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Shall We Gather at the River? by Henry Lawson

1901

 

    God's preacher, of churches unheeded,
    God's vineyard, though barren the sod,
    Plain spokesman where spokesman is needed,
    Rough link 'twixt the Bushman and God.
                     The Christ of the Never.

         TOLD BY JOE WILSON

I never told you about Peter M'Laughlan. He was a sort of bush missionary up-country and out back in Australia, and before he died he was known from Riverina down south in New South Wales to away up through the Never-Never country in western Queensland.

His past was a mystery, so, of course, there were all sorts of yarns about him. He was supposed to be a Scotchman from London, and some said that he had got into trouble in his young days and had had to clear out of the old country; or, at least, that he had been a ne'e-er-do-well and had been sent out to Australia on the remittance system. Some said he'd studied for the law, some said he'd studied for a doctor, while others believed that he was, or had been, an ordained minister. I remember one man who swore (when he was drinking) that he had known Peter M'Laughlan as a medical student in a big London hospital, and that he had started in practice for himself somewhere near Gray's Inn Road in London. Anyway, as I got to know him he struck me as being a man who had looked into the eyes of so much misery in his life that some of it had got into his own.

He was a tall man, straight and well built, and about forty or forty-five, when I first saw him. He had wavy dark hair, and a close, curly beard. I once heard a woman say that he had a beard like you see in some Bible pictures of Christ. Peter M'Laughlan seldom smiled; there was something in his big dark brown eyes that was scarcely misery, nor yet sadness—a sort of haunted sympathy.

He must have had money, or else he got remittances from home, for he paid his way and helped many a poor devil. They said that he gave away most of his money. Sometimes he worked for a while himself as bookkeeper at a shearing-shed, wool-sorter, shearer, even rouseabout; he'd work at anything a bushman could get to do. Then he'd go out back to God-forgotten districts and preach to bushmen in one place, and get a few children together in another and teach them to read. He could take his drink, and swear a little when he thought it necessary. On one occasion, at a rough shearing-shed, he called his beloved brethren “damned fools” for drinking their cheques.

Towards the end of his life if he went into a “rough” shed or shanty west of the Darling River—and some of them were rough—there would be a rest in the language and drinking, even a fight would be interrupted, and there would be more than one who would lift their hats to Peter M'Laughlan. A bushman very rarely lifts his hat to a man, yet the worst characters of the West have listened bareheaded to Peter when he preached.

It was said in our district that Peter only needed to hint to the squatter that he wanted fifty or a hundred pounds to help someone or something, and the squatter would give it to him without question or hesitation.

He'd nurse sick boundary-riders, shearers, and station-hands, often sitting in the desolate hut by the bedside of a sick man night after night. And, if he had time, he'd look up the local blacks and see how they were getting on. Once, on a far outback sheep station, he sat for three nights running, by the bedside of a young Englishman, a B.A. they said he was, who'd been employed as tutor at the homestead and who died a wreck, the result of five years of life in London and Paris. The poor fellow was only thirty. And the last few hours of his life he talked to Peter in French, nothing but French. Peter understood French and one or two other languages, besides English and Australian; but whether the young wreck was raving or telling the story of a love, or his life, none of us ever knew, for Peter never spoke of it. But they said that at the funeral Peter's eyes seemed haunted more than usual.

There's the yarn about Peter and the dying cattle at Piora Station one terrible drought, when the surface was as bare as your hand for hundreds of miles, and the heat like the breath of a furnace, and the sheep and cattle were perishing by thousands. Peter M'Laughlan was out on the run helping the station-hands to pull out cattle that had got bogged in the muddy waterholes and were too weak to drag themselves out, when, about dusk, a gentlemanly “piano-fingered” parson, who had come to the station from the next town, drove out in his buggy to see the men. He spoke to Peter M'Laughlan.

“Brother,” he said, “do you not think we should offer up a prayer?”

“What for?” asked Peter, standing in his shirt sleeves, a rope in his hands and mud from head to foot.

“For? Why, for rain, brother,” replied the parson, a bit surprised.

Peter held up his finger and said “Listen!”

Now, with a big mob of travelling stock camped on the plain at night, there is always a lowing, soughing or moaning sound, a sound like that of the sea on the shore at a little distance; and, altogether, it might be called the sigh or yawn of a big mob in camp. But the long, low moaning of cattle dying of hunger and thirst on the hot barren plain in a drought is altogether different, and, at night there is something awful about it—you couldn't describe it. This is what Peter M'Laughlan heard.

