King Cole was King before the troubles came,The land was happy while he held the helm,The valley-land from Condicote to Thame,Watered by Thames and green with many an elm.For many a year he governed well his realm,So well-beloved, that, when at last he died,It was bereavement to the countryside.So good, so well-beloved, had he beenIn life, that when he reached the judging-place(There where the scales are even, the sword keen),The Acquitting Judges granted him a grace,Aught he might choose, red, black, from king to ace,Beneath the bright arch of the heaven's span;He chose, to wander earth, the friend of man.So, since that time, he wanders shore and shire,An old, poor, wandering man, with glittering eyesHelping distressful folk to their desireBy power of spirit that within him lies.Gentle he is, and quiet, and most wise,He wears a ragged grey, he sings sweet words,And where he walks there flutter little birds.And when the planets glow as dusk beginsHe pipes a wooden flute to music old.Men hear him on the downs, in lonely inns,In valley woods, or up the Chiltern wold;His piping feeds the starved and warms the cold,It gives the beaten courage; to the lostIt brings back faith, that lodestar of the ghost.And most he haunts the beech-tree-pasturing chalk,The Downs and Chilterns with the Thames between.There still the Berkshire shepherds see him walk,Searching the unhelped woe with instinct keen,His old hat stuck with never-withering green,His flute in poke, and little singings sweetComing from birds that flutter at his feet.Not long ago a circus wandered there,Where good King Cole most haunts the public way,Coming from Reading for St. Giles's FairThrough rain unceasing since Augustine's Day;The horses spent, the waggons splashed with clay,The men with heads bowed to the wester roaring,Heaving the van-wheels up the hill at Goring.Wearily plodding up the hill they went,Broken by bitter weather and the luck,Six vans, and one long waggon with the tent,And piebald horses following in the muck,Dragging their tired hooves out with a suck,And heaving on, like some defeated tribeBound for Despair with Death upon their kibe.All through the morn the circus floundered thus,The nooning found them at the Crossing Roads,Stopped by an axle splitting in its truss.The horses drooped and stared before their loads.Dark with the wet they were, and cold as toads.The men were busy with the foundered van,The showman stood apart, a beaten man.He did not heed the dripping of the rain,Nor the wood's roaring, nor the blotted hill,He stood apart and bit upon his pain,Biting the bitter meal with bitter will.Focussed upon himself, he stood, stock still,Staring unseeing, while his mind repeated,"This is the end; I'm ruined; I'm defeated."From time to time a haggard woman's facePeered at him from a van, and then withdrew;
Within the cowboy's van the rat-eyed wife,Her reddish hair in papers twisted close.Turned wet potatoes round against the knife,And in a bucket dropped the peelèd Oes.
Seeds from the hayrack blew about the place,The smoke out of the waggon chimneys blew,From wicker creel the skinny cockerel crew.The men who set the floundered axle straightGlanced at their chief, and each man nudged his mate.And one, the second clown, a snub-nosed youth,Fair-haired, with broken teeth, discoloured black,Muttered, "He looks a treat, and that's the truth.I've had enough: I've given him the sack."He took his wrench, arose, and stretched his back,Swore at a piebald pony trying to bite,And rolled a cigarette and begged a light.Within, the second's wife, who leaped the hoops,Nursed sour twins, her son and jealousy,Thinking of love, in luckier, happier troupesKnown on the roads in summers now gone byBefore her husband had a roving eye,Before the rat-eyed baggage with red hairCame to do tight rope and make trouble there.Beside the vans, the clown, old Circus John,Growled to the juggler as he sucked his briar,"How all the marrow of a show was goneSince women came, to sing and walk the wire,Killing the clown his act for half his hire,Killing the circus trade: because," said he,"Horses and us are what men want to see."The juggler was a young man shaven-clean,Even in the mud his dainty way he had,Red-cheeked, with eyes like boxer's, quick and keen,A jockey-looking youth with legs besprad,Humming in baritone a ditty sad,And tapping on his teeth his finger-nails,The while the clown suckt pipe and spat his tales.Molly, the singer, watched him wearilyWith big black eyes that love had brimmed with tears,Her mop of short cut hair was blown awry,Her firm mouth shewed her wiser than her years.She stroked a piebald horse and pulled his ears,And kissed his muzzle, while her eyes betrayedThis, that she loved the juggler, not the jade.And growling in a group the music stoodSucking short pipes, their backs against the rain,Plotting rebellion in a bitter mood,"A shilling more, or never play again."Their old great coats were foul with many a stain,Weather and living rough had stamped their faces,They were cast clerks, old sailors, old hard cases.Within the cowboy's van the rat-eyed wife,Her reddish hair in papers twisted close,Turned wet potatoes round against the knife,And in a bucket dropped the peelèd Oes.Her little girl was howling from her blows,The cowboy smoked and with a spanner whacktThe metal target of his shooting act.And in another van more children criedFrom being beaten or for being chidBy fathers cross or mothers haggard-eyed,Made savage by the fortunes that betide.The rain dripped from the waggons: the drops glidAlong the pony's flanks; the thick boots stampedThe running muck for warmth, and hope was damped.Yet all of that small troupe in misery stuck,Were there by virtue of their nature's choosingTo be themselves and take the season's luck,Counting the being artists worth the bruising....