Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Morley Roberts > Text of Glory Of The Morning

An essay by Morley Roberts

The Glory Of The Morning

Title:     The Glory Of The Morning
Author: Morley Roberts [More Titles by Roberts]

According to his temperament a man's memory of travel and the strange wild places of the earth deals chiefly with one set of reminiscences or with another. For me the remembered mornings of the wide and lonely world, whether in the bush, or on the prairie, or the veldt, or at sea, are my chiefest delight. For in them, as in the morning even now, is something especial and peculiar which recalls and recreates youth: which breaks up the dead customs of to-day, and sends one back again to the swift, sweet hours of experiment and change. Assuredly the nights had their charm, whether they were spent by some great camp-fire on the winding Lachlan, in the darkness of a pine forest in British Columbia, or on the fo'c'sle-head of a ship upon the sea; and yet the night was the night, the prelude to sleep, and not to activity, the chief joy of man.

I can recall how a morning broke for me once which was the morning of a kind of freedom almost appalling to the child of cities. This was the morning of youth, or rather of earliest manhood, when I was timid and yet unafraid, curious, and, after a manner, innocent, when I had slept by my first camp-fire, on the Bull Plains of Australia's Riverina. And yet I can remember nothing of those hours clearly. Rather is there in my mind as typical of the Australian dawn such hours as those I spent away beyond the Murray, the Murrumbidgee and the Lachlan, on a station on the banks of the Willandra Billabong. It was early summer and shearing time for a hundred thousand sheep, whose fleeces were destined for Lyons and the North of England. I had dropped off a wearied horse close upon midnight, and yet by half-past three I was up once more. I stumbled sleepily in the starry darkness to the mare that was kept up, one Beeswing by name, a mare so swift and keen for a little while that to ride her was a delight. She whinnied and muzzled me all over as I put the saddle on her and drew the girths tight. Then I swung across her, and for some minutes she went gingerly, for she was unsound and wanted warming for the hot task before her. Yet it was her only work in the long day and she delighted in it even as I did. We picked our way across the shadows of big salt-bush and the rounded humps of cotton-bush, then brown and leafless, to the paddock, a mile square, where the other horses were at pasture, and as I rode sleep dropped away from me and my eyes opened and my lips grew moist as I sucked in the air of dawn. In the east the pale ghost of the day's forerunner stood waiting. The wind in that hot season came from the north; it had no intoxicating quality save that of comparative coolness after the furnace of yesterday. Yet how sweet it was, when I remembered the burning noon, the hot labours of the stock-yard and its dust as the ten thousand of that day's driving entered reluctantly. And in the darkness the plain stretched before me without a break for a thousand miles save for the Barrier Ranges. With no map on the whole station I knew not even of them, and as far as eye could reach not a rolling sand-dune marred the calm oceanic level of that brown sea of land.