“Do you hear that?” he asked the other preacher.

The little parson said he did. Perhaps he only heard the weak lowing of cattle.

“Do you think that God will hear us when He does not hear that ?” asked Peter.

The parson stared at him for a moment and then got into his buggy and drove away, greatly shocked and deeply offended. But, later on, over tea at the homestead, he said that he felt sure that that “unfortunate man,” Peter M'Laughlan, was not in his right mind; that his wandering, irregular life, or the heat, must have affected him.

I well remember the day when I first heard Peter M'Laughlan preach. I was about seventeen then. We used sometimes to attend service held on Sunday afternoon, about once a month, in a little slab-and-bark school-house in the scrub off the main road, three miles or so from our selection, in a barren hole amongst the western ridges of the Great Dividing Range. School was held in this hut for a few weeks or a few months now and again, when a teacher could be got to stay there and teach, and cook for himself, for a pound a week, more or less contributed by the parents. A parson from the farming town to the east, or the pastoral town over the ridges to the west, used to come in his buggy when it didn't rain and wasn't too hot to hold the service.

I remember this Sunday. It was a blazing hot day towards the end of a long and fearful drought which ruined many round there. The parson was expected, and a good few had come to “chapel” in spring-carts, on horseback, and on foot; farmers and their wives and sons and daughters. The children had been brought here to Sunday-school, taught by some of the girls, in the morning. I can see it all now quite plain: The one-roomed hut, for it was no more, with the stunted blue-grey gum, scrub all round. The white, dusty road, so hot that you could cook eggs in the dust. The horses tied up, across the road, in the supposed shade under clumps of scraggy saplings along by the fence of a cattle-run. The little crowd outside the hut: selectors in washed and mended tweeds, some with paper collars, some wearing starched and ironed white coats, and in blucher boots, greased or blackened, or the young men wearing “larstins” (elastic-side boots). The women and girls in prints and cottons (or cheap “alpaca,” etc.), and a bright bit of ribbon here and there amongst the girls. The white heat blazed everywhere, and “dazzled” across light-coloured surfaces—dead white trees, fence-posts, and sand-heaps, like an endless swarm of bees passing in the sun's glare. And over above the dry boxscrub-covered ridges, the great Granite Peak, glaring like a molten mass.

The people didn't like to go inside out of the heat and sit down before the minister came. The wretched hut was a rough school, sometimes with a clay fire-place where the teacher cooked, and a corner screened off with sacking where he had his bunk; it was a camp for tramps at other times, or lizards and possums, but to-day it was a house of God, and as such the people respected it.

The town parson didn't turn up. Perhaps he was unwell, or maybe the hot, dusty ten-mile drive was too much for him to face. One of the farmers, who had tried to conduct service on a previous occasion on which the ordained minister had failed us, had broken down in the middle of it, so he was out of the question. We waited for about an hour, and then who should happen to ride along but Peter M'Laughlan, and one or two of the elder men asked him to hold service. He was on his way to see a sick friend at a sheep station over the ridges, but he said that he could spare an hour or two. (Nearly every man who was sick, either in stomach or pocket, was a friend of Peter M'Laughlan.) Peter tied up his horse under a bush shed at the back of the hut, and we followed him in.

The “school” had been furnished with a rough deal table and a wooden chair for “the teacher,” and with a few rickety desks and stools cadged from an old “provisional” school in town when the new public school was built; and the desks and stools had been fastened to the floor to strengthen them; they had been made for “infant” classes, and youth out our way ran to length. But when grown men over six feet high squeezed in behind the desks and sat down on the stools the effect struck me as being ridiculous. In fact, I am afraid that on the first occasion it rather took my attention from the sermon, and I remember being made very uncomfortable by a school chum, Jack Barnes, who took a delight in catching my eye and winking or grinning. He could wink without changing a solemn line in his face and grin without exploding, and I couldn't. The boys usually sat on seats, slabs on blocks of wood, along the wall at the far end of the room, which was comfortable, for they had a rest for their backs. One or two of the boys were nearing six feet high, so they could almost rest their chins on their knees as they sat. But I squatted with some of my tribe on a stool along the wall by the teacher's table, and so could see most of the congregation.

