A Bushman's Love

You say we bushmen cannot love—
Our lives are too prosaic: hence
We lose or lack that finer sense
That raises some few men above
Their fellows, setting them apart
As vessels of a finer make—
The acme of the potter’s art—
Are placed apart upon the shelf.
So he is more than common delf,
And, more than brute in human guise,
Who, seeking, finds his nobler self
Twin-mirrored in a woman’s eyes!
Yet these things bring their penalty:
For oft the merest touch will break
These vessels of a finer make;
And throats attuned to noblest key
A draught of air will set awry,
And stifle in an ulcerous sore
The voice that floated to the sky
And silence it for evermore . . .

You say we bushmen cannot love—
That, like our foe, the fire-fiend,
We blaze, until a river-bend—
Nay, less, a pebble-graven groove
Where waters thread—doth bid us stay:
Our passions for a month, a week
Flare out and then they die away—
For separation, like the creek
That stays the bush fire, bars the way.

You say we bushmen cannot love.
Well, have it so! but this I swear—
That she possessed a power to move
The dullest boor to do or dare.
But I, as being somewhat shy,
Became the target for her wit
How oft in wantonness she’d pit
The blazing lances of her eye
And keener rapier of her tongue,
That carelessly made lightning play,
Until to action I was stung,
And, like a dumb beast, stood at bay . . .

Skeeta ( An Old Servant's Tale )

Our Skeeta was married, our Skeeta! the tomboy
and pet of the place,
No more as a maiden we'd greet her, no more
would her pert little face
Light up the chill gloom of the parlour; no more
would her deft little hands
Serve drinks to the travel-stained caller on his way
to more southerly lands;
No more would she chaff the rough drovers and
send them away with a smile,
No more would she madden her lovers, demurely,
with womanish guile -
The "prince" from the great Never-Never, with
light touch of lips and of hand
Had come, and enslaved her for ever - a potentate
bearded and tanned
From the land where the white mirage dances its
dance of death over the plains,
With the glow of the sun in his glances, the lust of
the West in his veins;



His talk of long drought-stricken stretches when the
tongue rattled dry on the lips;
Of his fights with the niggers, poor wretches, as
he sped on his perilous trips.
A supple-thewed, desert-bred rover, with naught to
commend him but this,
That he was her idol, her lover, who'd fettered her
heart with a kiss.



They were wed, and he took her to Warren, where
she with his love was content;
But town-life to him was too foreign, so back to the
droving he went:
A man away down on the border of “Vic.” bought
some cattle from “Cobb,”
And gave Harry Parker the order to go to “the
Gulf” for the mob:
And he went, for he held her love cheaper than his
wish to re-live the old life,
Or his reason might have been deeper - I called it
deserting his wife.



Then one morning his horses were mustered, the
start on the journey was made -
A clatter, an oath through the dust heard, was the
last of the long cavalcade.
As we stood by the stockyard assembled, poor child,
how she strove to be brave!
But yet I could see how she trembled at the careless
farewell that he gave.
We brought her back home on the morrow, but none
of us ever may learn
Of the fight that she fought to keep sorrow at bay
till her husband's return.
He had gone, but the way of his going, ‘twas that
which she dwelt on with pain -
Careless kiss, though there sure was no knowing,
when or where he might kiss her again.
He had ridden away and had left her a woman,
in all but in years,
Of her girlhood’s gay hopes had bereft her, and
left in their place nought but tears.



Yet still, as the months passed, a treasure was
brought her by Love, ere he fled,
And garments of infantile measure she fashioned
with needle and thread;
She fashioned with linen and laces and ribbons a
nest for her bird,
While colour returned to her face as the bud of
maternity stirred.
It blossomed and died; we arrayed it in all its soft
splendour of white,
And sorrowing took it and laid it in the earth
whence it sprung, out of sight.
She wept not at all, only whitened, as Death, in
his pitiless quest,
Leant over her pillow and tightened the throat of the
child at her breast.



She wept not, her soul was too tired, for waiting is
harrowing work,
And then I bethought me and wired away to the
agents in Bourke;
'Twas little enough I could glean there; 'twas little
enough that they knew -
They answered he hadn't been seen there, but might
in a week, perchance two.
She wept not at all, only whitened with staring too
long at the night:
There was only one time when she brightened, that
time when red dust hove in sight,
And settled and hung on the backs of the cattle, and
altered their spots,
While the horses swept up, with their packs of blue
blankets and jingling pots.
She always was set upon meeting those boisterous
cattle-men, lest
Her husband had sent her a greeting by one of them,
in from the West.
Not one of them ever owned to him, or seemed to
remember the name
(The truth was they all of them knew him, but
wouldn't tell her of his shame)
But never, though long time she waited, did her faith
in the faithless grow weak,
And each time the outer door grated, an eager flush
sprang to her cheek –



'Twasn't he, and it died with a flicker, and then
what I had long dreaded came:
I was serving two drovers with liquor when one of
them mentioned his name.
"Oh, yes!" said the other one, winking, "on the
Paroo I saw him, he'd been
In Eulo a fortnight then, drinking, and driving
about with "The Queen"
While the bullocks were going to glory, and his
billet was not worth a G --- d --- ;”
I told him to cut short the story, as I pulled-to the
door with a slam -
Too late! for the words were loud-spoken, and Skeeta
was out in the hall,
Then I knew that a girl's heart was broken, as I
heard a low cry and a fall.



