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The Midnight Axe



I.
The red day sank as the Sergeant rode
Through the woods grown dim and brown,
One farewell flush on his carbine glowed,
And the veil of the dusk drew down.

No sound of life save the hoof-beats broke
The hush of the lonely place,
Or the short, sharp words that the Sergeant spoke
When his good horse slackened pace,

Or hungrily caught at the ti-tree shoots,
Or in tangled brushwood tripped
Faltered amid disrupted roots,
Or on porphyry outcrop slipped.
The woods closed in; through the vaulted dark
No ray of starlight shone,
But still o'er the crashing litter of bark
Trooper and steed tore on.

Night in the bush, and the bearings lost;
But the Sergeant took no heed,
For Fate that morn his will had crossed,
And his wrath was hot indeed.

The captured prey that his hands had gripped
Ere the dawn in his lone bush lair
The bonds from his pinioned wrists had slipped,
And was gone he knew not where.

Therefore the wrath of Sergeant Hume
Burned fiercely as on he fared,
And whither he rode through the perilous gloom
He neither knew nor cared,

But still, as the dense brush checked the pace,
Would drive the sharp spurs in,
Though the pendent parasites smote his face,
Or caught him beneath the chin.

The woodland dipped, or upward bent,
But he recked not of hollow or hill,
Till right on the brink of a sheer descent
His trembling horse stood still.

And when, in despite of word and oath,
He swerved from the darksome edge,
The unconscious man, dismounting loth,
Set foot on a yielding ledge.

A sudden strain on a treacherous rein,
And a clutch at the empty air,
A cry in the dark, with no ear to mark
Its accent of despair—

And the slender stream in the gloom below,
That in mossy channel ran,
Was checked a space in its feeble flow,
By the limbs of a senseless man.

II.
A change had passed o'er the face of night,
When, waking as from a dream,
The Sergeant gazed aghast at the sight
Of moonlit cliff and stream.

From the shallow wherein his limbs had lain
He crawled to higher ground,
And, numb of heart and dizzy of brain,
Dreamily gazed around.

From aisle to aisle of the solemn wood
A misty radiance spread,
And like pillars seen through incense stood
The gaunt boles, gray or red.

Slow vapours, touched with a mystic sheen,
Round the sombre branches curled,
Or floated the haggard trunks between,
Like ghosts in a spectral world.

No voice was heard of beast or bird,
Nor whirr of insect wing;
Nor crepitant bark the silence stirred,
Nor dead nor living thing.

So still that, but for his labouring breath,
And the blood on his head and hand,
He might have deemed his swoon was death,
And this the Silent Land.

Anon, close by, at the water's edge,
His helmet he espied,
Half-buried among the reedy sedge,

And drew it to his side.

And ev'n as he dipped it in the brook,
And drank as from a cup,
Suddenly, with affrighted look,
The Sergeant started up.

For the sound of an axe—a single stroke—
Through the ghostly woods rang clear;
And a cold sweat on his forehead broke,
And he shook in deadly fear.

Why should the sound that on lonely tracks
Had gladdened him many a day—
Why should the ring of the friendly axe
Bring boding and dismay?

And why should his steed down the slope hard by,
With fierce and frantic stride—
Why should his steed with unearthly cry
Rush trembling to his side?

Strange, too—and the Sergeant marked it well,
Nor doubted he marked aright—
When the thunder of hoofs on the silence fell,
And the cry rang through the night,

A thousand answering echoes woke,
Reverberant far and wide;
But to the unseen woodman's stroke
No echo had replied.

And while he questioned with his fear
And summoned his pride to aid,
A second stroke fell sharp and clear,
Nor echo answer made.

A third stroke, and aloud he cried,
As one who hails his kind;
But nought save his own voice multiplied
His straining sense divined.

He bound the ends of his broken rein,
He recked not his carbine gone,
He mounted his steed with a groan of pain,
And tow'rd the sound spurred on.

For now the blows fell thick and fast,
And he noted with added dread
That ever as woods on woods flew past
The sound moved on ahead.

But his courage rose with the quickening pace,
And mocked his boding gloom;
For fear had no abiding-place
In th
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Submitted on May 13, 2011

3:55 min read
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James Brunton Stephens

James Brunton Stephens was a Scottish-born Australian poet, author of Convict Once. more…

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