Uncollected Works

Summer is in her prime, and all the Bush seems like to swoon with drowsy luxury. Beneath a cloudless sky of richest blue the Timber Hills like sleeping mammoths crouch. In serried ranks the tall old trees stand up like quiet sentinels whose sturdy limbs have braved the seasons for a century. They seem so old and wise, these veterans, with mottled trunks scored by stone axes of some long dead tribe; their dignity, their stern impassiveness, seem to upbraid the moods of restless man, the pygmy, ever yearning after change. Beside them, stripling spars grow sturdily; not yet so wise; but like great healthy lads, they seem impatient for maturity. And infant saplings, with their rich brown leaves up-curled and soft as tiny baby hands, wave wide their limbs, and frolic in the breeze like merry, careless children at their play. The hardy bracken, quickened by the sun has lost its tenderness of early Spring, and - like a man grown greedy with the years, a sly, alert marauder keen for gain - with slow and cunning fingers reaches out to steal anew the settler's hard-won field.

Nursed in a shallow trough between the hills, the houses of the tiny settlement sleep in the sun - a 1ittle world apart. The 1azy smoke curls blue above the roofs, telling of industry and toil within, where each lean bush-wife strives - as never strove the women of the towns - to ease the load of labour for her man. Deep in the forest, higher up the mount, the clip of axes and the drone, of saws make music in the sleepy summer noon. A team of bullocks, over dusty tracks, moves, weirdly silent, saving for the creak of waggon timbers. His great whip aloft, their driver hurls upon the patient beasts fierce rolling oaths and wild, rank blasphemies. as guileless as the prattle of a child. His clothes, his face, his hair, a single hue, are coated with the red dust of the track; a monochrome, in which a sudden gleam of white teeth flashes as he loudly roars a cheery greeting to a passing friend. He is in haste, he says, the rain is near, and soon the bush tracks, axle-deep in mire, will stay the labour of the timber teams; so his poor beasts, with sad, protesting eyes, must late and early toil while days are dry. Yet he is but another prophet mocked; for still the tall trees yearn to cloudless skies, and still the rank weeds riot in the sun.

The days wax hotter; over distant hills a wreath of smoke has hovered for a week. Fire! says the busman. If the north wind stirs before the rain, the mount will be ablaze.

Old Ben, the pensioner, the pioneer of this rough settlement, before the door of his rude hut, sits patiently all day, with rheumy eyes fixed on the smoke-wreathed hills - familiar hills he can no longer see. "Aha," says he, "we'11 have it now, for sure. And such a fire as none of yous can mind; one like the blaze that robbed my house and home, one summer - when my missus was alive." And with a hand, not like a human hand, so gnarled it is with years of heavy toil, he hides a moment his old, wistful face, and sighs, "When my poor missus was alive."

A common, age-old tale, they all know well: a woman, all too weak for this rough life, a brave, pathetic fight against the Bush, the loneliness, the toil, the drudgery until - a self-sought death gave her release, and left a man who lived on memories - a dazed, uncomprehending, broken man, who can not realise why here the bush - his kindly, bush - should be so pitiless.

The heat still grows; and now, one, lurid morn, as hot and fierce, and fearsome as the breath of some malignant dragon, comes, the wind, the dread north wind that down the gully sweeps, and trails destruction over all the land. Fire springs from no where; here for half-a-mile it leaps a valley and tears on its way with long, red fingers reaching for its prey.

A pall of heavy smoke defies the sun, and in a strange, uncanny twilight stands the little settlement, with all the world shut out.

Now, eager little flames, like small red imps, race o'er the ground and climb the mighty trunks, to set the heads of forest seers ablaze. With harsh artillery of falling trees - giants that crash like thunder to the ground - mingles the sharp incessant fusillade of crackling flame, while all the tortured scrub shrinks from the fire and writhes as if in pain.

About the settlement, like tiny ants whose nest has been disturbed, the people haste. A house saved here; and there, a line of fence is sacrificed, while men rush down to save the Brices' home - and come too late.

