Uncle Ned’s Tale: An Old Dragoon's Story

I OFTEN, musing, wander back to days long since gone by,
And far-off scenes and long-lost forms arise to fancy's eye.
A group familiar now I see, who all but one are fled,—
My mother, sister Jane, myself, and dear old Uncle Ned.
I'll tell you how I see them now. First, mother in her chair
Sits knitting by the parlor fire, with anxious matron air;
My sister Jane, just nine years old, is seated at her feet,
With look demure, as if she, too, were thinking how to meet
The butcher's or the baker's bill,—though not a thought has she
Of aught beside her girlish toys; and next to her I see
Myself, a sturdy lad of twelve,—neglectful of the book
That open lies upon my knee,—my fixed admiring look
At Uncle Ned, upon the left, whose upright, martial mien,
Whose empty sleeve and gray mustache, proclaim what he has been.
My mother I had always loved; my father then was dead;
But 'twas more than love—'twas worship—I felt for Uncle Ned.
Such tales he had of battle-fields,—the victory and the rout,
The ringing cheer, the dying shriek, the loud exulting shout!
And how, forgetting age and wounds, his eye would kindle bright,
When telling of some desperate ride or close and deadly fight!
But oft I noticed, in the midst of some wild martial tale,
To which I lent attentive ear, my mother's cheek grow pale;
She sighed to see my kindled look, and feared I might be led
To follow in the wayward steps of poor old Uncle Ned.
But with all the wondrous tales he told, 'twas strange I never heard
Of his last fight, for of that day he never spoke a word.
And yet 'twas there he lost his arm, and once he e'en confessed
'Twas there he won the glittering cross he wore upon his breast.
It hung the center of a group of Glory's emblems fair,
And royal hands, he told me once, had placed the bauble there.
Each day that passed I hungered more to hear about that fight,
And oftentimes I prayed in vain. At length, one winter's night,—
The very night I speak of now,—with more than usual care
I filled his pipe, then took my stand beside my uncle's chair:
I fixed my eyes upon the Cross,—he saw my youthful plan;
And, smiling, laid the pipe aside and thus the tale began:

'Well, boy, it was in summer time, and just at morning's light
We heard the 'Boot and Saddle!' sound: the foe was then in sight,
Just winding round a distant hill and opening on the plain.
Each trooper looked with careful eye to girth and curb and rein.
We snatched a hasty breakfast,—we were old campaigners then:
That morn, of all our splendid corps, we'd scarce one hundred men;
But they were soldiers, tried and true, who'd rather die than yield:
The rest were scattered far and wide o'er many a hard fought field.
Our trumpet now rang sharply out, and at a swinging pace
We left the bivouac behind; and soon the eye could trace
The columns moving o'er the plain. Oh! ' twas a stirring sight
To see two mighty armies there preparing for the fight:
To watch the heavy masses, as, with practiced, steady wheel,
They opened out in slender lines of brightly flashing steel.
Our place was on the farther flank, behind some rising ground,
That hid the stirring scene from view; but soon a booming sound
Proclaimed the opening of the fight. Then war's loud thunder rolled,
And hurtling shells and whistling balls their deadly message told.
We hoped to have a gallant day; our hearts were all aglow;
We longed for one wild, sweeping charge, to chase the flying foe.
Our troopers marked the hours glide by, but still no orders came:
They clutched their swords, and muttered words 'twere better not to name.
For hours the loud artillery roared,—the sun was at its height,—
Still there we lay behind that hill, shut out from all the fight!
We heard the maddened charging yells, the ringing British cheers,
And all the din of glorious war kept sounding in our ears.
Our hearts with fierce impatience throbbed, we cursed the very hill
That hid the sight: the evening fell, and we were idle still.
The horses, too, were almost wild, and told with angry snort
And blazing eye their fierce desire to join the savage sport.
When lower still the sun had sunk, and with it all our hope,
A horseman, soiled with smoke and sweat, came dashing down the slope.
He bore the wished-for orders. ' At last!' our Colonel cried;
And as he read the brief dispatch his glance was filled with pride.
Then he who bore the orders, in a low, emphatic tone,
The stern, expressive sentence spoke,—'He said it must be done!'
'It shall be done!' our Colonel cried. 'Men, look to strap and girth,
We've work to do this day will prove what every man is worth;
Ay, wor
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John Boyle O'Reilly

John Boyle O'Reilly was an Irish-born poet, journalist and fiction writer. more…

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"Uncle Ned’s Tale: An Old Dragoon's Story" Poetry.net. STANDS4 LLC, 2020. Web. 6 Apr. 2020. <https://www.poetry.net/poem/22098/uncle-ned’s-tale:-an-old-dragoon's-story>.

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