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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 Fourth

Unruffled, night's mysterious curtain hung,
Till in the east its great calm folds were flung
By rising beams aside. Like a young face
Upon which grief has left no sign or trace,
The early light stole through the gloom and mist
Brightening softly in the dusky east,
Until it spread into the deepening dawn
Which onward crept, like to a timid fawn
That leaves the covert of great solemn trees
And runs, half startled by a straying breeze.
Wave after wave the glorious light roll'd on,
Till in a panic night's last shade had flown;
And freshly jubilant, another day
Rose on the world, as joyous and as gay
As when primeval light dawned on the earth,
And choirs of sinless spirits hailed its birth.
Gladly the dancing sunrays danced and flew
Over the great still forests, that now grew
Vocal with chirp of insects, song of birds,
Which rose to heaven like adoring words,
From Nature's pure and ever holy shrine,
To Him, the Great Creator, Lord Divine.
The night has fled and it is day again!
The darkest sorrow and the deepest pain
That ever crush'd man's heart, or bowed his head,
No shadow on the joyous morn may spread,
Nor dim the brightness of the great glad sun,
Until his tireless radiant course is run.
But who can tell the deep and marvellous power
Borne on the wings of the fresh morning hour,
To heal and soothe the souls by anguish bowed,
When the awakening rush of life, loud
Fresh and joyous, scareth dark fears away,
And gaunt despair is cheated of its prey,
When with returning light, fresh hope is given
To lead the erring soul anew to Heaven?
With what a gush of joyous thankfulness
Do happy souls the light unclouded bless!
Childhood, with merry laughter runs to play,
Age, bows its head in gratitude to pray:
Like costly incense from a temple rare,
The sounds of happy tones float on the air.


But leave we now the busy haunts of life,
The scenes of high ambition, joy and strife,
And stand once more within the forest dim;
Draw near this tree, with its o'er-arching limb
Bending across a covert made of boughs,
Through which the restless wind now moans and soughs,
As if it roamed the woods in wordless pain
Never to find a resting-place again.
Hark! is not that a long and faint-drawn moan,
As of a soul in anguish all alone?
What being crouches in this strange abode?
Is that a human form? Pitiful God!
What eye may gaze unmoved upon that face,
Which in each haggard line bears the gaunt trace
Of famine and despair? The new-born light
Fell on his aching eyes, and from the sight
He turned with a great moan, for on his soul
An awful darkness lay, which could not roll
Away, like the dark morning mists that cling
Until the birds their griefless matins sing,
Then pass in golden light. At midnight's hour
On the foregoing night, sleep's magic power
Had stilled his grief. As once across the sea,
Whose shrieking waves in seething fury flee,
Christ's voice arose, bidding the tempest cease,
So sleep, to his tost soul had brought great peace.
And as he slept the last sleep which in life
Should close his eyes, the agony and strife,
The awful solitude at length seemed past;
Want, and each earthly pain aside was cast.
As though the mariner who, long forlorn,
Has struggled on a raft, with watching worn,
Should swiftly pass from a tumultuous ocean
And reach at length, with strangely placid motion
Some blessèd zone of never-ruffled calm,
With clustering fruits and flow'rs, and waving palm,
Where brightly arching over hill and glade
Stretch summer skies, unsaddened by a shade;
So now, sweet visions of his early days
Lulled his vext heart to rest. Again he strays
Amid the scenes unto his boyhood dear, —
Beside the winding stream, limpid and clear,
Upon whose banks, flecked with sweet English flowers,
He had been wont to stray through sunny hours.
He weaves those splendid visions once again
Which rise to mock us, when the deep dull pain
Of disappointment and of failure wring
The hearts, to which no after hours can bring
The bounding hopefulness of those blest years
That sped, free from all carking cares and fears;
When the bright future loomed, mystic and grand
As mountain peaks, that in the distance stand,
With a warm flush upon the snow-clad heights
That pierce the clouds and shimmer in the lights
Of the uprising sun. He sees once more
His childhood's happy home. Like the weird lore
But half remembered of an alien race,
Or a stray thought of a long-vanished face,
The mem'ry of his utter loneliness,
And bitter hours of want and dire distress
Flitted across his mind, again to fade
Like shadows, that stray summer clouds have made
When flitting o'er the sun. O wondrous power
Of dreams! Thus in the last and bitterest hour
Of life, to recreate the ghostly past,
And dull-eyed misery away to cast
From the lone heart, where joy reigns once again,
And happy tones, without a note of pain
Fall like celestial music on the ear,
And banish every grief and lurking fear.


