The Old Shepherd by Ironbark (G. Herbert Gibson)

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The setting sun's departing beam was giving place to night,
And placid lay the Lachlan's stream beneath the fading light.
The shadows of the river-gum were stretching long and black,
As, far from Sydney's busy hum, I trod the narrow track.
I watched the coming twilight spread, and thought on many a plan,
I saw an object on a-head -- it seemed to be a man.
A venerable party sat upon a fallen log,
Upon him was a battered hat, and near him was a dog.
The look that on his features hung was anything but sweet,
His swag and billy lay among the grass beneath his feet.
And white and withered was his hair, and white and wan his face --
I'd rather not have met the pair in such a lonely place.  
I thought misfortune's heavy hand had done what it could do;
Despair was branded on the man, and on the dingo, too.
A hungry look that dingo wore ; he must have wanted "prog,"  
I think I never saw before so lean and lank a dog.
I said, "Old man, I fear that you are down upon your luck;
You very much resemble, too, a pig that has been stuck."
His answer wasn't quite distinct (I'm sure it wasn't true),
He said I was (at least I think) "a --something Jackeroo!"   
He said he didn't want my chaff, and (with an angry stamp)
Declared I made "too free by half, a-rushin' of his camp."
I begged him to be calm, and not apologise to me,
He told me I could go to pot (wherever that may be),
And growled a muttered curse or two, expressive of his views
Of men and things, and squatters, too, new chums and Jackeroos.
But economical he was, with his melodious voice,
I think the reason was because his epithets were choice.
I said, "Old man, I fain would know the cause of thy distress --
What sorrows cloud thine aged brow I cannot even guess.
There's anguish on thy wrinkled face, and passion in thine eye
Expressing anything but grace, but why, old man, oh! why?
A sympathising friend you'll find, old man," I said, "in me,
So, if you've might upon your mind, unburthened let it be."
He gravely shook his grizzled head (I rather touched him there,)
And something indistinct he said (I think he meant to swear.)
He made a gesture with his hand; he saw I meant him well,
He said he was a shepherd, and a-takin' of a spell.
He said he waa an ill-used bird, and squatters they might be
(He used a very naughty word, commencing with a "d.")
Of shepherds oft in poet's song I'd read, but none had known,
Except the china one upon the mantel-piece at home.
I'd read about their loves and hates, as hot as Yankee stoves,
And how they broke each other's pates in fair Arcadian groves.
But nothing in my ancient friend was like Arcadian types --
No fleecy flocks had he to tend, no crook or shepherds' pipes.
No shepherdess was near at hand; and if there were, I guessed,
She'd never suffer that old man to take her to his breast!
No raven locks had he to fall, and didn't seem to me
To be the sort of thing at all a shepherd ought to be.
I thought of all the history I'd studied, when a boy,
Of Paris and AEone, and of the siege of Troy.
I thought, could Helen contemplate this party on the log,
She would the race of shepherds hate like Brahmins hate a dog.
It seemed a very certain thing that, since the world began,
No shepherd ever was like him, from Abel down to Pan.
I said, "Old man, you've settled now another dream of youth,
I always understood, I vow, mythology was truth.
Until I saw thy bandy legs and sorrow-laden brow,
But sure as ever eggs is eggs, I cannot think so now.
For an a shepherd thou shouldst be, then very sure am I
The man that wrote mythology was guilty of a lie.
But never mind, old man," I said, "to sorrow we are born,
So tell us why thine aged head is bended and forlorn?"
With face as hard as Silas Wegg's, he said, "Young man, here goes,"
He lit his pipe and crossed his legs, and told me all his woes.
He said, "I've just been 'lammin'-down a flock of maiden ewes,
And had a little trip to town, to gather up the news,
But while in Bathurst's busy streets I got upon the spree,
And publicans is awful cheats, for soon they lammed-down me."
He said he'd " busted-up his cheque" (what's that, I'd like to know?)
And now his happiness was wrecked, to work he'd got to go.
He'd known the time, not long ago, when half the year he'd spend
In idleness and comfort, too, while camping in a bend.
No need to tread the weary track, or work his strength away,
He lay extended on his back, each happy summers's day.
When sun-set comes and daylight flags, and dusky looms the scrub,
He'd bundle up his ration-bags, and toddle for his grub,
And to some station-store he'd go, and get the traveller's dower,
"A pint o' dust "(that was his low expression, meaning flour.)
