Barcroft Henry Thomas Boake
Kelly's Conversion - Poem by Barcroft Henry Thomas Boake
KELLY the Ranger half opened an eye
To wink at the Army passing by,
While his hot breath, thick with the taint of beer,
Came forth from his lips in a drunken jeer.
Brown and bearded and long of limb
He lay, as the Army confronted him
And, clad in grey, one and all did pray
That his deadly sins might be washed away—
But Kelly stubbornly answered ‘Nay.'
Then the captain left him in mild despair,
But before the music took up its blare
A pale-faced lassie stepped out and spoke—
A little sad girl in a sad grey cloak—
‘Rise up, Kelly! your work's to do:
Kelly, the Saviour's a-calling you!'
He strove to look wise; rubbed at his eyes;
Looked down at the ground, looked up at the skies;
And something that p'r'aps was his conscience stirred:
He seemed perplexed as again he heard
The girl with the garments of saddest hue
Say, ‘Kelly, the Saviour's a-calling you!'
He got on his knees and thence to his feet,
And stumbled away down the dusty street;
Contrived to cadge at the pub a drink,
But still in his ear the glasses chink
And jingle only the one refrain,
Clear as the lassie's voice again:
‘Kelly, Kelly, come here to me!
Kelly the Rager, I've work for thee!'
He trembled, and dropped the tumbler, and slopped
The beer on the counter: the barman stopped,
With a curious eye on his haggard face.
‘Kelly, old fellow! you're going the pace.
Don't you fancy it's time to take
A pull on yourself—put your foot on the brake?
You'll have the horrors, without a doubt,
This time next week, if you don't look out.'
But he didn't—he sobered himself that night:
‘That time next week' he was nearly right:
Yet still at the mill, though he'd stopped the grog,
As the saw bit into the green pine log,
The wood shrieked out to him in its pain
A fragment caught of the same refrain,
As the swift teeth cut and the sawdust flew—
‘Kelly, Kelly, I've work for you!'
Then the seasons fell and the floods came down
And laid the dust in the frightened town.
No more the beat of hoofs and feet
Was heard the length of the crooked street;
For, leaving counter and desk and till,
All had fled to the far sandhill;
But everywhere that a man might dare
Risk life to save it—Kelly was there!
No more the voice had a tale to tell:
He'd found his work and he did it well.
Who stripped leggings and hat and coat
To swim the lagoon to reach the boat?
Who pushed out in the dead of night
At the mute appeal of a beacon-light?
Who was blessed by the women then,
And who was cheered by the stalwart men,
As he shot the rapids above the town
With two pale Smiths and a weeping Brown,
Landing them safe from his cockle-shell,
Woefully frightened, but safe and well,
With their friends on the sandhill all secure?
Who but Kelly, you may be sure!
They reckoned the heads up, one by one,
And he sighed as he thought that the work was done;
But soon found out that 'twas not begun.
They counted away till it came to pass
They missed the little Salvation lass:
She'd been to pray with a man who lay
Sick on the river-shore, far away.
Men looked askance and the women smote
Their hands in grief, as he launched the boat.
He turned as he cast the painter loose:
‘Who'll make another? It's little use
My going alone; for I'm nearly done,
And from here to the point is a stiffish run.'
Then one stepped forward and took an oar,
And the boat shot out for the other shore.
To and fro where the gums hang low
And bar their passage, the comrades row;
Hard up stream where the waters race;
Steady, where floating branches lace;
Through many a danger and sharp escape
And catch of breath, as the timbers scrape
And thrill to the touch of some river shape;
Till at last the huts on the point draw near,
And over their shoulders the boatmen peer.
The flood was running from door to door—
Two-feet-six on the earthen floor;
Half-way up to the bed it ran,
Where two pale women and one sick man
Crouched, and looked at the water's rise
With horror set in their staring eyes;
While the children wept as the water crept.
But how the blood to their hearts high leapt
As over the threshold the rescuers stepped,
And, wrapped in blanket and shawl and coat,
Carried the saved to the crazy boat!
Then Kelly circled the little lass
With his strong right arm, and as in a glass
Saw himself in her eyes that shone
Sweet in a face that was drawn and wan:
And he felt that for her life he'd give his own.
Too short a moment her cheek was pressed
Close to the beat of his spray-wet breast;
While her hair just lay like a golden ray,
The last farewell of a passing day.
Gently he settled her down in the stern
With a tender smile, and had time to turn
To look to the others, and then he saw
That the craft was full and could hold no more.
He looked at the party—old, young, and sick—
While he had no tie, neither wife nor chick.
Then with a shove he sent out the boat
Far on the turbid stream afloat.
‘Pull!' said Kelly; ‘now pull!' said he;
‘Pull with your load and come back for me.
You may be late, but at any rate
I'm better able than you to wait.'
They pulled and, looking back, saw him stand
Shading his eyes with his big, rough hand—
Silent, patient, and smiling-faced,
With the water curling around his waist.
Return they did, but they found him not:
Nought but the chimney then marked the spot.
They found him not when the boat went back—
Never a trace of him, never a track;
Only the sigh and the dreary cry
Of the gums that had wept to see him die:
These alone had a tale to tell
Of a life that had ended passing well—
The sad refrain of a hero's fate
Tuned in a tongue we may not translate.
Facing Death with a stout, brave heart;
Choosing the nobler and better part;
Home to the land of eternal sun
Kelly had gone—for his work was done.
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