Above us bare tie-beams and the round sapling rafters (with the bark still on), and the inner sides of the sheets of stringybark that formed the roof. The slabs had been lined with sacking at one time, but most of it had fallen or dry-rotted away; there were wide cracks between the slabs and we could see the white glare of sunlight outside, with a strip of dark shade, like a deep trench in the white ground, by the back wall. Someone had brought a canvas water-bag and hung it to the beam on the other side of the minister's table, with a pint-pot over the tap, and the drip, drip from the bag made the whole place seem cooler.

I studied Peter M`Laughlan first. He was dressed in washed and mended tweed vest and trousers, and had on a long, lightcoloured coat of a material which we called “Chinese silk.” He wore a “soft” cotton shirt with collar attached, and blucher boots. He gave out a hymn in his quiet, natural way, said a prayer, gave out another hymn, read a chapter from the Bible, and then gave out another hymn. They liked to sing, out in those places. The Southwicks used to bring a cranky little harmonium in the back of their old dog-cart, and Clara Southwick used to accompany the hymns. She was a very pretty girl, fair, and could play and sing well. I used to think she had the sweetest voice I ever heard. But—ah, well—-

Peter didn't sing himself, at first. I got an idea that he couldn't. While they were singing he stood loosely, with one hand in his trouser-pocket, scratching his beard with his hymn-book, and looking as if he were thinking things over, and only rousing himself to give another verse. He forgot to give it once or twice, but we got through all right. I noticed the wife of one of the men who had asked Peter to preach looking rather black at her husband, and I reckoned that he'd get it hotter than the weather on the way home.

Then Peter stood up and commenced to preach. He stood with both hands in his pockets, at first, his coat ruffled back, and there was the stem of a clay pipe sticking out of his waistcoat pocket. The pipe fascinated me for a while, but after that I forgot the pipe and was fascinated by the man. Peter's face was one that didn't strike you at first with its full strength, it grew on you; it grew on me, and before he had done preaching I thought it was the noblest face I had ever seen.

He didn't preach much of hope in this world. How could he? The drought had been blazing over these districts for nearly a year, with only a shower now and again, which was a mockery—scarcely darkening the baked ground. Wheat crops came up a few inches and were parched by the sun or mown for hay, or the cattle turned on them; and last year there had been rust and smut in the wheat. And, on top of it all, the dreadful cattle plague, pleuro-pneumonia, had somehow been introduced into the district. One big farmer had lost fifty milkers in a week.

Peter M'Laughlan didn't preach much of hope in this world; how could he? There were men there who had slaved for twenty, thirty, forty years; worked as farmers have to work in few other lands—first to clear the stubborn bush from the barren soil, then to fence the ground, and manure it, and force crops from it—and for what? There was Cox, the farmer, starved off his selection after thirty years and going out back with his drays to work at tank-sinking for a squatter. There was his eldest son going shearing or droving—anything he could get to do—a stoop-shouldered, young-old man of thirty. And behind them, in the end, would be a dusty patch in the scrub, a fencepost here and there, and a pile of chimney-stones and a hardwood slab or two where the but was—for thirty hard years of the father's life and twenty of the son's.

I forget Peter's text, if he had a text; but the gist of his sermon was that there was a God—there was a heaven! And there were men there listening who needed to believe these things. There was old Ross from across the creek, old, but not sixty, a hard man. Only last week he had broken down and fallen on his knees on the baked sods in the middle of his ploughed ground and prayed for rain. His frightened boys had taken him home, and later on, the same afternoon, when they brought news of four more cows down with “the pleuro” in an outer paddock, he had stood up outside his own door and shaken his fist at the brassy sky and cursed high heaven to the terror of his family, till his brave, sun-browned wife dragged him inside and soothed him. And Peter M'Laughlan knew all about this.

Ross's family had the doctor out to him, and persuaded him to come to church this Sunday. The old man sat on the front seat, stooping forward, with his elbow resting on the desk and his chin on his hand, bunching up his beard over his mouth with his fingers and staring gloomily at Peter with dark, piercing eyes from under bushy eyebrows, just as I've since seen a Scotchman stare at Max O'Rell all through a humorous lecture called “A nicht wi' Sandy.”

Ross's right hand resting on the desk was very eloquent: horny, scarred and knotted at every joint, with broken, twisted nails, and nearly closed, as though fitted to the handle of an axe or a spade. Ross was an educated man (he had a regular library of books at home), and perhaps that's why he suffered so much.

