—Memorials of George Heath, The Moorland Poet - 1880 Edition—
(SONGS OF THE SHADOWS.)
A COUNTRY-WOMAN'S TALE.
Ay, woman! I had six as pretty bairns
As any you could find, search th’ country o’er;
Bright-eyed, an’ golden-haired, and rosy-cheeked,
Well made and sprightly, sharp an’ full of tricks,
As bonny a lot as e’er were born and reared!
Time after time they came, like gifts from God,
An’ grew into my heart, an’ blessed my sight;
(I felt the proudest woman in the world;)
An’ all the pain I suffered for their sakes
Seemed nothing, when compared to th’ joy I felt
At havin’ them.
Why, bless you, woman, you
Ne’er were plagued wit’ children, as you say;
Know naught o’ th’ love that tingles every nerve,
When lyin’ on your lap, the bit, bright eyne
First looken up, an’ gazin’ into yours
Wi’ such a look o’ listless wonderment!
An’ when the dimpled fingers claspin’ yours,
An’ the red ripe cherry lips part open, buzz
O think what clinging, helpless things they are;
The hardest heart grows soft—and when the arms
Sink softly down, an’ th’ droopin’ eyelids close,
And when the bare
Defenceless head lies snuggling on your heart,
An’ when you feel they’re yours—your very own—
To feel— But why should I attempt to tell
What is untellable to you; “who ne’er
Were plagued nor maul’t wi’ children,” as you say.
But I was proud o’ mine—so proud o’ mine—
I could have laid my life down, inch by inch;
They frisked around my knees, an’ each in turn
Climbed on my lap, and throwed its rosy arms
About my neck, an’ kissed, an’ called me mam;
And big and little come to me wi’ all
Their early troubles, secrets, pains, and cares;
Their boisterous merriment was joy to me,
Their laugh my music, and their joy my life.
Ay! I was proud o’ mine i’ those bright days,
The happiest an’ brightest of my life!
Folk said how blessed I was—a homely cot—
A lot o’ winsome bairns, all fair and sharp—
A honest-hearted, steady working man—
An’ blessed indeed, I was; poor John, poor John!
He was as good a lad, my husband was,
As ever wench was tied to. Kind to me?
Ay, an’ as fond o’ me as if I was
The queen herself—God bless her!—on the throne.
He travelled wi’ a “Thrasher” for the squire,
An’ tented th’ squire—ay, a hearty job.
Sometimes he came home twice a week; sometimes
But once; but always spent th’ week end wi’ us;
He never missed when Sat’ night came round,
And so it was a busy day wi’ us:
I scrubbed an’ cleaned all up, got th’ hearthrug down,
An’ th’ table set, his arm-chair fix’d i’ th’ nook,
His trashes warming ’fore a glowing fire;
An’ did for th’ morrow all that could be done
(So that we might enjoy the day of rest
Without incumbrance or worldly cares);
Then washed an’ titivated th’ children up,
An’ comb’d their locks, and kissed their glowing cheeks,
Then let them run to peep for dad’s return,
While I put on clean apron, frock, and cap:
This done, I closed my door an’ stood at th’ gate
Wi’ hooded head an’ knitting in my hands,
To watch for him, an’ list to th’ childer’s shouts,
When first his grummy face came bobbin’ o’er
The little knoll, an’ see the legs an’ arms,
Spin on, while hair and clothes streamed back i’ th’ wind,
And my unwieldly John stoop stiffly down
An’ kiss them one by one, then take the youngest
Up in his arms, fix the next upon his back
An’ so come on; while the next clung to his laps
Or danced along before.—Ay, I was blessed!
I always met him wi’ a smile and kiss,
Some folk might think it maudishness, but I know
Had I once missed, it would have snapped a link
O’ that firm bond that closely knit us all.
We were not like some folk, whose tenderness
Wains wi’ the marriage moon—John often said
Our courtin’ days had never known decay.
He got him cleaned an’ shaved, while I prepared
His favourite dish; an’ then wi’ th’ younger bairns
Upon our knees, an’ th’ older sitting round,
We fell to work, ay, I was happy then!
An’ after that when th’ supper things were cleared,
An’ th’ lamp was lit, and John had th’ weekly news,
An’ I my knittin’—everlasting pegs
John christened it—for why? because it was
The companion of my leisure hours,
He first would grope his pockets o’er for nuts
Or haply sweets, or gingerbread, which he
Wi’ th’ little ones would barter for a kiss;
Then proudly draw his hard-won earnings out.
I seem to see, tho’ ’tis so long since now;
His stiff, thick, fumbling fingers sort it o’er,
Then toss it wi’ a smile into my lap.
Ay, those were happy days, such happy days!
Folk said I must be happy, and I was,
Why even th’ squire an’ ’s lady riding past
Would stop and watch my little ones at play,
An’ beckon ’em toward, an’ talk to ’em; sometimes
The lady would strip off her glove an’ wi’
Her lily hand would pat their frizzy heads,
An’ now an’ then they’d take one for a ride
A hundred yards or so; then set it down
Wi’ sixpence in its hand to buy it toys.
They had no children, bless you! an’ I thought
They always looked wi’ longin’ eyes at mine.
Ay, happy days indeed! so bright! but soon—
Too soon, the darkness came! my own poor John
Got badly hurt somehow; I scarce know how.
His leg was crushed wi’ th’ wheels; they brought him home
Insensible: ah me! all through that week
I had had something on my mind—a fear,
A secret dread, a sort of heart-break, which
I’d never felt before: when nought was near
I felt so grieved, so lone; the tears would come,
I knew not why. The very night before
I dreamed three times I saw him dead and white;
And when they brought him suddenly; stretched out,
Still, cold and white, besmeared wi’ dirt and blood,
I could not scream, nor run, but only stare
Upon the senseless face, as tho’ my eyes
Were fascinated—so a moment then
I dropp’d down mute, and senseless as the dead.
