Strong John of Waterloo

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Old tunes, joyful tunes, weaving through the night

The rosy glow of faces beneath the candle light

North winds, cruel winds, howling at the door

The whirl of Yuletide dances across the wooden floor

 –

And sitting by the fireside, amidst the revelry

Strong John takes poor weak Mary upon his bended knee

He’s young, bold, and handsome, a farmer’s strapping son

She’s young, frail, and sickly, with both her parents gone

 –

His blue eyes flash like star-light, his red hair shimmers gold;

Her gray eyes mirror storm-clouds, her skin is pale and cold

But he finds her lips like honey, her hair like rich brown earth

And he whispers that he loves her beside the blazing hearth

 –

Then “crash!” the door is broken in and cheer is turned to gloom

For soldiers in scarlet coats are standing in the room

They’re here to press bold young men to fight bold Bonaparte

And Mary cries, “Don’t take him, for it will break my heart!”

– 

“If we put off our duty now to spare each lass’s heart

Then none would cross the raging sea to fight bold Bonaparte.”

They’ve taken hold of Strong John’s arms and dragged him to the door

And left his pale young lover sobbing on the floor

 ***

Brave tunes, haunting tunes, piping ‘cross the field

The stern and smoke-stained faces of men who will not yield

And John is the frontlines with other farmers’ sons

He hears the war drums beating, and the clatter of the guns

 –

Their leader is a cold man, or so they all assume

He has a look of iron that penetrates the gloom

The air is damp and heavy; his eyes are quick and keen

He sees Old Boney’s horsemen advancing on the scene

 –

The order then is passed around to form a British Square

John thinks of summer sunsets and Mary’s dark brown hair

He thinks of ale and cornbread, of Paradise and God —

Is there a place in Heaven for those who till the sod?

 –

The officers are shouting; the noise drowns out their words

Old Boney’s men are coming; they draw their shining swords

The piper in the square is playing “Auld Lang Syne”

The redcoats prime their muskets, waiting for a sign

 –

They see a sword flash downward; they fire in accord

The screams of men and horses across the field are heard

They keep the bullets flying, but they are out of time

A French sword flashes downward; John’s blood runs red as wine 

*** 

Faint breath, gasping breath, Mary’s breath is gone

Her dying breath spent asking about the farmer’s son

Like Strong John’s scarlet coat, red blood has stained her dress

She coughed it up while clutching his letter to her breast

 –

Her skin is white and ghostly; her figure worn and thin

Her lunges are drowned with fluid; her heart has burst within

Her lips are cracked and blood-stained, her eyes are sightless now

And tiny crystal droplets lay on her furrowed brow

– 

This body would have borne him a daughter or a son

If he had but returned to her and they were joined as one

She sees the shadows parting, and views a gory field

Where gallant men in British Squares still refuse to yield

 –

She sees the steel pierce through him, tearing flesh and bone

She sees the blood run freely; she hears his final groan

She flies across the distance, upon the field she stands

She kisses his pale lips, and squeezes his limp hand

 –

His blue eyes flicker open; he sees her spirit there

He makes a final movement, and strokes her dark-brown hair

Her countenance is brightness, though all else fades away

They wake to find a Shining World, and greet a Glorious Day 

*** 

The battle ends in victory; they find that John is dead

With lifeless Mary at his side, as in a marriage bed

None know where she came from, but together they are laid

And the Iron Duke sheds iron tears for the price that has been paid

By Avellina Balestri

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