And now upon this morning, that yet was night, I was adrift upon a horse with a definite task in the great circle of immensity. The rest of the world was nothing, and I rode delicately over the rotten grey ground till the starshine dwindled and the day came up like a slow diver through dark waters. The pallid air was odorous as I rode with rolled-up sleeves and open breast, and I sang a little, for the night was out of me and my throat was sweet. And Beeswing warmed, and under me grew nimble, with the swing and easy spring of the dancer, and she reached out to feel the bit lightly with an unspoiled mouth and to feel my hands, and she raised her lean head and sniffed the air for her own kind that we were after. Were we not horse-hunting? She bent her neck and went as delicately as ever Agag went, and then bounded lightly over a hole in the rotten ground of the great horse-paddock. She and I were partners in the morning as the dawn came up. And now, indeed, the morning tide broke over the eastern bar, and was like a pale grey flood moving over level earth. Then she whinnied low as though she spoke to me in a whisper, and I saw one dark, moving shadow, and another, as she broke into a gallop. Oh, but out of seven alarmed shadows, fearful of work, I needed three, and neither Beeswing nor her rider could endure in their pride to drive in seven when a special chosen three were enough. The dawn's game began, and though it was yet dawn's dusk we went at a gallop. For Beeswing and I together were the swiftest two, or the swiftest one, on that great station by the Willandra. But though the night was not gone there was enough light to see which horses I needed and which horses I had to discard, and to note how they broke apart cunningly. For two went this way, and one that; and four split into units as I swung round the outside edge of them in a wide circle. The rottenness of the ground gave chances, and made it hazardous. But Beeswing knew her work and the paddock, and now she was warm and as keen as fire, and any touch of lameness went away from her. She stretched out her fine lean head, and her eyes were quick; her open nostrils almost smelt and swept the ground as her head swung to and fro. Beneath me she was live steel, tense and wonderful as she sprang to this side and that of danger, and yet galloped. Again and again she swerved, and then, as a ten-foot hole showed before her, she leapt it in her stride. And again, another and another, for here the ground was crumbling, patchy, sunken, with little rims of hard earth in between cup-like openings. And as we went, and the day came, I swung my long stock-whip and shouted when it cracked. I was on them, into them, and they broke back, being over-pressed. But Beeswing was a bred stock-horse, she knew the game and loved it. Back she swung right upon her haunches, and was away upon the hunt after a great raking mare called Mischief. We galloped almost side by side, and then Mischief quailed and turned coward. As Beeswing swung again I brought the whip down on my quarry's quarters.

And now the joy of the game of dawn was great, for selection came in and the skill of the game. To-day I wanted Mischief and Black Jack and the grey mare. So as I galloped, still with swinging and reverberating whip, I edged up and put my knees into Beeswing. As she answered and sprang forward, with a rush I was within whip length of Mischief and Tom, with Mischief on the outside. One flick of the lash and the mare outpaced Tom, leaving him last of the seven. Had I edged up outside of him Beeswing might have doubted whether I wanted him or not, but I sent her up on his near side, and when I flicked him he plunged back and out and she let him go. There were six to deal with, though he came after us whinnying; yet not being urged he presently stayed, and then I shot forward again and cut off two that I did not want, and now among the four there was but one I wished to leave behind. They were well aware that one or more of them was not to work to-day, for I still hung upon them with some eager discrimination. They knew the final shout of victory as well as I who sent it up. But Lachlan, the horse I wished to leave, was the fastest of the four and kept ahead. So I ran them hard for a quarter of a mile and then edged out a little, and slowed down till they slowed and left a space betwixt the three and Lachlan. I suddenly spoke to Beeswing and shook her up till she came swiftly abreast of my three galloping like horses in a Roman chariot. Then left-handed I cut Lachlan in the flank, and with a swift turn Beeswing swept between him and the others. They stayed and turned while disparted Lachlan ran wildly. And now my three, being turned, ran back for the others; and Beeswing followed them like fire and came up with them, and once more turned them and sent them for home. To keep them going while the others whinnied meant urging; it meant filling their minds, occupying their attention. So once more, with a great shout, I was upon them and swung the whip, letting it fall with a crack first on this side and then on that, and now in the growing daylight the dust rose up as we galloped. And presently I saw the little "tin" house where the out-station boss lived, and the tent I shared with my chum the "rouseabout." And as we went fast and faster (for it was morning and I was young) the sun thrust up a shoulder behind me and it was day in Australia, day in the Lachlan back-blocks. And I could see Long Clump, a patch of dwarf-box, over my shoulder as I turned loosely in the saddle to note whether the other horses still followed. I laughed at the day (for it was dawn), and yet I knew as I ran my three into the yard that ere the day was done I should have ridden sixty miles, and have mustered 20,000 sheep in Long Clump Paddock. And when I stayed outside the stock-yard and put up the slip panels and patted Beeswing on the neck the one great pleasure of the day was over. The rest was not to be accomplished in the dusk of dawn and under the morning star, but had to be wrought out in flying dust, amid the plague of flies and the fierce heat of an Austral noon, whose heat increased with the slow sun's decline. But that swift sweet hour of the morning had been my very own. The remainder of the day belonged to the world, to duty, to the man who paid me a pound a week and "tucker" for my hands and arms and as much brains as work with sheep demanded. Yet through these hours sometimes the glory of the morning remained.

