Home  »  A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895  »  A Curlew’s Call

Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. (1833–1908). A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895. 1895.

Jane Barlow

A Curlew’s Call

WHETHEN is it yourself, Mister Hagan? an’ lookin’ right hearty you are;

’T is a thrate to behold you agin. You ’ll be waitin’ to take the long car

For Kilmoyna, the same as meself, sir? They ’re late at the cross-roads tonight,

For I mind when the days ’ud be long, they ’d be here ere the droop of the light,

Yet out yonder far over the bog there ’s the sunset beginnin’ to burn

Like the red of a camp-fire raked low, and no sign of thim roundin’ the turn.—

So the dark’ll git ahead of us home on this jaunt; we ’ve good ten mile to go,

And thin afther the rain-pours this mornin’, we ’re apt to be draggin’ an’ slow—

Ay, you ’re right, sir: alongside the road I ’ve been thravellin’ you ’d scarce count that far;

You ’ll cross dark an’ light times and agin between Creggan and Kandahar.

And is Norah along wid you? Well, Norah jewel, how ’s yourself all this year?

Sure she ’s thin grown and white, sir, to what I remember her last time we were here.

Took could in the spring? Ah, begorrah, the March win’s as bad as a blight;

But the weather we git in Afghanistan, troth, ’t would destroy her outright.

For in summer Ould Horny seems houldin’ the earth in the heat of his hand,

And in winther the snow ’s the great ghost of a world settled down on the land,

Wid a blast keenin’ over it fit to be freezin’ the sun where he shone;

If they ’d lease you that counthry rint-free, you ’d do righter to let it alone.

Glad enough to be ought of it? Well, in a way, but I ’ve this on me mind,

That I ’m come like the winther’s worst day, after lavin’ me betthers behind;

An’ the nearer I git to the ould place at home, it ’s the stranger I seem,

Missin’ thim I ’ll behold there no more till me furlough I take in a dream.

But the divil a dream’s in it now, and I ’d liefer dream ugly than think

What Jack Connolly’s folk ’ll remember whinever they notice the blink

Of me coat past their hedge, and I goin’ their road. Jack’s poor mother belike

’Ill be feedin’ her hins in the door, or else gath’rin’ her clothes at the dyke,

And it ’s down to the gate she’ll be runnin’ and callin’, an’ biddin’ me step in;

And she’ll say to me: “Well, Dan, you ’re home, and I ’m glad, sure, to see you agin.”

Quare an’ glad, I ’ll be bound, wid the thought in her heart of how long she might wait,

Ere she ’d see her own slip of a redcoat come route-marchin’ in at her gate;

He that ’s campin’ apart from us, joined wid the throop who shift quarters no more;

Crep’ in under the tent that ’s wide worlds beyond call, tho’ ’t was pitched at your door.

Ah, the crathur: ’t is poor bits of hope folk take up wid whin luck ’s turnin’ bad!

She that not so long since ’ud be thinkin’ she ’d soon git a sight of the lad,

There she’ll stand wid her eyes on me face, till I see all as plain ’s if I heard

How she ’s wond’rin’, an dhreadin’ to ask, have I brought her so much as a word.

That ’s the notion’s come home wid me; faix, I get thinkin’ it every odd while,

Maybe oft as a lamed horse shrinks his fut in the len’th of a stony mile.

You ’ll remember Jack Connolly, sir? Ay, for sure, ’t is good neighbors you ’ve been

Since he was n’t the height of your stick, and meself but a bit of spalpeen.

Great the pair of us both were; out most whiles off over the bog and away,

But the end of it happint us yonder at sunset last Pathrick’s Day.

The way of it? Our picket was ridin’ in be the wall of the little white town,

That ’s stuck like a blaiched wasps’ nest in the gap where the ridge of the hills breaks down,

And the big flat plain spreads out and about, you might say ’t was a bog gone dhry,

Lookin’ nathural enough till you notice, pricked up ’gin the light in the sky,

Their two thin towers, like an ould snail’s horns be the shell of their haythin dome,

Peerin’ out of a purpose to put you in mind where you’ve thravelled from home.

We were ridin’ too close; I remember along on the white of the wall

The front men’s helmets went bob, bob, bob, in blue shadow, sthretched won’erful tall,

For the sunbames were raichin’ their furthest aslant from the edge of the day,

Where the light ran, dhrained over the earth, like a wave turnin’ back to the say,

All hot gold. Howane’er, when we past where their straight-archin’ door opened black,

Wid the dust-thracks they thramp into roads glamin’ in at it, off went a crack,

And ere ever an echo got rappin’ the hills, or the smoke riz to float,

’T was a plunge, and a thud, and Jack Connolly down wid him, shot in the throat.

So be raison of we two bein’ neighbors, they bid me mind Jack while they went

To make out what the mischief at all the rapscallion that potted him meant;

Some ould objic’ wisped up in his rags head and fut, the crow’s notice to quit,

Wid a quare carabine ’ud scarce fright e’er a bird who ’d a scrumption of wit.

But it was able enough for that job, and be hanged to it; Jack’s business was done,

As you could n’t misdoubt. All the west swam clear fire round the smooth, redhot sun,

Dropped down steady as a shell thro’ still wather; but’t would n’t be sunk out of sight

Ere the lad had got finished wid dyin’, and gone beyond darkness and light.

And between whiles ’t was divil as much could I do to be helpin’ him; just

Keep beside him, and dhrive the black fly-buzz, and lift up his head from the dust,

And hear tell had he aught in his mind. But, och man, if his heart was to break,

Every whisper of voice he had in him was kilt, not a word could he spake.