O lightly breathe, ye Winds, that pass along,
And softly sing, ye Birds, your morning song,
And droop, ye dark-leaved Branches down between
The sun, and his worn eyes, as a soft screen,
That so his soul may quietly pass away
Into the endless light of endless day,
And he may waken from his dreams of bliss,
To find them vanished, in high Heaven's own peace;
As the soft radiance of a starlit sky
Is lost in perfect light, when seen on high,
The mighty sun begins his tireless race.
But see! A straying sunbeam smites his face —
His bosom rises in a long-drawn sigh,
His eyes unclose, and with a startled cry
He strives to rise. With doubting anguished eyes,
He sees the sombre woods, the smiling skies:
And he is dying thus, then, all alone!
What wonder that he turned, with a great moan,
From the glad light, that seemed to mock him there,
And overwhelm his soul with such despair
As few hearts may conceive — no tongue may speak.
In vain the mind for images may seek
To picture forth his doom, whose lot was such,
That misery could not add a single touch
To make it more forlorn.
“My God, it was a dream!”
Wills whispered slowly, and the last faint gleam
Of hope of rescue died within his breast,
And his eyes closed again, as if in rest.
But heart and brain throbbed with a great dull pain,
Unbearable as that caused by the chain
Which binds a captive to the dungeon's wall,
When floating high, he hears the fearless call
Of comrades gathering to the battle-field,
Where they may fall in death, but never yield!
And this then was the end. He was to die
Without a soul to heed his moan or sigh?
Yet what of that? Why should man whine and cower,
And raise a piteous wail, because the hour
That frees his soul approaches, which must cast
The stale inanities of life at last
Aside? Alone! Yes, wholly, but what then?
Still lonelier they, who, for their fellow-men,
Have given life, and all in life most dear;
Yet have been doom'd, ere death approached, to hear
The watchword that should herald Freedom's light,
Serve as the watch-word for Tyrannic might.
It was not loneliness, nor death, nor pain;
It was, that these would all be met in vain:
It was not that the rapturous acclaim,
The passing noisy rout, which men name fame,
Must be for aye forgone. Who on the brink
Of eternity, would dare pause to think
Of the small, vain distinctions, which men deem
The highest gifts of Heaven? The first faint gleam
That reaches us of the unclouded light,
Within which spirits pass to infinite
Perfection, must perforce to us reveal,
That the long worshipp'd gods, we deem'd could heal
The heart's worst griefs, are monsters of dark lust,
Low lying, Dagon-like, prone in the dust,
Though we have placed them high above God's ark,
With impious hands, when serving in the dark
Unholy temples, where the world's vain throng
Bows down with adulation's false, loud song.
It was not failure, but that the success
They had achieved in spite of fate, was less
To be desired than failure. Of what avail
Were all their pangs? Like to an idle tale
Their names would pass away, while none might know
The agonies of suffering, and the woe
Through which they fought their way and gained the shore
Where foot of man had never stood before.


