East and West Poems

The Ballad of Mr. Cooke

(Legend of the Cliff House, San Francisco)

Bret Harte

WHERE the sturdy ocean breeze
Drives the spray of roaring seas,
That the Cliff House balconies

There, in spite of rain that balked,
With his sandals duly chalked,
Once upon a tight-rope walked
                                Mr. Cooke.

But the jester’s lightsome mien,
And his spangles and his sheen,
All had vanished when the scene
                                He forsook.——

Yet in some delusive hope,
In some vague desire to cope,
One still came to view the rope
                                Walked by Cooke.

.     .     .     .     .

Amid Beauty’s bright array,
On that strange eventful day,
Partly hidden from the spray,
                                In a nook,

Stood Florinda Vere de Vere;
Who, with wind-disheveled hair,
And a rapt, distracted air,
                                Gazed on Cooke.

Then she turned, and quickly cried
To her lover at her side,
While her form with love and pride
                                Wildly shook:

“Clifford Snook! oh, hear me now!
Here I break each plighted vow;
There’s but one to whom I bow,
                                And that’s Cooke!”

Haughtily that young man spoke:
“I descend from noble folk;
‘Seven Oaks,’ and then ‘Se’nnoak,’
                                Lastly ‘Snook,’

Is the way my name I trace.
Shall a youth of noble race
In affairs of love give place
                                To a Cooke?”

“Clifford Snook, I know thy claim
To that lineage and name,
And I think I’ve read the same
                                In Horne Tooke;

But I swear, by all divine,
Never, never, to be thine,
Till thou canst upon yon line
                                Walk like Cooke.”

Though to that gymnastic feat
He no closer might compete
Than to strike a balance-sheet
                                In a book;

Yet thenceforward from that day
He his figure would display
In some wild athletic way,
                                After Cooke.

On some household eminence,
On a clothes-line or a fence,
Over ditches, drains, and thence
                                O’er a brook,

He, by high ambition led,
Ever walked and balanced,
Till the people, wondering, said,
                                “How like Cooke!”

Step by step did he proceed,
Nerved by valor, not by greed,
And at last the crowning deed

Misty was the midnight air,
And the cliff was bleak and bare,
When he came to do and dare,
                                Just like Cooke.

Through the darkness, o’er the flow,
Stretched the line where he should go,
Straight across as flies the crow
                                Or the rook

One wild glance around he cast;
Then he faced the ocean blast,
And he strode the cable last
                                Touched by Cooke.

Vainly roared the angry seas,
Vainly blew the ocean breeze;
But, alas! the walker’s knees
                                Had a crook;

And before he reached the rock
Did they both together knock,
And he stumbled with a shock—
                                Unlike Cooke!

Downward dropping in the dark,
Like an arrow to its mark,
Or a fish-pole when a shark
                                Bites the hook,

Dropped the pole he could not save,
Dropped the walker, and the wave
Swift engulfed the rival brave
                                Of J. Cooke!

Came a roar across the sea
Of sea-lions in their glee,
In a tongue remarkably
                                Like Chinook;

And the maddened sea-gull seemed
Still to utter, as he screamed,
“Perish thus the wretch who deemed
                                Himself Cooke!”

But on misty moonlit nights
Comes a skeleton in tights,
Walks once more the giddy heights
                                He mistook;

And unseen to mortal eyes,
Purged of grosser earthly ties,
Now at last in spirit guise
                                Outdoes Cooke.

Still the sturdy ocean breeze
Sweeps the spray of roaring seas,
Where the Cliff House balconies

And the maidens in their prime,
Reading of this mournful rhyme,
Weep where, in the olden time,
                                 Walked J. Cooke.

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