Five minutes here, and they must steal two more!
by Augusta Davies Webster
shameful! Here have I been five mortal years
and not seen home nor one dear kindred face,
and these abominable slugs, this guard,
this driver, porters--what are they about?--
keep us here motionless, two minutes, three.--
Aha! at last!
Good! We shall check our minutes;
we're flying after them, like a mad wind
chasing the leaves it has tossed on in front.
Oh glorious wild speed, what giants' play!
and there are men who tell us poetry
is dead where railways come! Maybe 'tis true,
I'm a bad judge, I've had scant reading time
and little will to read ...... and certainly
I've not found railways in what verse I know:
but there's a whizz and whirr as trains go by,
a bullet-like indomitable rush
and then all's done, which makes me often think
one of those men who found out poetry,
and had to write the things just that they saw,
would have made some of their fine crashing lines
that stir one like the marches one knows best,
and the enemy knows best, with trains in them
as easily as chariots.
I've poetry and music too to-day
in the very clatter: it goes "Home, home, home."
And they'll think that sharp shriek a kinder sound
than sweetest singing, when it presently
pierces the quiet of the night and sends
its eager shrillness on for miles before
to say I'm no time distant. I can see
my mother's soft pink cheeks (like roses, pale
after a June week's blooming,) flush and wan,
and her lip quiver; I can see the girls,
restless between the hall door and the clock,
hear it and hush and lean expectant heads
to catch the rattle of the coming train;
my father, sitting pshawing by the fire
at all the fuss and waiting, half start up,
dropping his Times, forgetful just so long
that he is not impatient like the rest,
the tender foolish women, and, alert
to hide how he was tempted to fuss too,
reseat himself intent on politics;
and Hugh--I think Hugh must be there with them,
on leave out of his parish for a day,
a truant from the old women and the schools
to be at home with me for long enough
to say "God bless you" in--I can see Hugh,
narrow and straight in his skimp priestly coat,
pacing the room with slow and even steps,
and a most patient face, and in his eyes
that over patience we all know in them
when he is being extra good and calm.
So little change, they write me: all of them
with the same faces, scarce a day's mark there--
except our little Maude who was a child
and is a woman: little Maude grown tall:
the little Maude I left half prude half romp,
who, eager for her grown-up dignities,
tried to forego her mischiefs and would turn,
just in their midst, portentously demure
like a tired sleepy kitten, and to-day
wears all her womanhood inside her heart
and has none for her manners--some of it
for her sweet winsome face though; and a look
that's in her portrait brings my mother back,
though she's not like they tell me. I shall see;
yes I shall see! soon; almost now.
to think I am so near!
Ah, when I lay
in the hot thirst and fever of my wound,
and saw their faces pressing into mine,
changing and changing, never a one would stay
so long that I could see it like itself,
I scarcely hoped for this. And when I felt
that tiring weakness of my growing strong,
and was so helpless, and the babyish tears
would come without a thought to make them come,
I almost knew this day would never be:
but, oh my happy fortune, not to die,
not even to come home among them then,
with nothing done, a spoiled and worthless wreck
for them to weep at softly out of sight,
but to go stoutly to my post again,
and do my stroke of work as a man should,
and win them this.
You little dingy cross,
less precious than my sleeve-links, what a worth
lies in your worthlessness: there's not a man
but gladder lays you in his mother's hand,
or wife's, than he would bring her for his gift
the whole great jewels of an eastern king,
and not a woman but--
My mother, though--
sometimes she was not strong--have I been rash,
too thoughtless of her calm, not telling of it?
No, I'll not wear it on me, as I meant,
to take her first dear kisses in: we'll talk
before I show it--in a day or two--
I know she'll prize it more
that a life saved went to the winning it.
And tenderhearted Ellen will forgive
my part she shudders at in the red deaths
of battle fields a little more for that--
How sad her letters were; I know she thinks
we learn a heathenish passion after blood,
and, as she said, "to throw our lives like dross
back in our Maker's face:" but bye and bye
I'll teach her how it is, and that we fight
for duty, not like either fiends or fools.
They say they are longing for my history,
told by the fire of evenings; all my deeds,
all my escapes; and I must clear their minds
of fifty puzzles of the journalists,
decide what's true, and make them understand
the battles and the marchings: but my deeds
have been to just be one among them all,
doing what we were bidden as we could,
and my escapes must have been like the rest--
one has no time to know them; just that once,
when I was dragging off the fallen boy,
I knew what death was nearest as it missed,
but I've no memory of more escapes ......
except by being wounded, as they know;
and what can I explain of battle plans
made in the councils, whether kept or not
I cannot tell? I only know my part
and theirs with whom I waited at our post
or dashed on at the word, I could not mark
the swaying of the squadrons, the recoils
and shifting ground and sudden strategies,
and had no duty to be watching them.
No, I shall make them better out in print,
and learn in our snug study what I saw
among the rush and smoke.
No, I come back
no better talker than I was before,
no readier and no deeper, not like Hugh,
and I must use my unaspiring wits
to say things as I see them, going straight;
just as a plain man's life does, tramping on
the way that lies before one, with no whys.
No whys; ah how that chance word takes me back
to pinafore-time--my father's well-known phrase
"No whying, boy, but do what you are bid."
And once my mother, when first Hugh began
to be so clever, and had found it out
and, pleased at it, perhaps a little pert,
was apt to hit on puzzles, answered him
"our nursery rule was good for afterwards,
spared headaches and spared heartaches, and, well kept,
made the best heroes and best Christians too."
How I can see Hugh looking down to say,
in an odd slow tone, "I will remember that."
And well he has remembered; never a man
went straighter into action than our Hugh;
he knows what side he's on and stands to it:
if I'd a head like his, and wished to change
soldiering for anything, I'd try to learn
a parish parson's work to do it like Hugh.
Will he read prayers to-night? I'd like to hear
my father at it, as it used to be
before we any of us went away--
the old times back again. Oh, all of us
will say our prayers to-night out of glad hearts.
Oh, thank God for the meeting we shall have!
Such joy among us! and the country side
all to be glad for us. Ah well, I fear
there's one will shrink and sadden at my sight
among the welcomes and the happiness,
remembering that her husband was my friend,
and dropped beside me. But I'll go alone--
or maybe with my mother--to her house
and let her have the pain more quietly,
before she sees me in our Sunday pew,
with all the old friends smiling through the prayers
and all but nodding, and a buzzing round
spoiling the parson's reading "Look," and "Look,"
"There's Master Harry come back from the war."
Oh, how my mother's eyes will turn to me,
half unawares, then fix upon her book
that none may see them growing large and moist;
and how my father will look stern and frown,
hiding the treacherous twinkles with the shade
of knitted brows, lest any watching him
should think him moved to have his son by him,
and proud like foolish fathers; but the girls
will be all smiles and flutter, and look round
elate as if no other girls before
had had a soldier brother. And old Will,
out of his corner by the vestry door,
will peer and blink and suck his grins in tight,
trying to mind the sermon and not think
what sport he has for me in the preserves.
Plenty of birds this year, my father writes;
we'll see next week, and--There's the long shrill yell!
Home! all but home!
Oh! there, between the trees,
that light, our house--they're waiting for me there.