Thomas Aird

The Old Soldier: Campaign The Third

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Lo! yonder sea-mew seeks the inland moss:
Beautiful bird! how snowy clean it shows
Behind the ploughman, on a glinting day,
Trooping with rooks, and farther still relieved
Against the dark-brown mould, alighting half,
Half hovering still; yet far more beautiful
Its glistening sleekness, when from out the deep
Sudden and shy emerging on your lee,
What time thro' breeze, and spray, and freshening brine,
Your snoring ship, beneath her cloud of sail,
Bends on her buried side, carried it rides
The green curled billow and the seething froth,
Turning its startled head this way and that,
Half looking at you with its wild blue eye,
Then moves its fluttering wings and dives anew!

Smoking his pipe of peace, wearing away
The summer eve, the Old Soldado sits
Beneath his buzzing oak, and eyes the bird,
With many a thought of the suggested sea.
The veering gull came circling back and near:
“What! nearer still?” the Veteran said, and rose,
And doffed his bonnet, and held down his pipe:
“Give me her message, then! Oh, be to me
Her spirit not unconscious from the deep
Of how I mourn her loss! Bird, ah! you're gone.
Vain dreamer I! For every night my soul
Knocks at the gates of the invisible world;
But no one answers me, no little hand
Comes out to grasp at mine. Well, all is good:
Even, bird, thy heart-deceiving change of flight,
To teach me patience, was ordained of old.”

Yes, all is ordered well: Aimless may seem
The wandering foot; even it commissioned treads
The very lines by Providence laid down,
Sure, though unseen, of all-converging good:
Look up, old man, and see:—

Along the road
Came one in sailor's garb: his shallow hat
Of glazed and polished leather shone like tin.
A fair young damsel led him by the hand—
For he was blind: and to the summer sun,
Fearless and free, he held his bronzèd face.
An armless sleeve, pinned to his manly breast,
Told he had been among the “Hearts of Oak.”
The damsel saw the old man of the tree,
His queue of character, and wooden leg,
And smiling whispered to the tar she led.
Near turned, both stood. Down from her shoulder then
The maid unslung a mandolin, and played,
High singing as she played, a battle-piece
Of bursts and pauses: keeping time the while,
Now furious fast, now dying slow away,
His pigtail wagging with emotion deep,
The Old Soldier puffed his sympathetic pipe.
The minstrel ceased; he drew his leathern purse,
With pension lined, and offered guerdon due.
“Nay,” said the maiden, smiling, “for your tye
Alone I played, and for your wooden leg;
Yea, but for these, the symbols of the things
You've done and suffered—like my father here.”

“Well, then, you'll taste my honey and my bread?”
The Soldier said, and from his cot he brought
Seats for the strangers; him the damsel helped,
Bearing the bread and honey; and they ate,
The damsel serving, and she ate in turn.
When various talk had closed the simple feast,
The strangers rose to go: “My head! my head!”
The sailor cried, and fell in sudden pangs.
They bore and laid him on the Soldier's bed.
Forth ran the lass, and from the neighbouring town
Brought the physician; but all help was vain,
For God had touched him, and the man must die.
His mind was clear: “Give me that cross, my child,
That I may kiss it ere my spirit part,”
He said. And from her breast the damsel drew
A little cross, peculiar shaped and wrought,
And gave it him. It caught the Soldier's eye;
And when the girl received it back, he took
And looked at it.

“This cross, O dying man,
Was round my daughter's neck, when in the deep
She perished from me, on that fatal night
The ‘Sphinx’ was burnt, forth sailing from the Clyde.
Her dying mother round the infant's neck
This holy symbol, with her blessing, hung.
Friendless at home, I took my only child,
Bound to the Western World, where we had friends.
Scarce out of port, up flamed our ship on fire,
With crowding terrors through the umbered night.
Oh what a shout of joy, when through the gloom
Which walled us round within our glaring vault,
Spectral and large, we saw the ship of help!
Our boats were lowered; the first, o'ercrowded, swamped;
Down to the second, as it lurched away,
I flung my child: the monstrous waves went by
With backs like blood: the sudden-shifting boat
Is off with one, another has my babe.
I sprung to save her—all the rest is drear
Grisly confusion, till I found me laid,
In some far island, in a fisher's hut.
Me, as they homeward scudded past the fire,
Those lonely farmers of the deep picked up,
Floating away, and rubbed to vital heat;
And through the fever-gulf which had me next,
With simple love they brought my weary life.
The shores and islands round, for lingering news
Of people saved from off that burning wreck,
Oh how I haunted then; but of my child
No man had heard. Hopeless, and naked poor,
I rushed to war: from zone to zone, across
The rifts of ice, beneath the strokes of heat,
Reckless I fought. This cot received me next;
And here, I trust, my mortal chapter ends.
But say, oh say, how came you by this cross?”

The dying man had risen upon his arm,
Ere ceased the Soldier's tale: “She is thy child,
Take her,” he said; “and may she be to thee,
As she to me has been, a daughter true,
A child of good, a blessing from on high!”
So saying, back he fell. Around his neck
Her arms of love the sobbing damsel threw,
And kissed him many a time. And then she rose,
And flung herself upon the Soldier's breast—
For he's her father too. And many tears,
Silent, the old man rained upon her neck.

“O wondrous hour!” the dying tar went on,
“Who could have thought of this! I am content.
The Lord be praised that she has found a friend,
Since I must go from her! That night of fire,
Our brig of war bore down upon your ship,
And sent her boats to save you from the flame.
Near you we could not come; so forth I swam,
And to your crowded stern I fixed a rope,
To take the people off. Back as I slid
Along the line to show them how to come,
A child, upheaved upon the billow top,
Was borne against my breast; I snatched her up;
Fast to my neck she clung; none could I find
To claim and take her: she was thus mine own.
That night she wore the cross which now she wears.
Why need I tell the changes of my life?
In war I lost an arm, and then an eye;
My other eye went out from sympathy,
And home I came a blind and helpless man.
But I had still one comforter, my child—
My young breadwinner, too! From wake to wake
She led me on, playing her mandolin,
Which I had brought her from the south of Spain.
She'll tell you all the rest when I am gone.
Bury me now in your own burial-place,
That still our daughter may be near my dust.
And Jesus keep you both!” He said, and died.

They buried him in their own burial-place.
And many a flower, heart-planted by that maid,
And good Old Soldier, bloomed upon his grave.
And many a requiem, when the gloaming came,
The damsel played above his honoured dust.
Not less, but all the more, her heart was knit
Unto her own true father. He, the while,
How proud was he to give her up his keys,
Mistress installed of all his little stores;
And introduce her to his flowers, and bees,
Making the sea-green honey—all for her;
And sit beside her underneath the oak,
Listening the story of her bygone life.
In turn she made him of her mother tell,
And aye a tear dropped on her needlework;
And all his wars the old campaigner told.
And God was with them, and in peace and love
They dwelt together in their happy home.

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Thomas Aird