Part I: Visions in the Smoke
REST, and be thankful ! On the verge
Of the tall cliff rugged and grey,
But whose granite base the breakers surge,
And shiver their frothy spray,
Outstretched, I gaze on the eddying wreath
That gathers and flits away,
With the surf beneath, and between my teeth
The stem of the ‘ancient clay’.
With the anodyne cloud on my listless eyes,
With its spell on my dreamy brain,
As I watch the circling vapours rise
From the brown bowl up to the sullen skies.
My vision becomes more plain,
Till a dim kaleidoscope succeeds
Through the smoke-rack drifting and veering,
Like ghostly riders on phantom steeds
To a shadowy goal careering.
In their own generation the wise may sneer,
They hold our sports in derision ;
Perchance to sophist, or sage, or seer,
Were allotted a graver vision.
Yet if man, of all the Creator plann’d,
His noblest work is reckoned,
Of the works of His hand, by sea or by land,
The horse may at least rank second.
Did they quail, those steeds of the squadrons light,
Did they flinch from the battle’s roar,
When they burst on the guns of the Muscovite,
By the echoing Black Sea shore ?
On ! on ! to the cannon’s mouth they stride,
With never a swerve nor a shy,
Oh ! the minutes of yonder maddening ride,
Long years of pleasure outvie !
No slave, but a comrade staunch, in this,
Is the horse, for he takes his share,
Not in peril alone, but in feverish bliss,
And in longing to do and dare.
Where bullets whistle, and round shot whiz,
Hoofs trample, and blades flash bare,
God send me an ending as fair as his
Who died in his stirrups there !
The wind has slumbered throughout the day,
Now a fitful gust springs over the bay,
My wandering thoughts no longer stray,
I’ll fix my overcoat buttons ;
Secure my old hat as best I may
(And a shocking bad one it is, by the way),
Blow a denser cloud from my stunted clay,
And then, friend Bell, as the Frenchmen say,
We’ll ‘go back again to our muttons’.
There’s a lull in the tumult on yonder hill,
And the clamour has grown less loud,
Though the Babel of tongues is never still,
With the presence of such a crowd.
The bell has rung. With their riders up
At the starting post they muster,
The racers stripp’d for the ‘Melbourne Cup’,
All gloss and polish and lustre ;
And the course is seen, with its emerald sheen,
By the bright spring-tide renew’d,
Like a ribbon of green, stretched out between
The ranks of the multitude.
The flag is lowered. ‘They’re off !’ ‘They come !’
The squadron is sweeping on ;
A sway in the crowd—a murmuring hum !
‘They’re here !’ ‘They’re past !’ ‘They’re gone !’
They came with the rush of the southern surf,
On the bar of the storm-girt bay ;
And like muffled drums on the sounding turf
Their hoof-strokes echo away.
The rose and black draws clear of the ruck,
And the murmur swells to a roar,
As the brave old colours that never were struck,
Are seen with the lead once more.
Though the feathery ferns and grasses wave
O’er the sod where Lantern sleeps,
Though the turf is green on Fisherman’s grave,
The stable its prestige keeps.
Six lengths in front she scours along,
She’s bringing the field to trouble ;
She’s tailing them off, she’s running strong,
She shakes her head and pulls double.
Now Minstrel falters and Exile flags,
The Barb finds the pace too hot,
And Toryboy loiters, and Playboy lags,
And the bolt of Ben Bolt is shot.
That she never may be caught this day,
Is the worst that the public wish her.
She won’t be caught ; she comes right away ;
Hurrah for Seagull and Fisher ;
See, Strop falls back, though his reins are slack,
Sultana begins to tire,
And the top-weight tells on the Sydney crack,
And the pace on ‘the Gippsland flyer’.
The rowels, as round the turn they sweep,
Just graze Tim Whiffler’s flanks ;
Like the hunted deer that flies through the sheep,
He strides through the beaten ranks.
Daughter of Omen, prove your birth,
The colt will take lots of choking ;
The hot breath steams at your saddle girth,
From his scarlet nostril smoking.
The shouts of the Ring for a space subside,
And slackens the bookmaker’s roar ;
Now, Davis, rally ; now, Carter, ride,
As man never rode before.
When Sparrowhawk’s backers cease to cheer,
When Yattendon’s friends are dumb,
When hushed is the clamour for Volunteer—
Alone in the race they come !
They’re neck and neck ; they’re head and head ;
They’re stroke for stroke in the running ;
The whalebone whistles, the steel is red,
No shirking as yet nor shunning.
One effort, Seagull, the blood you boast
Should struggle when nerves are strained ;—
With a rush on the post, by a neck at the most,
The verdict for Tim is gained.
Tim Whiffler wins. Is blood alone
The sine qua non for a flyer ?
The breed of his dam is a myth unknown,
And we’ve doubts respecting his sire.
Yet few (if any) those proud names are,
On the pages of peerage or stud,
In whose ‘scutcheon lurks no sinister bar,
No taint of the base black blood.
Aye, Shorthouse, laugh—laugh loud and long,
For pedigree you’re a sticker ;
You may be right, I may be wrong,
Wiseacres both ! Let’s liquor.
Our common descent we may each recall
To a lady of old caught tripping,
The fair one in fig leaves, who d——d us all
For a bite at a golden pippin.
When first on this rocky ledge I lay,
There was scarce a ripple in yonder bay,
The air was serenely still ;
Each column that sailed from my swarthy clay
Hung loitering long ere it passed away,
Though the skies wore a tinge of leaden grey,
And the atmosphere was chill.
But the red sun sank to his evening shroud,
Where the western billows are roll’d
Behind a curtain of sable cloud,
With a fringe of scarlet and gold ;
There’s a misty glare in the yellow moon,
And the drift is scudding fast,
There’ll be storm, and rattle, and tempest soon,
When the heavens are overcast.
The neutral tint of the sullen sea
Is fleck’d with the snowy foam,
And the distant gale sighs drearilie,
As the wanderer sighs for his home.
The white sea-horses toss their manes
On the bar of the southern reef,
And the breakers moan, and—by Jove, it rains
(I thought I should come to grief) ;
Though it can’t well damage my shabby hat,
Though my coat looks best when it’s damp ;
Since the shaking I got (no matter where at),
I’ve a mortal dread of the cramp.
My matches are wet, my pipe’s put out,
And the wind blows colder and stronger ;
I’ll be stiff, and sore, and sorry, no doubt,
If I lie here any longer.
Published in ‘Sea Spray and Smoke Drift’ (1867).