During this last week of the year, I’m taking a hiatus, sort of, by placing some of my favorite poems instead of things I have written. My fantasy short story Prince of Exile will begin here the first full week of next year.
A. B. Paterson, Australian poet, is often called Banjo Paterson because he signed his poetry with a picture of a banjo during his early days as a newspaper writer. Australian egalitarianism carries with it overtones of hidden conflict, between urban and outback, between privileged and unprivileged, and between pioneers and the late comers who often, as in this poem, had no understanding of the ones who came before them.
The First Surveyor
“The opening of the railway line! — the Governor and all!
With flags and banners down the street, a banquet and a ball.
Hark to ’em at the station now! They’re raising cheer on cheer!
‘The man who brought the railway through — our friend the engineer.’
They cheer his pluck and enterprise and engineering skill!
‘Twas my old husband found the pass behind that big red hill.
Before the engineer was born we’d settled with our stock
Behind that great big mountain chain, a line of range and rock —
A line that kept us starving there in weary weeks of drought,
With ne’er a track across the range to let the cattle out.
“‘Twas then, with horses starved and weak and scarcely fit to crawl,
My husband went to find a way across the rocky wall.
He vanished in the wilderness — God knows where he was gone —
He hunted till his food gave out, but still he battled on.
His horses strayed (’twas well they did), they made towards the grass,
And down behind that big red hill they found an easy pass.
He followed up and blazed the trees, to show the safest track,
Then drew his belt another hole and turned and started back.
His horses died — just one pulled through with nothing much to spare;
God bless the beast that brought him home, the old white Arab mare!
We drove the cattle through the hills, along the new-found way,
And this was our first camping-ground — just where I live today.
“Then others came across the range and built the township here,
And then there came the railway line and this young engineer;
He drove about with tents and traps, a cook to cook his meals,
A bath to wash himself at night, a chain-man at his heels.
And that was all the pluck and skill for which he’s cheered and praised,
For after all he took the track, the same my husband blazed!
“My poor old husband, dead and gone with never a feast nor cheer;
He’s buried by the railway line! — I wonder can he hear
When by the very track he marked, and close to where he’s laid,
The cattle trains go roaring down the one-in-thirty grade.
I wonder does he hear them pass, and can he see the sight
When, whistling shrill, the fast express goes flaming by at night.
“I think ‘twould comfort him to know there’s someone left to care;
I’ll take some things this very night and hold a banquet there —
The hard old fare we’ve often shared together, him and me,
Some damper and a bite of beef, a pannikin of tea:
We’ll do without the bands and flags, the speeches and the fuss,
We know who ought to get the cheers — and that’s enough for us.
“What’s that? They wish that I’d come down — the oldest settler here!
Present me to the Governor and that young engineer!
Well, just you tell his Excellence, and put the thing polite,
I’m sorry, but I can’t come down — I’m dining out tonight!”