Ruth

A poem by Henry Lawson

All is well, in a prison, to-night, and the warders are crying ‘All’s Well!’
I must speak, for the sake of my heart, if it’s but to the walls of my cell.
For what does it matter to me if to-morrow I go where I will?
I’m as free as I ever shall be, there is naught in my life to fulfil.

I am free! I am haunted no more by the question that tortured my brain:
‘Are you sane of a people gone mad? or mad in a world that is sane?’
I have had time to rest, and to pray, and my reason no longer is vext
By the spirit that hangs you one day, and would hail you as martyr the next.

Are the fields of my fancy less fair through a window that’s narrowed and barred?
Are the morning stars dimmed by the glare of the gas-light that flares in the yard?
No! And what does it matter to me if to-morrow I sail from the land?
I am free, as I never was free! I exult in my loneliness grand!

Be a saint and a saviour of men, be a Christ, and they’ll slander and rail!
Only Crime’s understood in the world, and a man is respected, in gaol.
But I find in my raving a balm, in the worst that has come to the worst,
Let me think of it all, I grow calm, let me think it all out from the first.

Beyond the horizon of Self do the walls of my prison retreat,
And I stand in a gap of the hills with the scene of my life at my feet;
The range to the west, and the Peak, and the marsh where the dark ridges end,
And the spurs running down to the Creek, and the she-oaks that sigh in the bend.

The hints of the river below; and, away on the azure and green,
The old goldfield of Specimen Flat, and the township, a blotch on the scene;
The store, the hotels, and the bank, and the gaol and the people who come
With the weatherboard box and the tank, the Australian idea of home:

The scribe, spirit-broken; the ‘wreck,’ in his might-have-been or shame;
The townsman ‘respected’ or worthy; the workman respectful and tame;
The boss of the pub with his fine sense of honour, grown moral and stout,
Like the spielers who came with the ‘line,’ on the cheques that were made farther out.

The clever young churchman, despised by the swaggering, popular man;
The doctor with hands clasped behind, and bowed head, as if under a ban;
The one man with the brains, with the power to lead, unsuspected and dumb,
Whom Fate sets apart for the Hour, the man for the hour that might come.

The old local liar whose story was ancient when Egypt was young,
And the gossip who hangs on the fence and poisons God’s world with her tongue;
The haggard bush mother who’d nag, though a husband or child be divine,
And who takes a fierce joy in a rag of the clothes on the newcomer’s line.

And a lad with a cloud on his heart who was lost in a world vague and dim,
No one dreamed as he drifted apart that ’twas genius the matter with him;
Who was doomed, in that ignorant hole, to its spiritless level to sink,
Till the iron had entered his soul, and his brain found a refuge in drink.

Perhaps I was bitter because of the tongues of disgrace in the town,
Of a boy-nature misunderstood and its nobler ambitions sneered
Of the sense of injustice that stings till it ends in the creed of the push,
I was born in that shadow that clings to the old gully homes in the bush.

And I was ambitious. Perhaps as a boy I could see things too plain,
How I wished I could write of the truths, of the visions, that haunted my brain!
Of the bush-buried toiler denied e’en the last loving comforts of all,
Of my father who slaved till he died in the scrub by his wedges and maul.

Twenty years, and from daylight till dark, twenty years it was split, fence, and grub,
And the end was a tumble-down hut and a bare, dusty patch in the scrub.
’Twas the first time he’d rested, they said, but the knit in his forehead was deep,
And to me the scarred hands of the dead seemed to work as I’d seen them in sleep.

And the mother who toiled by his side, through hardship and trouble and drought,
And who fought for the home when he died till her heart, not her spirit, wore out:
I am shamed for Australia and haunted by the face of the haggard bush wife,
She who fights her grim battle undaunted because she knows nothing of life.

By the barren track travelled by few men, poor victims of commerce, unknown,
E’en the troubles that woman tells woman she suffers, unpitied, alone;
Heart-dumbed and mind-dulled and benighted, Eve’s beauty in girlhood destroyed!
Till the wrongs never felt shall be righted, and the peace never missed be enjoyed.

