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PART FIRST.





All by the moonlight river side
It gave three miserable groans;
"'Tis come then to a pretty pass,"
Said Peter to the groaning Ass,
"But I will bang your bones!"

"Good Sir!"—the Vicar's voice exclaimed,
"You rush at once into the middle;"
And little Bess, with accent sweeter,
Cried, "O dear Sir! but who is Peter?"
Said Stephen,—"'Tis a downright riddle!"

The Squire said, "Sure as paradise
"Was lost to man by Adam's sinning,
"This leap is for us all too bold;
"Who Peter was, let that be told,
"And start from the beginning."

——A potter, Sir, he was by trade,
Said I, becoming quite collected;
And, wheresoever he appeared,
Full twenty times was Peter feared
For once that Peter was respected.

He two and thirty years or more
Had been a wild and woodland rover;
Had heard the Atlantic surges roar
On farthest Cornwall's rocky shore,
And trod the cliffs of Dover.

And he had seen Caernarvon's towers,
And well he knew the spire of Sarum;
And he had been where Lincoln bell
Flings o'er the fen its ponderous knell,
Its far-renowned alarum!

At Doncaster, at York, and Leeds,
And merry Carlisle had he been;
And all along the Lowlands fair,
All through the bonny shire of Ayr—
And far as Aberdeen.

And he had been at Inverness;
And Peter, by the mountain rills,
Had danced his round with Highland lasses;
And he had lain beside his asses
On lofty Cheviot Hills:

And he had trudg'd through Yorkshire dales,
Among the rocks and winding scars;
Where deep and low the hamlets lie
Beneath their little patch of sky
And little lot of stars:

And all along the indented coast,
Bespattered with the salt-sea foam;
Where'er a knot of houses lay,
On headland, or in hollow bay;—
Sure never man like him did roam!

As well might Peter, in the Fleet,
Have been fast bound, a begging debtor;—
He travelled here, he travelled there;—
But not the value of a hair
Was heart or head the better.

He rov'd among the vales and streams,
In the green wood and hollow dell;
They were his dwellings night and day,—
But Nature ne'er could find the way
Into the heart of Peter Bell.

In vain, through every changeful year,
Did Nature lead him as before;
A primrose by a river's brim
A yellow primrose was to him,
And it was nothing more.

Small change it made in Peter's heart
To see his gentle pannier'd train
With more than vernal pleasure feeding,
Where'er the tender grass was leading
Its earliest green along the lane.

In vain, through water, earth, and air,
The soul of happy sound was spread,
When Peter, on some April morn,
Beneath the broom or budding thorn,
Made the warm earth his lazy bed.

At noon, when by the forest's edge
He lay beneath the branches high,
The soft blue sky did never melt
Into his heart,—he never felt
The witchery of the soft blue sky!

On a fair prospect some have look'd
And felt, as I have heard them say,
As if the moving time had been
A thing as stedfast as the scene
On which they gaz'd themselves away.

With Peter Bell, I need not tell
That this had never been the case;—
He was a Carl as wild and rude
As ever hue-and-cry pursued,
As ever ran a felon's race.

Of all that lead a lawless life,
Of all that love their lawless lives,
In city or in village small,
He was the wildest far of all;—
He had a dozen wedded wives.——

Nay start not!—wedded wives—and twelve!
But how one wife could e'er come near him,
In simple truth I cannot tell;
For be it said of Peter Bell
To see him was to fear him.

Though Nature could not touch his heart
By lovely forms and silent weather,
And tender sounds, yet you might see
At once that Peter Bell and she
Had often been together.

A savage wildness round him hung
As of a dweller out of doors;
In his whole figure and his mien
A savage character was seen,
Of mountains and of dreary moors.

To all the unshap'd half human thoughts
Which solitary Nature feeds
'Mid summer storms or winter's ice,
Had Peter join'd whatever vice
The cruel city breeds.

His face was keen as is the wind
That cuts along the hawthorn fence;
Of courage you saw little there,
But, in its stead, a medley air
Of cunning and of impudence.

He had a dark and sidelong walk,
And long and slouching was his gait;
Beneath his looks so bare and bold,
You might perceive, his spirit cold
Was playing with some inward bait.