* * * * *

There are mornings on land and mornings on the sea, and when the world is a grey wash and a mask of spindrift it is good to be alive upon the sea, high on a topsail-yard, to see the grey return of the glory of the day. The work is often sheer murder, but it is the work of men, and though the skin cracks and the nails bleed, as the bulging, slatting, frantic canvas surges like a cast-iron wave, the thin red-shirted line along the jack-stay does heroic work without meaning it, without one touch of consciousness, without praise, and mostly without even that reward of a "tot" of grog so sweet to the simple-minded sailorman. Ah, yes, to be sure we were heroes, and I too (though now soft and self-conscious) played an Homeric part upon the yard, was bold, and afraid, and "funked" it with any god-smitten, panic-driven half-god by Scamander's banks, or the windy walls of Troy. Now I know what it was, and can see the grey wash of ocean, and the grey wash of white-faced morning with the great seas driving against the rising day, even as the rollers of the Atlantic surge against the base of a high berg. Little good men at home, fat men, rotund, easy souls, or those who are neither good, nor fat, nor easy, may stare and imagine yet not come near the reality when the wind booms and the sea rises, and the great concave of night sky flattens and presses down upon the driven ship, and men strive to escape doom and yet care not, and work till they are blind, and then drop down into the scant shelter of the deck, where the icy wind seems warm after the strife and bellowing up aloft. Heroes? To be sure we were heroes. What is being shot at a mile off, or a hundred yards off, to being shot at by the very heavens while one hangs over the gaping trenches of the sea? There is not an old shellback alive who has clung between angry heaven and the grey-green pastures of the deep but deserves a Victoria Cross for unconscious, dutiful, grumbling, growling valour. He might justly call every scanty dollar he earns a medal. For he has often fought in the Pacific, or by the Horn, or off the windy Cape. To recall the thick tempest at midnight, when the wind harps thunder on the stretched rigging, is to be a man again. If I blow their trumpet, the trumpet of the old sea-dogs, these scallawags, these Vikings, what matter if I seem to blow my own, having been their companion one campaign or two upon the deep? That "Me" is dead, I know, and can only be resurgent in memory, and will never laugh or feel afraid again when the slatting canvas jars one's very teeth. Yet to remember (as I can remember) how one wild night on the Southern Pacific grew into morning gives me back youth and morning again when I cared nothing for death, since death was as far off, as impossible, ay, as absurd, as Fame itself.

