Shall We Gather at the River? by Henry Lawson
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.