
Softly through folding curtains, as they woke
With joy to find another day begun,
And dew gemm'd meadows glistening in the sun —
Thoughts of each well-known haunt, and early friend —
Then of the fond face that was wont to bend
O'er them at nights, when wearied with glad play
They sank to dreamless slumber. O those gay,
Unclouded days, when mind and body droop
Beneath Fate's darkest frown, how do they troop
Through the worn soul, and bid the past anew
Its blossoms o'er our rugged pathway strew.
Ay, like the rainbow, spanning a dark sky
And flushing gloomiest clouds with radiant dye,
Such mem'ries come, with a God-given power,
To soothe the spirit through the darkest hour.


There, as the creeping shadows eastward lay,
The long sore wearied soul had pass'd away.
And now the sorrow-stricken, worn-out band
Perform the last sad rites with trembling hand;
They laid him gently, in his dreamless sleep,
Where the sad sheaoak's shade would o'er him creep
Through sunny peaceful days, and where afar
The curlew's notes would hail the evening star.
There was no epitaph, nor flower, nor stone
To mark his place of rest. The fitful moan
Of the night breezes through the ghostly woods,
Above which solitude unbroken broods,
Rose like a dirge above that lonely grave;
The moonbeams stole, as through a solemn nave,
O'er stately trees, through which the grave starlight
Falls dimly round it, through the stirless night;
When summer winds the sheaoak's branches kiss,
They seem to sigh, “Wanderer, rest in peace!”

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