Sure now that was conthrary. An instant before ’t was no odds what he said,

And he ’d laughed, and he ’d gabbed on galore, any blathers come into his head;

But wid on’y a minit to hold all his speech in for ever and a day,

Just one breath of a word like a hand raichin’ worlds’ worlds an’ years’ years away,

’T is sthruck dumb he was, same as his crathur of a baste that stood watchin’ us there,

Wid big eyes shinin’ fright, and snuffin’ the throuble up out of the air.

’T was a throuble swep’ nearer, an’ blacker, an’ surer; the whole world stood still;

You ’d as aisy turn back a cloud’s shadow, that ’s tuk to slide over a hill.

There was Jack wid the life failin’ out of him fast as the light from the sky,

That came fingerin’ the grass wid long rays, blade be blade, an’ thin twinklin’ up high

On the gold spark atop their green dome. And I thought to meself how the same

Blamed ould sunset ’ud thrapese away to the west till the shine of it came,

Flarin’ red in the bog-houles, an’ bright past the turf-stacks, and in at the door

Of the little ould place down the lonin’, that Jack ’ud set fut in no more,

And ’t would dance on their bits of gilt jugs, till they glittered like stars in a row,

And the people widin at their suppers ne’er thinkin’ no great while ago

It was dazzlin’ Jack’s eyes as he looked for me face wid the last of his sight.

And sez I to him, “What is it, lad?” but I knew I might listen all night

And no answer; the sorra a chance to be bringin’ thim a word we ’d ha’ found,

On’y Jack had more sinse in him yet than meself that was hearty and sound;

For he looked towards the rim of the west wid the sun hangin’ ready to fall,

And he whistled two notes quick and low—well I knew it: the curlew’s call.

I ’d not aisy mistake it; sure out on these bogs scarce a minit goes by,

But anear or afar on the win’ comes a flicker of the crathur’s cry—

Faith I heard wan just thin—and on many a day, ere the sun ’ud be up,

And around and around stood the gray of the air like a big empty cup

Fit to hold every sound ever stirred, and to catch all the light ever shone,

I ’d be out wid me on to our bogland, all desolit lyin’, and lone

As they say whin you’ve watched the low shore till it dips where the ridges rowl green,

And I ’d spy was there e’er a wan out, and belike not a sowl to be seen

Save Jack whistlin’ away to me down be the lough; you ’d ha’ swore ’t was the bird,

Barrin’ just the laste differ; Jack done it the likest that ever I heard.

And there ’s plenty that thry at it. Seldom a sunsit throops out of the west

But some lad ’ll be whistlin’ his sweet-heart, that ’s sittin’ and listenin’ her best,

While the corners grow dark, and she ’s reckonin’ the shadows for ’fraid he might fail.

So his call lit the world like a star. Ne’er a sweetheart had Jack, I ’ll go bail,

For the truth is his mind was tuk up wid his own folk; it could n’t be tould

The opinion he had and consait of the whole of thim, young wans and ould,

And it ’s there where I ’m bothered entirely to think how he got the idee

To go soldierin’ off to the ends of the earth wid no comrade but me.

Howanever, he went off suddint, afore we knew right what was on;

And I thought to meself the ould place ’ud be quare wid Jack Connolly gone,

So I up and I down to the barracks below, an’ the shillin’ I tuk—

That ’s the way it fell out, and belike ’t was himself had the best of the luck.

And continted and aisy he went, wanst he saw he ’d made shift to conthrive

That the message he had in his mind ’ud go safe. For sez I: “Man alive,

I ’ll be tellin’ your people at home the first chance I can git, good or bad,

How thimselves, and the ould place you quit, was the last thought that ever you had;

And I ’ll bid thim be thinkin’ of you, whin they hear the bird cry on our bog.

Your poor mother, an’ father, an’ the childher’ an’ their little ould rogue of a dog,

Ne’er a wan you ’re forgettin’,” sez I; and bedad any fool might ha’ known,

For the manin’ he meant wid his call was as clear as a bugle blown.

And our rifles wint crack be the gateway, and now and again wid a plop

Come a bullet dhruv deep in the sand—’t was the divil dhrill-sowin’ his crop—

And a priest legged it up to the top of the tower, and stood risin’ a yell

For the rest to be sayin’ their prayers, like as if ’t was our angely bell.

But it ’s little Jack heeded; for sure his own folk, and th’ ould counthry, and all

Were come nearer than near, and gone further than far, along wid that curlew’s call.

Ah, but Norah, you ’re perished an’ thrimblin’ wid could sittin’ here in the win’;

Did you bring ne’er a wrap to rowl round you, machree, now the night ’s closin’ in?

For there ’s mists curlin’ white on the pools, and the air gets an edge whin they lift.

Ay, the moon ’s up, just on’y a breath ’gin the blue, where the cloud comes adrift,

Sthreelin’ by like a haystack on fire, wid the flame blowin’ off be the way

In bright bundles and wisps, as if some wan ’ud harvest the light of the day.

’T is n’t that fashion dark falls, out there in the aist. Wanst the sun goes on lave,

Ne’er a thrace of a glame bides to show where he passed, like the foam of a wave;

He ’ll be blazin’ wan minit, and thin ’t is the same as if somebody shut

A black door on the blink of a hearth, or kicked over a lamp wid his fut.

So the rest of us rode thro’ a night blindin’ dark, till we ’d half the plain crossed,

And the moon riz ice-clear, wid a shine lyin’ thick on the grass as hoar-frost

You could gather up. And, troth, if our tongues had froze stiff, ’t is as much we ’d ha’ said,

Wid Jack Connolly’s baste saddle-empty, and jerkin’ the reins as I led.

Sure poor Jack had a dale of good-nature; he ’d fooled the ould mare all he could,

And the crathur went slow-fut and heavy; you might think that she understood.