Peter preached as if he were speaking quietly to one person only, but every word was plain and every sentence went straight to someone. I believe he looked every soul in the eyes before he had done. Once he said something and caught my eye, and I felt a sudden lump in my throat. There was a boy there, a pale, thin, sensitive boy who was eating his heart out because of things he didn't understand. He was ambitious and longed for something different from this life; he'd written a story or two and some rhymes for the local paper; his companions considered him a “bit ratty” and the grown-up people thought him a “bit wrong in his head,” idiotic, or at least “queer.” And during his sermon Peter spoke of “unsatisfied longings,” of the hope of something better, and said that one had to suffer much and for long years before he could preach or write; and then he looked at that boy. I knew the boy very well; he has risen in the world since then.

Peter spoke of the life we lived, of the things we knew, and used names and terms that we used. “I don't know whether it was a blanky sermon or a blanky lecture,” said long swanky Jim Bullock afterwards, “but it was straight and hit some of us hard. It hit me once or twice, I can tell yer.” Peter spoke of our lives: “And there is beauty—even in this life and in this place,” he said. “Nothing is wasted—nothing is without reason. There is beauty even in this place—-”

I noticed something like a hint of a hard smile on Ross's face; he moved the hand on the desk and tightened it.

“Yes,” said Peter, as if in answer to Ross's expression and the movement of his hand, “there is beauty in this life here. After a good season, and when the bush is tall and dry, when the bush-fires threaten a man's crop of ripened wheat, there are tired men who run and ride from miles round to help that man, and who fight the fire all night to save his wheat—and some of them may have been wrangling with him for years. And in the morning, when the wheat is saved and the danger is past, when the fire is beaten out or turned, there are blackened, grimy hands that come together and grip-hands that have not joined for many a long day.”

Old Palmer, Ross's neighbour, moved uneasily. He had once helped Ross to put a fire out, but they had quarrelled again since. Ross still sat in the same position, looking the hard man he was. Peter glanced at Ross, looked down and thought a while, and then went on again:

“There is beauty even in this life and in this place. When a man loses his farm, or his stock, or his crop, through no fault of his own, there are poor men who put their hands into their pockets to help him.”

Old Kurtz, over the ridge, had had his stacked crop of wheat in sheaf burned—some scoundrel had put a match to it at night—and the farmers round had collected nearly fifty pounds for him.

“There is beauty even in this life and in this place. In the blazing drought, when the cattle lie down and cannot rise from weakness, neighbours help neighbours to lift them. When one man has hay or chaff and no stock, he gives it or sells it cheaply to the poor man who has starving cattle and no fodder.”

I only knew one or two instances of this kind; but Peter was preaching of what man should do as well as what they did.

“When a man meets with an accident, or dies, there are young men who go with their ploughs and horses and plough the ground for him or his widow and put in the crop.”

Jim Bullock and one or two other young men squirmed. They had ploughed old Leonard's land for him when he met with an accident in the shape of a broken leg got by a kick from a horse. They had also ploughed the ground for Mrs Phipps when her husband died, working, by the way, all Saturday afternoon and Sunday, for they were very busy at home at that time.

“There is beauty even in this life and in this place. There are women who were friends in girlhood and who quarrelled bitterly over a careless word, an idle tale, or some paltry thing, who live within a mile of each other and have not spoken for years; yet let one fall ill, or lose husband or child, and the other will hurry across to her place and take off her bonnet and tuck up her sleeves, and set to work to help straighten things, and they will kiss, and cry in each other's arms, and be sisters again.”

I saw tears in the eyes of two hard and hard-faced women I knew; but they were smiling to each other through their tears.

“And now,” said Peter, “I want to talk to you about some other things. I am not preaching as a man who has been taught to preach comfortably, but as a man who has learned in the world's school. I know what trouble is. Men,” he said, still speaking quietly, “and women too! I have been through trouble as deep as any of yours—perhaps deeper. I know how you toil and suffer, I know what battles you fight, I know. I too fought a battle, perhaps as hard as any you fight. I carry a load and am fighting a battle still.” His eyes were very haggard just them. “But this is not what I wanted to talk to you about. I have nothing to say against a young man going away from this place to better himself, but there are young men who go out back shearing or droving, young men who are goodhearted but careless, who make cheques, and spend their money gambling or drinking and never think of the old folk at home until it is too late. They never think of the old people, alone, perhaps, in a desolate but on a worked-out farm in the scrub.”

