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The Roll of the Kettledrum

(Or, The Lay of the Last Charger)

 

'You have the Pyrrhic dance as yet,

Where is the Pyrrhic phalanx gone ?

Of two such lessons, why forget

The nobler and the manlier one ?'—Byron.

 

ONE line of swart profiles, and bearded lips dressing,

One ridge of bright helmets, one crest of fair plumes,

One streak of blue sword-blades all bared for the fleshing,

One row of red nostrils that scent battle-fumes.

 

Forward ! the trumpets were sounding the charge,

The roll of the kettledrum rapidly ran,

That music, like wild-fire spreading at large,

Madden'd the war-horse as well as the man.

 

Forward ! still forward ! we thunder'd along,

Steadily yet, for our strength we were nursing ;

Tall Ewart, our sergeant, was humming a song,

Lance-corporal Black Will was blaspheming and cursing.

 

Open'd their volley of guns on our right,

Puffs of grey smoke, veiling gleams of red flame,

Curling to leeward, were seen on the height,

Where the batteries were posted, as onward we came.

 

Spreading before us their cavalry lay,

Squadron on squadron, troop upon troop ;

We were so few, and so many were they—

Eagles wait calmly the sparrow-hawk's stoop.

 

Forward ! still forward ! steed answering steed

Cheerily neigh'd, while the foam flakes were toss'd

From bridle to bridle—the top of our speed

Was gain'd, but the pride of our order was lost.

 

One was there, leading by nearly a rood,

Though we were racing he kept to the fore,

Still as a rock in his stirrups he stood,

High in the sunlight his sabre he bore.

 

Suddenly tottering, backwards he crash'd,

Loudly his helm right in front of us rung ;

Iron hoofs thunder'd, and naked steel flash'd

Over him—youngest, where many were young.

 

Now we were close to them, every horse striding

Madly ;—St. Luce pass'd with never a groan ;—

Sadly my master look'd round—he was riding

On the boy's right, with a line of his own.

 

Thrusting his hand in his breast or breast pocket,

While from his wrist the sword swung by a chain,

Swiftly he drew out some trinket or locket,

Kiss'd it (I think) and replaced it again.

 

Burst, while his fingers reclosed on the haft,

Jarring concussion and earth shaking din,

Horse 'counter'd horse, and I reel'd, but he laugh'd,

Down went his man, cloven clean to the chin !

 

Wedged in the midst of that struggling mass,

After the first shock, where each his foe singled,

Little was seen save a dazzle, like glass

In the sun, with grey smoke and black dust intermingled.

 

Here and there redden'd a pistol shot, flashing

Through the red sparkle of steel upon steel !

Redder the spark seem'd, and louder the clashing,

Struck from the helm by the iron-shod heel !

 

Over fallen riders, like wither'd leaves strewing

Uplands in autumn, we sunder'd their ranks ;

Steeds rearing and plunging, men hacking and hewing,

Fierce grinding of sword-blades, sharp goading of flanks.

 

Short was the crisis of conflict soon over,

Being too good (I suppose) to last long ;

Through them we cut, as the scythe cuts the clover,

Batter'd and stain'd we emerged from their throng.

 

Some of our saddles were emptied, of course ;

To heaven (or elsewhere) Black Will had been carried !

Ned Sullivan mounted Will's riderless horse,

His mare being hurt, while ten seconds we tarried.

 

And then we re-formed, and went at them once more,

And ere they had rightly closed up the old track,

We broke through the lane we had open'd before,

And as we went forward e'en so we came back.

 

Our numbers were few, and our loss far from small,

They could fight, and, besides, they were twenty to one ;

We were clear of them all when we heard the recall,

And thus we returned, but my tale is not done.

 

For the hand of my rider felt strange on my bit,

He breathed once or twice like one partially choked,

And sway'd in his seat, then I knew he was hit :—

He must have bled fast, for my withers were soak'd,

 

And scarcely an inch of my housing was dry ;

I slacken'd my speed, yet I never quite stopp'd,

Ere he patted my neck, said, 'Old fellow, good-bye !'

And dropp'd off me gently, and lay where he dropp'd !

 

Ah, me ! after all, they may call us dumb creatures—

I tried hard to neigh, but the sobs took my breath,

Yet I guess'd, gazing down at those still, quiet features,

He was never more happy in life than in death.

 

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

 

Two years back, at Aldershot, Elrington mentioned

My name to our colonel one field-day. He said,

' "Count," "Steeltrap," and "Challenger" ought to be pension'd ;'

'Count' died the same week, and now 'Steeltrap' is dead.

 

That morning our colonel was riding 'Theresa,'

The filly by 'Teddington' out of "Mistake' ;

His girls, pretty Alice and fair-haired Louisa,

Were there on the ponies he purchased from Blake.

 

I remember he pointed me out to his daughters,

Said he, 'In this troop I may fairly take pride,

But I've none left like him in my officers' quarters,

Whose life-blood the mane of old "Challenger" dyed.'

