Verse > Anthologies > Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. > An American Anthology, 1787–1900
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Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. (1833–1908).  An American Anthology, 1787–1900.  1900.
 
1239. The Last Fight
 
By Lewis Frank Tooker
 
 
THAT night I think that no one slept;
  No bells were struck, no whistle blew,
And when the watch was changed I crept
  From man to man of all the crew
With whispered orders. Though we swept        5
  Through roaring seas, we hushed the clock,
  And muffled every clanking block.
 
So when one fool, unheeding, cried
  Some petty order, straight I ran,
And threw him sprawling o’er the side.        10
  All life is but a narrow span:
It little matters that one bide
  A moment longer here, for all
  Fare the same road, whate’er befall.
 
But vain my care; for when the day        15
  Broke gray and wet, we saw the foe
But half a stormy league away.
  By noon we saw his black bows throw
Five fathoms high a wall of spray;
  A little more, we heard the drum,        20
  And knew that our last hour had come.
 
All day our crew had lined the side
  With grim, set faces, muttering;
And once a boy (the first that died)
  One of our wild songs tried to sing:        25
But when their first shot missed us wide,
  A dozen sprang above our rail,
  Shook fists, and roared a cursing hail.
 
Thereon, all hot for war, they bound
  Their heads with cool, wet bands, and drew        30
Their belts close, and their keen blades ground;
  Then, at the next gun’s puff of blue,
We set the grog-cup on its round,
  And pledged for life or pledged for death
  Our last sigh of expiring breath.        35
 
Laughing, our brown young singer fell
  As their next shot crashed through our rail;
Then ’twixt us flashed the fire of hell,
  That shattered spar and riddled sail.
What ill we wrought we could not tell;        40
  But blood-red all their scuppers dripped
  When their black hull to starboard dipped.
 
Nine times I saw our helmsman fall,
  And nine times sent new men, who took
The whirling wheel as at death’s call;        45
  But when I saw the last one look
From sky to deck, then, reeling, crawl
  Under the shattered rail to die,
  I knew where I should surely lie.
 
I could not send more men to stand        50
  And turn in idleness the wheel
Until they took death’s beckoning hand,
  While others, meeting steel with steel,
Flamed out their lives—an eager band,
  Cheers on their lips, and in their eyes        55
  The goal-rapt look of high emprise.
 
So to the wheel I went. Like bees
  I heard the shot go darting by;
There came a trembling in my knees,
  And black spots whirled about the sky.        60
I thought of things beyond the seas—
  The little town where I was born,
  And swallows twittering in the morn.
 
A wounded creature drew him where
  I grasped the wheel, and begged to steer.        65
It mattered not how he might fare
  The little time he had for fear;
So if I left this to his care
  He too might serve us yet, he said.
  He died there while I shook my head.        70
 
I would not fall so like a dog,
  My helpless back turned to the foe;
So when his great hulk, like a log,
  Came surging past our quarter, lo!
With helm hard down, straight through the fog        75
  Of battle smoke, and luffing wide,
  I sent our sharp bow through his side.
 
The willing waves came rushing in
  The ragged entrance that we gave;
Like snakes I heard their green coils spin        80
  Up, up, around our floating grave;
But dauntless still, amid a din
  Of clashing steel and battle-shout,
  We rushed to drive their boarders out.
 
Around me in a closing ring        85
  My grim-faced foemen darkly drew;
Then, sweeter than the lark in spring,
  Loud rang our blades; the red sparks flew.
Twice, thrice, I felt the sudden sting
  Of some keen stroke; then, swinging fair,        90
  My own clave more than empty air.
 
The fight went raging past me when
  My good blade cleared a silent place;
Then in a ring of fallen men
  I paused to breathe a little space.        95
Elsewhere the deck roared like a glen
  When mountain torrents meet; the fray
  A moment then seemed far away.
 
The barren sea swept to the sky;
  The empty sky dipped to the sea;        100
Such utter waste could scarcely lie
  Beyond death’s starved periphery.
Only one living thing went by:
  Far overhead an ominous bird
  Rode down the gale with wings unstirred.        105
 
Windward I saw the billows swing
  Dark crests to beckon others on
To see our end; then, hurrying
  To reach us ere we should be gone,
They came, like tigers mad to fling        110
  Their jostling bodies on our ships,
  And snarl at us with foaming lips.
 
There was no time to spare: a wave
  E’en then broke growling at my feet;
One last look to the sky I gave,        115
  Then sprang my eager foes to meet.
Loud rang the fray above our grave—
  I felt the vessel downward reel
  As my last thrust met thrusting steel.
 
I heard a roaring in my ears;        120
  A green wall pressed against my eyes;
Down, down I passed; the vanished years
  I saw in mimicry arise.
Yet even then I felt no fears,
  And with my last expiring breath        125
  My past rose up and mocked at death.
 

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