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"Shall We Gather At The River?"
by [?]

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.


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 he preached.

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 hesitation.

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.