Poets of John Company/The Adjutant Bird

The Adjutant Bird.

A Bengal Eclogue.

Leave me, my friend—for now they suit right well
The hour—the gloomy scene—and mine own mood:
The rain will not return—too late it fell,
Besides I've a great coat—don't think me rude;
But au revoir—you dine out too—'tis late;
And the Fitz-Huggenses, you know, don't wait.

Pat, pat—how that mare steps out with the buggy;
Charles is a judge of horses—so a'nt I,
Whew! what a night—now damp and chill, now muggy,
And what a scene around and what a sky.
As if sad Nature wove a funeral pall
For one of her worst handyworks—Bengal.

Even as I speak—the driving rain descends.
Not in a gentle sentimental shower.
But one that drenches to the finger ends
In less that half the tenth part of an hour,
Roaring and hissing as it falls—in fact
A specimen of "Heaven born" cataract.

And as it rattles down a mist arises
From out the hot breast of the batter'd ground,
Hiding the "Palaces" of sorts and sizes
That spread in whitewash'd majesty around;
Hiding the city lights, the dome, the fort;
All that is more than three yards off, in short.

And just within that distance, I behold
A figure grizzled and austere, like Time,
Save that 'tis twice as grim, and twice as old,
A creature that must sure have seen the prime
Of the fresh, beautiful earth—and after that
Left Noah's Ark ashore on Ararat.


It hath a solemn, sober, staid demeanour,
Like the head usher on a flogging day,
Two glassy eyes, that have no more of keen or
Living glances, than two balls of clay;
And legs like wither'd reeds; long, white and small.
Fit for the very Genius of Bengal.

Yes, such must be the Genius of the Land;
We all have seen him through the twilight dim
On some tall sepulchre assume his stand.
Silent and motionless, and grey and grim,
As if in gloomy joy he brooded o'er
Those who had come to perish on his shore.

Say I not sooth, thou dull and dingy thing,
Genius, Argeelah, Adjutant, whate'er
Name thou affectest most?—Could I not sing
Of wretchedness as plenteous as the air,
The burning air we breathe?—but I'll not grumble
Though all our hopes each day become more humble.

No—rather now that thou and I together
Are standing by the side of this lone swamp.
Thy smiling home perhaps, and that the weather
Is tolerably cool, though somewhat damp,
Just fit for conversational enjoyments.
Would ask you of your past life and employments.

I've mentioned my opinion of your age,
So, without loss of time, we pass that over,
No doubt you saw King Sudraka, the Sage,
Write of Vansantasena and her lover,
But pass that too—and above all don't bore us
With tales of Alexander and King Porus.

Though thou didst stand by Attock, and beheld
Greek armour glancing in the Indian sun.
Helmet, and crest, and spear, and bossy shield.
Like a bright winding river on the dun
And restless desert—while the air around
Shook with the Macedonian trumpet's sound.


Ha! one plumed warrior plunges in the stream,
His horse paws up a cloud of glittering spray,
His broad short sword is flashing like a beam
Of sunshine on a cataract—the array
Wheel round him in a blazing curve—'tis he!
Olympia's son—the Lord of Victory!

Glory and gore—a dazzling ghastly mist
Forming the fiery halo round his name.
His banners never but by triumph kissed,
The empires, that were counters in his game.
Make the bright bloody jumble which we ponder
In musing o'er the life of Alexander.

Yes, there he stands, who to his golden car
Chained fortune,—scanning with his eagle glances
The iron files of Macedonia's war,
Veterans as tough and fearless as their lances.
And ready right or wrong to have a fling
At good King Porus, here called Bulwunt Sing,

Doubtless, oh Adjutant! thou sawest this,
And also Genghiz Khan and Timoor Beg,
And the stern Lord of Ghuzni; he whose bliss
Was breaking Shiva's head, or Indra's leg;
But turn to greater heroes—chief of which is
A paunchy looking man with crimson breeches;

As Zoffany has painted—by his side
Stands Jaffier Ally Cawn; to whom you know
The British warrior, with a modest pride.
Is lending half a sovereignty or so.
Jaffier looks blandly, with a smile paternal.
But nathless wishes Satan had the Colonel.

The Colonel!—a Napoleon in his sphere,
Grasping as brave, unscrupulous as wise;
A kind of legal, regal buccaneer.
Who treated empires like a Spanish prize;
Took, spoiled, broke into fragments; but alive
Or dead, few mate with that same Colonel Clive.


So hasten, tell me, for my soul's on fire
Thinking of those great days of glorious strife.
When Gunga's hollow banks rang with that lyre
And shell of Britain, called the drum and fife;
Did'st thou behold those heroes who of yore
Batter'd Budge Budge, and took Chandanagore?

Immortal men;—were not their glorious brows
With laurels, powder and pomatum cover'd,
Besides gold laced cock'd hats; with many rows
Of curls that shook not, though above them hover'd
The wings of Victory? whose first rich fruits
Were shared by folks with tie wigs and jack boots.

Men who prepared ambrosial Sangaree,
And double Sangaree or Sangarorum;
Now took a fleet, now sold a pound of tea.
Weighed soap, storm'd forts, held princes in terrorem.
Drank, fought, smoked, lied, went home, and good papas,
Gave diamonds to their little boys for taws.

Happy those times, my Adjutant, when "Chiefs"
Ruled Provinces for four half crowns per day,
Yet prospered somehow, even as the sheaves
Which dreaming Pharoah saw.—Fat kine were they.
We are the lean—nor were their gleanings less
Through any freedom of the Indian Press.

Ah why was I not born in those blest days,
Truly the Golden Age of such as came
To live on brandy punch and dare the blaze
Of our Bengally sunshine—'tis a shame
That all the golden hues which shine in this age
Shine less upon the pocket than the visage.

Ha! dost thou answer! no, it is the sigh
Of a more drear and melancholy blast,
On dusky wings a wilder storm draws nigh,
And from its lair the thunder wakes at last,
A danker mist thicks the dull air of night
And shuts my gaunt companion from my sight.


But first, one rattle of that bony beak
Rings like a bell funereal through the air,
Saying, as plain as ominous sound can speak,
"Thou curious fool, of thine own doom beware.
Perchance the next grey tomb I make my throne.
If thou stand'st chattering here—may be thine own."