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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 Third

Three times has night her soothing shadow thrown
Over the world's unrest, thrice has night flown
At the approach of day, since from the tomb
Where they had laid their comrade, in the gloom
Of a great forest, the Explorers went,
Still toiling on their way. Infirm and bent
They totter'd on. Their eyes had become dim, —
They spoke but in hoarse whispers, and each limb
Was growing nerveless. Thus on the fourth day
Since Gray had died they still press on their way,
And though the mid-day's beams around them beat
They do not pause to rest. Unto their feet
Hope lent fresh energy, for pain and grief
Were banished with the thought that now relief
And succour would be theirs ere day was done.
Yes, they would rest in safety ere the sun
Would set. Like those who mid the sea
Might hear the waves over their wreck'd ship flee,
Yet through the foaming mist and angry roar
Discern far off a peaceful shelt'ring shore,
Which, when once reached, will succour sure afford,
And nourish them until strength is restored.
So on they went, hopeful though struggling sore,
Nearing the spot which held new life in store.
Then kindling joy lit up their faces wan,
And wakening hope, as eagerly they scan
The boundless woods that there before them lie —
(Great, silent realms, beneath a silent sky),
For traces of the comrades, who await
Their long-delayed approach. Forlorn their state
As was that of the Jews, when with sad gaze,
They looked across the desert's reddish haze,
To catch a glimpse of the fair Promis'd Land,
Gleaming like Eden o'er the sun-parch'd sand.

“Ah, now I see a tent plainly from here,”
Cried Burke, at last, in accents loud and clear,
And pointed forward with a trembling hand.
Then the three, breathless with emotion, stand.
Were their eyes dimm'd by the sand-laden air,
Or did the distance mock with vacant stare?
Ah, no; it must not be! They gaz'd anew,
And to the spot in utter silence drew.
They could not speak, each breath was a great sob;
Each heart beat loudly, with a bursting throb.
The snowy speck, which, like a phantom, rose
In the dim distance, now less vivid grows,
Until at last, it wholly fades away,
And they can neither weep, nor speak, nor pray,
Until they gain the spot, with tottering feet.
The sun's declining rays around them beat,
And they are faint and blind, with a great fear.
Ah God! they are deserted — lo, see here
The letters are fresh cut upon the tree —
“Dig,” and they dug, only alas! to see
That they had sealed their agonizing fate,
By being a few fleeting hours too late.
Burke for a moment longer look'd around,
Then with a wild deep cry fell to the ground,
No shame to manhood, that he wept aloud,
While Wills and King with tearless grief were bow'd.
What use in idle tears or words, and yet,
Who could repress the words of wild regret,
When in that fateful and soul-crushing hour,
Helpless, forsaken, by the tree they cower?
If Brahe had but stayed another day —
If they had risked no needless vain delay —
But he had gone, and they were left alone,
And Heaven was deaf to piteous cry and moan;
The bitterness seemed more than that of death,
As they sat speechless there, with failing breath,
And bow'd their heads, in wordless deep despair,
When they had seen the fierce unpitying glare,
Which the vast wilderness around them wore,
While even hope seemed dead for evermore.

