Verse > Anthologies > Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. > Poems of Places > Oceanica
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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed.  Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Oceanica: Vol. XXXI.  1876–79.
 
Introductory to Australasia
Widderin’s Race
Paul Hamilton Hayne (1830–1886)
 
A HORSE amongst ten thousand! on the verge,
The extremest verge, of equine life he stands;
Yet mark his action, as those wild young colts
Freed from the stock-yard gallop whinnying up;
See how he trots towards them,—nose in air,        5
Tail arched, and his still sinewy legs out-thrown
In gallant grace before him! A brave beast
As ever spurned the moorland, ay, and more,—
He bore me once,—such words but smite the truth
I’ the outer ring, while vivid memory wakes,        10
Recalling now, the passion and the pain,—
He bore me once from earthly Hell to Heaven!
 
The sight of fine old Widderin (that ’s his name,
Caught from a peak, the topmost rugged peak
Of tall Mount Widderin, towering to the North        15
Most like a steed’s head, with full nostrils blown,
And ears pricked up),—the sight of Widderin brings
That day of days before me, whose strange hours
Of fear and anguish, ere the sunset, changed
To hours of such content and full-veined joy        20
As Heaven can give our mortal lives but once.
 
  Well, here ’s the story: While yon bush-fires sweep
The distant ranges, and the river’s voice
Pipes a thin treble through the heart of drouth,
While the red heaven like some huge caldron’s top        25
Seems with the heat a-simmering, better far
In place of riding tilt ’gainst such a sun,
Here in the safe veranda’s flowery gloom,
To play the dwarfish Homer to a song,
Whereof myself am hero:

                    Two decades
        30
Have passed since that wild autumn-time when last
The convict hordes from near Van Diemen, freed
By force or fraud, swept, like a blood-red fire,
Inland from beach to mountain, bent on raid
And rapine.
*        *        *        *        *
        35
So, in late autumn,—’t was a marvellous morn,
With breezes from the calm snow-river borne
That touched the air, and stirred it into thrills,
Mysterious and mesmeric, a bright mist
Lapping the landscape like a golden trance,        40
Swathing the hill-tops with fantastic veils,
And o’er the moorland-ocean quivering light
As gossamer threads drawn down the forest aisles
At dewy dawning,—on this marvellous morn,
I, with four comrades, in this selfsame spot,        45
Watched the fair scene, and drank the spicy airs,
That held a subtiler spirit than our wine,
And talked and laughed, and mused in idleness,—
Weaving vague fancies, as our pipe-wreaths curled
Fantastic in the sunlight! I, with head        50
Thrown back, and cushioned snugly, and with eyes
Intent on one grotesque and curious cloud,
Puffed upward, that now seemed to take the shape
Of a Dutch tulip, now a Turk’s face topped
By folds on folds of turban limitless,—        55
Heard suddenly, just as the clock chimed one,
To melt in musical echoes up the hills,
Quick footsteps on the gravelled path without,—
Steps of the couriers of calamity,—
So my heart told me,—ere with blanched regards,        60
Two stalwart herdsmen on our threshold paused,
Panting, with lips that writhed, and awful eyes;—
A breath’s space in each other’s eyes we glared,
Then, swift as interchange of lightning thrusts
In deadly combat, question and reply        65
Clashed sharply, “What! the Rangers?” “Ay, by Heaven!
And loosed in force,—the hell-hounds!” “Whither bound?”
I stammered, hoarsely. “Bound,” the elder said,
“Southward!—four stations had they sacked and burnt,
And now, drunk, furious—” But I stopped to hear        70
No more: with booming thunder in mine ears,
And blood-flushed eyes, I rushed to Widderin’s side,
Drew tight the girths, upgathered curb and rein,
And sprang to horse ere yet our laggard friends—
Now trooping from the green veranda’s shade—        75
Could dream of action!

                    Love had winged my will,
For to the southward fair Garoopna held
My all of hope, life, passion; she whose hair
(Its tiniest strand of waving, witch-like gold)
Had caught my heart, entwined, and bound it fast,        80
As ’t were some sweet enchantment’s heavenly net!
 
I only gave a hand-wave in farewell,
Shot by, and o’er the endless moorland swept
(Endless it seemed, as those weird, measureless plains,
Which, in some nightmare vision, stretch and stretch        85
Towards infinity!) like some lone ship
O’er wastes of sailless waters: now, a pine,
The beacon pine gigantic, whose grim crown
Signals the far land-mariner from out
Gaunt boulders of the gray-backed Organ hill,        90
Rose on my sight, a mist-like, wavering orb,
The while, still onward, onward, onward still,
With motion winged, elastic, equable,
Brave Widderin cleaved the air-tides, tossed aside
The winds as waves, their swift, invisible breasts        95
Hissing with foam-like noise when pressed and pierced
By that keen head and fiery-crested form!
 
The lonely shepherd guardian on the plains,
Watching his sheep through languid, half-shut eyes,
Looked up, and marvelled, as we passed him by,        100
Thinking, perchance, it was a glorious thing,
So dressed, so booted, so caparisoned,
To ride such bright blood-coursers unto death!
Two sun-blacked natives, slumbering in the grass,
Just rose betimes to ’scape the trampling hoofs,        105
And hurled hot curses at me as I sped;
While here and there the timid kangaroo
Blundered athwart the mole-hills, and in puffs
Of steamy dust-cloud vanished like a mote!
 
