Ralph Hodgson

The Royal Mails

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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 Woodsman, 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 Castlemen
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 at 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 it 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.

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Ralph Hodgson