There was no one to understand me. I was lonely and shy as a lad,
Or I lived in a world that was wider than ours; so of course I was ‘mad.’
Who is not understood is a ‘crank’, so I suffered the tortures of men
Doomed to think in the bush, till I drank and went wrong, I grew popular then.

There was Doctor Lebenski, my friend, and the friend, too, of all who were down,
Clever, gloomy, and generous drunkard, the pride and disgrace of the town.
He had been through the glory and shame of a wild life by city and sea,
And the tales of the land whence he came had a strong fascination for me.

And often in yarning or fancy, when she-oaks grew misty and dim,
From the forest and straight for the camp of the Cossack I’ve ridden with him:
Ridden out in the dusk with a score, ridden back ere the dawning with ten,
Have struck at three kingdoms and Fate for the fair land of Poland again!

He’d a sorrow that drink couldn’t drown, that his great heart was powerless to fight,
And I gathered the threads ’twixt the long, pregnant puffs of his last pipe at night;
For he’d say to me, sadly: ‘Jack Drew’, then he’d pause, as to watch the smoke curl,
‘If a good girl should love you, be true, though you die for it, true to the girl!

‘A man may be false to his country, a man may be false to his friend:
‘Be a vagabond, drunkard, a spieler, yet his soul may come right in the end;
‘But there is no prayer, no atonement, no drink that can banish the shade
‘From your side, if you’ve one spark of manhood, of a dead girl that you have betrayed.’

‘One chance for a fortune,’ we’re told, in the lives of the poorest of men,
There’s a chance for a heaven on earth that comes over and over again!
’Twas for Ruth, the bank manager’s niece, that the wretched old goldfield grew fair,
And she came like an angel of peace in an hour of revengeful despair.

A girl as God made her, and wise in a faith that was never estranged,
From childhood neglected and wronged, she had grown with her nature unchanged;
And she came as an angel of Hope as I crouched on Eternity’s brink,
And the loaded revolver and rope were parts of the horrors of drink.

I was not to be trusted, they said, within sight of a cheque or a horse,
And the worst that was said of my name all the gossips were glad to endorse.
But she loved me, she loved me! And why? Ask the she-oaks that sighed in the bends,
We had suffered alike, she and I, from the blindness of kinsfolk and friends.

A girlhood of hardship and care, for she gave the great heart of a child
To a brother whose idol was Self, and a brother good-natured but ‘wild;’,
And a father who left her behind when he’d suffered too much from the moan
Of a mother grown selfish and blind in her trouble, ’twas always her own.

She was brave, and she never complained, for the hardships of youth that had driven
My soul to the brink of perdition, but strengthened the girl’s faith in Heaven.
In the home that her relatives gave she was tortured each hour of her life.
By her cruel dependence, the slave of her aunt, the bank-manager’s wife.

Does the world know how easy to lead and how hard to be driven are men?
She was leading me back with her love, to the faith of my childhood again!
To my boyhood’s neglected ideal, to the hopes that were strangled at birth,
To the good and the truth of the real, to the good that was left on the earth.

And the sigh of the oaks seemed a hymn, and the waters had music for me
As I sat on the grass at her feet, and rested my head on her knee;
And we seemed in a dreamland apart from the world’s discontent and despair,
For the cynic went out of my heart at the touch of her hand on my hair.

She would talk like a matron at times, and she prattled at times like a child:
‘I will trust you, I know you are good, you have only been careless and wild,
‘You are clever, you’ll rise in the world, you must think of your future and me,
‘You will give up the drink for my sake, and you don’t know how happy we’ll be!’

‘I can work, I will help you,’ she said, and she’d plan out our future and home,
But I found no response in my heart save the hungry old craving to roam.
Would I follow the paths of the dead? I was young yet. Would I settle down
To the life that our parents had led by the dull, paltry-spirited town?

For the ghost of the cynic was there, and he waited and triumphed at last,
One night, I’d been drinking, because of a spectre that rose from the past,
My trust had so oft been betrayed: that at last I had turned to distrust,
My sense of injustice so keen that my anger was always unjust.

Would I sacrifice all for a wife, who was free now to put on my hat
And to go far away from the life, from the home life of Specimen Flat?
Would I live as our fathers had lived to the finish? And what was it worth?
A woman’s reproach in the end, of all things most unjust on the earth.