The anguish prostrated his weakened frame;
Unconscious he lay, until there came
A strangely vivid vision to his soul.
Over those pathless wastes, across the roll
Of the Atlantic, to his native land
Fancy had borne him. Then on every hand
He saw great cities, with their ceaseless roar
Of restless life, and as he gazed, before
Him rose, a piteous and awful sight:
Of human beings, whom the day's sweet light
Seemed but to mock with its untarnished beam
As it fell round them. They were bent and grim
With care and want, and neither fear nor hope
Seemed much to move them. They had ceased to cope
With the great crushing burdens, that were laid
Upon them from their birth. Then half afraid
Of those dark sullen faces, whose dim eyes
Were never turned in hope to God's glad skies
He passed aside, until upon his ear
The hum of countless voices, rising near
Fell like the frenzied ocean's muffled roar,
When wreathed with foam it dashes on the shore.
Onward it came, the panting, eager crowd
In feverish haste, with plaudits hoarse and loud:
Unlike the sightseers who went of old
To see the Baptist, those had sheen of gold
And stones most precious on which to rest
Their eager gaze. Onward they crush'd and prest,
And ever louder swelled the high acclaim,
And as Wills gazed he heard one loud exclaim:—
“We are the loyalest people upon earth.”
He was a stout, smug Citizen, with no dearth
Of shining trinkets on his ample front;
Long had he rushed, and shouted in the brunt
Of this most loyal fray. Now, flushed and warm,
He stood to breath and rest. Then on that swarm
Of women shame bereft, and men unmanned,
Wills looked with curious eyes, and as he scanned
He saw one with a hungry wolfish look
Mutter deep curses, then another crook
His body in obeisance, whose fierce smile
Seemed but assumed in fear and deepest guile:
While hundreds there, in stolid apathy,
Which was, in truth, most pitiful to see,
Did as they saw those nearest to them do,
As though they scarcely cared, and scarcely knew
What that should be. Blessings or curses deep —
To cringe to greatness, or its dwellings heap
In ruins to the ground. Like a machine
Which while guided by a hand (that in the din
Of fiercely-flying wheels, is firm and strong)
Will work beneficently, but once set wrong,
(Either by having in its springs some flaw,
Some mad inversion of great Nature's law;
Or by the meddling of an unskilled hand,)
Will work remorseless mischief, slip each band
And whirl to swift destruction. Now such cry
“All Hail!” because no voice shouts “Crucify!”


Denser the crowd became, more loud the cries,
Until they seem'd to rend the vaulted skies;
And see the cortege slowly nearing now,
And see that queenly form, with noble brow
Weighed with the pressure, which a crown must leave
When rightly worn, with lines which those who grieve
For a loss Time may never heal must bear.
A face and brow, that through all time will wear
In a great nation's galleries and homes, —
In humblest hamlets, beneath stateliest domes,
The revered impress of a true pure soul.
The years may bring strange changes as they roll,
And Time will doubtless smite with wan decay
The glory of earth's greatest. What to-day
Commands deep homage, from each lip and heart,
May ere the century's close, be set apart
From active life, like a rare ornament,
Too costly for prosaic use. Men bent
On stern utility, may fail to see
Why to high pomp, mankind should bow the knee;
But while the higher sanctities of life
Are held beyond all price, while in the strife
Of clashing interests, the sacred name
Of a reproachless wife and mother claim
Our deepest love, thy name, O peerless Queen!
Will live with undimmed lustre. Though ne'er seen
By us, thy distant subjects, have we not
Rejoiced and sorrowed with thee? In each spot,
That proudly claims thy laws and element sway,
Wherever men lift up the heart to pray,
Is not thy name heard on the faltering tongue?
'Tis not the splendour of a crown that flung
Such halo round thy head! 'Tis not the light
Of a great throne, that smites our dazzled sight
It is the record of the noble deeds —
The story of the true great life, which needs
No borrowed glow, to gain the homage deep
Of all true hearts, that in the world would keep
With jealous care, upon the loftiest shrine
The Faith and Purity that e'er were thine.


Such were the thoughts that as he stood to gaze
Upon his Queen moved Wills, when he would raise
The lusty cheer, his eyes were dim and wet,
And in his dream, when the Queen's calm gaze met
His own he prayed, “May God's high holy peace
Rest on thy royal head.” Then a low hiss
Of mingled pain and hate fell on his ear,
And when he turned, he saw one lying near
Crushed by hurrying feet, and as he bent
To raise the prostrate form, the people went
Shouting upon their way, till in the press
He lost his footing and in dire distress
He struggled 'mid the crowd, till he was seen
And promptly aided by the Citizen
Who had stood to rest. “My friend, I pray beware
'Mid such a mob.” “Thanks for thy kindly care,”
Wills made reply. And both then stood aside
From the great throng which surged as doth the tide
In swift resistless haste. Then as they ran
And cried, Wills said, “Yon wretched fallen man
Will be crushed unto death.” “Beyond a doubt,”
The Citizen said, and then he turned about,
And searched his pockets with a wrathful brow, —
“Thus are they served, who fain would venture now
To play the Good Samaritan. My chain
Is snapt, my watch is gone. 'Twas worse than vain
To venture in the midst of such a mob,
Whose only calling is to beg and rob.”
“But the poor wretch?” — “Yes, yes, it might have been;
An oft-repeated trick — O, I have seen
So much of such imposters. Friend, you seem
A stranger here, I would not you should deem
That I speak thus from callousness of heart,
Or hatred of the masses. For my part
I patronize most charities extant,
And heartily abominate the cant
So much in vogue, of speaking with deep scorn
Of charitable schemes. Though these men born
In abject misery, and bred in crime,
Are hopeless subjects, in what happy clime
Do we find so much done as in our own
To lessen wretchedness? It is unknown
How much is yearly spent by Church and State
And individuals, to alleviate
The sin and want that in our midst abound.”


