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

27. The Dance at the Phoenix

TO Jenny came a gentle youth

From inland leazes lone;

His love was fresh as apple-blooth

By Parrett, Yeo, or Tone.

And duly he entreated her

To be his tender minister,

And call him aye her own.

Fair Jenny’s life had hardly been

A life of modesty;

At Casterbridge experience keen

Of many loves had she

From scarcely sixteen years above:

Among them sundry troopers of

The King’s-Own Cavalry.

But each with charger, sword, and gun,

Had bluffed the Biscay wave;

And Jenny prized her gentle one

For all the love he gave.

She vowed to be, if they were wed,

His honest wife in heart and head

From bride-ale hour to grave.

Wedded they were. Her husband’s trust

In Jenny knew no bound,

And Jenny kept her pure and just,

Till even malice found

No sin or sign of ill to be

In one who walked so decently

The duteous helpmate’s round.

Two sons were born, and bloomed to men,

And roamed, and were as not:

Alone was Jenny left again

As ere her mind had sought

A solace in domestic joys,

And ere the vanished pair of boys

Were sent to sun her cot.

She numbered near on sixty years,

And passed as elderly,

When, in the street, with flush of fears,

On day discovered she,

From shine of swords and thump of drum,

Her early loves from war had come,

The King’s Own Cavalry.

She turned aside, and bowed her head

Anigh Saint Peter’s door;

“Alas for chastened thoughts!” she said;

“I’m faded now, and hoar,

And yet those notes—they thrill me through,

And those gay forms move me anew

As in the years of yore!”…

—’Twas Christmas, and the Phoenix Inn

Was lit with tapers tall,

For thirty of the trooper men

Had vowed to give a ball

As “Theirs” had done (fame handed down)

When lying in the self-same town

Ere Buonaparté’s fall.

That night the throbbing “Soldier’s Joy,”

The measured tread and sway

Of “Fancy-Lad” and “Maiden Coy,”

Reached Jenny as she lay

Beside her spouse; till springtide blood

Seemed scouring through her like a flood

That whisked the years away.

She rose, and rayed, and decked her head

To hide her ringlets thin;

Upon her cap two bows of red

She fixed with hasty pin;

Unheard descending to the street,

She trod the flags with tune-led feet,

And stood before the Inn.

Save for the dancers’, not a sound

Disturbed the icy air;

No watchman on his midnight round

Or traveller was there;

But over All-Saints’, high and bright,

Pulsed to the music Sirius white,

The Wain by Bullstake Square.

She knocked, but found her further stride

Checked by a sergeant tall:

“Gay Granny, whence come you?” he cried;

“This is a private ball.”

—“No one has more right here than me!

Ere you were born, man,” answered she,

“I knew the regiment all!”

“Take not the lady’s visit ill!”

Upspoke the steward free;

“We lack sufficient partners still,

So, prithee let her be!”

They seized and whirled her ’mid the maze,

And Jenny felt as in the days

Of her immodesty.

Hour chased each hour, and night advanced;

She sped as shod with wings;

Each time and every time she danced—

Reels, jigs, poussettes, and flings:

They cheered her as she soared and swooped

(She’d learnt ere art in dancing drooped

From hops to slothful swings).

The favorite Quick-step “Speed the Plough”—

(Cross hands, cast off, and wheel)—

“The Triumph,” “Sylph,” “The Row-dow dow,”

Famed “Major Malley’s Reel,”

“The Duke of York’s,” “The Fairy Dance,”

“The Bridge of Lodi” (brought from France),

She beat out, toe and heel.

The “Fall of Paris” clanged its close,

And Peter’s chime told four,

When Jenny, bosom-beating, rose

To seek her silent door.

They tiptoed in escorting her,

Lest stroke of heel or chink of spur

Should break her goodman’s snore.

The fire that late had burnt fell slack

When lone at last stood she;

Her nine-and-fifty years came back;

She sank upon her knee

Beside the durn, and like a dart

A something arrowed through her heart

In shoots of agony.

Their footsteps died as she leant there,

Lit by the morning star

Hanging above the moorland, where

The aged elm-rows are;

And, as o’ernight, from Pummery Ridge

To Maembury Ring and Standfast Bridge

No life stirred, near or far.

Though inner mischief worked amain,

She reached her husband’s side;

Where, toil-weary, as he had lain

Beneath the patchwork pied

When yestereve she’d forthward crept,

And as unwitting, still he slept

Who did in her confide.

A tear sprang as she turned and viewed

His features free from guile;

She kissed him long, as when, just wooed.

She chose his domicile.

Death menaced now; yet less for life

She wished than that she were the wife

That she had been erstwhile.

Time wore to six. Her husband rose

And struck the steel and stone;

He glanced at Jenny, whose repose

Seemed deeper than his own.

With dumb dismay, on closer sight,

He gathered sense that in the night,

Or morn, her soul had flown.

When told that some too mighty strain

For one so many-yeared

Had burst her bosom’s master-vein,

His doubts remained unstirred.

His Jenny had not left his side

Betwixt the eve and morning-tide:

—The King’s said not a word.

Well! times are not as times were then,

Nor fair ones half so free;

And truly they were martial men,

The King’s-Own Cavalry.

And when they went from Casterbridge

And vanished over Mellstock Ridge,

’Twas saddest morn to see.