Thomas Bracken (21 December 1843 – 16 February 1898 / Clones, County Monaghan)
A Forest-Ranger's Story.
JUST nineteen long years, Jack, have passed o'er my shoulders
Since close to this spot we lay waiting the foe;
Ay, here is the mound where brave Percival moulders,
And yonder's the place where poor Norman lies low;
'Twas only a skirmish — just eight of our number
Were stretch'd on the sward when the fighting was done;
We scooped out their beds, and we left them to slumber,
The bold-hearted fellows went down with the sun.
The month was October — young Summer was peeping
Through evergreen forests where Spring, still supreme,
Spread all the rich tints that she had in her keeping
On tree, shrub, and bush, while each brooklet and stream
With babblings of joy ran along to the river —
But, hang it, old man, I am going too far;
I talk as I used to when from Cupid's quiver
Flew darts of affection my bosom to scar.
I'm not much at poetry, Jack, though I've written
Some nonsense in verse when my heart was aglow
With what they call love — have you ever been smitten
By some artful minx who deceived you? What, no?
By Jove, you've been lucky; but, Jack, I'm digressing.
Our quarters were here, under Lusk, and we made
Our camp in the church without asking a blessing;
This place is still known as the Mauku Stockade.
I'd fought with Von Tempsky along the Waikato;
I'd seen the green banks of that fair river dyed
With British blood, red as the plumes of the rata
When Spring scatters scarlet drops thick in her pride.
I cared not for danger, and fighting was pleasure,
The life of a Ranger was one of romance —
A dare-devil fool ever ready to measure
A savage's length with my rifle. 'Twas chance
That sent me among them; I lived but for glory;
My comrades were all of good mettle and true,
And one was a hero; I'll tell you his story —
God rest poor M'Gillviray — brave-hearted Hugh!
I knew him for years, Jack, and shoulder to shoulder
He stood by me often when swift leaden hail
Whizzed close to our ears. Ah! old man, I was bolder
In those valiant days than I'm now. To my tale: —
The morning was gloomy, and Hugh sat beside me;
We'd chumm'd in together for two years or more;
I found him a brick, and he said when he tried me
In front of the foe, “Dick, you're true to the core!”
Enough — we were friends, and in trouble or danger
We stuck by each other in camp and in fray.
How often we find in the breast of a stranger
The heart of a kind brother throbbing alway
With warmest affection, responsive and tender —
Hugh's breast had a tenant like this, and I knew
In him I'd a brother, a friend, a defender,
Prepared for whatever a brave man might do.
The morning was dark, and the outlook was dreary;
I noticed my comrade was sitting alone,
All thoughtful, disconsolate, pallid, and weary,
“Why, where has the gladness of yesterday flown?
Come, tell me, Hugh, why you are gloomy this morning;
What change has come over my light-hearted mate?
You've not” (and I laughed) “had a Banshee's death-warning,
Have Brownies or Goblins been sealing your fate?”
He turned his pale face, while his eyes, full of sorrow,
Met mine, and it seemed like the gaze of the dead;
I spoke once again: “Hugh, we'll meet them to-morrow,
Fierce Rewi is coming this way.” Then he said —
“Why am I sad? Ah, comrade kind,
We cannot tell why shadows fall
Across the soul and o'er the mind;
We cannot tell why dreams recall
Old scenes endeared by mem'ry's spell,
Old haunts where love and sorrow met,
Old spots where airy castles fell,
And Hope's young sun for ever set;
We cannot tell why thought should leap
Across the ocean's wide expanse,
And through the telescope of sleep
Review the dead years at a glance;
We cannot tell—— But why should I
Philosophize? We know we're here,
And for the wherefore and the why,
That problem suits the sage and seer,
But not the soldier. Listen, mate —
I'm not a coward, for I've stood
Full face to face with death, and fate
Has led me safe through scenes of blood;
But now my hour is drawing nigh,
Life's battle now is nearly done,
For me to-morrow's arching sky
Shall canopy no rising sun.”
“Why, comrade, you but jest,” I said;
“You shouldn't joke with me, you know;
To-morrow's sun shall shine o'erhead,
And see us watching for the foe.”
“Nay, comrade, we must part to-day,
A hand has beckon'd through the gloom,
And signalled me away, away
To brighter realms beyond the tomb;
You smile and count me as a slave
Of superstition — be it so;
My vision stretches o'er the grave;
I travel where you cannot go.
Ah! friend, you were not nursed beneath
The Highland hills, where every glen
Is filled with those who've conquered death —
Is tenanted with ghosts of men.
Ah! friend, your feet have never trod
The mighty Bens, whose summits grim
Approach the starry gates of God,
Where heaven grows bright and earth grows dim.
The legendary lore that clings
Round Highland hearts you have not felt,
Nor yet the weird imaginings
Which stir the spirit of the Celt.
Well, hear my story — listen, pray,
And I'll explain why I am sad
And in a downcast mood to-day.
You smile again and deem me mad —
Last night I was again a boy
Light-hearted 'mong my native hills,
Filled with a bright, ecstatic joy,
And pure as my own mountain rills;
I stood beneath old Monagh Leagh,
Nor far from rugged Dumnaglass,
And in the distance I could see
Wild Farracagh's romantic Pass;
A monarch proud, a youthful king,
Alone with nature there I stood,
At peace with God and everything,
For all His works seemed fair and good;
But best and fairest of them all
Was she who came to meet me there, —
I little thought dreams could recall
Those silken waves of sunny hair,
That tender smile, those eyes of blue,
The magic of whose flashing glance
Inflamed my soul with love, and threw
A glamour round me, — joyous trance!
We met last night just as of old,
And Elsie nestled by my side,
While playing with each tress of gold
I whispered, ‘Lassie, be my bride.’
