Kelly's Conversion

Original Text: 
Where the Dead Men Lie and Other Poems, ed. A.G. Stephens (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1897): 52. Internet Archive. Sydney Electronic Text and Image Service (SETIS), digital text sponsored by AustLit: http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/oztexts
1Kelly the Rager half opened an eye
2To wink at the Army passing by,
3While his hot breath, thick with the taint of beer,
4Came forth from his lips in a drunken jeer.
5Brown and bearded and long of limb
6He lay, as the Army confronted him
7And, clad in grey, one and all did pray
8That his deadly sins might be washed away--
9But Kelly stubbornly answered "Nay."
10Then the captain left him in mild despair,
11But before the music took up its blare
12A pale-faced lassie stepped out and spoke--
13A little sad girl in a sad grey cloak--
14"Rise up, Kelly! your work's to do:
15Kelly, the Saviour's a-calling you!"
16He strove to look wise; rubbed at his eyes;
17Looked down at the ground, looked up at the skies;
18And something that p'r'aps was his conscience stirred:
19He seemed perplexed as again he heard
20The girl with the garments of saddest hue
21Say, "Kelly, the Saviour's a-calling you!"
22He got on his knees and thence to his feet,
23And stumbled away down the dusty street;
25But still in his ear the glasses chink
26And jingle only the one refrain,
27Clear as the lassie's voice again:
28"Kelly, Kelly, come here to me!
29Kelly the Rager, I've work for thee!"
30He trembled, and dropped the tumbler, and slopped
31The beer on the counter: the barman stopped,
32With a curious eye on his haggard face.
33"Kelly, old fellow! you're going the pace.
34Don't you fancy it's time to take
35A pull on yourself--put your foot on the brake?
37This time next week, if you don't look out."
38But he didn't--he sobered himself that night:
39"That time next week" he was nearly right:
40Yet still at the mill, though he'd stopped the grog,
41As the saw bit into the green pine log,
42The wood shrieked out to him in its pain
43A fragment caught of the same refrain,
44As the swift teeth cut and the sawdust flew--
45"Kelly, Kelly, I've work for you!"
46Then the seasons fell and the floods came down
47And laid the dust in the frightened town.
48No more the beat of hoofs and feet
49Was heard the length of the crooked street;
50For, leaving counter and desk and till,
51All had fled to the far sandhill;
52But everywhere that a man might dare
53Risk life to save it--Kelly was there!
54No more the voice had a tale to tell:
55He'd found his work and he did it well.
56Who stripped leggings and hat and coat
57To swim the lagoon to reach the boat?
58Who pushed out in the dead of night
59At the mute appeal of a beacon-light?
60Who was blessed by the women then,
61And who was cheered by the stalwart men,
62As he shot the rapids above the town
63With two pale Smiths and a weeping Brown,
64Landing them safe from his cockle-shell,
65Woefully frightened, but safe and well,
66With their friends on the sandhill all secure?
67Who but Kelly, you may be sure!
68They reckoned the heads up, one by one,
69And he sighed as he thought that the work was done;
70But soon found out that 'twas not begun.
71They counted away till it came to pass
72They missed the little Salvation lass:
73She'd been to pray with a man who lay
74Sick on the river-shore, far away.
75Men looked askance and the women smote
76Their hands in grief, as he launched the boat.
77He turned as he cast the painter loose:
78"Who'll make another? It's little use
79My going alone; for I'm nearly done,
80And from here to the point is a stiffish run."
81Then one stepped forward and took an oar,
82And the boat shot out for the other shore.
83To and fro where the gums hang low
84And bar their passage, the comrades row;
85Hard up stream where the waters race;
86Steady, where floating branches lace;
87Through many a danger and sharp escape
88And catch of breath, as the timbers scrape
89And thrill to the touch of some river shape;
90Till at last the huts on the point draw near,
91And over their shoulders the boatmen peer.
92The flood was running from door to door--
93Two-feet-six on the earthen floor;
94Half-way up to the bed it ran,
95Where two pale women and one sick man
96Crouched, and looked at the water's rise
97With horror set in their staring eyes;
98While the children wept as the water crept.
99But how the blood to their hearts high leapt
100As over the threshold the rescuers stepped,
101And, wrapped in blanket and shawl and coat,
102Carried the saved to the crazy boat!
103Then Kelly circled the little lass
104With his strong right arm, and as in a glass
105Saw himself in her eyes that shone
106Sweet in a face that was drawn and wan:
107And he felt that for her life he'd give his own.
108Too short a moment her cheek was pressed
109Close to the beat of his spray-wet breast;
110While her hair just lay like a golden ray,
111The last farewell of a passing day.
112Gently he settled her down in the stern
113With a tender smile, and had time to turn
114To look to the others, and then he saw
115That the craft was full and could hold no more.
116He looked at the party--old, young, and sick--
117While he had no tie, neither wife nor chick.
118Then with a shove he sent out the boat
119Far on the turbid stream afloat.
120"Pull!" said Kelly; "now pull!" said he;
121"Pull with your load and come back for me.
122You may be late, but at any rate
123I'm better able than you to wait."
124They pulled and, looking back, saw him stand
125Shading his eyes with his big, rough hand--
126Silent, patient, and smiling-faced,
127With the water curling around his waist.
128Return they did, but they found him not:
129Nought but the chimney then marked the spot.
130They found him not when the boat went back--
131Never a trace of him, never a track;
132Only the sigh and the dreary cry
133Of the gums that had wept to see him die:
134These alone had a tale to tell
135Of a life that had ended passing well--
136The sad refrain of a hero's fate
137Tuned in a tongue we may not translate.
138Facing Death with a stout, brave heart;
139Choosing the nobler and better part;
140Home to the land of eternal sun
141Kelly had gone--for his work was done.

Notes

24] cadge: get by begging. Back to Line
36] the horrors: delirium tremens. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
1891
Publication Notes: 
The Bulletin, December 19, 1891.
RPO poem Editors: 
Cameron La Follette
RPO Edition: 
2011