And Brice, an arm about his youngest child, looks on with hopeless eyes half humorous; then, turning to a neighbour, laughs and says, "'Twill boil a billy, anyhow, for tea." Then moves away to mark how much is saved, and plan again the labour of long years.

Then comes the rain, and when next morning dawns it sees a land, black, smoking desolate - a land to break the hearts of some strong men. But these bush optimists, these giant-hearts, look on it all as part of daily life, repair the damage, and go back to work. The hat goes round for Brice, and halting words of sympathy are tendered; he replies, more briefly yet, "Ribuck! You're white men, boys. Well, Summer's over, anyhow, for sure. We best buck in an' make a cheque by Spring."

With Autumn comes the closing of the roads, and, like a fort preparing for a siege, the mountain folk lay in their winter store of simple fare - flour, sugar, tea and jam. Now are the busy bush-wife's anxious day, and, uncomplaining, she toils on, and asks no praise for all the sacrifice she gives. Bush wives - bush mothers - giving all their lives bravely to build new homes in this new land - the unsung heroines whose tragedies few know, and yet fewer still understand! But when the children of a mighty land are thrilled with stories of the pioneers - with age-old legends told in peaceful towns - bush-wives, bush-martyrs, then, at last, shall win a long-due reverence.

Yet Autumn, here, is like another Spring, a ministering, kindly season she, healing the wounds of that too ardent love that Summer gave. Then, like a clammy pall, comes Winter, the Bush weeps night and day. Frost lays his finger on all growing things. Fog shrouds the tree-tops on the sodden hills, and, day and night, the weeping of the trees brings thoughts of gloom and longing for the sun.

On days too wet for toil, men gather round the roaring fire of logs in some rude home and talk of simple things, and gossip, too, of absent neighbours and the wrongs they do. There's Bates, who made a cunning deal in cows - a waster, Bates, a low-down rascal he. And Johnson says he would not raise a hand to aid him in his last extremity. With oaths his name is mentioned, and his past raked over to expose his ancient sins. Next morning comes the news that Bates is hurt, and, they who yesterday vowed him a rogue, cast work aside and hasten to his aid. Tender as women, down the mountain-side they bear him. Johnson, his most bitter foe, risks neck and limb to gallop through the dark for help, and, by a miracle, gets through. That's the bush way; the boon of simple minds, the lasting brother-love that underlies all petty strife, and sweetens wondrously the lives of those who toil and live as they.

Shy gold begins to peep through sombre green - the wattle's wedding dress, and Spring is near. The jocund Jacks laugh longer, and pert wrens, in new blue caps, flirt in the undergrowth. Then, suddenly it seems, one golden morn, the Bush awakes, a living, amorous thing. Flowers bloom, birds sing, and all the world puts on its gayest dress to greet the laughing Spring. After the wattle, blackwood, kurrajong don wedding garb, and gipsy violets carpet the earth, and in the underworld of tiny creatures, pupa cases burst, and gay-winged things dance madly in the sun. The Bush has ceased to weep; and when she smiles, she is a mistress not to be denied. The birds are mating, Winter days are dead, and all the world cries out, "To wed, to wed!"

Bates has recovered. It is Johnson now who does a deal in cows that brings him shame. Down in the settlement, the women say young Sparks, a forward lad, is walking out with Ryan's youngest daughter. It is Spring.

Outside his hut, old Ben, the pensioner, wracked through the Winter by the "rheumatiz," stretches his legs and wags his withered head. "Young folks," he says, and leers; then looks away. "'Tis Spring. I know, I know. An' well I mind one Springtime, when my missus was alive." . . . And then he rambles in a plaintive tone, asking the Fates what strange thing ailed his mate. "Full forty head of fowls she had," he wails. "What more could woman want? Three pigs she had, an' bacon hangin' on the kitchen wall. What ailed her? Hadn't she the two best cows - the best a woman ever sat beneath? And yet - ah, it's a queer, strange world, it is, an' I should know it after eighty years - an' thirty since my missus was alive."

First published in Melba's Gift Book of Australian Art and Literature, 1915

Copyright © Perry Middlemiss 2002