I verse a Settler's tale of olden times One told me by our sage friend, Egremont; Who then went forth, meetly equipt, with four Of his most trusty and adventrous men Into the wilderness - went forth to seek New streams and wider pastures for his fast Augmenting flocks and herds. On foot were all For horses then were beast of too great price To be much ventured on mountain routes, And over wild wolds clouded up with brush, And cut with marshes, perilously deep.
So went they forth at dawn: and now the sun That rose behind them as they journeyed out, Was firing with his nether rim a range Of unknown mountains that, like ramparts, towered Full in their front, and his last glances fell Into the gloomy forest's eastern glades In golden massses, transiently, or flashed Down to the windings of a nameless Creek, That noiseless ran betwixt the pioneers And those new Apennines - ran, shaded up With boughs of the wild willow, hanging mixed From either bank, or duskily befringed With upward tapering feathery swamp-oaks - The sylvan eyelash always of remote Australian waters, whether gleaming still In lake or pool, or bickering along Between the marges of some eager stream.
Before then, thus extended, wilder grew The scene each moment - and more beautiful! For when the sun was all but sunk below Those barrier mountains, - in the breeze that o'er Their rough enormous backs deep-fleeced with wood Came whispering down, the wide up-slanting sea Of fanning leaves in the descending rays Danced interdazzingly, as if the trees That bore them, were all thrilling, - tingling all Even to the roots for very happiness: So prompted from within, so sentient seemed The bright quick motion - wildly beautiful.
But when the sun had wholly disappeared Behind those mountains - O what words, what hues Might paint the wild magnificence of view That opened westward! Out extending, lo, The heights rose crowding, with their summits all Dissolving, as it seemed, and partly lost In the exceeding radiancy aloft; And thus transfigured, for awhile they stood Like a great company of Archaeons, crowned With burning diadems, and tented o'er With canopies of purple and of gold!
Here halting wearied, now the sun was set, Our travellers kindled for their first night's camp The brisk and crackling fire, which also looked A wilder creature than 'twas elsewhere wont, Because of the surrounding savageness. And soon in cannikins the tea was made, Fragrant and stong; long fresh-sliced rashers then Impaled on whittled skewers, were deftly broiled On the live embers, and when done, transferred To quadrants from an ample damper cut, Their only trenchers - soon to be dispatched With all the savoury morsels they sustained, By the keen tooth of healthful appitite.
And as they supped, birds of new shape and plume And wild strange voice came by,nestward repairing by, Oft too their wonder; or betwixt the gaps In the ascending forest growths they saw Perched on the bare abutments of the hills, Where haply yet some lingering gleam fell through, The wallaroo look forth: till eastward all The view had wasted into formless gloom, Night's front; and westward, the high massing woods Steeped in a swart but mellowed Indian hue - A deep dusk loveliness, lay ridged and heaped Only the more distinctly for their shade Against the twilight heaven - a cloudless depth Yet luminous with the sunset's fading glow; And thus awhile, in the lit dusk, they seemed To hang like mighty pictures of themselves In the still chambers of some vaster world.
The silent business of their supper done, The Echoes of the solitary place, Came as in sylvan wonder wide about To hear, and imitate tentatively, Stange voice moulding a strange speech, as then Within the pleasant purlieus of the fire Lifted in glee - but to be hushed erelong, As with the night in kindred darkness came O'er the adventurers, each and all, some sense - Some vague-felt intimation from without, Of danger lurking in its forest lairs.
But nerved by habit, and all settled soon About the well-built fire, whose nimble tongues Sent up continually a strenuous roar Of fierce delight, and from their fuming pipes Fu11 charged and fragrant with the Indian weed, Drawing rude comfort,- typed without, as 'twere, By tiny clouds over their several heads Quietly curling upward; - thus disposed Within the pleasant firelight, grave discourse of their peculiar business brought to each A steadier mood, that reached into the night.
