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 Tuned 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 grand-dad 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 And peered among the shining leaves- 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 snapt, 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 the bed, Friend, 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.