The Old Squire


Henry Lawson

SIR WILLIAM rode to Virland—
        He rode to join my sire;
And stubbornly behind him
        Rode Swithin, his old squire.
Sir William would have left him
        To rest in peace, behind;
But horse and sword were ever
        More to the old man’s mind.

Old Swithin was a grey-beard,
        Still strong of heart and lung,
Who’d fought and loved and wassailed
        When old Dame Ruth was young.
But, overlooked, neglected,
        His heart was ever pained,
Because of that old knighthood
        That once he should have gained.

My knighthood, new upon me,
        Still made me chafe and fret—
That fair new coat of honour
        Had not worn easy yet.
But he was more impatient
        At any evil done,
Because of that lost knighthood
        That he had fairly won.

And surely to the thoughtless
        Some mirth it did afford,
To look on that old grey-beard
        Who wore his father’s sword.
The grand old soul of honour!
        For long years tempest tost—
But many men are noble
        For knighthoods that were lost.

We met the King, my father—
        A quiet man to meet—
And his men looked like soldiers
        That marched to sure defeat,
With many carts and litters—
        And we knew what they meant—
And lean apothecaries,
        And physicians militant.

And—well, we took the city,
        The city that was ours,
Although there stood no rebels
        On all its walls and towers.
Our men hung back a moment
        As from a thing accursed,
And Swithin begged a favour,
        That he should ride in first.

But thus they rode together—
        The king and squire and knight—
Sir William on the left hand,
        And my father on the right.
I followed that old grey-beard,
        And our men followed me,
There was in all my lifetime
        No better sight to see.

The black death held the city,
        With plague and famine there—
With misery, pain, and terror,
        And helpless, dumb despair.
’Twas held in other cities
        A horror that was vague,
But here strong men had shrieked it—
        The Plague! The Plague! The Plague!

We built the fires, and fought it
        With recking smoke for shields,
And bore the sick in hundreds
        Into the open fields.
Into the blackest quarters
        Old Swithin led his men,
And, with some ghastly burden,
        He led them out again.

We cleansed and fumed the houses,
        The streets and alleys then—
And lean apothecaries
        Can fight like other men.
For they and the physicians
        In the tents fought side by side
(’Twas strange, when all was ended,
        How few of our men died).

But, often, for the noblest,
        ’Gainst death there are no charms;
I saw old Swithin stagger
        With a sick child in his arms.
We bore him to the open—
        ’Twas but a “swoon” we thought—
And we laid him very gently
        On that last field he’d fought.

My father, in a gentle
        Or in a bitter mood—
Because he thought of Swithin’s
        Old King’s ingratitude—
With his own sword touched him lightly,
        While each man felt a thrill,
And he said, “Rise up, Sir Swithin”—
        But he lay very still.

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