And then came a day when the doctor went home,
for the truth was avowed;
And I knew that my hands, which had rocked her in
childhood, would fashion her shroud,
I knew we should tenderly carry and lay her where
many more lie,
Ah, why will the girls love and marry, when men are
not worthy, ah, why?
She lay there a-dying, our Skeeta; not e'en did she
stir at my kiss,
In the next world perchance we may greet her, but
never, ah, never, in this.
Like the last breath of air in a gully, that sighs as
the sun slowly dips,
To the knell of a heart beating dully, her soul
struggled out on her lips.
But she lifted great eyelids and pallid, while once
more beneath them there glowed
The fire of Love, as she rallied at sound of hoofs
out on the road;
They rang sharp and clear on the metal, they ceased
at the gate in the lane,
A pause, and we heard the beats settle in long,
swinging cadence again;
With a rattle, a rush, and a clatter the rider came
down by the store,
And neared us, but what did it matter? he never
pulled rein at the door,
But over the brow of the hill he sped on with a
low muffled roll,
"Twas only young Smith on his filly; he passed, and
so too did her soul.



Weeks after, I went down one morning to trim the
white rose that had grown
And clasped, with its tender adorning, the plain
little cross of white stone.
In the lane dusty drovers were wheeling dull cattle,
with turbulent sound,
But I paused as I saw a man kneeling, with his
forehead pressed low on the mound;
Already he'd heard me approaching, and slowly I
saw him up-rise
And move away, sullenly slouching his “cabbage-
tree” over his eyes,
I never said anything to him, as he mounted his horse
at the gate,
He didn't know me, but I knew him, the husband
who came back too late.

The Box-Tree's Love

Long time beside the squatter's gate
A great grey Box-Tree, early, late,
Or shine or rain, in silence there
Had stood and watched the seasons fare:
Had seen the wind upon the plain
Caress the amber ears of grain;
The river burst its banks and come
Far past its belt of mighty gum:
Had seen the scarlet months of drought
Scourging the land with fiery knout;
And seasons ill and seasons good
Had alternated as they would.
The years were born, had grown and gone,
While suns had set and suns had shone;
Fierce flames had swept; chill waters drenched;—
That sturdy yeoman never blenched.

The Tree had watched the station grow—
The buildings rising row on row;
And from that point of vantage green,
Peering athwart its leafy screen,
The wondering soldier-birds had seen
The lumbering bullock-dray draw near,
Led by that swarthy pioneer
Who, gazing at the pleasant shade,
Was tempted, dropped his whip and stayed;
Brought there his wanderings to a close;
Unloosed the polished yokes and bows.

The bullocks, thankful for the boon,
Rang on their bells a merry tune:
The hobbles clinked; the horses grazed;
The snowy calico was raised;
The fire was lit; the fragrant tea
Drunk to a sunset melody
Tuned by the day before it died
To waken on Earth's other side.
There 'twas, beneath that Box-Tree's shade,
Fortune's foundation-stone was laid;
Cemented fast with toil and thrift,
Stone upon stone was laid to lift
A mighty arch, commemorate
Of one who reached the goal too late.
That white-haired pioneer with pride
Fitted the keystone; then he died:
His toil, his thrift, all to what boot?
He gave his life for Dead Sea fruit:
What did it boot his wide domain
Of feathered pine and sweeping plain,
Sand-ridge and turf? for he lay dead—
Another reigning in his stead.

His sons forgot him; but that Tree
Mourned for him long and silently,
And o'er the old man's lonely bier
Would, if he could, have dropped a tear.
One other being only shared
His grief: one other only cared:
And she was but a six years' maid—
His grandchild, who had watched him fade
In childish ignorance; and wept
Because the poor old grand-dad slept
So long a sleep, and never came
To smile upon her at her game,
Or tell her stories of the fays
And giants of the olden days.
She cared; and, as the seasons sped,
Linked by the memory of the dead,
They two, the Box-Tree and the Child,
Grew old in friendship; and she smiled,
Clapping her chubby hands with glee,
When for her pleasure that old Tree
Would shake his limbs, and let the light
Glance in a million sparkles bright
From off his polished olive cloak.
Then would the infant gently stroke
His massive bole, and laughing try
To count the patches of blue sky
Betwixt his leaves, or in the shades
That trembled on the grassy blades
Trace curious faces, till her head
Of gold grew heavy; then he'd spread
His leaves to shield her, while he droned
A lullaby, so softly toned
It seemed but as the gentle sigh
Of Summer as she floated by;
While bird and beast grew humble-voiced,
Seeing those golden ringlets moist
With dew of sleep. With one small hand
Grasping a grass-stem for a wand,
Titania slept. Nature nor spoke,
Nor dared to breathe, until she woke.