The old rebel stirred in my blood, and he whispered, ‘What matter?’ ‘Why not?’
And she trembled and paled, for the kiss that I gave her was reckless and hot.
And the angel that watched o’er her slept, and the oaks sighed aloud in the creek
As we sat in a shadow that crept from a storm-cloud that rose on the Peak.

There’s a voice warns the purest and best of their danger in love or in strife,
But that voice is a knell to her honour who loves with the love of her life!
And ‘Ruth, Ruth!’ I whispered at last in a voice that was not like my own,
She trembled and clung to me fast with a sigh that was almost a moan.

While you listen and doubt, and incline to the devil that plucks at your sleeve,
When the whispers of angels have failed, then Heaven speaks once I believe.
The lightning leapt out, in a flash only seen by those ridges and creeks,
And the darkness shut down with a crash that I thought would have riven the peaks.

By the path through the saplings we ran, as the great drops came pattering down,
To the first of the low-lying ridges that lay between us and the town;
Where she suddenly drew me aside with that beautiful instinct of love
As the clatter of hoofs reached our ears, and a horseman loomed darkly above.

’Twas the Doctor: he reined up and sat for the first moment pallid and mute,
Then he lifted his hand to his hat with his old-fashioned martial salute,
And he said with a glance at the ridge, looming black with its pine-tops awhirl,
‘Take my coat, you are caught in the storm!’ and he whispered, ‘Be true to the girl!’

He rode on, to a sick bed, maybe some twenty miles back in the bush,
And we hurried on through the gloom, and I still seemed to hear in the ‘woosh’
Of the wind in the saplings and oaks, in the gums with their top boughs awhirl,
In the voice of the gathering tempest, the warning, ‘Be true to the girl!’

And I wrapped the coat round her, and held her so close that I felt her heart thump
When the lightning leapt out, as we crouched in the lee of the shell of a stump,
And there seemed a strange fear in her eyes and the colour had gone from her cheek,
And she scarcely had uttered a word since the hot brutal kiss by the creek.

The storm rushed away to the west, to the ridges drought-stricken and dry,
To the eastward loomed far-away peaks ’neath the still starry arch of the sky;
By the light of the full moon that swung from a curtain of cloud like a lamp,
I saw that my tent had gone down in the storm, as we passed by the camp.

’Tis a small thing, or chance, such as this, that decides between hero and cur
In one’s heart. I was wet to the skin, and my comfort was precious to her.
And her aunt was away in the city, the dining-room fire was alight,
And the uncle was absent, he drank with some friends at the Royal that night.

He came late, and passed to his room without glancing at her or at me,
Too straight and precise, be it said, for a man who was sober to be.
Then the drop of one boot on the floor (there was no wife to witness his guilt),
And a moment thereafter a snore that proclaimed that he slept on the quilt.

Was it vanity, love, or revolt? Was it joy that came into my life?
As I sat there with her in my arms, and caressed her and called her ‘My wife!’
Ah, the coward! But my heart shall bleed, though I live on for fifty long years,
For she could not cry out, only plead with eyes that were brimming with tears.

Not the passion so much brings remorse, but the thought of the treacherous part
I’d have played in a future already planned out, ay! endorsed in my heart!
When a good woman falls for the sake of a love that has blinded her eyes,
There is pardon, perhaps, for his lust; but what heaven could pardon the lies?

And ‘What does it matter?’ I said. ‘You are mine, I am yours, and for life.
‘He is drunk and asleep, he won’t hear, and to morrow you shall be my wife!’
There’s an hour in the memory of most that we hate ever after and loathe,
’Twas the daylight that came like a ghost to her window that startled us both.

Twixt the door of her room and the door of the office I stood for a space,
When a treacherous board in the floor sent a crack like a shot through the place!,
Then the creak of a step and the click of a lock in the manager’s room,
I grew cold to the stomach and sick, as I trembled and shrank in the gloom.

He faced me, revolver in hand, ‘Now I know you, you treacherous whelp!
‘Stand still, where you are, or I’ll fire!’ and he suddenly shouted for help.
‘Help! Burglary!’ Yell after yell, such a voice would have wakened the tomb;
And I heard her scream once, and she fell like a log on the floor of her room!