It had blown hard all day, and an hour after midnight our scanty band, some ten of us (mostly Cockneys like myself), stood upon the foot-ropes of the lower fore-topsail. There should have been twenty, but to be undermanned has been English fashion since Agincourt. Growl we ever so loudly where could more be found? The work was to be done by ten, one more even was not to be asked for. If the task seemed possible, why, it was possible, and when we scrambled to that narrow line of battle in the dark it seemed as easy as most things at sea, where the difficult is done hourly. Risks are nothing there; to risk nothing would be to risk destruction and to incur the bitter reproach of having shipped "not to go aloft." Each man to his fellow on the yard was a shadow and a pale blot of a face; each voice was a windy whisper, a bellow blown down into silence. As the ship ran, and lifted, and pitched and trembled, her narrow wedge shape was a blot beneath us: on each side of her white foam marked the hissing, hungry sea. But, with the sail surging before us in its gear like a mad balloon, who noted aught but the sail? I leant out upon my taut bulge of living canvas, beat it with the flat of my hand, and being the youngest waited for the word to "leech" it or "skin" it up. Being tall I was not at the extremity of the yard arm; my fellow fore-topman and a little squat man from the lower Thames stood outside me. My mate and the man inside were my world. The others I saw and heard not. The word came along the yard from the bunt to "leech" it up, and we leant over and caught the leech and pulled it on the yard. Now the fight began, but the beginning of it was easy sparring, and though the wind blew heavy, and each minute we had to remember death when she checked her roll with a jerk, the weather leech came up easy and we chuckled, each being glad. And in half an hour, or an hour, we were half masters of the wind, or as much of it as gave the sail life, after many small defeats. And then (whose fault of fingers for not being steel hooks, who shall say?) the wind, having got reinforcements, tore the victory from us and away went the sail once more free and thundering in the dark. The word was passed again, the indomitable word by the indomitable bo'sun at the bunt, this time to "skin" it up, and each man clawed out again at the flat booming canvas, clawed at it with his crooked fingers as wrestlers claw for hold behind each others' backs. A wrinkle gave hold, we nipped it, and then the ironic devil in the gale shrieked with laughter and snatched even so small an advantage from us. We knew the "old man" and the mate were cursing us down below. Did they curse us, or the weather, or the owners, or our English Agincourt trick once more? What did it matter to us, beaten and unbeaten, as we rested for a moment and then again stretched out bleeding fingers for some little advantage, knowing well that when such a gale blew victory was only possible when by constant trials the chance came of each being given good or fair handhold at once. Then came a shriek of wind and a blown-out lull and a wrinkle lapsed into a fold. We shouted "Now!" left hold of the jack-stay, and with feet outstretched grabbed slack canvas and hung on as another squall came singing like shrapnel across the peaks of the leaping sea. "Hold on now, hold on!" so sang all of us, and we cursed each other furiously. "Oh, oh, you miserable devil, hang on or it's lost again!" We cursed ourselves, felt our muscles crack, our nails shred, our skin peel and stretch and sting, and yet (thanks to our noble selves) we only lost an inch. Once more--"Now, now up, you dogs!" and that's the long-lost, long-waited, sudden, surprising clock of dawn yonder. We have been two hours here, and once more the sail leaps up and comes down. Here, two hours, two compressed swift hours, two compacted eternities measured in gasps and half the work is done unless we weaken and let up and let go.

But that's the dawn!

Morning and the glory of it, the grey wash of Eternity; sea-grey and world-grey and sky-grey, all in one great wash with a little whiteness standing for daylight. Beyond the illimitable wash where the sea breaks against the sky is the sun; source of all, strength of all. And there is no sleep to wash out of our eyes before we catch up strength from it, and encouragement. Lately we might have raised the Ajax cry, "In the light, in the light, destroy us," but now we see the little sea-plant of grey-green grow in the east, and we are strong. There is light, or a blight, a greyness out ahead and the deck whitens all awash, and the "old man" shivers in his oilskin coat as he hangs on to a pin in the rail to watch us. The poop is wet and gleaming, wet with the spray of following seas, and as our ship rolls the swash of shipped seas hisses, and her cleanness is as the cleanness of something newly varnished. Once and again as she rolls (the wind now quartering) the scuppers spout geyser-like and gurgle. As she ran like a beaten thing she wallowed a little, dived, scooped up seas and shook them off. And yet the topsail was not conquered.

And now and once again the squalls howled, and we held on, gaining nothing, yet losing nothing. We were blind but obstinate; to have gained something when everything might be lost beneath us gave us grip and courage. Ah, and then, then the great chance came, and as the last great fold of white canvas rose up like a breaking wave we shouted, flung ourselves upon it, and as our bellies (lean by now) held the rest, smothered it and beat its last life out. The thing had been alive; the gods too had blown, and we had been all but dissipated, but now we were conquerors, and the gaskets bound our dead prey to the yard. And the morning was up, a wild and evil-minded waste it flowered in; the music of the storm shrieked like the Valkyries scurrying through grey space. But what cared we, since now she would carry or drag what sail remained, creaseless, resonant, wide-arched and wonderful. The light leapt from crest to crest, and a little pale yellow blossom of blown dawn peeped out of the grey. Like a touch of fire it reanimated our washed and reeling world; we laughed as we dropped down after our three hours' battle with the demons of the air. It was morning; there was coffee and tobacco; our souls were satisfied and satiated with rewarding toil; if Fate was kind there would be neither making nor shortening of sail till the next day. We touched the deck and ran for'ard laughing. We saluted the cook, blinking at the door of his galley. "Good-morning, doctor!" and it _was_ "good-morning!" for we were mostly young.