The sweet soft answer came — why dwell
On that dear moment of delight?
Our heaven was in that Highland dell,
Where all seemed beautiful and bright.
We parted, and my dreaming soul
On Fancy's pinions forward flew
O'er five short years, and reached the goal
That love and hope had kept in view.
Oh, joyous day! a merry throng
Were gathered on the Clachan green;
The villagers, with dance and song,
Held jubilee; that happy scene
Is treasured in my memory still.
I hold again that little hand;
I hear the whispered word, ‘I will!’
I lead her through that cheerful band,
While Donald Beg, and Fergus Mohr,
And Angus Dhu — the pipers three —
Strike up, while marching on before,
The pibroch of M'Gillviray.
Oh! how the wild notes brought a flood
Of mem'ries bright and glories gone,
When, for the Royal Stuart blood.
Our chief led great Clan Chattan on
To famed Culloden's field: — 'Tis past,
That marriage scene with all its charms
And winter comes with freezing blast,
To find my young wife in my arms,
And all the villagers in tears
Assembled round us — she was gone;
The prize was mine a few short years,
And I was now alone, alone.
Oh! what had I to live for then?
One clasp, one look, one fond caress,
And flying far from each proud Ben,
With sorrow deep as dark Loch Ness,
I left my humble Highland home,
To gaze on Monagh Leagh no more.
With blighted heart I crossed the foam
And landed on New Zealand's shore;
You know the rest——”
“But what has all
This home-sick dreaming got to do
With death, my friend?”
“I've got a call
To meet my Elsie.”
I laughed, but still his brow was sad;
“Cheer up and chase this gloom away,
There's pleasure yet in life, my lad.”
“I tell you we must part to-day;
I have not told you all that passed
Before me in my dreaming hours.
This day, with you, shall be my last.
True friendship, Dick, has long been ours.
And we must part in love, my friend, —
You smile again — well, time will prove
My premonition true; — The end
Is drawing nigh; — Behold my love,
My life, my Elsie, on you hill, —
Ay, yonder hill is Monagh Leagh —
Just listen, friend, she's calling still,
And still the dear one beckons me
Away — the sun upon the peaks
Is blushing crimson o'er the snow.
Behold! how bright its rays and streaks
Are dancing on Loch Ness below;
Rich violet and purple clouds
A tabernacle form on high,
Behind whose folds the starry crowds
Lie hidden in the silent sky —
'Tis there, 'tis there, the same fond face,
Which, but a few short hours ago,
Pressed close to mine; just in this place
My Elsie stood, and, bending low,
She whispered in an icy breath,
‘Oh! Hugh, behold thy spirit-bride.
I'm here for thee; prepare for death.
Thy soul to-morrow, by my side,
Shall trace the scenes we loved of yore.
Again, my Hugh, my husband brave,
We'll watch the Highland eagle soar;
We'll see the heath and bracken wave.
Ah! Hugh, the spirit-sight is keen;
We cross the ocean with a glance;
We know not time — ' She left the scene,
And I awakened from my trance;
But let us change the subject, mate;
Let's have a smoke; — Hark! there's a shot —
One, two, three, four! we mustn't wait —
Where are our rifles? Ah! we've got
The darkies now. See, see, they dance
Before our eyes; hear how they yell!
There goes the order for advance —
There's Norman out and Percival.”
M'Gillviray ceased, and we ran to the door,
Prepared to advance where our officers led;
Both Hill and O'Beirne were well to the fore,
While Norman and Percival rushed on ahead.
Flash! flash! went our rifles; we followed their track,
And in through a gap in the timber we broke;
We loaded again, and they answered us back —
The rebels, I mean — as they plunged through the smoke.
“Now, back to the camp, lads; we've scattered the swine;
They've tasted enough of our metal to-day!'
Twas Percival spoke, and we fell into line,
And back through the break in the bush took our way.
We reached but the centre, when out from the bush
That skirted each side with its branches and logs
The Maoris in crowds, with a yell and a rush,
Encompassed us: — “Boys, give the treacherous dogs
A taste of our true British pluck!” — a wild cry,
As a tomahawk's stroke cut the sentence in twain,
Went in through the woodlands and up to the sky,
And Percival lay in the front of the slain.
Oh, God! in my ears still rings yell after yell.
I see the bright tomahawks dripping with blood;
The wild demons looked as if painted in hell;
They leaped through the thicket and burst from the wood.
Outflanked and outnumbered, our officers dead,
A handful of men in the grasp of the foe,
What could we have done in such stress? so we fled
When Norman and Wheeler and Hill were laid low.
We reached the old church, but the savages stay'd
To butcher the wounded and mangle the slain;
They vanished ere night in the forest's dark shade,
To steer their canoes o er Waikato again.
At daybreak we went to the scene of the fray,
To bury our comrades and bid them adieu,
And near a small mound where five savages lay
We found brave M'Gillviray sleeping there too.
Five warrior chiefs proved the work he had done;
They fell by his hand ere his soul went to God;
He smiled in the face of the bright morning sun
That shone on the purple streaks o'er the green sod.
I planted a wattle to mark where he sleeps —
I wonder where is it? — Ah, there stands the tree!
By Jove, it's in blossom, too! See how it weeps
Rich tears of bright gold o er the hillock where he
Is resting in peace. Is he dreaming there still
Of Elsie, his bride, and his dear Highland glen?
This life is a puzzle, Jack; fight as we will,
We're nothing at last but the shadows of men.
The substance soon blends with the blossoms and weeds
That spring to the surface; and as for the soul.
Perhaps it may flourish or fade in its deeds,
Or find in some other bright planet its goal.
Comments about this poem (M'Gillviray's Dream by Thomas Bracken )
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