Twelve years ago our Jack was lost. All night,
Twelve years ago, the Spirit of the Storm
Sobbed round our camp. A wind of northern hills
That hold a cold companionship with clouds
Came down, and wrestled like a giant with
The iron-featured woods; and fall and ford,
The night our Jack was lost, sent forth a cry
Of baffled waters, where the Murray sucked
The rain-replenished torrents at his source,
And gathered strength, and started for the sea.
We took our Jack from Melbourne just two weeks
Before this day twelve years ago. He left
A home where Love upon the threshold paused,
And wept across the shoulder of the lad,
And blest us when we said we’d take good care
To keep the idol of the house from harm.
We were a band of three. We started thence
To look for watered lands and pastures new,
With faces set towards the down beyond
Where cool Monaro’s topmost mountain breaks
The wings of many a seaward-going storm,
And shapes them into wreaths of subtle fire.
We were, I say, a band of three in all,
With brother Tom for leader. Bright-eyed Jack,
Who thought himself as big a man as Tom,
Was self-elected second in command,
And I was cook and groom. A week slipt by,
Brimful of life of health, and happiness;
For though our progress northward had been slow,
Because the country on the track was rough,
No one amongst us let his spirits flag;
Moreover, being young, and at the stage
When all things novel wear a fine romance,
We found in ridge and glen, and wood and rock
And waterfall, and everything that dwells
Outside with nature, pleasure of that kind
Which only lives for those whose hearts are tired
Of noisy cities, and are fain to feel
The peace and power of the mighty hills.
The second week we crossed the upper fork
Where Murray meets a river from the east;
And there one evening dark with coming storm,
We camped a furlong from the bank. Our Jack,
The little man that used to sing and shout
And start the merry echoes of the cliffs,
And gravely help me to put up the tent,
And try a thousand tricks and offices,
That made me scold and laugh by turns the pet
Of sisters, and the youngest hope of one
Who grew years older in a single night
Our Jack, I say, strayed off into the dusk,
Lured by the noises of a waterfall;
And though we hunted, shouting right and left,
The whole night long, through wind and rain, and searched
For five days afterwards, we never saw
The lad again.
I turned to Tom and said,
That wild fifth evening, “Which of us has heart
Enough to put the saddle on our swiftest horse,
And post away to Melbourne, there to meet
And tell his mother we have lost her son?
Or which of us can bear to stand and see
The white affliction of a faded face,
Made old by you and me? O, Tom, my boy,
Her heart will break!” Tom moaned, but did not speak
A word. He saddled horse, and galloped off.
O, Jack! Jack! Jack! When bright-haired Benjamin
Was sent to Egypt with his father’s sons,
Those rough half-brothers took more care of him
Than we of you! But shall we never see
Your happy face, my brave lad, any more?
Nor hear you whistling in the fields at eve?
Nor catch you up to mischief with your knife
Amongst the apple trees? Nor find you out
A truant playing on the road to school?
Nor meet you, boy, in any other guise
You used to take? Is this worn cap I hold
The only thing you’ve left us of yourself?
Are we to sit from night to night deceived
Through rainy seasons by presentiments
That make us start at shadows on the pane,
And fancy that we hear you in the dark,
And wonder that your step has grown so slow,
And listen for your hand upon the door?