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Title:  The Ballad of Ensign Joy
Author: E.W. Hornung
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1800271h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  April 2018
Most recent update: April 2018

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The Ballad of Ensign Joy

E.W. Hornung


This is the story of Ensign Joy
    (And the obsolete rank withal
That I love for each gentle English boy
    Who jumped to his country’s call.
By their fire and fun, and the deeds they’ve done,
I would gazette them Second to none
    Who faces a gun in Gaul!)

It is also the story of Ermyntrude
   (A less appropriate name
For the dearest prig and the prettiest prude!
    But under it, all the same,
The usual consanguineous squad
Had made her an honest child of God—
    And left her to play the game.)

It was just when the grind of the Special Reserves,
    Employed upon Coast Defence,
Was getting on every Ensign’s nerves—
    Sick-keen to be drafted hence—
That they met and played tennis and danced and sang,
The lad with the laugh and the schoolboy slang,
    The girl with the eyes intense.

Yet it wasn’t for him that she languished and sighed,
    But for all of our dear deemed youth;
And it wasn’t for her, but her sex, that he cried,
    If he could but have probed the truth !
Did she? She would none of his hot young heart;
As khaki escort he’s tall and smart,
    As lover a shade uncouth.

He went with his draft. She returned to her craft.
    He wrote in his merry vein:
She read him aloud, and the Studio laughed!
    (Ermyntrude bore the strain.)
He was full of gay bloodshed and Old Man Fritz:
His flippancy sent her friends into fits.
    (Ermyntrude frowned with pain.)

His tales of the Sergeant who swore so hard
    Left Ermyntrude cold and prim;
The tactless truth of the picture jarred,
    And some of his jokes were grim.
Yet, let him but skate upon tender ice,
And he had to write to her twice or thrice
    Before she would answer him.

(Yet once she sent him a fairy’s box,
    And her pocket felt the brunt
Of tinned contraptions and books and socks—
    Which he hailed as “a sporting stunt!”
She slaved at his muffler none the less,
And still took pleasure in murmuring, “Yes!
    For a friend of mine at the Front.”)

One fine morning his name appears—
    Looking so pretty in print!
“Wounded!” she warbles in tragedy tears—
    And pictures the reddening lint,
The drawn damp face and the draggled hair . . .
But she found him blooming in Grosvenor Square,
    With a punctured shin in a splint.

It wasn’t a haunt of Ermyntrude’s,
    That grandiose urban pile;
Like starlight in arctic altitudes
    Was the stately Sister’s smile.
It was just the reverse with Ensign Joy—
In his golden greeting no least alloy—
    In his shining eyes no guile!

He showed her the bullet that did the trick—
    He showed her the trick, X-ray’d;
He showed her a table timed to a tick,
    And a map that an airman made.
He spoke of a shell that caused grievous loss—
But he never mentioned a certain cross
    For his part in the escapade!

She saw it herself in a list next day,
    And it brought her back to his bed,
With a number of beautiful things to say,
    Which were mostly over his head.
Turned pink as his own pyjamas’ stripe,
To her mind he ceased to embody a type—
    Sank into her heart instead.

“I Wonder that all of you didn’t retire!”
    “My blighters were not that kind.”
“But it says you ’advanced under murderous fire,
    Machine-gun and shell combined—’”
“Oh, that’s the regular War Office wheeze!”
“ ‘Advanced’—with that leg!—‘on his hands and knees’!”
    “I couldn’t leave it behind.”

He was soon trick-driving an invalid chair,
    and dancing about on a crutch;
The haute noblesse of Grosvenor Square
    Felt bound to oblige as such;
They sent him for many a motor-whirl—
With the wistful, willowy wisp of a girl
    Who never again lost touch.

Their people were most of them dead and gone.
    They had only themselves to please.
His pay was enough to marry upon,
    As every Ensign sees.
They would muddle along (as in fact they did)
With vast supplies of the tertium quid
You bracket with bread-and-cheese.

They gave him some leave after Grosvenor Square—
    And bang went a month on banns;
For Ermyntrude had a natural flair
    For the least unusual plans.
Her heaviest uncle came down well,
And entertained, at a fair hotel,
    The dregs of the coupled clans.

A Certain number of cheques accrued
    To keep the wolf from the door:
The economical Ermyntrude
    Had charge of the dwindling store,
When a Board reported her bridegroom fit
As—some expression she didn’t permit . . .
    And he left for the Front once more.

His crowd had been climbing the jaws of hell:
    He found them in death’s dogteeth,
With little to show but a good deal to tell
    In their fissure of smoking heath.
There were changes—of course—but the change in him
Was the ribbon that showed on his tunic trim
    And the tumult hidden beneath!

For all he had suffered and seen before
    Seemed nought to a husband’s care;
And the Chinese puzzle of modern war
    For subtlety couldn’t compare
With the delicate springs of the complex life
To be led with a highly sensitized wife
    In a slightly rarefied air!