While thus the Citizen spoke, Wills look'd around
Upon dark haunts of vice and gaunt despair —
Foul alleys, where one breath of God's sweet air
Would seem as wondrous as an angel's face —
Courts reeking with impurities, where no trace
Of humanizing culture might be found;
Sickening obscenity the only sound
That met the ear. Unclad children in troops,
Unsexed women in strange unkempt groups
With reckless eyes. Men to whom crushing need
Clung like a curse, from which no help could rid
Their lives.
“O friend,” said Wills, “of what avail
Are all your vaunted schemes, if the deep wail
Of breadless children upon every hand
Smites on the ear, and if through all the land
Such men as these are found? Men from whose brow
Has fled all trace of human worth, till now
They seem no better than grim brutes of prey
Who lurk in ambush till the light of day
Has sped.”
“And yet what hand has wrought them wrong?”
“O give good heed, that the unthinking throng
Which has been bred in vice for ages back,
And whose eyes have been dimm'd from birth, by lack
Of food, and all that sweetens life, should cease
To make such clear distinctions. If they miss
All the God-given rights of all mankind,
And stagger dumbly, with the weights which bind
Their fates so cruelly, to the cruel past;
Then wonder not, if they should rend at last,
With callous heart, and grimy, clutching hand,
The ancient landmarks of an ancient land!”
“Nay, a just Heaven will such woe prevent,
Through all the Bibles and the tracts we sent,
In lavish numbers, to each haunt of sin.”
“Did ye, in truth, expect from these to glean
A plenteous harvest of fair lives and deeds?
What, that a seed dropp'd 'mid the rankest weeds
(A seed which learned men, in every age,
Have taught us to believe, needs wisdom sage,
And tender culture, and a world of care,
To make it bloom, even in regions fair),
Haphazard, in a sterile, untill'd field,
Should struggle into healthful life, and yield
Most precious flower and fruit! False, false belief,
And falser Prophets, who, to heal the grief
Of those who grope in misery, stand and cry
Upon the watch-tower, ‘God's own peace is nigh
To all mankind.' Complacent messengers,
Who prate statistics, and would silence fears,
By quoting glibly-worded mission tales,
From Southern Islands, and from fertile vales
In great Cathay.”
“Is it not right and wise
That we should succour those whose country lies
In idolatrous darkness?”
“Ay, and speed
To swarthy tribes, because, forsooth, our creed
Says that the Goblin of eternal fire
Must be the portion of each child and sire,
Till they adopt the formulas of our faith,
And cherish our pet dogmas to the death,
While in our midst Ignorance, Crime, and Want
(Fierce blood-hounds), follow ever, with mad pant,
To mangle and destroy the helpless souls
That perish in our midst. And time still rolls,
As though it heeded nought, in its swift flight,
Of the brute wrongs that, in high Heaven's sight,
Crush unto death men's lives, “O Lord, how long?”
The wailing cry still rises from a throng
Innumerable, as the futile tears
That Misery has shed, through countless years.