And I thought of her then like a flash, of the foul fiend of gossip that drags
A soul to perdition, I thought of the treacherous tongues of the hags;
She would sacrifice all for my sake, she would tell the whole township the truth.
I’d escape, send the Doctor a message and die, ere they took me, for Ruth!

Then I rushed him, a struggle, a flash, I was down with a shot in my arm,
Up again, and a desperate fight, hurried footsteps and cries of alarm!
A mad struggle, a blow on the head, and the gossips will fill in the blank
With the tale of the capture of Drew on the night he broke into the bank.

In the cell at the lock-up all day and all night, without pause through my brain
Whirled the scenes of my life to the last one, and over and over again
I paced the small cell, till exhaustion brought sleep, and I woke to the past
Like a man metamorphosed, clear-headed, and strong in a purpose at last.

She would sacrifice all for my sake, she would tell the whole township the truth,
In the mood I was in I’d have given my life for a moment with Ruth;
But still, as I thought, from without came the voice of the constable’s wife;
‘They say it’s brain fever, poor girl, and the doctor despairs of her life.’

‘He has frightened the poor girl to death, such a pity, so pretty and young,’
So the voice of a gossip chimed in: ‘And the wretch! he deserves to be hung.
‘They were always a bad lot, the Drews, and I knowed he was more rogue than crank,
‘And he only pretended to court her so’s to know his way into the bank!’

Came the doctor at last with his voice hard and cold and a face like a stone,
Hands behind, but it mattered not then, ’twas a fight I must fight out alone:
‘You have cause to be thankful,’ he said, as though speaking a line from the past,
‘She was conscious an hour; she is dead, and she called for you, Drew, till the last!

‘Ay! And I knew the truth, but I lied. She fought for the truth, but I lied;
‘And I said you were well and were coming, and, listening and waiting, she died.
‘God forgive you! I warned you in time. You will suffer while reason endures:
‘For the rest, you will know only I have the key of her story, and yours.’

The curious crowd in the court seemed to me but as ghosts from the past,
As the words of the charge were read out, like a hymn from the first to the last;
I repeated the words I’d rehearsed, in a voice that seemed strangely away,
In their place, ‘I am guilty,’ I said; and again, ‘I have nothing to say.’

I realised then, and stood straight, would I shrink from the eyes of the clown,
From the eyes of the sawney who’d boast of success with a girl of the town?
But there is human feeling in men which is easy, or hard, to define:
Every eye, as I glanced round the court, was cast down, or averted from mine.

Save the doctor’s, it seemed to me then as if he and I stood there alone,
For a moment he looked in my eyes with a wonderful smile in his own,
Slowly lifted his hand in salute, turned and walked from the court-room, and then
From the rear of the crowd came the whisper: ‘The Doctor’s been boozing again!’

I could laugh at it then from the depth of the bitterness still in my heart,
At the ignorant stare of surprise, at the constables’ ‘Arder in Car-rt!’
But I know. Oh, I understand now how the poor tortured heart cries aloud
For a flame from High Heaven to wither the grin on the face of a crowd.

Then the Judge spoke harshly; I stood with my fluttering senses awhirl:
My crime, he said sternly, had cost the young life of an innocent girl;
I’d brought sorrow and death to a home, I was worse than a murderer now;
And the sentence he passed on me there was the worst that the law would allow.

Let me rest, I grow weary and faint. Let me breathe, but what value is breath?
Ah! the pain in my heart, as of old; and I know what it is, it is death.
It is death, it is rest, it is sleep. ’Tis the world and I drifting apart.
I have been through a sorrow too deep to have passed without breaking my heart.

There’s a breeze! And a light without bars! Let me drink the free air till I drown.
’Tis the she-oaks, the Peak, and the stars. Lo, a dead angel’s spirit floats down!
This will pass, aye, and all things will pass. Oh, my love, have you come back to me?
I am tired, let me lie on the grass at your feet, with my head on your knee.

‘I was wrong’, the words lull me to sleep, like the words of a lullaby song,
I was wrong, but the iron went deep in my heart ere I knew I was wrong.
I rebelled, but I suffered in youth, and I suffer too deeply to live:
You’ll forgive me, and pray for me, Ruth, for you loved me, and God will forgive.

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