The years passed onward; and perchance
The Tree had shot his tufted lance
Up to the sky a few slow feet;
But one great limb grew down to greet
His mistress, who had ne'er declined
In love for him, though far behind
Her child-life lay, and now she stood
Waiting to welcome womanhood.
She loved him always as of old;
Yet would his great roots grasp the mould,
And knotted branches grind and groan
To see her seek him not alone;
For lovers came, and 'neath those boughs
With suave conversing sought to rouse
The slumbering passion in a breast
Whose coldness gave an added zest
To the pursuit;—but all in vain:
They spoke the once, nor came again—
Save one alone, who pressed his suit
(Man-like, he loved forbidden fruit)
And strove to change her Nay to Yea,
Until it fell upon a day
Once more he put his fate to proof
Standing beneath that olive roof;
And though her answer still was ‘No'
He, half-incensed, refused to go,
Asking her, Had she heart for none
Because there was some other one
Who claimed it all? Whereon the maid
Slipped off her ring and laughing said:
‘Look you, my friend! here now I prove
The truth of it, and pledge my love!'—
And, poised on tiptoe, touched a limb
That bent to gratify her whim.
She slipped the golden circle on
A tiny branchlet, whence it shone
Mocking the suitor with its gleam—
A quaint dispersal of his dream.
She left the trinket there; but when
She came to take it back again
She found it not; nor—though she knelt
Upon the scented grass and felt
Among its roots, or parted sheaves
And peered among the shining leaves—
Could it be found. The Box-Tree held
Her troth for aye: his great form swelled
Until the bitter sap swept through
His veins and gave him youth anew.

With busy fingers, lank and thin,
The fatal Sisters sit and spin
Life's web, in gloomy musings wrapt,
Caring not, when a thread is snapt,
What harm its severance may do—
Whether it strangleth one or two.

Alas! there came an awful space
Of time wherein that sweet young face
Grew pale, its sharpened outline pressed
Deep in the pillow; for a guest,
Unsought, unbidden, forced his way
Into the chamber where she lay.
'Twas Death! . . . Outside the Box-Tree kept
Sad vigil, and at times he swept
His branches softly, as a thrill
Shot through his framework, boding ill
To her he loved; and so he bade
A bird fly ask her why she stayed.
The messenger, with glistening eye,
Returned, and said, ‘The maid doth lie
Asleep. I tapped upon the pane:
She stirred not, so I tapped again.
She rests so silent on the bed,
Friend, that I fear the maid is dead;
For they have cut great sprays of bloom
And laid them all about the room.
The scent of roses fills the air:
They nestle in her breast and hair—

Like snowy mourners, scented, sweet,
Around her pillow and her feet.'
‘Ah, me!' the Box-Tree, sighing, said;
‘My love is dead! my love is dead!'
And shook his branches till each leaf
Chorused his agony of grief.

They bore the maiden forth, and laid
Her down to rest where she had played
Amid her piles of forest-spoil
In childhood: now the sun-caked soil
Closed over her. ‘Ah!' sighed the Tree,
‘Mark how my love doth come to me!'
He pushed brown rootlets down, and slid
Between the casket and its lid;
And bade them very gently creep
And wake the maiden from her sleep.
The tiny filaments slipped down
And plucked the lace upon her gown.
She stirred not when they ventured near
And softly whispered in her ear.

The silken fibres gently press
Upon her lips a chill caress:
They wreathe her waist: they brush her hair:
Under her pallid eyelids stare:
Yet all in vain; she will not wake—
Not even for her lover's sake.
The Box-Tree groaned aloud and cried:
‘Ah, me! grim Death hath stole my bride.
Where is she hidden? Where hath flown
Her soul? I cannot bide alone;
But fain would follow.'

Then he called
And whispered to an ant that crawled
Upon a bough; and bade it seek
The white-ant colony and speak
A message where, beneath a dome
Of earth, the white queen hath her home.
She sent a mighty army forth
That fall upon the tree in wrath,
And, entering by a tiny hole,
Fill all the hollow of his bole;
Through all its pipes and crannies pour;
Sharp at his aching heart-strings tore;
Along his branches built a maze
Of sinuous, earthen-covered ways.
His smooth leaves shrunk, his sap ran dry:
The sunbeams laughing from the sky
Helped the ant workers at their toil,
Sucking all moisture from the soil.

Then on a night the wind swept down
And rustled 'mid the foliage brown.
The mighty framework creaked and groaned
In giant agony, and moaned—
Its wind-swept branches growing numb—
‘I come, my love! my love, I come!'
A gust more furious than the rest
Struck the great Box-Tree's shivering crest:
The great bole snapped across its girth;
The forest monarch fell to earth
With such a mighty rush of sound
The settlers heard it miles around,
While upward through the windy night
That faithful lover's soul took flight.

The squatter smiled to see it fall:
He sent his men with wedge and maul,
Who split the tree; but found it good
For nothing more than kindling-wood.
They marvelled much to find a ring—
Asking themselves what chanced to bring
The golden circlet which they found
Clasping a branchlet firmly round.
Foolish and blind! they could not see
The faithfulness of that dead Tree.

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