Charles Harpur

The Creek of the Four Graves

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 aastward 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.

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Charles Harpur