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
Timed 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 grandad 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
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 snapped,
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 her bed --
Tired, 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.First published
in The Bulletin
, 5 November 1892Where the Dead Men Lie and Other Poems
by Barcroft Boake, 1897; andBarcroft Boake: Collected Works, Edited, With a Life
edited by W. F. Refshauge, 2007.Author reference sites: Austlit
, Australian Dictionary of Biography
, Australian Poetry Library