 

Where are they ? the war-steeds who shared in our glory,

The 'Lanercost' colt, and the 'Acrobat' mare,

And the Irish division, 'Kate Kearney' and 'Rory,'

And rushing 'Roscommon,' and eager 'Kildare,'

 

And 'Freeny,' a favourite once with my master,

And 'Warlock,' a sluggard, but honest and true,

And 'Tancred,' as honest as 'Warlock,' but faster,

And 'Blacklock,' and 'Birdlime,' and 'Molly Carew' ?—

 

All vanish'd, what wonder ! twelve summers have pass'd

Since then, and my comrade lies buried this day,—

Old 'Steeltrap,' the kicker,—and now I'm the last

Of the chargers who shared in that glorious fray.

 

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

 

Come, 'Harlequin,' keep your nose out of my manger,

You'll get your allowance, my boy, and no more ;

Snort ! 'Silvertail,' snort ! when you've seen as much danger

As I have, you won't mind the rats in the straw.

 

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

 

Our gallant old colonel came limping and halting,

The day before yesterday, into my stall ;

Oh ! light to the saddle I've once seen him vaulting,

In full marching order, steel broadsword and all.

 

And now his left leg than his right is made shorter

Three inches, he stoops, and his chest is unsound ;

He spoke to me gently, and patted my quarter,

I laid my ears back and look'd playfully round.

 

For that word kindly meant, that caress kindly given,

I thank'd him, though dumb, but my cheerfulness fled ;

More sadness I drew from the face of the living

Than years back I did from the face of the dead.

 

For the dead face, upturn'd, tranquil, joyous, and fearless,

Look'd straight from green sod to blue fathomless sky

With a smile ; but the living face, gloomy and tearless,

And haggard and harass'd, look'd down with a sigh.

 

Did he think on the first time he kiss'd Lady Mary ?

On the morning he wing'd Horace Greville the beau ?

On the winner he steer'd in the grand military ?

On the charge that he headed twelve long years ago ?

 

Did he think on each fresh year, of fresh grief the herald ?

On lids that are sunken, and locks that are grey ?

On Alice, who bolted with Brian Fitzgerald ?

On Rupert, his first-born, dishonour'd by 'play' ?

 

On Louey, his darling, who sleeps 'neath the cypress,

That shades her and one whose last breath gave her life ?

I saw those strong fingers hard over each eye press—

Oh ! the dead rest in peace when the quick toil in strife !

 

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

 

Scoff, man ! egotistical, proud, unobservant,

Since I with man's grief dare to sympathize thus ;

Why scoff ?—fellow-creature I am, fellow-servant

Of God, can man fathom God's dealings with us ?

 

The wide gulf that parts us may yet be no wider

Than that which parts you from some being more blest ;

And there may be more links 'twixt the horse and his rider

Than ever your shallow philosophy guess'd.

 

You are proud of your power, and vain of your courage,

And your blood, Anglo-Saxon, or Norman, or Celt ;

Though your gifts you extol, and our gifts you disparage,

Your perils, your pleasures, your sorrows we've felt.

 

We, too, sprung from mares of the prophet of Mecca,

And nursed on the pride that was born with the milk,

And filtered through 'Crucifix,' 'Beeswing,' 'Rebecca,'

We love sheen of scarlet and shimmer of silk.

 

We, too, sprung from loins of the Ishmaelite stallions,

We glory in daring that dies or prevails ;

From 'counter of squadrons, and crash of battalions,

To rending of blackthorns, and rattle of rails.

 

In all strife where courage is tested, and power,

From the meet on the hill-side, the horn-blast, the find,

The burst, the long gallop that seems to devour

The champaign, all obstacles flinging behind,

 

To the cheer and the clarion, the war-music blended

With war-cry, the furious dash at the foe,

The terrible shock, the recoil, and the splendid

Bare sword, flashing blue rising red from the blow.

 

I've borne one through perils where many have seen us,

No tyrant, a kind friend, a patient instructor,

And I've felt some strange element flashing between us,

Till the saddle seem'd turn'd to a lightning conductor.

 

Did he see ? could he feel through the faintness, the numbness,

While linger'd the spirit half-loosed from the clay,

Dumb eyes seeking his in their piteous dumbness,

Dumb quivering nostrils, too stricken to neigh ?

 

And what then ? the colours reversed, the drums muffled,

The black nodding plumes, the dead march, and the pall,

The stern faces, soldier-like, silent, unruffled,

The slow sacred music that floats over all !

 

Cross carbine and boar-spear, hang bugle and banner,

Spur, sabre, and snaffle, and helm—Is it well ?

Vain 'scutcheon, false trophies of Mars and Diana,—

Can the dead laurel sprout with the live immortelle ?

 

It may be,—we follow, and though we inherit

Our strength for a season, our pride for a span,

Say ! vanity are they ? vexation of spirit ?

Not so, since they serve for a time horse and man.

 

They serve for a time, and they make life worth living,

In spite of life's troubles—'tis vain to despond ;

Oh, man ! we at least, we enjoy, with thanksgiving,

God's gifts on this earth, though we look not beyond.

 

You sin, and you suffer, and we, too, find sorrow,

Perchance through your sin—yet it soon will be o'er ;

We labour to-day, and we slumber to-morrow,

Strong horse and bold rider !—and who knoweth more ?

 

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

 

In our barrack-square shouted Drill-sergeant M'Cluskie,

The roll of the kettledrum rapidly ran,

The colonel wheel'd short, speaking once, dry and husky,

'Would to God I had died with your master, old man !'

 

Published in 'Sea Spray and Smoke Drift' (1867).