A Ballad

Menella Bute Smedley

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O, were you at war in the red Eastern land?
What did you hear, and what did you see?
Saw you my son, with his sword in his hand?
Sent he, by you, any dear word to me?

“I come from red war, in that dire Eastern land:
I saw three deeds which one might die to see;
But I know not your son, with his sword in his hand;
If you would hear of him, paint him to me.”
O, he is as gentle as south winds in May!
“'Tis not a gentle place where I have been.”
O, he has a smile like the outbreak of day!
“Where men are dying fast, smiles are not seen.”

Tell me the mightiest deeds that were done.
Deeds of chief honour, you said, you saw three;
You said you saw three—I am sure he did one.
My heart shall discern him, and cry, “This is he!”
“I saw a man scaling a tower of despair,
And he went up alone, and the hosts shouted loud.”
That was my son! Had he streams of fair hair?
“Nay; it was black as the blackest night-cloud.”

Did he live? “No, he died: but the fortress was won.
And they said it was grand for a man to die so.”
Alas, for his mother! He was not my son.
Was there no fair-haired soldier who humbled the foe?
“I saw a man charging in front of his rank,
Thirty yards on, in a hurry to die;
Straight as an arrow hurled into the flank
Of a huge desert-beast, ere the hunter draws nigh.”

Did he live? “No, he died: but the battle was won,
And the conquest-cry carried his name through the air.
Be comforted, mother; he was not thy son:
Worn was his forehead, and grey was his hair.”
O, the brow of my son is as smooth as a rose;
I kissed it last night in my dream. I have heard
Two legends of fame from the land of our foes;
But you said there were three: you must tell me the third.

“I saw a man flash from the trenches, and fly
In a battery's face; but it was not to slay:
A poor little drummer had dropped down to die,
With his ankle shot through, in the place where he lay.
“He carried the boy like a babe through the rain,
The death-pouring torrent, of grape-shot and shell;
And he walked at a foot's pace because of the pain,
Laid his burden down gently, smiled once, and then fell.”

Did he live? “No, he died: but he rescued the boy.
Such a death is more noble than life (so they said).
He had streams of fair hair, and a face full of joy.
And his name”—Speak it not!
'T is my son! He is dead!
O, dig him a grave by the red rowan tree,
Where the spring moss grows softer than fringes of foam;
And lay his bed smoothly, and leave room for me,
For I shall be ready before he comes home.

And carve on his tombstone a name and a wreath,
And a tale to touch hearts through the slow-spreading years—
How he died his noble and beautiful death,
And his mother, who longed for him, died of her tears.
But what is this face shining in at the door,
With its old smile of peace, and its flood of fair hair?
Are you come, blessed ghost, from the far heavenly shore?
Do not go back alone!—let me follow you there!
“O, clasp me, dear mother. I come to remain;
I come to your heart,—God has answered your prayer.
Your son is alive from the hosts of the slain,
And the Cross of our Queen on his breast glitters fair!”

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