As though the mariners, who had seen afar
A succouring isle, across the waves' fierce war,
Should struggle wildly, straining every nerve
To gain the shore, nor e'en a hair-breadth swerve
From the right course, though wild waves roar around,
And they are deafened, with the awful sound
Of seething billows, that with dirge-like ring
A hoarse wailing requiem, seem to sing,
Till by the rushing waters they are thrown
Upon the isle, only to find it strown
With the sad relics of a lonely band,
Who erst in vain sought refuge on that strand —
To find great rocks above the ocean's swell,
Whose barren peaks of parching sun rays tell;
A drear abode, all bare of herb and tree,
Swept by the billows of that savage sea,
Where they might cling to life a few days more,
Until the waves should wash them from the shore.
O cruel fate: O strange and awful hour,
When life's most dreaded ills above us lower,
When all the joys and hopes of former years
Leave us but ashes strewn with bitter tears;
When from the future that we deemed so bright,
And saw encircled with celestial light,
We turn away with horror-stricken cries,
With shuddering fear and heavy tearless eyes;
When the high purpose of a life is cast,
(Smitten like Jonah's gourd by one fell blast,)
Prone to the earth, beneath each careless foot —
When the fair blossoms wither, that had root
Within our inmost heart, and we are left
Naked, unsheltered, of all aid bereft.
Such was the hour which found the Explorers bent
In wordless anguish. Strength, provisions, spent —
The meagre store of food that had been left
But mocked their state and need. Yet thus bereft,
Deserted, by the men upon whose faith
They had relied as comrades, true to death —
The glorious spirit that is found to stand
By man, through seasons when no mortal hand
May bring relief — whose radiant presence shone
Through the far ages, where'er misery's moan
Unheeded rose — she who, with fearless eyes
And guiding hand, uplifted to the skies,
Leads the crush'd soul from its great agony,
With glowing visions, passing fair to see,
Of the fair hours the future holds in store —
The angel Hope, who with her saintly lore
And radiant wings, which earth may never soil,
Still faithful to the human heart, through toil
And suffering, stood beside them now,
And whispered comfort, with her pure broad brow
Circled with heavenly light.
Thus once again
When they had rested, and the numbing pain
That bound their limbs had partly passed away,
With faltering steps they went upon their way.
Familiar is the tale as one long told
Round hearths in the old country, when the cold,
Keen blast of a harsh northern clime, without,
Rises in troubled moans. In growing doubt
We waited for the coming of the band
That had gone forth to traverse the great land
Our fathers made their own. We waited through
Long days of dark suspense, until hope grew
Into a sickening fear. Still they came not
For whom we looked and waited, and their lot
During those cruel days was all unknown —
We waited till the lingering days had flown
Through which they looked for succour all in vain;
While still, despite their agony and pain,
They struggled weakly on, — from day to day,
Hoping against all hope. Twice from the way
Which would have led them to their fellow-men,
Their weakness and gaunt famine drove them. Then
In their hour of deepest need and dire distress,
The dusky sons of those wilds round them press,
With gentle pity, and with kindly aid
For a few passing days.
Within the shade,
Of the great trees, which spread beside a creek
Where nardoo grew in plenty, for a week
They camped. Then he, the hero-hearted Wills,
Grew weak and helpless, and as each day steals
Its dreary course along, his life and strength
Are ebbing fast away, until at length
He can no longer rise, no longer cope
With hunger or with pain. Now their chief hope
Of succour rested on the savage race,
Whose tribes in those great wilds, in war and chase
Are wont to waken echoes, although now
No sign of their approach was seen. The sough
Of the low wind when murmuring through the trees,
The cries of some lone bird that swiftly flees
Unto its nest, beside a great still marsh,
Are all that break the quiet. Then keen and harsh
The night-wind smote upon them, through the hours
Of the cold nights. Fierce rays and driving showers
In turn assailed them, while their garments hung
In thin worn rags. And still to life they clung,
While daily Burke and King the nardoo-seed
Gather and crush for food.
“Men soon must speed
To us with help,” Burke hopeful still would say,
“And even now, Wright must be on the way,
And may arrive at any hour.” Alas!
For the deluding hopes, which as days pass,
Still fainter wax. Then, when the light had flown
One sombre evening, and great clouds lay strown
In troubled masses, over east and west,
Wills, who had seemed all day as if opprest
By an unspoken grief, looked on the light
Of the pale moon, and murmur'd, “This one night
Longer mine eyes upon my fellow-man
May rest.” He turned his face, then sadly wan,
In silence to his comrade. Ere Burke laid
Him down to rest that night, Wills slowly said,
“Upon the morrow, when the morning breeze,
Warm with the sun's rise, passes through the trees,
Burke, you must leave me, while you yet have strength
To seek for help. Yes, friend, the hour at length
Has come that bids us part — nay, hear me speak;
It is our last one chance. Worn out and weak,
I feel my life is ebbing fast away;
And I must wax more helpless day by day,
Unless soon succoured; therefore, for my sake,
Should you at once, the journey undertake;
For life is sweet, and I would fain still cling
To it, O friend.”
As when the night winds bring
Across the seething, fiercely troubled waves,
Faint signals of distress, from those whose graves
Await them in the deep — to friends who stand
Helpless to save, upon the rock-bound land —
So fell those words upon the sinking heart
Of him who heard them. Silently apart
He turned, and musing for a long sad while
He paced beneath the trees. Faint as the smile
That lingers wanly on a dying face,
The moonbeams fell upon the still vast space
That lay in sombre shadows on each side.
“It must not be, — whatever may betide
I cannot leave him thus to die alone” —
Burke bent his head with a low bitter moan
Of helpless anguish. Oh to see that form
Wasted, unsheltered, from the sun and storm —
Intently gazing on it, Burke stood long
With tearless wistful eyes. Then mid the throng
Of sad thoughts, full of bitter doubt and fear
Which filled his mind, this one rose sharp and clear —
“Though I should now remain beside him, he
Must die, unless soon rescued; upon me
Then rests his only hope of life” —
Wills woke
Here suddenly, slowly, half rose, then spoke
In a low faltering tone — “Ah! you are yet
Beside me then — nay, think not I regret
The purpose I have formed, but as I slept
I dreamt that you had gone.” Burke quietly crept
Nearer to Wills, but answered not. The sky
Was overcast; the wind rose cold and high,
And keenly swept through the frail tenement
Of rustling boughs, beneath which they sat bent
And silent. Then Wills quietly spoke again:
“It avails not that we conceal the pain
And anxious fear which must weigh on each heart
When soon in sad uncertainty we part —
Each greatly worn and weak. Let us not seek
To hide our thoughts, as those who dare not speak
Nor whisper them, from overwhelming shame.”

