The Vagabond

A poem by R. C. Lehmann

It was deadly cold in Danbury town
One terrible night in mid November,
A night that the Danbury folk remember
For the sleety wind that hammered them down,
That chilled their faces and chapped their skin,
And froze their fingers and bit their feet,
And made them ice to the heart within,
And spattered and scattered
And shattered and battered
Their shivering bodies about the street;
And the fact is most of them didn't roam
In the face of the storm, but stayed at home;
While here and there a policeman, stamping
To keep himself warm or sedately tramping
Hither and thither, paced his beat;
Or peered where out of the blizzard's welter
Some wretched being had crept to shelter,
And now, drenched through by the sleet, a muddled
Blur of a man and his rags, lay huddled.

But one there was who didn't care,
Whatever the furious storm might dare,
A wonderful, hook-nosed bright-eyed fellow
In a thin brown cape and a cap of yellow
That perched on his dripping coal-black hair.
A red scarf set off his throat and bound him,
Crossing his breast, and, winding round him,
Flapped at his flank
In a red streak dank;
And his hose were red, with a purple sheen
From his tunic's blue, and his shoes were green.
He was most outlandishly patched together
With ribbons of silk and tags of leather,
And chains of silver and buttons of stone,
And knobs of amber and polished bone,
And a turquoise brooch and a collar of jade,
And a belt and a pouch of rich brocade,
And a gleaming dagger with inlaid blade
And jewelled handle of burnished gold
Rakishly stuck in the red scarf's fold -
A dress, in short, that might suit a wizard
On a calm warm day
In the month of May,
But was hardly fit for an autumn blizzard.

Whence had he come there? Who could say,
As he swung through Danbury town that day,
With a friendly light in his deep-set eyes,
And his free wild gait and his upright bearing,
And his air that nothing could well surprise,
So bright it was and so bold and daring?
He might have troubled the slothful ease
Of the Great Mogul in a warlike fever;
He might have bled for the Maccabees,
Or risen, spurred
By the Prophet's word,
And swooped on the hosts of the unbeliever.

Whatever his birth and his nomenclature,
Something he seemed to have, some knowledge
That never was taught at school or college,
But was part of his very being's nature:
Some ingrained lore that wanderers show
As over the earth they come and go,
Though they hardly know what it is they know.

And so with his head upheld he walked,
And ever the rain drove down;
And now and again to himself he talked
In the streets of Danbury town.
And now and again he'd stop and troll
A stave of music that seemed to roll
From the inmost depths of his ardent soul;
But the wind took hold of the notes and tossed them
And the few who chanced to be near him lost them.

So, moving on where his fancy listed,
He came to a street that turned and twisted;
And there by a shop-front dimly lighted
He suddenly stopped as though affrighted,
Stopped and stared with his deep gaze centred
On something seen, like a dream's illusion,
Through the streaming glass, mid the queer confusion
Of objects littered on shelf and floor,
And about the counter and by the door -
And then with his lips set tight he entered.

There were rusty daggers and battered breastplates,
And jugs of pewter and carved oak cases,
And china monsters with hideous faces,
And cracked old plates that had once been best plates;
And needle-covers and such old-wivery;
Wonderful chess-men made from ivory;
Cut-glass bottles for wines and brandies,
Sticks once flourished by bucks and dandies;
Deep old glasses they drank enough in,
And golden boxes they took their snuff in;
Rings that flashed on a gallant's knuckles,
Seals and lockets and shining buckles;
Watches sadly in need of menders,
Blackened firedogs and dinted fenders;
Prints and pictures and quaint knick-knackery,
Rare old silver and mere gimcrackery -
Such was the shop, and in its middle
Stood an old man holding a dusty fiddle.

The Vagabond bowed and the old man bowed,
And then the Vagabond spoke aloud.
"Sir," he said, "we are two of a trade,
Each for the other planned and made,
And so we shall come to a fair agreement,
Since I am for you and you're for me meant.
And I, having travelled hither from far, gain
You yourself as my life's best bargain.
But I am one
Who chaffers for fun,
Who when he perceives such stores of beauty
Outspread conceives it to be his duty
To buy of his visit a slight memento:
Some curious gem of the quattrocento,
Or something equally rare and priceless,
Though its outward fashions perhaps entice less:
A Sultan's slipper, a Bishop's mitre,
Or the helmet owned by a Roundhead fighter,
Or an old buff coat by the years worn thin,
Or - what do you say to the violin?
I'll wager you've many, so you can't miss one,
And I - well, I have a mind for this one,
This which was made, as you must know,
Three hundred years and a year ago
By one who dwelt in Cremona city
For me - but I lost it, more's the pity,
Sixty years back in a wild disorder
That flamed to a fight on the Afghan border;
And, whatever it costs, I am bound to win it,
For I left the half of my full soul in it."

And now as he spoke his eyes began
To shiver the heart of the grey old man;
And the old man stuttered,
And "Sir," he muttered,
"The words you speak are the merest riddle,
But-five pounds down, and you own the fiddle!
And I'll choose for your hand, while the pounds you dole out,
A bow with which you may pick that soul out."

So said so done, and our friend again
Was out in the raging wind and rain.
Swift through the twisting street he passed
And came to the Market Square at last,
And climbed and stood
On a block of wood
Where a pent-house, leant to a wall, gave shelter
From the brunt of the blizzard's helter-skelter,
And, waving his bow, he cried, "Ahoy!
Now steady your hearts for an hour of joy!"
And so to his cheek and jutting chin
Straight he fitted the violin,
And, rounding his arm in a movement gay,
Touched the strings and began to play.

There hasn't been heard since the world spun round
Such a marvellous blend of thrilling sound.
It streamed, it flamed, it rippled and blazed,
And now it reproached and now it praised,
And the liquid notes of it wove a scheme
That was one-half life and one-half a dream.
And again it scaled in a rush of fire
The glittering peaks of high desire;
Now, foiled and shattered, it rose again
And plucked at the souls and hearts of men;
And still as it rose the sleet came down
In the Market Square of Danbury town.

And now from hundreds of opened doors,
With quiet paces
And happy faces,
In ones and twos and threes and fours,
A crowd pressed out to the Market Square
And stood in the storm and listened there.

And, oh, with what a solemn tender strain
The long-drawn music eased their hearts of pain;
And gave them visions of divine content;
Green fields and happy valleys far away,
And rippling streams and sunshine and the scent
Of bursting buds and flowers that come in May.
And one spoke in a rapt and gentle voice,
And bade his friends rejoice,
"For now," he said, "I see, I see once more
My little lass upon a pleasant shore
Standing, as long ago she used to stand,
And beckoning to me with her dimpled hand.
As in the vanished years,
So I behold her and forget my tears."
And each one had his private joy, his own,
All the old happy things he once had known,
Renewed and from the prisoning past set free,
And mixed with hope and happy things to be.

So for a magic hour the music gushed,
Then faded to a close, and all was hushed,
And the tranced people woke and looked about,
And fell to wondering what had brought them out
On such a night of wind and piercing sleet,
Exposed with hatless heads and thin-shod feet.
Something, they knew, had chased their heavy sadness;
And for the years to come they still may keep,
As from a morning sleep,
Some broken gleam of half-remembered gladness.
But the wild fiddler on his feet of flame
Vanished and went the secret way he came.

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