Widderin's Race by Paul Hamilton Hayne

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, 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, 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 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 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 hugh caldron's top 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 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.
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So, in late autumn,—'twas 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, 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, Watched the fair scene, and drank the spicy airs, That held a subtler 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 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,— 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, 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 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 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— 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, As 'twere 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 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, 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 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, 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, 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! 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, 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 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; 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! 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 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,— 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 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; 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; 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, 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, 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, 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!
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, 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!" (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 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 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, "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? 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 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 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: 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.