The simple subject to their minds at length Fully discussed, their couches they prepared Of rushes, and the long green tresses pulled Down from the boughs of the wild willows near. The four, as prearranged, stretched out their limbs Under the dark arms of the forest trees That mixed aloft, high in the starry air, In arcs and leafy domes whose crossing curves And roof-like features, - blurring as they ran Into some denser intergrowth of sprays, - Were seen in mass traced out against the clear Wide gaze of heaven; and trustful of the watch Kept near them by their thoughtful Master, soon Drowsing away, forgetful of their toil, And of the perilous vast wilderness That lay around them like a spectral world, Slept, breathing deep; - whilst all things there as well Showed slumbrous, - yea, the circling forest trees, Their foremost holes carved from a crowded mass Less visible, by the watchfire's bladed gleams, As quick and spicular, from the broad red ring Of its more constant light they ran in spurts Far out and under the umbrageous dark; And even the shaded and enormous mounts, Their bluff brows grooming through the stirless air, Looked in their quiet solemnly asleep: Yea, thence surveyed, the Universe might have seemed Coiled in vast rest, - only that one dim cloud, Diffused and shapen like a huge spider, Crept as with scrawling legs along the sky; And that the stars, in their bright orders, still Cluster by cluster glowingly revealed As this slow cloud moved on, - high over all, - Looked wakeful - yea, looked thoughtful in their peace.

Meanwhile the cloudless eastem heaven had grown More and more luminous - and now the Moon Up from behind a giant hill was seen Conglobing, till - a mighty mass - she brought Her under border level with its cone, As thereon it were resting: when, behold A wonder! Instantly that cone's whole bulk Erewhile so dark, seemed inwardly a-glow With her instilled irradiance; while the trees That fringed its outline, - their huge statures dwarfed, By distance into brambles, and yet all Clearly defined against her ample orb, - Out of its very disc appeared to swell In shadowy relief, as they had been All sculptured from its substance as she rose.
Thus o'er that dark height her great orb arose, Till her full light, in silvery sequence still Cascading forth from ridgy slope to slope, Like the dropt foldings of a lucent veil, Chased mass by mass the broken darkness down Into the dense-brushtd valleys, where it crouched, And shrank, and struggled, like a dragon doubt Glooming some lonely spirit that doth still Resist the Truth with obstinate shifts and shows, Though shining out of heaven, and from defect Winning a triumph that might else not be.
There standing in his lone watch, Egremont On all this solemn beauty of the world, Looked out, yet wakeful; for sweet thoughts of home And all the sacred charities it held, Ingathered to his heart, as by some nice And subtle interfusion that connects The loved and cherished (then the most, perhaps, When absent, or when passed, or even when lost) With all serene and beautiful and bright And lasting things of Nature. So then thought The musing Egremont: when sudden - hark! A bough crackt loudly in a neighboring brake, And drew at once, as with alarum, all His spirits thitherward in wild surmise.
But summoning caution, and back stepping close Against the shade-side of a bending gum, With a strange horror gathering to his heart, As if his blood were charged with insect life And writhed along in clots, he stilled himself, Listening long and heedfully, with head Bent forward sideways, till his held breath grew A pang, and his ears rung. But Silence there Had recomposed her ruffled wings, and now Brooded it seemed even stillier than before, Deep nested in the darkness: so that he Unmasking from the cold shade, grew erelong More reassured from wishing to be so, And to muse, Memory's suspended mood, Though with an effort, quietly recurred.
But there again - crack upon crack! And hark! O Heaven! have Hell's worst fiends burst howling up Into the death-doom'd world? Or whence, if not From diabolic rage, could surge a yell So horrible as that which now affrights The shuddering dark! Beings as fell are near! Yea, Beings, in their dread inherited hate And deadly enmity, as vengeful, come In vengeance! For behold, from the long grass And nearer brakes, a semi-belt of stript And painted Savages divulge at once Their bounding forms! - full in the flaring light Thrown outward by the fire, that roused and lapped The rounding darkness with its ruddy tongues More fiercely than before, - as though even it Had felt the sudden shock the air received From those dire cries, so terrible to hear!