His forehead wrinkled was and furr'd;
A work one half of which was done
By thinking of his whens and hows;
And half by knitting of his brows
Beneath the glaring sun.

There was a hardness in his cheek,
There was a hardness in his eye,
As if the man had fix'd his face,
In many a solitary place,
Against the wind and open sky!




One night, (and now, my little Bess!
We've reached at last the promis'd Tale;)
One beautiful November night,
When the full moon was shining bright
Upon the rapid river Swale,

Along the river's winding banks
Peter was travelling all alone;—
Whether to buy or sell, or led
By pleasure running in his head,
To me was never known.

He trudg'd along through copse and brake,
He trudg'd along o'er hill and dale;
Nor for the moon car'd he a tittle,
And for the stars he car'd as little,
And for the murmuring river Swale.

But chancing to espy a path
That promis'd to cut short the way:
As many a wiser man hath done,
He left a trusty guide for one
That might his steps betray.

To a thick wood he soon is brought
Where cheerfully his course he weaves,
And whistling loud may yet be heard,
Though often buried, like a bird
Darkling among the boughs and leaves.

But quickly Peter's mood is chang'd,
And on he drives with cheeks that burn
In downright fury and in wrath—
There's little sign the treacherous path
Will to the road return!

The path grows dim, and dimmer still;
Now up—now down—the rover wends
With all the sail that he can carry;
Till he is brought to an old quarry,
And there the pathway ends.

"What! would'st thou daunt me grisly den?
"Back must I, having come so far?
"Stretch as thou wilt thy gloomy jaws,
"I'll on, nor would I give two straws
"For lantern or for star!"

And so, where on the huge rough stones
The black and massy shadows lay,
And through the dark, and through the cold,
And through the yawning fissures old,
Did Peter boldly press his way

Right through the quarry;—and behold
A scene of soft and lovely hue!
Where blue, and grey, and tender green,
Together made as sweet a scene
As ever human eye did view.

Beneath the clear blue sky he saw
A little field of meadow ground;
But field or meadow name it not;
Call it of earth a small green plot,
With rocks encompass'd round.

The Swale flow'd under the grey rocks,
But he flow'd quiet and unseen;—
You need a strong and stormy gale
To bring the noises of the Swale
To that green spot, so calm and green!

Now you'll suppose that Peter Bell
Felt small temptation here to tarry,
And so it was,—but I must add,
His heart was not a little glad
When he was out of the old quarry.

And is there no one dwelling here,
No hermit with his beads and glass?
And does no little cottage look
Upon this soft and fertile nook?
Does no one live near this green grass?

Across that deep and quiet spot
Is Peter driving through the grass—
And now he is among the trees;
When, turning round his head, he sees
A solitary Ass.

"No doubt I'm founder'd in these woods—
"For once," quoth he, "I will be wise,
"With better speed I'll back again—
"And, lest the journey should prove vain,
"Will take yon Ass, my lawful prize!"

Off Peter hied,—"A comely beast!
"Though not so plump as he might be;
"My honest friend, with such a platter,
"You should have been a little fatter,
"But come, Sir, come with me!"

But first doth Peter deem it fit
To spy about him far and near;
There's not a single house in sight,
No woodman's hut, no cottage light—
Peter you need not fear!

There's nothing to be seen but woods
And rocks that spread a hoary gleam,
And this one beast that from the bed
Of the green meadow hangs his head
Over the silent stream.

His head is with a halter bound;
The halter seizing, Peter leapt
Upon the Ass's back, and plied
With ready heel the creature's side;
But still the Ass his station kept.

"What's this!" cried Peter, brandishing
A new-peel'd sapling white as cream;
The Ass knew well what Peter said,
But, as before, hung down his head
Over the silent stream.

Then Peter gave a sudden jirk,
A jirk that from a dungeon floor
Would have pulled up an iron ring;
But still the heavy-headed thing
Stood just as he had stood before!

Quoth Peter, leaping from his seat,
"There is some plot against me laid;"
Once more the little meadow ground
And all the hoary cliffs around
He cautiously survey'd.

All, all is silent, rocks and woods,
All still and silent—far and near;
Only the Ass, with motion dull,
Upon the pivot of his skull
Turns round his long left ear.

Thought Peter, What can mean all this?—
Some ugly witchcraft must be here!
Once more the Ass, with motion dull,
Upon the pivot of his skull
Turn'd round his long left ear.

