The Headless Trooper.

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NO; not another step, for all
The troopers out of hell!
I'll camp beside this swamp to-night,
Despite the yarns you tell.
I'm dead beat, that's a solid fact;
The other thing's a sell."
And Ike gave in — good, easy Ike;
Though now and then he stole
A glance across that dismal swamp,
Lugubriously droll;
'Twas plain that Headless Trooper lay
Heavily on his soul.
And, ere he slept, again he told
That tale of bloody men;
And how the Headless Trooper still
Rode nightly in the fen;
And then he slept, but in his sleep
He told it all again.
I cannot rest beside a man
Who mutters in his sleep;
It makes the chilly goose-flesh rise,
The epidermis creep —
('Tis no objection in a wife —
You get her secrets cheap).
I put a hundred yards between
The muttering Ike and me:
I lay and thought of things that were,
And things that yet might be:
I could not sleep; I know not why;
My hair rose eerily.
I rose and sat me on a log;
And tried to keep me cool;
I thought of "Hume on Miracles,"
And called myself a fool;
But still the proverb racked my soul,
"Exceptions prove the rule."
The moon was full; the stars were out;
I tried to fix my eye
Where Night laid shining love-gifts
On the bosom of the sky; —
But well I knew that all the while
The Thing was standing by.
How tall this pine tree on my left!
How graceful in its height!
Its topmost branches seem to touch
The very brow of Night; —
But all the while I knew the Thing
Was panting at my right.
The 'possum leaves his hollow tree;
The bandicoot is glad;
It is the human heart alone
The still night maketh sad; —
And all the while the Headless Thing
Was wheezing there like mad.
How ghostly is the mist that crawls
Along the swampy ground!
The Headless Thing here cleared its throat
With most unearthly sound!
And then I heard a gurgling voice,
But dared not glance around.
"They shot me; Was it not enough?
Look, darn you! Here's the hole!
Was this not passage amply wide
For any human soul?
But, no! the blasted convict gang
Must likewise take my poll!"
I turned; looked up; and at the sight
My heart within me sunk:
'Twas new to me to find myself
In such a mortal funk; —
But newer still to fraternise
With a bifurcated trunk!
Above the neck no trooper was;
But formless void alone;
There physiognomy was nil,
Phrenology unknown;
Where head had been there but remained
The frustum of a cone!
Nay; I retract the "formless void;"
The case was otherwise;
For on the clotted marge there spun
A living globe of flies!
When one is dealing with the truth
One can't be too precise.
The loathsome whirling substitute
Buzzed in the vacant space,
And a thousand thousand little heads
Of one head took the place: —
And oh, the fly expression
Of that rotatory face!
The breast was bare; the shirt thrown back
Exposed the wound to view:
The bullet in its course of death
Had cleared an avenue: —
Oh Gemini! I saw the Twins
Distinctly shining through!
And those same Twins are shining still
To prove my story true.
In breeches, boots, and spurs arrayed
The nether Trooper stood;
The soundless phantom of a horse
Grazed in his neighbourhood, —
At all events went through the form
Of hoisting in his food.
"What would'st thou, Headless Trooper,
On the night's Plutonian shore?"
I took it from Poe's Raven
I had read not long before;
And I more than half expected
He would answer "Nevermore!"
But the Trooper only answered
By a perfect storm of sighs,
Which through his crater issuing,
Played Hades with the flies, —
As I have seen Vesuvius
Blow ashes to the skies.
"O wherefore, Headless Trooper,
With the living intermix?
Since thou art dead, and hast no head,
Why kick against the pricks?
Why dost thou not, as others do,
Get clear across the Styx?"
The Trooper cleared his cone of flies,
And through his crater said,
" 'Tis true I have no business here;
'Tis true that I am dead;
And yet I cannot cross the Styx —
They've fixed a fare ‘per head!'
"Fain would I cross as others do —
Fain would I pay my shot!
They only mock me when I ask
For leave to go to Pot!
How can I pay so much ‘per head’
When I no head have got?
"Yet what could I, thus headless, do
In that last Land of Nod?
It is not that the thing is dear,
So much as that it's odd; —
They only charge an obolus,
A sort of Tommy Dodd.