A moment in wild agitation seen Thus, as they bounded up, on then they came Closing, with weapons brandished high, and so Rushed in upon the sleepers! three of whom But started, and then weltered prone beneath The first fell blow dealt down on each by three Of the most stalwart of their pitiless foes! But One again, and yet again, heaved up - Up to his knees, under the crushing strokes Of huge-clubbed nulla-nullas, till his own Warm blood was blinding him! For he was one Who had with Misery nearly all his days Lived lonely, and who therefore, in his soul Did hunger after hope, and thirst for what Hope still had promised him, - some taste at least Of human good however long deferred, And now he could not, even in dying, loose His hold on life's poor chances of tomorrow - Could not but so dispute the terrible fact Of death, e'en in Death's presence! Strange it is: Yet oft 'tis seen that Fortune's pampered child Consents to his untimely power with less Reluctance, less despair, than does the wretch Who hath been ever blown about the world The straw-like sport of Fate's most bitter blasts, Vagrant and tieless; - ever still in him The craving spirit thus grieves to itself:
'I never yet was happy - never yet Tasted unmixed enjoyment, and I would Yet pass on the bright Earth that I have loved Some season, though most brief, of happiness; So should I walk thenceforward to my grave, Wherever in her green maternal breast It might await me, more than now prepared To house me in its gloom, - resigned at heart, Subjected to its certainty and soothed Even by the consciousness of having shaped Some personal good in being; - strong myself, And strengthening others. But to have lived long years Of wasted breath, because of woe and want, And disappointed hope, - and now, at last, To die thus desolate, is horrible!'
And feeling thus through many foregone moods Whose lives had in the temper of his soul All mixed, and formed one habit, - that poor man, Though the black shadows of untimely death, Inevitably, under every stroke, But thickened more and more, - against them still Upstruggled, nor would cease: until one last Tremendous blow, dealt down upon his head As if in mercy, gave him to the dust With all his many woes and frustrate hope.
Struck through with a cold horror, Egremont, Standing apart, - yea, standing as it were In marble effigy, saw this, saw all! And when outthawing from his frozen heart His blood again rushed tingling - with a leap Awaking from the ghastly trance which there Had bound him, as with chill petrific bonds, He raised from instinct more than conscious thought His death-charged tube, and at that murderous crew Firing! saw one fall ox-like to the earth; - Then turned and fled. Fast fled he, but as fast His deadly foes went thronging on his track! Fast! for in full pursuit, behind him yelled Wild men whose wild speech had no word for mercy! And as he fled, the forest beasts as well, In general terror, through the brakes a-head Crashed scattering, or with maddening speed athwart His course came frequent. On - still on he flies - Flies for dear life! and still behind him hears Nearer and nearer, the so rapid dig Of many feet, - nearer and nearer still.

So went the chase! And now what should he do? Abruptly turning, the wild Creek lay right Before him! But no time was there for thought: So on he kept, and from a bulging rock That beaked the bank like a bare promontory, Plunging right forth and shooting feet-first down, Sunk to his middle in the flashing stream - In which the imaged stars seemed all at once To burst like rockets into one wide blaze Of intewrithing light. Then wading through The ruffled waters, forth he sprang and seized A snake-like root that from the opponent bank Protruded, and round which his earnest fear Did clench his cold hand like a clamp of steel, A moment, - till as swiftly thence he swung His dripping form aloft, and up the dark O'erjutting ledge, went clambering in the blind And breathless haste of one who flies for life: When its face - 0 verily our God Hath those in his peculiar care for whom The daily prayers of spotless Womanhood And helpless Infancy, are offered up! - When in its face a cavity he felt, The upper earth of which in one rude mass Was held fast bound by the enwoven roots Of two old trees, - and which, beneath the mould, Just o'er the clammy vacancy below, Twisted and lapped like knotted snakes, and made A natural loft-work. Under this he crept, Just as the dark forms of his hunters thronged The bulging rock whence he before had plunged.