Yet it’s good to be back with the old platoon—
    “A man in a world of men”!
Each cheery dog is a henchman boon—
    Especially Sergeant Wren!
Ermyntrude couldn’t endure his name—
Considered bad language no lien on fame,
    Yet it’s good to—hear it again!

(Better to feel the Sergeant’s grip,
    Though your fingers ache to the bone!
Better to take the Sergeant’s tip
    Than to make up your mind alone.
They can do things together, can Wren and Joy—
The bristly bear and the beardless boy—
    That neither could do on his own.)

But there’s never a word about Old Man Wren
    In the screeds he scribbles to-day—
Though he praises his N.C.O.’s and men
    In rather a pointed way.
And he rubs it in (with a knitted brow)
That the war’s as good as a picnic now,
    And better than any play!

His booby-hutch is “as safe as the Throne,”
    And he fares “like the C.-in-Chief,”
But has purchased “a top-hole gramophone
    By way of comic relief.”
(And he sighs as he hears the men applaud,
While the Woodbine spices are wafted abroad
    With the odour of bully-beef.)

He may touch on the latest type of bomb,
    But Ermyntrude needn’t blench,
For he never says where you hurl it from,
    And it might be from your trench.
He never might lead a stealthy band,
Or toe the horrors of No Man’s Land,
    Or swim at the sickly stench. . . .

Her letters came up by ration-cart
    As the men stood-to before dawn:
He followed the chart of her soaring heart
    With face transfigured yet drawn:
It filled him with pride, touched with chivalrous shame.
But—it spoilt the war, as a first-class game,
    For this particular pawn.

The Sergeant sees it, and damns the cause
    In a truly terrible flow;
But turns and trounces, without a pause,
    A junior N. C. O.
For the crime of agreeing that Ensign Joy
Isn’t altogether the officer boy
    That he was four months ago!

At length he’s dumfounded (the month being May)
    By a sample of Ermyntrude’s fun!
“You will kindly get leave over Christmas Day,
    Or make haste and finish the Hun!”
But Christmas means presents, she bids him beware:
“So what do you say to a son and heir?
    I’m thinking of giving you one!!!

What, indeed, does the Ensign say?
    What does he sit and write?
What do his heart-strings drone all day?
    What do they throb all night?
What does he add to his piteous prayers?—
“Not for my own sake, Lord, but—theirs,
    See me safe through . . .”

“They talk”—and he writhes—“of our spirit out here,
    Our valour and all the rest!
There’s my poor, lonely, delicate dear,
    As brave as the very best!
We stand or fall in a cheery crowd,
And yet how often we grouse aloud!
    She faces that with a jest!”

He has had no sleep for a day and a night;
    He has written her half a ream;
He has lain him down to wait for the light,
    And at last come sleep—and a dream.
He’s hopping on sticks up the studio stair:
A telegraph-boy is waiting there,
    And—that is his darling’s scream!

He picks her up in a tender storm—
    But how does it come to pass
That he cannot see his reflected form
    With hers in the studio glass?
“What’s wrong with that mirror?” he cries.
But only the Sergeant’s voice replies:
    “Wake up, Sir! The Gas—the Gas!”

Is it a part of the dream of dread?
    What are the men about?
Each one sticking a haunted head
    Into a spectral clout!
Funny, the dearth of gibe and joke,
When each one looks like a pig in a poke,
    Not omitting the snout!

    There’s your mask, Sir! No time to lose!”
Ugh, what a gallows shape!
    Partly white cap, and partly noose!
Somebody ties the tape.
Goggles of sorts, it seems, inset:
Cock them over the parapet,
    Study the battlescape.

Ensign Joy’s in the second line—
    And more than a bit cut off;
A furlong or so down a green incline
    The fire-trench curls in the trough.
Joy cannot see it—it’s in the bed
Of a river of poison that brims instead.
    He can only hear—a cough!

Nothing to do for the Companies there—
    Nothing but waiting now,
While the Gas rolls up on the balmy air,
    And a small bird cheeps on a bough.
All of a sudden the sky seems full
Of trusses of lighted cotton-wool
    And the enemy’s big bow-wow!

The firmament cracks with his airy mines,
    And an interlacing hail
Threshes the clover between our lines,
    As a vile invisible flail.
And the trench has become a mighty vice
That holds us, in skins of molten ice,
    For the vapors that fringe the veil.

It’s coming—in billowy swirls—as smoke
    From the roof a world on fire.
It—comes! And a lad with a heart of oak
    Knows only that heart’s desire!
His masked lips whimper but one dear name—
And so is he lost to inward shame
    That he thrills at the word: “Re-tire!

Whose is the order, thrice renewed?
    Ensign Joy cannot tell :
Only, that way lies Ermyntrude,
    And the other way this hell!
Three men leap from the poisoned fosse,
Three men plunge from the parados,
    And—their—officer—as well!