Onward, still onward, onward, onward still!        110
And lo! thank Heaven, the mighty Organ hill,
That seemed a dim blue cloudlet at the start,
Hangs in aerial, fluted cliffs aloft,—
And still as through the long, low glacis borne,
Beneath the gorge borne ever at wild speed,        115
I saw the mateless mountain eagle wheel
Beyond the stark height’s topmost pinnacle;
I heard his shriek of rage and ravin die
Deep down the desolate dells, as far behind
I left the gorge, and far before me swept        120
Another plain, tree-bordered now, and bound
By the clear river gurgling o’er its bed.
 
By this, my panting, but unconquered steed
Had thrown his small head backward, and his breath
Through the red nostrils burst in labored sighs;        125
I bent above his outstretched neck, I threw
My quivering arms about him, murmuring low,
“Good horse! brave heart! a little longer bear
The strain, the travail; and thenceforth for thee
Free pastures all thy days, till death shall come!        130
Ah, many and many a time, my noble bay,
Her lily hand hath wandered through thy mane,
Patted thy rainbow neck, and brought thee ears
Of daintiest corn from out the farmhouse loft,—
Help, help to save her now!”

                        I ’ll vow the brute
        135
Heard me, and comprehended what he heard!
He shook his proud crest madly, and his eye
Turned for a moment sideways, flashed in mine
A lightning gleam, whose fiery language said,
“I know my lineage, will not shame my sire,—        140
My sire, who rushed triumphant ’twixt the flags,
And frenzied thousands, when on Epsom downs
Arcturus won the Derby!—no, nor shame
My granddam, whose clean body, half enwrought
Of air, half fire, through swirls of desert sand        145
Bore Sheik Abdallah headlong on his prey!”
 
At last came forest shadows, and the road
Winding through bush and bracken, and at last
The hoarse stream rumbling o’er its quartz-sown crags.
 
“No, no! stanch Widderin! pause not now to drink;        150
An hour hence, and thy dainty nose shall dip
In richest wine, poured jubilantly forth
To quench thy thirst, my Beauty! but press on,
Nor heed these sparkling waters.” God! my brain ’s
On fire once more! an instant tells me all;        155
All! life or death,—salvation or despair!
For yonder, o’er the wild grass-matted slope
The house stands, or it stood but yesterday.
 
A Titan cry of inarticulate joy
I raised, as, calm and peaceful in the sun,        160
Shone the fair cottage, and the garden-close,
Wherein, white-robed, unconscious, sat my Love
Lilting a low song to the birds and flowers.
She heard the hoof-strokes, saw me, started up,
And with her blue eyes wider than their wont,        165
And rosy lips half tremulous, rushed to meet
And greet me swiftly. “Up, dear Love!” I cried,
“The Convicts, the Bush-rangers! let us fly!”
Ah, then and there you should have seen her, friend,
My noble, beauteous Helen! not a tear,        170
Nor sob, and scarce a transient pulse-quiver,
As, clasping hand in hand, her fairy foot
Lit like a small bird on my horseman’s boot,
And up into the saddle, lithe and light,
Vaulting she perched, her bright curls round my face!        175
 
We crossed the river, and, dismounting, led
O’er the steep slope of blended rock and turf
The wearied horse, and there behind a Tor
Of castellated bluestone, paused to sweep
With young keen eyes the broad plain stretched afar,        180
Serene and autumn-tinted at our feet:
“Either,” said I, “these devils have gone east,
To meet with bloodhound Desborough in his rage
Between the granite passes of Luxorme,
Or else—dear Christ! my Helen, low! stoop low!”        185
(These words were hissed in horror, for just then,
’Twixt the deep hollows of the river-vale,
The miscreants, with mixed shouts and curses, poured
Down through the flinty gorge tumultuously,
Seeming, we thought, in one fierce throng to charge        190
Our hiding-place.) I seized my Widderin’s head,
Blindfolding him, for with a single neigh
Our fate were sealed o’ the instant! As they rode,
Those wild, foul-languaged demons by our lair,
Scarce twelve yards off, my troubled steed shook wide        195
His streaming mane, stamped on the earth, and pawed
So loudly, that the sweat of agony rolled
Down my cold forehead; at which point I felt
My arm clutched, and a voice I did not know
Dropped the low murmur from pale, shuddering lips,        200
“O God! if in those brutal hands I fall,
Living, look not into your mother’s face
Or any woman’s more!”

                    What time had passed
Above our bowed heads, we pent, pinioned there
By awe and nameless horror, who shall tell?        205
Minutes, perchance, by mortal measurement,
Eternity by heart-throbs!—when at length
We turned, and eyes of mutual wonder raised,
We gazed on alien faces, haggard, worn,
And strange of feature as the faces born        210
In fever and delirium! Were we saved?
We scarce could comprehend it, till from out
The neighboring oak-wood rode our friends at speed,
With clang of steel, and eyebrows bent in wrath.
But, warned betimes, the wily ruffians fled        215
Far up the forest-coverts, and beyond
The dazzling snow-line of the distant hills,
Their yells of fiendish laughter pealing faint
And fainter from the cloudland, and the mist
That closed about them like an ash-gray shroud:        220
Yet were these wretches marked for imminent death:
The next keen sunrise pierced the savage gorge,
To which we tracked them, where, mere beasts at bay,
Grimly they fought, and brute by brute they fell.
 
 
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