The Drove-Road

’T WAS going to snow — ’t was snowing! Curse his luck!
And fifteen mile to travel — here was he
With nothing but an empty pipe to suck,
And half a flask of rum — but that would be
More welcome later on. He’d had a drink
Before he left; and that would keep him warm
A tidy while; and ’t would be good to think
He’d something to fall back on, if the storm
Should come to much. You never knew with snow.
A sup of rain he did n’t mind at all,
But snow was different with so far to go —
Full fifteen mile, and not a house of call.
Ay, snow was quite another story, quite —
Snow on these fell-tops with a northeast wind
Behind it, blowing steadily with a bite
That made you feel that you were stark and skinned.
And those poor beasts — and they just off the boat
A day or so, and hardly used to land —
Still dizzy with the sea, their wits afloat.
When they first reached the dock, they scarce could stand,
They’d been so joggled. It’s gey bad to cross,
After a long day’s jolting in the train,
Thon Irish Channel, always pitch and toss —
And heads or tails, not much for them to gain!
And then the market, and the throng and noise
Of yapping dogs; and they stung mad with fear,
Welted with switches by those senseless boys —
He’d like to dust their jackets! But ’t was queer,
A beast’s life, when you came to think of it
From start to finish, — queerer, ay, a lot,
Than any man’s, and chancier a good bit.
With his ash-sapling at their heels they’d got
To travel before night those fifteen miles
Of hard fell-road, against the driving snow,
Half blinded, on and on. He thought at whiles
’Twas just as well for them they could n’t know.
Though, as for that, ’t was little that he knew
Himself what was in store for him. He took
Things as they came. ’T was all a man could do;
And he’d kept going, somehow, by hook or crook.
And here he was, with fifteen mile of fell,
And snow, and — God, but it was blowing stiff!
And no tobacco. Blest if he could tell
Where he had lost it — but, for half a whiff
He’d swap the very jacket off his back.
Not that he’d miss the cobweb of old shreds
That held the holes together. Thon Cheap-Jack
Who’d sold it him had said it was Lord Ted’s,
And London cut. But Teddy had grown fat
Since he’d been made an alderman. . . . His bid?
And did the gentleman not want a hat
To go with it, a topper? If he did,
Here was the very . . .
Hell, but it was cold:
And driving dark it was — nigh dark as night.
He’d almost think he must be getting old,
To feel the wind so. And long out of sight
The beasts had trotted. Well, what odds! The way
Ran straight for ten miles on, and they’d go straight.
They’d never heed a byroad. Many a day
He’d had to trudge on, trusting them to fate,
And always found them safe. They scamper fast,
But in the end a man could walk them down.
They’re showy trotters, but they cannot last.
He’d race the fastest beast for half a crown
On a day’s journey. Beasts were never made
For steady traveling: drive them twenty mile,
And they were done; while he was not afraid
To tackle twice that distance with a smile.
But not a day like this! He’d never felt
A wind with such an edge. ’T was like the blade
Of the rasper in the pocket of his belt
He kept for easy shaving. In his trade
You’d oft to make your toilet under a dyke —
And he was always one for a clean chin,
And carried soap. — He’d never felt the like —
That wind, it cut clean through him to the skin.
He might be mother-naked, walking bare,
For all the use his clothes were, with the snow
Half blinding him, and clagging to his hair,
And trickling down his spine. He’d like to know
What was the sense of pegging steadily,
Chilled to the marrow, after a daft herd
Of draggled beasts he could n’t even see!
But that was him all over! Just a word,
A nod, a wink, the price of half-and-half —
And he’d be setting out for God-knows-where,
With no more notion than a yearling calf
Where he would find himself when he got there.
And he’d been traveling hard on sixty year
The same old road, the same old giddy gait;
And he’d be walking, for a pint of beer,
Into his coffin, one day, soon or late —
But not with such a tempest in his teeth,
Half blinded and half dothered, that he hoped!
He’d met a sight of weather on the heath,
But this beat all.
’T was worse than when he’d groped
His way that evening down the Mallerstang —
Thon was a blizzard, thon — and he was done,
And almost dropping when he came a-bang
Against a house — slap-bang, and like to stun! —
Though that just saved his senses — and right there
He saw a lighted window he’d not seen,
Although he’d nearly staggered through its glare
Into a goodwife’s kitchen, where she’d been
Baking hot griddlecakes upon the peat.
And he could taste them now, and feel the glow
Of steady, aching, tingly, drowsy heat,
As he sat there and let the caking snow
Melt off his boots, staining the sanded floor.
And that brown jug she took down from the shelf —
And every time he’d finished, fetching more,
And piping, ‘Now reach up, and help yourself!’
She was a wonder, thon, the gay old wife —
But no such luck this journey. Things like that
Could hardly happen every day of life,
Or no one would be dying, but the fat
And oily undertakers, starved to death
For want of custom. . . . Hell! but he would soon
Be giving them a job. It caught your breath,
That throttling wind. And it was not yet noon;
And he’d be traveling through it until dark.
Dark! ’T was already dark, and might be night
For all that he could see.
And not a spark
Of comfort for him! Just to strike a light,
And press the kindling shag down in the bowl,
Keeping the flame well shielded by his hand,
And puff, and puff! He’d give his very soul
For half a pipe. He could n’t understand
How he had come to lose it. He’d the rum —
Ay, that was safe enough; but it would keep
Awhile; you never knew what chance might come
In such a storm . . .
If he could only sleep —
If he could only sleep . . . That rustling sound
Of drifting snow, it made him sleepy-like —
Drowsy and dizzy, dithering round and round.
If he could only curl up under a dyke,
And sleep and sleep... It dazzled him, that white,
Drifting and drifting, round and round and round . . .
Just half a moment’s snooze. He’d be all right.
It made his head quite dizzy, that dry sound
Of rustling snow. It made his head go round —
That rustling in his ears . . . and drifting, drifting . . .
If he could only sleep... he would sleep sound . . .
God, he was nearly gone!
The storm was lifting;
And he’d run into something soft and warm —
Slap into his own beasts, and never knew.
Huddled they were, bamboozled by the storm—
And little wonder either, when it blew
A blasted blizzard. Still, they’d got to go.
They could n’t stand there snoozing until night.
But they were sniffing something in the snow.
’Twas that had stopped them, something big and white—
A bundle — nay, a woman. And she slept.
But it was death to sleep.
He’d nearly dropped
Asleep himself. ’Twas well that he had kept
That rum; and lucky that the beasts had stopped.
Ay, it was well that he had kept the rum.
He liked his drink; but he had never cared
For soaking by himself, and sitting mum.
Even the best rum tasted better, shared.