Now, as he flies at their flying heels,
    He awakes to his deep disgrace,
But the yawning pit of his shame reveals
    A way of saving his face:
He twirls his stick to a shepherd’s crook,
To trip and bring one of them back to book,
    As though he’d been giving chase!

He got back gasping—“They’d too much start!”
    “I’d’ve shot ‘em instead!” said Wren.
“That was your job, Sir, if you’d the ‘eart—
    But it wouldn’t‘ve been you, then.
I pray my Lord I may live to see
A firing-party in front o’ them three!”
    (That’s what he said to the men.)

Now, Joy and Wren, of Company B,
    Are a favourite firm of mine;
And the way they reinforced A, C, and D
    Was, perhaps, not unduly fine;
But it meant a good deal both to Wren and Joy—
That grim, gaunt man, but that desperate boy!—
    And it didn’t weaken the Line.

Not a bad effort of yours, my lad,”
    The Major deigned to declare.
“My Sergeant’s plan, Sir”—“And that’s not bad—
    But you’ve lost that ribbon you wear?”
“It—must have been eaten away by the Gas!”
“Well—ribbons are ribbons—but don’t be an ass!
    It’s better to do than dare.”

Dare! He has dared to desert his post—
    But he daren’t acknowledge his sin!
He has dared to face Wren with a lying boast—
    But Wren is not taken in.
None sings his praises so long and loud—
With look so loving and loyal and proud!
    But the boy sees under his skin.

Daily and gaily he wrote to his wife,
    Who had dropped the beatified droll
And was writing to him on the Meaning of Life
    And the Bonds between Body and Soul.
Her courage was high—though she mentioned its height;
She was putting upon her the Armour of Light—
    Including her aureole!

But never a helm had the lad we know,
    As he went on his nightly raids
With a brace of his Blighters, an N. C O.
    And a bagful of hand-grenades
And the way he rattled and harried the Hun—
The deeds he did dare, and the risks he would run—
    Were the gossip of the Brigades.

How he’d stand stockstill as the trunk of a tree,
    With his face tucked down out of sight,
When a flare went up and the other three
    Fell prone in the frightening light.
How the German sandbags, that made them quake,
Were the only cover he cared to take,
    But he’d eavesdrop there all night.

Machine-Guns, tapping a phrase in Morse,
    Grew hot on a random quest,
And swarms of bullets buzzed down the course
    Like wasps from a trampled nest.
Yet, that last night! They had just set off
When he pitched on his face with a smothered cough,
    And a row of holes in his chest.

He left a letter. It saved the lives
    Of the three who ran from the Gas;
A small enclosure alone survives,
    In Middlesex, under glass:
Only the ribbon that left his breast
On the day he turned and ran with the rest,
    And lied with a lip of brass!

But the letters they wrote about the boy,
    From the Brigadier to the men!
They would never forget dear Mr. Joy,
    Not look on his like again.
Ermyntrude read them with dry, proud eye.
There was only one letter that made her cry.
    It was from Sergeant Wren:

There never was such a fearless man,
    Or one so beloved as he.
He was always up to some daring plan,
    Or some treat for his men and me.
There wasn’t his match when he went away;
But since he got back, there has not been a day
    But what he has earned a V. C

A cynical story? That’s not my view.
    The years since he fell are twain.
What were his chances of coming through?
    Which of his friends remain?
But Ermyntrude’s training a splendid boy
Twenty years younger than Ensign Joy.
    On balance, a British gain!

And Ermyntrude, did she lose her all
    Or find it, two years ago?
O young girl-wives of the boys who fall,
    With your youth and your babes to show!
No heart but bleeds for your widowhood.
Yet Life is with you, and Life is good.
    No bone of your bone lies low!

Your blessedness came—as it went—in a day.
    Deep dread but heightened your mirth.
Your idols’ feet never turned to clay—
    Never lit upon common earth.
Love is the Game but is not the Goal:
You played it together, body and soul,
    And you had your Candle’s worth.

Yes! though the Candle light a Shrine,
    And heart cannot count the cost,
You are Winners yet in its tender shine!
    Would they choose to have lived and lost?
There are chills, you see, for the finest hearts;
But, once it is only old Death that parts,
    There can never come twinge of frost.

And this be our comfort for Every Boy
    Cut down in his high heyday,
Or ever the Sweets of the Morning cloy,
    Or the Green Leaf wither away;
So a sunlit billow curls to a crest,
And shouts as it breaks at its loveliest,
    In a glory of rainbow spray!

Be it also the making of Ermyntrude,
    And many a hundred more—
Compact of foibles and fortitude—
    Woo’d, won, and widow’d, in War.
God, keep us gallant and undefiled,
Worthy of Husband, Lover, or—Child . . .
    Sweet as themselves at the core!


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