In the far past, men crush'd by tyrannous wrong,
Looked for the time when the exulting song
Of ransom'd souls should rise, where Pagan rites
Were won't to soil the earth, and through long nights
And days of terror, when the fierce, mad light
Of Persecution, rose to vanquish Right,
Men braved its deadly glare without a fear,
Deeming the blessed hour was drawing near
When in the faith of the ascended Lord
The nations should rejoice with one accord,
And the grand tenets of a pure belief
Should triumph o'er oppression, heal the grief
Of earth's down-trodden sons. But, alas! now
The holiest emblem gleams upon the brow
Of the stern Despot; and the darkest deed
Of fierce injustice and rapacious greed,
Wrought by the hand of crown'd victorious Might,
Is hailed with loud Te Deums in God's sight.
Men glibly talk of peace and Christian love, —
Of modern progress, and yet far above
The grandest efforts of philanthropy,
And noblest sacrifice for good, we see
Brute force enthroned.”
Then the Citizen, “You seem in truth, my friend,
To be most captious. To what doth tend
All that you now have urged? What, are we then
No juster, kindlier, than the ruthless men
Of barbarous ages? And are all our high
Unselfish charities a painted lie?
And our vast schemes for good a whited tomb
Most fair without, but full of charnel gloom
Within?”


To which Wills sadly made reply,
“Once in the trackless bush, I heard a cry,
That thrilled my soul with ne'er forgotten dread;
Again it rent the air, and then I sped
Unto the spot, from whence the cry had come;
And since that hour, amid the noisiest hum,
The densest concourse of the densest street,
Where eager men pass on with hurrying feet,
I seem to see the sight which met my view
In that lone spot. Where the slim saplings grew
So thickly intertwisted, that a ray
Of sunlight scarce was to be seen, there lay
A dying haggard man, in whose gaunt face,
With its wild pleading eyes, was left no trace
Of reason. A lone stranger, he had lost
His way, when he would fain have crost
A patch of whip-stick scrub. Almost within
A stone-throw of relief, being hemmed in
As by a living tomb, reason gave way
And with great moans hopelessly fierce he lay
Before me, dying there, alone and mad.
It was so strangely, pitifully sad,
That his face to my sight, through years has clung,
And through each changing scene, his cry has rung
Upon my ears. And thus in the same way
Where'er in this great land, my feet should stray;
Those want-pinched faces, with their hungry eyes
And strange appalling hopelessness would rise
To haunt me. Ay, though all the bounty given
By every man and woman under Heaven,
Should rise before me, high as Babel's Tower,
Still would I seem to see, the forms that cower
In homeless wretchedness, on bitter nights,
On doorsteps, and in arches where the lights
Of great cities shine not. As if by stealth,
In the gay haunts of Fashion and of Wealth,
Thronged with fair women, dowered with ev'ry grace
Of Nature — even there before my face
Would rise those half-clad forms, with tangled hair
And with unholy eyes, whose reckless glare
Would fill me with disquiet. In every haunt
Sacred to Art and Learning, lowering gaunt
With restless hands, still I would seem to see
Men without faith or love, looking at me
With a fierce consciousness of wrong and power
Intoxicating them.”


