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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Oceanica: Vol. XXXI. 1876–79.

Introductory to Australasia

A Death in the Bush

By Henry Kendall (1839–1882)

THE HUT was built of bark and shrunken slabs

That wore the marks of many rains, and showed

Dry flaws, wherein had crept and nestled rot.

Moreover, round the bases of the bark

Were left the tracks of flying forest-fires,

As you may see them on the lower bole

Of every elder of the native woods.

For, ere the early settlers came and stocked

These wilds with sheep and kine, the grasses grew

So that they took the passing pilgrim in,

And whelmed him, like a running sea, from sight.

And therefore, through the fiercer summer months,

While all the swamps were rotten, while the flats

Were baked and broken; when the clayey rifts

Yawned wide, half choked with drifted herbage, past

Spontaneous flames would burst from thence, and race

Across the prairies all day long.

At night

The winds were up, and then with fourfold speed,

A harsh gigantic growth of smoke and fire

Would roar along the bottoms, in the wake

Of fainting flocks of parrots, wallaroos,

And wildered wild things, scattering right and left,

For safety vague, throughout the general gloom.

Anon, the nearer hillside growing trees

Would take the surges; thus, from bough to bough,

Was borne the flaming terror! Bole and spire,

Rank after rank, now pillared, ringed, and rolled

In blinding blaze, stood out against the dead

Down-smothered dark, for fifty leagues away.

For fifty leagues! and when the winds were strong,

For fifty more! But, in the olden time,

These fires were counted as the harbingers

Of life-essential storms; since out of smoke

And heat there came across the midnight ways

Abundant comfort, with upgathered clouds,

And runnels babbling of a plenteous fall.

So comes the Southern gale at evenfall

(The swift “brickfielder” of the local folk)

About the streets of Sydney, when the dust

Lies burnt on glaring windows, and the men

Look forth from doors of drouth, and drink the change

With thirsty haste and that most thankful cry

Of, “Here it is—the cool, bright, blessed rain!”

The hut, I say, was built of bark and slabs,

And stood, the centre of a clearing, hemmed

By hurdle-yards, and ancients of the blacks:

These moped about their lazy fires, and sang

Wild ditties of the old days, with a sound

Of sorrow, like an everlasting wind,

Which mingled with the echoes of the noon,

And moaned amongst the noises of the night.

From thence a cattle-track, with link to link,

Ran off against the fishpools, to the gap,

Which sets you face to face with gleaming miles

Of broad Orara, winding in amongst

Black, barren ridges, where the nether spurs

Are fenced about by cotton-scrub, and grass

Blue-bitten with the salt of many droughts.

’T was here the shepherd housed him every night,

And faced the prospect like a patient soul;

Borne up by some vague hope of better days,

And God’s fine blessing in his faithful wife;

Until the humor of his malady

Took cunning changes from the good to bad,

And laid him lastly on a bed of death.

Two months thereafter, when the summer heat

Had roused the serpent from his rotten lair,

And made a noise of locusts in the boughs,

It came to this, that, as the blood-red sun

Of one fierce day of many slanted down

Obliquely past the nether jags of peaks

And gulfs of mist, the tardy night came vexed

By belted clouds, and scuds that wheeled and whirled

To left and right about the brazen clifts

Of ridges, rigid with a leaden gloom.

Then took the cattle to the forest camps

With vacant terror, and the hustled sheep

Stood dumb against the hurdles, even like

A fallen patch of shadowed mountain snow;

And ever through the curlew’s call afar

The storm grew on, while round the stinted slabs

Sharp snaps and hisses came, and went, and came,

The huddled tokens of a mighty blast

Which ran with an exceeding bitter cry

Across the tumbled fragments of the hills,

And through the sluices of the gorge and glen.

So, therefore, all about the shepherd’s hut

That space was mute, save when the fastened dog,

Without a kennel, caught a passing glimpse

Of firelight moving through the lighted chinks;

For then he knew the hints of warmth within,

And stood, and set his great pathetic eyes,

In wind and wet, imploring to be loosed.

Not often now the watcher left the couch

Of him she watched; since, in his fitful sleep,

His lips would stir to wayward themes, and close

With bodeful catches. Once she moved away,

Half deafened by terrific claps, and stooped,

And looked without, to see a pillar dim

Of gathered gusts and fiery rain.

The sick man woke, and, startled by the noise,

Stared round the room, with dull delirious sight,

At this wild thing and that; for, through his eyes,

The place took fearful shapes, and fever showed

Strange crosswise lights about his pillow-head.