“Oh, but I fear, my boy, that though our name
Cannot be linked with aught unworthy those
Chosen for a great task, that as time shows
What fell disasters met us on the way,
There will be no lack of those who'll say —
‘Poor fellows! one was rash, the other young;
When the fate of such an undertaking hung
On such a pair, what wonder that success
Did not attend them.' Harsh and merciless
Will be some men's speech. O! I seem to hear
The shallow pratings of those who make clear
The course we should have taken, and the cause
Why danger and distress were ours. The flaws
Of our policy will be passing plain
To the most obtuse intellect. The pain,
The anguish, and the dull wearying care,
Which weighed on us, while none were found to share
Our aims and wishes, in the Exploring band,
That still decreasing, we led through the land —
All may be little heeded, and less known:
To you as unto me, life must have shown
That failure is an error, deem'd by men
More culpable than sin. We know that when
Its shadow falls on man or enterprise,
The qualities, which are lauded to the skies
When allied with success, are in this case
But ground for bitter blame. Few pause to trace
The adventitious accidents which place
The crown upon the victor's brow. The race
We know, is not at all times to the swift,
Yet he who lags behind, need never lift
His eyes with hope to the loud-shouting mob,
Whose plaudits seem to make the great sky throb.
“Ah well, what boots it all, we two alone
Upon this last sad night, need not make moan
As to the world's opinion. You least of all
Whom love of gain, nor fame, could not enthral
From the pursuit of science. For my part
I know that love of fame found in my heart
A favoured resting-place. E'en as a boy
I well remember yet, it was my joy
To hear of doughty deeds, done in old times
By my forefathers in far distant climes.
How often in the rapturous day dreams,
In which the youth of ardent soul, oft seems
To be uplifted from prosaic life,
Have I gone forth, to wage immortal strife —
To win the conqueror's resplendent crown,
And leave my name, embalmed in the renown
That lives in history, and the poet's song,
As one whose life, above the common throng
Was fruitful in great deed, and noble aim!
How oft our early aspirations shame
The records of our life! How oft the prize,
More coveted than aught beneath the skies,
Seems to elude our over-eager hands!

“When grown to man's estate in foreign land
Following a soldier's life I lived. At last
I sought this country. Do you know the past
Rises with a strange vividness to night
Before me. And the events which the flight
Of years has hurried out of mind, again
Seem fresh as scenes of yesterday. How vain
Our dearest hopes at such an hour as this
Appear! Man at the height of earthly bliss
Seems still but the mere puppet of blind chance;
One moment revelling 'mid wine and dance —
The next groping in the charnel-house of grief,
Without a hope, a joy, or a belief,
Beyond a rigid form, which in its shroud
Will never heed the voices, low or loud,
That rise in the hoarse accents of despair
Beside it. Death and pain, and wearying care
Seem ever lurking round man's toilsome way.”

Thus Burke wiled the sad, lingering hours away,
Till he had sunk to sleep. But all that night
Wills lay with throbbing brow awake. The light
Of the returning day now broke the gloom.
Stern and mysterious the great woods loom
Again around. At last the hour drew near
For Burke and King to leave. Undimmed and clear
The sun once more made summer in the sky,
And shadow in the woods. The moments fly
Apace. Doubts crowd anew into Burke's mind —
But on Wills' patient face, calm and resigned,
There was no cloud of fear. Yet in his heart
The thought was strong, that when he now would part
With his two comrades, he would never hear
The sound of human speech again. Burke rose
To go. His pallid cheek more pallid grows.
In vain he strives to speak a last farewell
In quiet and measured words: his low tones fell
And trembled, and at last he looked away;
But all around was strangely blurred and grey.
Then, for some moments as he thus stood there,
The crushing weight of dark and wild despair
Fell on his soul. Love, faith, and trust in God
Were scattered in that hour, like an abode
That safely stands beneath an Alpine rock
Till a great avalanche, with thundering shock
Sweeps it to ruin. Or, as waves might roar
With tidal force across a shore,
Sweeping each ancient landmark from the way,
While naught is heard but cries of birds of prey
That flap their ominous wings above the dead,
Greedily gazing on the banquet spread:
So, hopeless doubt and dark rebellion swept
Over his tortured soul. And still he kept
His wistful eyes fixed on the wilds around,
As though in that last hour, the sight and sound
Of nearing forms might break the dreary blank.
Again his gaze upon his comrade sank:
No aid from God or man was drawing near —
No hand to rescue and no voice to cheer,
And he must thus be left — alone, alone —
Without a soul to heed his dying moan;
Alone with famine, pain, and nakedness;
Alone, in the last hour of dire distress.

At last, Wills softly said, “Delay is vain,
The day is wearing on.” Now once again
Burke grasps his comrade's hand, then turned away
Slowly, as one, that in a deadly fray,
Has been sore smitten, and who fain would creep
Unto some spot, where peaceful shadows sleep,
To hide the pangs of failure and of pain,
Knowing that cry for help must be in vain.
Thus, spirit-broken Burke went on his way,
With faltering steps; but on the third day
After he had left Wills, all strength was spent.
Till the last hour was past, King by him bent.
He died as he had lived — brave, fearless, true:
Naught, save the trees, a shadow o'er him threw;
He lay alone beneath the lonely sky,
Unpall'd, uncoffined. With his last faint sigh,
He breathed a prayer of resignèd faith
Unto his God. And lying thus in death,
King left him, and in awful loneliness
Wandered for many days. But his distress,
His sufferings, and rescue, have been told,
And are well known to all.

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