"I've tried the ferryman with gold —
With every coin that goes;
He merely cries, ‘Oh, go a-head!’
And, laughing, off he rows.
He can't twit me, at all events,
With paying through the nose!
"A drachma once I offered him,
Six times the fare in Greek;
He merely cursed my ‘impudence,’
And pushed off in a pique: —
I didn't think a faceless man
Could be accused of cheek.
"From day to day, from night to night,
My prayer the wretch denies;
Yet even in this headless breast
Some grateful thoughts arise —
For though he's blasted all my hopes,
He cannot blast my eyes.
"I know not where the convict crew
My missing head consigned,
But I am doomed to walk the earth
Till that same head I find.
Oh, could I come across it,
I would know it though I'm blind, —
The bump of amativeness sticks.
So strongly out behind!
"The mouth extends from ear to ear;
The hair is fiery red;
Perchance it might attract thine eye
Who art not blind or dead;
I pray thee help me to obtain
My disembodied head!"
"Oh Headless Trooper, fain would I
With thee the search begin,
But ere the day I must away,
And trudge through thick and thin;
For I am bound to Stanthorpe town,
And time with me is tin.
"But ere upon my pilgrimage
With dawn's first streak I go,
I fain would do what in me lies
To mitigate thy woe.
If I can serve thee anywise,
I pray thee let me know."
The Trooper thought a little space,
His body forward bowed,
With plenteous sighs dispersed the flies,
And once more spoke aloud: —
" 'Tis long since I have tried the weed;
I'd like to blow a cloud."
"How canst thou; headless man, who hast
No lips wherewith to puff?"
Here deprecatingly he waved
His hand, and said, "Enough.
Myself will guarantee the how,
If thou supply the stuff."
I took a meerschaum from my pouch;
A meerschaum clean and new,
As white as is undoctored milk,
As pure as morning dew: —
I pray you mark that it was white;
'Twill prove my story true.
I passed it to him, filled and lit,
Still wondering in my mind.
"Thanks, generous colonial,
Thou art very, very kind.
Now pick a thickish waddy up,
And plug my wound behind."
I picked a thickish waddy up;
And did as I was bid;
And right into the bullet-hole
The amber mouth he slid;
And then! — You never saw the like!
At least I never did.
Like a forge bellows went his chest,
And upward from his cone
There shot a vaporous spire, like that
From Cotopaxi blown.
The flies unglobed themselves, and fled
With angry monotone.
So fierce the blast, the pipe was void
Ere one might reckon ten;
And then with gesture wild he signed
To fill the bowl again;
The which I did, till he had smoked
Enough for fifty men.
Hour after hour he drew and blew,
Till twist began to fail,
Till all the sky grew dim with smoke,
And all the stars grew pale;
Till even the seasoned stomach turned
Of him who tells the tale.
The smoke mixed darkly with the mists
On the adjacent bogs,
And roused the hoarse remonstrant wail
Of semi-stifled frogs;
The 'possums all within a mile
Went home as sick as dogs.
But suddenly the phantom steed
Neighed with sepulehral sound,
And where both man and horse had been
Nor man nor horse was found!
I stood alone; the meerschaum lay
Before me on the ground.
The meerschaum lay upon the ground —
This much I may avouch;
I took it, and with trembling hand
Replaced it in my pouch;
And overcome with nausea
I sought my grassy couch.
The sun was up when I awoke,
And in his gladsome beams
I mocked the things of yesternight,
And laughed away my dreams:
Disciples of the School of Doubt
Are always in extremes.
But when I roused me from my couch
To take my morning smoke,
Like lightning flash the verity
Upon my laughter broke; —
The scarcity of 'bacoy proved
The thing beyond a joke.
And when my pouch I opened next —
(Now check the wanton jeer) —
My pipe, my new, fresh meerschaum pipe —
('Tis true as I am here) —
My pipe was "coloured!" as if I
Had smoked it for a year!
My pipe was coloured! — no, not brown,
But black — as black as jet.
You don't believe it? — Man alive,
The pipe is coloured yet!
Look here — why, here's the best of proofs —
The pipe, videlicet.

© James Brunton Stephens