But now he couldn't cadge about, for squatters wasn't game
To give their tea and sugar out to every tramp that came.
The country's strength he thought was gone, or going very fast.
And feeding tramps now ranked among the glories of the past.
He'd seen the Yanko in its pride, when every night a host
Of hungry tramps at supper tried for who could eat the most.
For squatters then had feelings strong and tender in their breast,
And if a traveller came along, they'd ask him in to rest.
" But Squatters' now !"-he stamped the soil and muttered in his beard
He wished they'd got a whopping boil! for every sheep they sheared.
His language got so very bad it couldn't well be worse,
For every second word he had now seemed to be a curse.  
And shaking was his withered hand (with passion, not with age),
I never thought so old a man could get in such a rage.
His eyes seemed starting from his head, they glared in such a way,
And half the wicked words he said I shouldn't like to say.
But from his language I inferred there wasn't one in three
Of squatters worth that little word commencing with a D.
Alas! for my poetic lore I fear it was astray,
It never told me shepherds swore or talked in such a way.
The knotted cordage of his brow was tightened in a frown --
He seemed the sort of party now to burn a wool-shed down.
I don't believe he'd hesitate, or reckon the expense,
With "Bell and Black's " to operate upon a squatter's fence!     
He told me further (and his voice grow very plaintive here),
That, now he'd got to make the choice and work, or give up beer.
From heavy toil he'd always found 'twas healthiest to keep,
And always stuck to cadgin' round and lookin' after sheep.
"But shepherdin' is nearly cooked,"(I think he meant to say
That shepherd's prospects didn't look in quite a hopeful way.)
A new career he must begin, (and fresh it roused his ire,)
"For squatters they was fencin' in with that infernal wire."   
And sheep was paddocked every where, ('twas like them squatters' cheek).
And shepherds now, for all they care, might go to Cooper's Creek.
He said he couldn't use an axe, and wouldn't if he could,
He'd see 'em blistered on their backs 'fore he'd go choppin' wood.
That nappin' stones or "shovelin" they wouldn't do for he,
And work, it was a cussed thing as didn't ought to be.
He'd known the Lachlan, man and boy, for close on forty year,
But now they'd poisoned every joy he thought it time to clear.
They gave him sorrow's bitter cup, and filled his heart with woe,
And now at last his back was up he felt he ought to go.
He'd heard of regions far away, across the barren plains  
Where shepherds might be blithe and gay, and burst the squatters 'chains.
To reach that land he meant to try. he didn't care a cuss
If 'twasn't any better, why it couldn't be much wuss.
Amongst the blacks (though old and grey), existence he'd begin,
And give his ancient, hand away in marriage to a gin.
He really was so old and grim, the thought was in my mind,
That any gin to marry him would have to be stone blind!  
T'would make an undertaker smile; what tickled me was this,
The thought of such an ancient file indulging in a kiss!
And if it's true, as Shakespeare said, that "equal justice whirls,"   
He ought to think of "Nick," instead of thinking of the girls.
Then droopod his grim and aged head, and closed that glaring eye,
And not another word he said, except a grunt or sigh.
More lean he looks, and still more lank, such changes o'er him pass
And down his ancient body sank in slumber on the grass.
I thought, old chap, you're wearing out and not the sort of coon
To lead a blushing bride about or spend a honey-moon;
Or if indeed there were a bride for such a withered stick
With such a tough and wrinkled hide, that bride should be Old Nick.
As streaks of faintish light began to mark the coming day     
I left that grim mid aged mau and slowly stole away.
And when the winter nights are rough and shrieking is the wind,
Or when I've eaten too much duff and dreams afflict my mind,
In lonely watches of the night I see that trembling hand --   
I see (and horrid is the sight) the face of that old man.
And on my head in agony up rises every hair,
I see again his glaring eye, in fancy hear him swear.
At breakfast time when I come down to take that pleasant meal,
With pallid face and haggard frown into my place I steal,   
And when they say I'm far from bright, the truth I dare not tell,
I say I've passed a sleepless night and don't feel very well.  

First published in The Australian Town and Country Journal, 12 February 1876

Author reference site: Austlit

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on February 12, 2012 9:58 AM.

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