Home  »  Wessex Poems & Other Verses  »  25. The Alarm

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

25. The Alarm

IN a ferny byway

Near the great South-Wessex Highway,

A homestead raised its breakfast-smoke aloft;

The dew-damps still lay steamless, for the sun had made no sky-way,

And twilight cloaked the croft.

’Twas hard to realize on

This snug side the mute horizon

That beyond it hostile armaments might steer,

Save from seeing in the porchway a fair woman weep with eyes on

A harnessed Volunteer.

In haste he’d flown there

To his comely wife alone there,

While marching south hard by, to still her fears,

For she soon would be a mother, and few messengers were known there

In these campaigning years.

’Twas time to be Good-bying,

Since the assembly-hour was nighing

In royal George’s town at six that morn;

And betwixt its wharves and this retreat were ten good miles of hieing

Ere ring of bugle-horn.

“I’ve laid in food, Dear,

And broached the spiced and brewed, Dear;

And if our July hope should antedate,

Let the char-wench mount and gallop by the halterpath and wood, Dear,

And fetch assistance straight.

“As for Buonaparte, forget him;

He’s not like to land! But let him,

Those strike with aim who strike for wives and sons!

And the war-boats built to float him; ’twere but wanted to upset him

A slat from Nelson’s guns!

“But, to assure thee,

And of creeping fears to cure thee,

If he should be rumored anchoring in the Road,

Drive with the nurse to Kingsbere; and let nothing thence allure thee

Till we’ve him safe-bestowed.

“Now, to turn to marching matters:—

I’ve my knapsack, firelock, spatters,

Crossbelts, priming-horn, stock, bay’net, blackball, clay,

Pouch, magazine, flints, flint-box that at every quick-step clatters;

…My heart, Dear; that must stay!”

—With breathings broken

Farewell was kissed unspoken,

And they parted there as morning stroked the panes;

And the Volunteer went on, and turned, and twirled his glove for token,

And took the coastward lanes.

When above He’th Hills he found him,

He saw, on gazing round him,

The Barrow-Beacon burning—burning low,

As if, perhaps, uplighted ever since he’d homeward bound him;

And it meant: Expect the Foe!

Leaving the byway,

And following swift the highway,

Car and chariot met he, faring fast inland;

“He’s anchored, Soldier!” shouted some:

“God save thee, marching thy way,

Th’lt front him on the strand!”

He slowed; he stopped; he paltered

Awhile with self, and faltered,

“Why courting misadventure shoreward roam?

To Molly, surely! Seek the woods with her till times have altered;

Charity favors home.

“Else, my denying

He would come she’ll read as lying—

Think the Barrow-Beacon must have met my eyes—

That my words were not unwareness, but deceit of her, while trying

My life to jeopardize.

“At home is stocked provision,

And to-night, without suspicion,

We might bear it with us to a covert near;

Such sin, to save a childing wife, would earn it Christ’s remission,

Though none forgive it here!”

While thus he, thinking,

A little bird, quick drinking

Among the crowfoot tufts the river bore,

Was tangled in their stringy arms, and fluttered, well-nigh sinking,

Near him, upon the moor.

He stepped in, reached, and seized it,

And, preening, had released it

But that a thought of Holy Writ occurred,

And Signs Divine ere battle, till it seemed him Heaven had pleased it

As guide to send the bird.

“O Lord, direct me!…

Doth Duty now expect me

To march a-coast, or guard my weak ones near?

Give this bird a flight according, that I thence know to elect me

The southward or the rear.”

He loosed his clasp; when, rising,

The bird—as if surmising—

Bore due to southward, crossing by the Froom,

And Durnover Great-Field and Fort, the soldier clear advising—

Prompted he wist by Whom.

Then on he panted

By grim Mai-Don, and slanted

Up the steep Ridge-way, hearkening betwixt whiles,

Till, nearing coast and harbor, he beheld the shore-line planted

With Foot and Horse for miles.

Mistrusting not the omen,

He gained the beach, where Yeomen,

Militia, Fencibles, and Pikemen bold,

With Regulars in thousands, were enmassed to meet the Foemen,

Whose fleet had not yet shoaled.

Captain and Colonel,

Sere Generals, Ensigns vernal,

Were there, of neighbor-natives, Michel, Smith,

Meggs, Bingham, Gambier, Cunningham, roused by the hued nocturnal

Swoop on their land and kith.

But Buonaparte still tarried;

His project had miscarried;

At the last hour, equipped for victory,

The fleet had paused; his subtle combinations had been parried

By British strategy.

Homeward returning

Anon, no beacons burning,

No alarms, the Volunteer, in modest bliss,

Te Deum sang with wife and friends: “We praise Thee, Lord, discerning

That Thou hast helped in this!”