Duskily visible, thereon a space They paused to mark what bent his course might take Over the farther bank, thereby intent To hold upon the chase, which way soe'er It might incline, more surely. But no form Amongst the moveless fringe of fern was seen To shoot up from its outline, - up and forth Into the moonlight that lay bright beyond In torn and shapless blocks, amid the boles And mxing shadows of the taller trees, All standing now in the keen radiance there So ghostly still, as in a solemn trance, But nothing in the silent prospect stirred - No fugitive apparition in the view Rose, as they stared in fierce expectancy: Wherefore they augured that their prey was yet Somewhere between, - and the whole group with that Plunged forward, till the fretted current boiled Amongst their crowd'ing trunks from bank to bank; And searching thus the stream across, and then Lengthwise, along the ledges, - combing down Still, as they went, with dripping fingers, cold And cruel as inquisitive, each clump Of long-flagged swamp-grass where it flourished high, - The whole dark line passed slowly, man by man, Athwart the cavity - so fearfully near, That as they waded by the Fugitive Felt the strong odour of their wetted skins Pass with them, trailing as their bodies moved Stealthily on, coming with each, and going.
But their keen search was keen in vain. And now Those wild men marvelled, - till, in consultation, There grouped in dark knots standing in the stream That glimmered past them, moaning as it went, His Banishment, so passing strange it seemed, They coupled with the mystery of some crude Old fable of their race; and fear-struck all, And silent, then withdrew. And when the sound Of their receding steps had from his ear Died off, as back to the stormed Camp again They hurried to despoil the yet warm dead, Our Friend slid forth, and springing up the bank. Renewed his flight, nor rested from it, till He gained the welcoming shelter of his Home.
Return we for a moment to the scene Of recent death. There the late flaring fire Now smouldered, for its brands were strewn about, And four stark corses plundered to the skin And brutally mutilated, seemed to stare With frozen eyeballs up into the pale Round visage of the Moon, who, high in heaven, With all her stars, in golden bevies, gazed As peacefully down as on a bridal there Of the warm Living - not, alas! on them Who kept in ghastly silence through the night Untimely spousals with a desert death.
0 God! and thus this lovely world hath been Accursed forever by the bloody deeds Of its prime Creature - Man. Erring or wise, Savage or civilised, still hath he made This glorious residence, the Earth, a Hell Of wrong and robbery and untimely death! Some dread Intelligence opposed to Good Did, of a surety, over all the earth Spread out from Eden - or it were not so! For see the bright beholding Moon, and all The radiant Host of Heaven, evince no touch Of sympathy with Man's wild violence; - Only evince in their calm course, their part In that original unity of Love, Which, like the soul that dwelleth in a harp, Under God's hand, in the beginning, chimed The sabbath concord of the Universe; And look on a gay clique of maidens, met In village tryst, and interwhirling all In glad Arcadian dances on the green - Or on a hermit, in his vigils long, Seen kneeling at the doorway, of his cell - Or on a monster battlefield where lie In swelterin heaps, the dead and dying both, On the cold gory grounds - as they that night Looked in bright peace, down on the doomful Wild.
Afterwards there, for many changeful years, Within a glade that sloped into the bank Of that wild mountain Creek - midway within, In partial record of a terrible hour Of human agony and loss extreme, Four grassy mounds stretched lengthwise side by side, Startled the wanderer; - four long grassy mounds Bestrewn with leaves, and withered spraylets, stript By the loud wintry wing gales that roamed Those solitudes, from the old trees which there Moaned the same leafy dirges that had caught The heed of dying Ages: these were all; And thence the place was long by travellers called The Creek of the Four Graves. Such was the Tale Egremont told us of the wild old times.

  Return to the Charles Harpur page.
  Return to the Charles Harpur: Selected Poetry and Prose page.
  Return to The Penguin Book of Australian Verse page.