CANADIAN BALLADS,

AND

OCCASIONAL VERSES.

By Thomas D’Arcy McGee


 

THE DEATH OF HUDSON.



The slayer Death is every where, and many a mask hath he,
Many and awful are the shapes in which he sways the sea;
Sometimes within a rocky aisle he lights his candle dim,
And sits half-sheeted in the foam, chanting a funeral hymn;
Full often ’mid the roar of winds we hear his awful cry
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Hounding the lightning on its prey through the beclouded sky;
Sometimes he hides ’neath tropic waves, and as the ship sails             o’er
He holds her fast to the fiery sun, till the crew can breathe more.

There is no land so far away but he meeteth mankind there,
He liveth at the icy pole with the Berg and the shaggy Bear,

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Or smileth from the Southron capes like a May-Queen in her             flowers,
Or falleth o’er the Indian seas, dissolved in summer showers;
But of all the sea-shapes he hath worn, may mariners never know
Such fate as Henrich Hudson found, in the labyrinths of snow—(3)
The cold North Seas’ Columbus, whose bones lie far, interred

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Under those frigid waters where no song was ever heard.
            [Page 17]

’Twas when he sail’d from Amsterdam, in the adventurous quest
Of an ice-shor’d strait, thro’ which to reach the Orient by the West;
His dastard crew—their thin blood chilled beneath the Arctic             sky—
Combined against him in the night, his hands and feet they tie,

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And bind him in a helmless boat on that dread sea to sail—
Ah, me! an oarless, shadowy skiff, as schoolboy’s vessel frail.
Seven sick men and his only son his comrades were to be,
But ere they left the Crescent’s side the chief spoke             dauntlessly:—

“Ye, Mutineers!  I ask no act of mercy at your hands,

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My fate I feel must steer me to Death’s still-silent lands;
But there is one man in the ship who sailed with me of yore
By many a bay and headland of the New-World’s eastern shore;
From Indian’s heats to Greenland’s snows he dared to follow me,
And is HE turned the traitor too, is he in league with ye?”

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Uprose a voice from the mutineers, “Not I, my chief, not I—
I’ll take my old place by your side, tho’ it be but to die.” [Page 18]

Before his chief could bid him back, he’s standing at his side:—
The cable’s cut—away they drift, over the twilight tide.
No word from any lip came forth, their strain’d eyes steadily glare

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At the vacant gloom, where late the ship had left them to despair.
On the dark waters long was seen a line of foamy light—
It passed, like the hem of an angel’s robe, away from their eager             sight.
Then each man grasped his fellow’s hand, and groan’d, but             nothing spake,
While on through pallid gloom their boat drifts moaningly and

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            weak.


Seven sick men, dying, in a skiff five hundred leagues from             shore—
Oh! never was such a crew afloat on this world’s waves before;
Seven stricken forms, seven sinking hearts of seven short-             breathing men,
Drifting over the Sharks’ abode, along by the white Bear’s den.
Oh! ’twas not there they could be nurs’d in homeliness and ease.

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One short day saw seven bodies sink, whose souls God rest in             peace!
The one who first expir’d had most to note the splash he made,
Yet each one prayed to be the last, and each the blow delay’d.             [Page 19]

Three still remain. ‘My son, my son, hold up your head, my son;
Alas! alas! my faithful mate, I fear his life is gone.’

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So spoke the trembling father—two cold hands in his breast,
Breathing upon his dead boy’s face,—to soft to break his rest.
The roar of battle could not wake that sleeper from his sleep;
The trusty sailor softly lets him down to the yawning deep;
The fated father hid his face whilst this was being done,

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Still murmuring mournfully and low, ‘My son, my only son.’

Another night; uncheerily beneath that heartless sky,
The iceberg sheds its livid light upon them drifting by,
And each beholds the other’s face all spectre-like and wan,
’Till even in that dread solitude man feared the eye of man!

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Afar they hear the pelting surge sound from the banks of frost,
Many a hoar cape round about looms like a giant ghost,
And fast or slow as they drift on, they hear the Bears on shore,
Trooping down to the icy strand watching them evermore.

The morning dawns; unto their eyes the light hath lost its cheer,

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Nor distant sail, nor drifting spar, within their ken appear.
Embayed in ice the coffin-like boat sleeps on the waveless tide,
Where rays of deathly cold cold light converge from every side.             [Page 20]
Slow crept the blood into their hearts, each manly pulse stood             still,
Huge haggard Bears kept watch above on every crystal hill.

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Anon the doomed men were entranced, by the potent frigid air,
And they dream, as drowning men have dreamt, of fields far off             and fair.

What phantoms filled each cheated brain, no mortal ever knew;
What ancient storms they weather’d o’er, what seas explor’d             anew;
What vast designs for future days—what home-hope, or what

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            fear—

There was no one ’mid the ice-lands to chronicle or hear.
So still they say, the wizard Seals bethought them they were             dead,
And each raised from the waters up his cautious human head,
Then circled round th’arrested boat, like vampires round a grave,
Till frighted at their own resolve, they plunged beneath the wave.

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Evening closed round the moveless boat, still sat entranc’d the             twain,
When lo! the ice unlocks its arms, the tide pours in amain!
Away upon the streaming brine the feeble skiff is borne,
The shaggy monsters howl behind their farewells all forlorn.             [Page 21]
The crashing ice, the current’s roar, broke Hudson’s fairy spell,

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But never more shall this world wake his comrade tried so well!
That trusty heart is chill’d for aye, yet shall its truth be told,
When the memories of kings are worn from marble and from             gold.

Onward, onward, the helpless chief—the dead man for his mate!
The Shark far down in ocean’s depth snuffs the passing of that

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            freight,

And bounding from his dread abyss, he scents the upper air,
Then follows on the path it took, like lion from its lair.
O! God, it was a fearful voyage and fearful companie,
Nor wonder that the stout sea-chief quivered from brow to knee.
O! who would blame his hero heart, if e’en it quaked for fear,

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While whirl’d along on such a sea, with such attendant near!

The Shark hath found a readier prey, and turned him from the             chase;
The boat hath made another bay—a drearier pausing place.
O’erarching piles of blue-veined ice admitted to its still,
White, fathomless waters, palsied like the doom’d man’s fetter’d

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            will. [Page 22]

Powerless he sat—that chief escaped so oft by sea and land—
Death breathing o’er him—all so weak he could not lift a hand.
Even his bloodless lips refused a last short prayer to speak,
But angels listen at the heart when the voice of man is weak.

His heart and eye were suppliant turned to the ocean’s Lord on

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            high,  

The Borealis lustres bright were gathering in the sky,
From South and North, from East and West, they clustered o’er             the spot
Where breathed his last the gallant chief whose grave man seeth             not;
They marked him die with steadfast gaze, as tho’ in heaven there             were
A passion to behold how man the direst fate may bear;

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They watched him through the livelong night—these couriers of             the sky,
Then fled to tell the listening stars how ’twas they saw him die.

He sleepeth where old Winter’s realm no genial air invades
His spirit burneth bright in heaven among the glorious shades
Whose God-like doom on earth it was creation to unfold,

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Spanning this mighty orb of ours as through the spheres it rolled.             [Page 23]
His name is written on the deep,* the rivers as they run
Will bear it timeward o’er the world, telling what he hath done;
The story of his voyage to Death, amid the Arctic frosts,
Will be told to unborn ages on earth’s remotest coasts.

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            [Page 24]



* Hudson’s Bay. [back]    
The Hudson River. [back]