With mocking voice
The Citizen said, “How to make them rejoice,
And happy in this world and in the next,
You doubtless can disclose. Pray, choose your text,
And air your theory.”
Then Wills, in low
Sad tones, but with a rising flush and glow
Of kindling hope: “I have no theory
Nor text to choose, but England yet must see
Where her true greatness lies — Not in the fleet
That proudly sweeps the seas, when nations meet
In war — Not in her revenue, nor trade,
Nor wealth, though these may doubtless long have made
The sons of Mammon worship her — No, each
Is valueless, unless our help can reach
The realms of pauperism, haunts of crime.
O England! in the dark and troublous time
That in the future looms, and year by year
Is drawing nearer, fraught with woe and fear —
When Monarchies will reel, and the hoarse cry
Of unbelief and Anarchy, on high
Will rise, be this thy self-appointed task,
To war with vice and need, and to unmask
The cruelty, black treachery, deep hate
And barbèd malice, that e'er lie in wait,
Draped with hypocrisy's fair seeming robe
In the most Christian countries of the globe.
Care for thy children with a parent's care
Not blinded by the smoke and fiery glare
Of Avarice's vast forges. Dost thou lack
(As thy wave-girded shores, lack'd centuries back
When the Mayflower, from thy green cliffs sped,)
For thy children, a breathing space and bread?
Ah! there are boundless fertile realms that lie
(Under thy sway) beneath a sunny sky,
O'er which the century-aged trees have shed
A stirless shade, while years unnoted fled.
Across those realms, my wearied feet have trod
Exploring that vast land. I thank my God
That neither want nor pain, nor fear of death
Marred that great enterprise. Plenty and health
In those still regions, in that gold-seamed strand
Are waiting, for Toil's willing heart and hand.
Ay, as I see wan men and women gasp
In foetid alleys, in the ruthless grasp
Of penury and disease, and as I see
The eyes of breadless infants, fix'd on me,
My heart o'erflows with gratitude, that I
Have open'd up a realm, where the faint sigh
And plaints of hunger never need ascend
To vex the sapphire skies, that brightly bend
Above great woods.
Where the grey emu roams,
Great golden harvests, and quiet happy homes
Will yet be seen — the vine around the door,
Large udder'd cows at pasture, fruit-trees hoar
With heavy blossoms; wooded vales that ring
With the glad tones of men, who work and sing,
Low answered by the mother voice that croons
Soft lullabies, in blest content, through noons
And eves of slumbrous warmth o'er the sweet face
Of babes. Thank God, there's room and breathing space
For millions there, o'er whom want never more
Need tyrannize, who, on that new-found shore
May live, a race, free, happy, and content,
The offspring of the men, who long were bent
Beneath a yoke, more curst than that which weigh'd
Africa's sons — ”
Upon the air there stray'd
The harsh discordant cry of some strange bird
(Which in those lonesome woods might oft be heard),
Breaking bright Fancy's spell. Wills woke again,
His spirit freed from grief, his limbs from pain.
The joyous birds that half distraught with mirth
Had sung all day, were well nigh still. The earth,
Languid with intense heat, lay like a child
That wearied, sinks to rest. White clouds lay piled
Against the purple sky, in the far west,
Like a great fleet, that, bound in waveless rest,
Might lie becalmed in breezeless Southern seas.
The topmost branches of the dark-leaved trees
Were crown'd with burnished gold — smit with the beams
Of the low sun. Fairer than childhood's dreams,
Or the enchanted realms of Eastern lore,
Gleamed the broad west; as if the inner door
Of the eternal dwelling had been flung
Wide open there. A waveless ocean hung
Of gleaming jaspar, o'er the placid sky.
And where the sun was swiftly drawing nigh
The chambers of his rest, vast vistas spread
Of such refulgent light, as might be shed
By the great presence of the Holy One,
Before whose brow, the light of moon and sun
Wax faint and dim. Saving the drowsy hum
Of insect life, nor cries nor voices come
To break the quiet. Silence as of the tomb
Reignèd around. Silence in the great gloom
Of those forests, wrapped in sunless shade;
Silence over each plain and grassy glade,
Over each trackless range and shaggy height,
And sombre gully, where the mid-day's light
Scarce dares to come. Silence in that lone place
Where the last sunbeams fell upon a face
Wan with the hue of death, wan with the throng
Of rushing thoughts, yet lit up with the strong
Clear fervour of a deathless faith. “No dream
Was this,” he murmured, while the dying gleam
Of the faint light, fell round his lifted brow
In a halo. “I thank Thee, God, that now
I feel and know, I do not die in vain;
And, knowing this, my loss I count but gain.”
Slowly the words were spoken, while the eyes
Of clear calm grey were lifted to the skies.
What need had he, the great heroic soul,
As death's chill shadow o'er him slowly stole,
Of priestly ministrant, or priestly voice,
To bid him at approaching joys rejoice?
To speak with triumph of unfading palms,
And of the rapturous, unending psalms —
Of the radiant crown upon each brow
That sin nor anguish never more might bow —
Of the unsullied streets of shining gold,
The soft voluptuous tale, so often told,
As if such images could clearly show
The mystic joys that for immortals flow?
From him the deeper meaning was not hid
Which lies beneath the tales that children need
To shadow forth the glorious after-life
That breaks upon the soul, when the dull strife
And the petty aims of our ambition
Have past away, like an unfounded vision.


In that great solitude, the sun's last ray
Fell softly on the silent form, that lay
With a still face, turned to the glowing west,
And hands enfolded, evermore at rest.

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