Jim Bullock squirmed again. He had gone out back last season and made a cheque, and lost most of it on horse-racing and cards.

“They never think—they cannot think how, perhaps, long years agone in the old days, the old father, as a young man, and his brave young wife, came out here and buried themselves in the lonely bush and toiled for many years, trying—it does not matter whether they failed or not—trying to make homes for their children; toiled till the young man was bowed and grey, and the young wife brown and wrinkled and worn out. Exiles they were in the early days—boy-husbands and girl-wives some of them, who left their native lands, who left all that was dear, that seemed beautiful, that seemed to make life worth living, and sacrificed their young lives in drought and utter loneliness to make homes for their children. I want you young men to think of this. Some of them came from England, Ireland, Bonnie Scotland.” Ross straightened up and let his hands fall loosely on his knees. “Some from Europe—your foreign fathers—some from across the Rhine in Germany.” We looked at old Kurtz. He seemed affected.

Then Peter paused for a moment and blinked thoughtfully at Ross, then he took a drink of water. I can see now that the whole thing was a battle between Peter M'Laughlan and Robert Ross—Scot met Scot. “It seemed to me,” Jim Bullock said afterwards, “that Peter was only tryin' to make some of us blanky well blubber.”

“And there are men,” Peter went on, “who have struggled and suffered and failed, and who have fought and failed again till their tempers are spoiled, until they grow bitter. They go in for self-pity, and self-pity leads to moping and brooding and madness; self-pity is the most selfish and useless thing on the face of God's earth. It is cruel, it is deadly, both to the man and to those who love him, and whom he ought to love. His load grows heavier daily in his imagination, and he sinks down until it is in him to curse God and die. He ceases to care for or to think of his children who are working to help him.” (Ross's sons were good, steady, hard-working boys.) “Or the brave wife who has been so true to him for many hard years, who left home and friends and country for his sake. Who bears up in the blackest of times, and persists in looking at the bright side of things for his sake; who has suffered more than he if he only knew it, and suffers now, through him and because of him, but who is patient and bright and cheerful while her heart is breaking. He thinks she does not suffer, that she cannot suffer as a man does. My God! he doesn't know. He has forgotten in her the bright, fresh-faced, loving lassie he loved and won long years agone—long years agone—-”

There was a sob, like the sob of an over-ridden horse as it sinks down broken-hearted, and Ross's arms went out on the desk in front of him, and his head went down on them. He was beaten.

He was steered out gently with his wife on one side of him and his eldest son on the other.

“Don't be alarmed, my friends,” said Peter, standing by the water-bag with one hand on the tap and the pannikin in the other. “Mr Ross has not been well lately, and the heat has been too much for him.” And he went out after Ross. They took him round under the bush shed behind the hut, where it was cooler.

When Peter came back to his place he seemed to have changed his whole manner and tone. “Our friend, Mr Ross, is much better,” he said. “We will now sing”—he glanced at Clara Southwick at the harmonium—“we will now sing `Shall We Gather at the River?'“ We all knew that hymn; it was an old favourite round there, and Clara Southwick played it well in spite of the harmonium.

And Peter sang—the first and last time I ever heard him sing. I never had an ear for music; but I never before nor since heard a man's voice that stirred me as Peter M'Laughlan's. We stood like emus, listening to him all through one verse, then we pulled ourselves together.

    Shall we gather at the River,
      Where bright angels' feet have trod—

The only rivers round there were barren creeks, the best of them only strings of muddy waterholes, and across the ridge, on the sheep-runs, the creeks were dry gutters, with baked banks and beds, and perhaps a mudhole every mile or so, and dead beasts rotting and stinking every few yards.

    Gather with the saints at the River,
      That flows by the throne of God.

Peter's voice trembled and broke. He caught his breath, and his eyes filled. But he smiled then—he stood smiling at us through his tears.

    The beautiful, the beautiful River,
      That flows by the throne of God.

Outside I saw women kiss each other who had been at daggers drawn ever since I could remember, and men shake hands silently who had hated each other for years. Every family wanted Peter to come home to tea, but he went across to Ross's, and afterwards down to Kurtz's place, and bled and inoculated six cows or so in a new way, and after tea he rode off over the gap to see his friend.

 
 
 

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