Home  »  Wessex Poems & Other Verses  »  24. The Peasant’s Confession

Thomas Hardy (1840–1928). Wessex Poems and Other Verses. 1898.

24. The Peasant’s Confession

GOOD Father!… ’Twas an eve in middle June,

And war was waged anew

By great Napoleon, who for years had strewn

Men’s bones all Europe through.

Three nights ere this, with columned corps he’d crossed

The Sambre at Charleroi,

To move on Brussels, where the English host

Dallied in Parc and Bois.

The yestertide we’d heard the gloomy gun

Growl through the long-sunned day

From Quatre-Bras and Ligny; till the dun

Twilight suppressed the fray;

Albeit therein—as lated tongues bespoke—

Brunswick’s high heart was drained,

And Prussia’s Line and Landwehr, though unbroke,

Stood cornered and constrained.

And at next noon-time Grouchy slowly passed

With thirty thousand men:

We hoped thenceforth no army, small or vast,

Would trouble us again.

My hut lay deeply in a vale recessed,

And never a soul seemed nigh

When, reassured at length, we went to rest—

My children, wife, and I.

But what was this that broke our humble ease?

What noise, above the rain,

Above the dripping of the poplar trees

That smote along the pane?

—A call of mastery, bidding me arise,

Compelled me to the door,

At which a horseman stood in martial guise—

Splashed—sweating from every pore.

Had I seen Grouchy? Yes? Which track took he?

Could I lead thither on?—

Fulfilment would ensure gold pieces three,

Perchance more gifts anon.

“I bear the Emperor’s mandate,” then he said,

“Charging the Marshal straight

To strike between the double host ahead

Ere they co-operate,

“Engaging Blücher till the Emperor put

Lord Wellington to flight,

And next the Prussians. This to set afoot

Is my emprise to-night.”

I joined him in the mist; but, pausing, sought

To estimate his say,

Grouchy had made for Wavre; and yet, on thought,

I did not lead that way.

I mused: “If Grouchy thus instructed be,

The clash comes sheer hereon;

My farm is stript. While, as for pieces three,

Money the French have none.

“Grouchy unwarned, moreo’er, the English win,

And mine is left to me—

They buy, not borrow.”—Hence did I begin

To lead him treacherously.

By Joidoigne, near to east, as we ondrew,

Dawn pierced the humid air;

And eastward faced I with him, though I knew

Never marched Grouchy there.

Near Ottignies we passed, across the Dyle

(Lim’lette left far aside),

And thence direct toward Pervez and Noville

Through green grain, till he cried:

“I doubt thy conduct, man! no track is here

I doubt they gagèd word!”

Thereat he scowled on me, and pranced me near,

And pricked me with his sword.

“Nay, Captain, hold! We skirt, not trace the course

Of Grouchy,” said I then:

“As we go, yonder went he, with his force

Of thirty thousand men.”

—At length noon nighed, when west, from Saint-John’s-Mound,

A hoarse artillery boomed,

And from Saint-Lambert’s upland, chapel-crowned,

The Prussian squadrons loomed.

Then to the wayless wet gray ground he leapt;

“My mission fails!” he cried;

“Too late for Grouchy now to intercept,

For, peasant, you have lied!”

He turned to pistol me. I sprang, and drew

The sabre from his flank,

And ’twixt his nape and shoulder, ere he knew,

I struck, and dead he sank.

I hid him deep in nodding rye and oat—

His shroud green stalks and loam;

His requiem the corn-blade’s husky note—

And then I hastened home.…

—Two armies writhe in coils of red and blue,

And brass and iron clang

From Goumont, past the front of Waterloo,

To Pap’lotte and Smohain.

The Guard Imperial wavered on the height;

The Emperor’s face grew glum;

“I sent,” he said, “to Grouchy yesternight,

And yet he does not come!”

’Twas then, Good Father, that the French espied,

Streaking the summer land,

The men of Blücher. But the Emperor cried,

“Grouchy is now at hand!”

And meanwhile Vand’leur, Vivian, Maitland, Kempt,

Met d’Erlon, Friant, Ney;

But Grouchy—mis-sent, blamed, yet blame-exempt—

Grouchy was far away.

Be even, slain or struck, Michel the strong,

Bold Travers, Dnop, Delord,

Smart Guyot, Reil-le, l’Heriter, Friant.

Scattered that champaign o’er.

Fallen likewise wronged Duhesme, and skilled Lobau

Did that red sunset see;

Colbert, Legros, Blancard!… And of the foe

Picton and Ponsonby;

With Gordon, Canning, Blackman, Ompteda,

L’Estrange, Delancey, Packe,

Grose, D’Oyly, Stables, Morice, Howard, Hay,

Von Schwerin, Watzdorf, Boek,

Smith, Phelips, Fuller, Lind, and Battersby,

And hosts of ranksmen round…

Memorials linger yet to speak to thee

Of those that bit the ground!

The Guards’ last column yielded; dykes of dead

Lay between vale and ridge,

As, thinned yet closing, faint yet fierce, they sped

In packs to Genappe Bridge.

Safe was my stock; my capple cow unslain;

Intact each cock and hen;

But Grouchy far at Wavre all day had lain,

And thirty thousand men.

O Saints, had I but lost my earing corn

And saved the cause once prized!

O Saints, why such false witness had I borne

When late I’d sympathized!…

So, now, being old, my children eye askance

My slowly dwindling store,

And crave my mite; till, worn with tarriance,

I care for life no more.

To Almighty God henceforth I stand confessed,

And Virgin-Saint Marie;

O Michael, John, and Holy Ones in rest,

Entreat the Lord for me!