"I'll cure you of these desperate tricks"—
And, with deliberate action slow,
His staff high-raising, in the pride
Of skill, upon the Ass's hide
He dealt a sturdy blow.

What followed?—yielding to the shock
The Ass, as if to take his ease,
In quiet uncomplaining mood
Upon the spot where he had stood
Dropt gently down upon his knees.

And then upon his side he fell
And by the river's brink did lie
And, as he lay like one that mourn'd,
The patient beast on Peter turn'd
His shining hazel eye.

'Twas but one mild, reproachful look,
A look more tender than severe;
And straight in sorrow, not in dread,
He turn'd the eye-ball in his head
Towards the river deep and clear.

Upon the beast the sapling rings,—
Heav'd his lank sides, his limbs they stirr'd;
He gave a groan—and then another,
Of that which went before the brother,
And then he gave a third:

All by the moonlight river side
He gave three miserable groans,
"'Tis come then to a pretty pass,"
Said Peter to the groaning ass,
"But I will bang your bones!"

And Peter halts to gather breath,
And now full clearly was it shown
(What he before in part had seen)
How gaunt was the poor Ass and lean,
Yea wasted to a skeleton!

With legs stretched out and stiff he lay:—
No word of kind commiseration
Fell at the sight from Peter's tongue;
With hard contempt his heart was wrung,
With hatred and vexation.

The meagre beast lay still as death—
And Peter's lips with fury quiver—
Quoth he, "You little mulish dog,
"I'll fling your carcase like a log
"Head foremost down the river!"

An impious oath confirmed the threat—
But, while upon the ground he lay,
To all the echoes, south and north,
And east and west, the Ass sent forth
A loud and piteous bray!

This outcry, on the heart of Peter,
Seems like a note of joy to strike,—
Joy on the heart of Peter knocks;—
But in the echo of the rocks
Was something Peter did not like.

Whether to cheer his coward breast,
Or that he could not break the chain,
In this serene and solemn hour,
Twin'd round him by demoniac power,
To the blind work he turn'd again.—

Among the rocks and winding crags—
Among the mountains far away—
Once more the Ass did lengthen out
More ruefully an endless shout,
The long dry see-saw of his horrible bray!

What is there now in Peter's heart?
Or whence the might of this strange sound?
The moon uneasy look'd and dimmer,
The broad blue heavens appear'd to glimmer,
And the rocks stagger'd all around.

From Peter's hand the sapling dropp'd!
Threat has he none to execute—
"If any one should come and see
"That I am here, they'll think," quoth he,
"I'm helping this poor dying brute."

He scans the Ass from limb to limb;
And Peter now uplifts his eyes;—
Steady the moon doth look and clear,
And like themselves the rocks appear,
And tranquil are the skies.

Whereat, in resolute mood, once more
He stoops the Ass's neck to seize—
Foul purpose, quickly put to flight!
For in the pool a startling sight
Meets him, beneath the shadowy trees.

Is it the moon's distorted face?
The ghost-like image of a cloud?
Is it a gallows there pourtray'd?
Is Peter of himself afraid?
Is it a coffin,—or a shroud?

A grisly idol hewn in stone?
Or imp from witch's lap let fall?
Or a gay ring of shining fairies,
Such as pursue their brisk vagaries
In sylvan bower, or haunted hall?

It is a fiend that to a stake
Of fire his desperate self is tethering?
Or stubborn spirit doom'd to yell
In solitary ward or cell,
Ten thousand miles from all his brethren?

Is it a party in a parlour?
Cramm'd just as they on earth were cramm'd—
Some sipping punch, some sipping tea,
But, as you by their faces see,
All silent and all damn'd!

A throbbing pulse the Gazer hath—
Puzzled he was, and now is daunted;
He looks, he cannot choose but look;
Like one intent upon a book—
A book that is enchanted.

Ah, well-a-day for Peter Bell!—
He will be turned to iron soon,
Meet Statue for the court of Fear!
His hat is up—and every hair
Bristles—and whitens in the moon!

He looks—he ponders—looks again;
He sees a motion—hears a groan;—
His eyes will burst—his heart will break—
He gives a loud and frightful shriek,
And drops, a senseless weight, as if his life were flown!