The Great War

from Poems, an electronic edition

The Royal Mails

For all its flowers and trailing bowers,

Its singing birds and streams.

This valley's not the blissful spot.

The paradise, it seems.

I don't forget a man I met

Beneath this very tree, —

The cooing of that cushat dove

Brings back his face to me, —

The merest lad, a sullen, sad.

Unhappy soul with eyes half mad.

Most sorrowful to see.

I asked him who he was, and what;

'Twas his affair, he answered, that,

And had no more to say ;

'Twas all I'd feared, the tale I heard,

When he at last gave way.

I've not forgot the look he shot

Me through and through with then;

"What loathly land is this!" he cried.

And cursed it for a countryside

Where devils masque as men.

I thought at first his brain was burst,

So senselessly he cried and cursed

And spat with rage and hate;

He writhed to hear the glossy dove

In song among the boughs above

Beside its gentle mate.

His fury passed away at last,

And when his reason came

He told me he was city bred,

A page about the Court, he said,

And coloured up with shame;

It made him wince to own a Prince

Of very famous fame.

"He looked for one with speed and strength

And youth, and picked on me at length

And ordered me to stand

Prepared to leave at break of day,

With letters naught must long delay,

For certain cities far away

Across this lonely land.

"He told me all the roads to take

And cautioned me to go

With ears and eyes and wits awake,

Alert from top to toe,

For spies and thieves wore out most shoes

Upon the roads that I must use,

As he had cause to know.

" I took my cloak as morning broke

And started down the hill,

With Castle-bells and Fare-ye-wells

And bugles sweet and shrill--

Sir Woodman, though it's months ago,

I hear that music still.

"What matters now or ever how

I made the journey here!

I fed on berries from the bough,

Abundant everywhere.

Or if it failed, that luscious meat,

I dug up roots that wild hogs eat

And flourished on the fare;

At night I made a grassy bed

And went to sleep without a dread

And woke without a care--

"No matter how I managed now,

It all went well enough,

Until I saw this spot, I vow,

No man was better off.

"Last night as I came down this vale

In wind and rain full blast,

I turned about to hear a shout

Ho, master, whither so fast!

"A minute more and half a score

Of men were at my side,

Plain merchants all, they said they were

And camping in a thicket near,

'Remain with us!' they cried.

"'Remain with us, our board is spread

With cheer the best, Ah, stay,' they said,

'Why go so proudly by!'

And there and then my legs were lead,

A weary man was I!

"They stared with wonder that I walked

These tangled hills and dales, and talked

Of better roads at hand,

Smooth roads without a hill to climb

A man could walk in half the time,

The finest in the land,

With more,-- but most of it I lost

Or did not understand.

"'So, come,' they cried, 'our tents are tight,

Our fires are burning warm and bright!

How shall we let you go to-night

Without offending heaven!

Come, leave you shall with morning light,

Strong with the strength of seven!'

"True men they seemed, for me I dreamed

No whit of their design,

Their mildness would have clapped a hood

On sharper eyes than mine;

Ay, me they pressed awhile to rest,

Persuaded me to be their guest,

And stole the letters from my breast

When I fell down with wine!

"It all came crowding on my mind

With morning when I woke to find

How blind and blind and utter blind

And blind again I'd been;

Both tents and men had vanished then,

Were nowhere to be seen."

'Twas word for word a tale I'd heard

Not once or twice before,

Since first I made an axe ring out

Upon the timber hereabout,

But twenty times and more.

For many a year we've harboured here

A nest of thieves and worse,

Who watch for these young Castle-men

At night among the gorse,

It's hard to say if one in ten

Gets by with life and purse.

I wonder since 'twould serve the Prince

To square accounts with these,--

And many a score of footpads more

All like as pins or peas,

Who ply their trades in other glades

And plunder whom they please --

He does not rout the vermin out

And hang them to the trees.

But this poor lad -- for me I knew

Scarce what to think or say,

I pitied him, I pitied, too,

Those cities far away.

I asked him would he stay and be

A woodman in these woods with me,

Perhaps he did not hear,

Perhaps the dove in song above

Beside its mistress dear,

Was Castle-bells and Fare-ye-wells

And hornets in his ear;

An old grey man in all but years,

He pulled his cloak about his ears,

And went I know not where.