He, catching there at some phantasmic help,

Sat upright on the bolster, with a cry

Of, “Where is Jesus?—it is bitter cold!”

And then, because the thundercalls outside

Were mixed for him with slanders of the past,

He called his weeping wife by name, and said,

“Come closer, darling! we shall speed away

Across the seas, and seek some mountain home,

Shut in from liars, and the wicked words

That track us day and night, and night and day.”

So waned the sad refrain. And those poor lips,

Whose latest phrases were for peace, grew mute,

And into everlasting silence passed.

As fares a swimmer who hath lost his breath

In wildering seas afar from any help,

Who, fronting Death, can never realize

The dreadful presence, but is prone to clutch

At every weed upon the weltering wave;

So fared the watcher, poring o’er the last

Of him she loved, with dazed and stupid stare;

Half conscious of the sudden loss and lack

Of all that bound her life, but yet without

The power to take her mighty sorrow in.

Then came a patch or two of starry sky;

And through a reef of cloven thunder-cloud

The soft moon looked: a patient face beyond

The fierce impatient shadows of the slopes,

And the harsh voices of the broken hills!

A patient face, and one which came and wrought

A lovely silence like a silver mist

Across the rainy relics of the storm.

For in the breaks and pauses of her light

The gale died out in gusts; yet evermore

About the roof-tree, on the dripping eaves,

The damp wind loitered; and a fitful drift

Sloped through the silent curtains, and athwart

The dead.

There, when the glare had dropped behind

A mighty ridge of gloom, the woman turned

And sat in darkness face to face with God,

And said—“I know,” she said, “that Thou art wise;

That when we build and hope, and hope and build,

And see our best things fall, it comes to pass

Forevermore that we must turn to Thee!

And therefore now, because I cannot find

The faintest token of Divinity

In this my latest sorrow, let thy light

Inform mine eyes, so I may learn to look

On something past the sight which shuts, and blinds,

And seems to drive me wholly, Lord, from thee.”

Now waned the moon beyond complaining depths;

And, as the dawn looked forth from showery woods

(Whereon had dropt a hint of red and gold),

There went about the crooked cavern-eaves

Low, flute-like echoes with a noise of wings

And waters flying down far-hidden fells.

Then might be seen the solitary owl,

Perched in the clefts; scared at the coming light,

And staring outward (like a sea-shelled thing

Chased to his cover by some bright fierce foe)

As at a monster in the middle waste.

At last the great kingfisher came and called

Across the hollows loud with early whips,

And lighted, laughing, on the shepherd’s hut,

And roused the widow from a swoon like death.

This day, and after it was noised abroad,

By blacks, and straggling horsemen on the roads,

That he was dead “who had been sick so long,”

There flocked a troop from far-surrounding runs

To see their neighbor and to bury him.

And men who had forgotten how to cry

(Rough flinty fellows of the native bush)

Now learned the bitter way, beholding there

The wasted shadow of an iron frame

Brought down so low by years of fearful pain;

And marking, too, the woman’s gentle face,

And all the pathos in her moaned reply

Of, “Masters, we have lived in better days.”

One stooped—a stockman from the nearer hills—

To loose his wallet-strings, from whence he took

A bag of tea, and laid it on her lap;

Then, sobbing, “God will help you, missus, yet,”

He sought his horse with most bewildered eyes,

And, spurring swiftly, galloped down the glen.

Where black Orara nightly chafes his brink,

Midway between lamenting lines of oak

And Warra’s gap, the shepherd’s grave was built.

And there the wild-dog pauses, in the midst

Of moonless watches: howling through the gloom

At hopeless shadows flitting to and fro,

What time the east-wind hums his darkest hymn,

And rains beat heavy on the ruined leaf.

There, while the Autumn in the cedar trees

Sat cooped about by cloudy evergreens,

The widow sojourned on the silent road,

And mutely faced the barren mound, and plucked

A straggling shrub from thence, and passed away,

Heart-broken, on to Sydney; where she took

Her passage, in an English vessel bound

To London, for her home of other years.

At rest! Not near, with sorrow on his grave,

And roses quickened into beauty,—wrapt

In all the pathos of perennial bloom;

But far from these, beneath the fretful clay

Of lands within the lone perpetual cry

Of hermit plovers and the night-like oaks,

All moaning for the peace which never comes.

At rest! And she who sits and waits behind

Is in the shadows; but her faith is sure,

And one fine promise of the coming days

Is breaking, like a blessed morning, far

On hills “that slope through darkness up to God.”