* * * * *

On the lofty sloping plains of Texas and Kansas the air is often keen at night, even in the summer time. And what it is in winter let train hands on the Texas Pacific declare. But in the warmer season, when northers have ceased to blow, it has an intoxicating, thrilling quality only comparable to the breath of the higher South African veldt. It is good to be alive then, and the glory of the morning is an excellent and moving glory since it wakes one to swift activity and the very joy of being. For long months I had worked upon a ranch in the Southern Panhandle, and now felt healthy energies stirring within me. In Western America the very blood of life is unrest; to remain is difficult; the difficulties of motion are its joys, though hardship and privation be the migrant's life for ever. For me the ever-present prairie grew a little dull; for sheep were sheep always, and there were mountains afar off and strange, bright rivers and the dark, odorous forests of the north. Though my boss was of the order that remains and accumulates wealth he understood when I declared that I must go or die. On the third day hereafter he and an old confederate "Colonel" (discharged as "Full Private" doubtless) and I and a Mexican sheep-herder moved southward towards the railroad. We travelled on horseback and in a two-mule buggy, and with the movement discontent dropped away from me and all was well with the world, even though I knew not what weeks or even days should bring me. That night we camped thirty miles from the ranch and thirty from the little town we called a city, which had grown up in the sand-dunes by the banks of the Texan Colorado. We lighted our scanty fire at sundown. It was a typical camp of the later days upon the high prairie, and a not untypical set of men. Our talk was of horses and steers and sheep and of Virginia, whence our grizzled colonel came, and the Mexican sat and smoked and said nothing, save with his beady, brilliant eyes, as he made his yellow papers into flat _cigaritas_. And at nine o'clock silence and sleep fell upon us while the mules and horses champed their dry fare beside the buggy. For me the sleep of the just was my due, for I had worked hard that day. Yet I woke suddenly before the dawn, and woke all at once, refreshed and alive. It was still dark and yet I knew it was not properly night, for the time sense in me, measured healthily by refreshment, told me of the passage of time, and I arose from my blankets. As I walked out among the shadows softly my companions made no motion, and the horses whinnied coaxingly, as though I were still the guardian of their provender. The wind was cool, even cold, as it blew from the north, and on every side the vast prairie stretched like a mysterious dark green sea, with here and there a shadow heaving itself out of the infinite level. I walked lightly with a happy sense of detachment and well-being, almost with the feeling of a quiet resurrection.

Elsewhere and in cities one awakes reluctantly; the trumpet of the Angel of the Day is heard with deaf ears; but here in the keen coolness, the vast greenness, the infinite interspace of prairie betwixt city and city, I was awake and keen and cool as dewy grass, and as peaceful as the stars even before the Day blew her horn upon the verge of a far horizon. This was summer, but it was not dawn yet; the year was young even in August because this was night; and I was part of the hour and the year. It was well with the world and well with me as I left the camp and marched snuffing the air like an antelope and with as keen a joy. And as I walked I was aware again that it was not night, for there was a Day-spring in the East, a pale glow like a whitish mirage, and star by star the night departed, till I stayed and looked back to the west and saw the silent waggon under which my sleeping comrade still lay unconscious of the hour. And slowly, very slowly the Glory of the Morning broke out of bondage and covered the glory of the night until the pallor of the new-born day was fine pale gold, and the gold was under-edged with rose, and the rose grew insistently and shot upward like a great corona upon the eclipsing earth. And as I stood, balancing lightly upon my light feet, bathed with dew, I moved my lips and greeted Day without conscious words, being even as my own ancestor, who perhaps had no words of greeting. And so upon that solitude the day was born like a new miracle with only one visible worshipper, and the sun rose up like a star and was then a convexed line of fire, and presently it ate a little into the prairie; and the world was light and rose and green and very near me, so that I sighed a little and then walked back briskly to the camp and raised a loud shout, not to the sun, but to my fellow-men. For the Glory had departed and there was the work of the day to be done.

[The end]
Morley Roberts's essay: Glory Of The Morning