’Twas long ere I woke up again, to know
My horrid state; to feel the agony
Too deep for words: I’ve often heard it said
That sorrow ne’er comes single-handed, so
I proved its truth, ah me! that very night
A little lifeless babe was born to me:
I gazed just once upon the little eyes
That never ope’d—the lips that never breathed.
I weeping, kissed an’ pressed it once, and then
They wrapt it up, an’ in a small square box
One took it sadly, quietly, i’ th’ dusk,
And hid it mutely ’mongst the churchyard mould
Deep in a corner, ’neath a dusky larch.
I wept to have it buried like a dog,
Without a single prayer, a sigh, or tear,
Or ever a word o’ Christian burial;
It seemed cut off alike from me and God!
But not shut out from love; no, no! alas!
No whit less dear to me, because the soul
Had never spoke within, was that wee form:
It lies a still life scene, strewn round with sighs
And dew’d with tears, amid the many shades
And memories of the dead—nay, living past!
’Twas weeks and months ere I could rise again,
And sorrow, like a shadow, draped our cot.
My poor lad’s groans fell hourly on my ear;
Sometimes he raved an’ rambled ’bout his work,
Sometimes his pain would drive him mad.
The surgeon said he might, and might not live;
’T might mortify and then ’twere certain death.
It grieved me sore to see the little ones
All hanging round so silent and so sad:
Their bonny cheeks grown pale and dimpleless;
Their curly love-locks tangled round their brows;
Their bits of things that formerly I’d ta’en
A mother’s pride in keeping whole and clean,
Hung round them, grey wi’ dirt, and limp, and rent.
They’d lost their prop, you see, a mother’s care.
Friends may be kind and do their best, but ah!
There’s nothing that can fill a mother’s place;
No hand, alas! that’s like a mother’s hand!
Time dragged away, and things cheered up a bit;
My health and strength came slowly back to me;
But John, poor lad! lay there for months an’ months.
At th’ door o’ death, in anguish terrible,
The shadow of his former self. I’m——
And th’ wind blew briskly in my poor old face
As I came o’er the moor. My eyes are weak,
An’ now I’m come to th’ fire they smart and run,
Forgive me; I’m a foolish, childish frame;
Leave me a bit, and I shall soon be right—
He bore up bravely, hopefully through all;
But when our little treasured hoard was gone,
And he was still a-bed, and I but weak,
And th’ haggard wolf came peeping in at th’ door—
’Twas on a dismal day, I recollect—
He turned his great shrunk eyes on me, an’ on
The tiny shadowed things that hovered round,
Wi’ such a look of wordless agony—
Or if it spoke one word it was despair!
He tried to raise himself, sank back, and groaned.
I ran and raised him up, and twined my arm
Around his shrunken form, and laid his head
Upon my breast. I never shall forget
The look he turned on me, the kiss he gave;
Then gazing sadly on the little ones, he stretched
His thin arms out, and mutely laid the right
On th’ oldest’s, th’ left on th’ youngest’s head—
“Poor helpless things! God help you now I’m down.
What will become of you! Had I but strength
I’d work, ay, day and night if flesh could bear;
I’d wear my fingers to the bone, and spill my heart
To save you from one breath of harm.
But now what can I do? too weak to rise;
Bound down and forced to see you pinched and pale,”
He bowed his honest head and groaned again,
Then fell to weeping like a very child.
I could not comfort him, not even speak:
But only sob and cry for company;
An’ th’ children, seeing us, burst out as well.
Ah, then we had not learned the mystery—
The one great end and purpose of our life:
We had not learned to look up yonder, where
The sad, the sorrow-bowed, and burdened ones
Alone may look for help. We had not sinned
With head—strong turbulence as some have done:
We were not steeped in crime—lived moral lives—
Were honest, peaceable and such; but then
We had not felt that halcyon peace within,
We had not seen the light, nor felt God’s love—
Ah, no, no, no!
That day when th’ gloaming came
I sat beside his bed; he lay and slept,
And in their tiny cribs our darlings slept:
But I—I could not sleep, nor could I cry.
My heart was like a stone, my head on fire.
Around the cot the March wind soughed and moaned;
And upward through the window I could see
The monstrous clouds with crazy turbulence
Surge to and fro, and bulge their paunches out
And bloat their leaden cheeks, and fiercely scowl
Wi’ brazen eyes at me; then double up
And swell like some huge monster gorged; then spread
Their phantom wings and mutely disappear,
While others came in endless line—strange things!
With sheeny upper sheens of steel-like light,
And undershades of sullen, hateful black;
Sowing beneath a misty veil of gloom.
I looked upon the dreary, frowning world,
And everything around seemed chuckling with
A demon mirth, a mocking, devilish bliss
Seemed hugging to its torture maddened heart
In wild malevolence—huge ecstacy
The horrid joy of seeing one more form—
So happy once—brought low to share their gloom,
Their utter desolation and despair!
’Twas strange, but just that moment o’er my mind
Came back the shadow of a former dread—
The memory of a sermon I had heard
Six months before:—the same before me rose
In vivid power. I heard the preacher’s voice,
And saw his waving hand. The text he took
Was this:—“Our God is a consuming fire.”
Then came the flashing of his steely eye,
The awful shade that brooded on his brow,
And then the thunder of his eloquence:
He seemed to look into my very soul!
“Our God is a consuming fire,” he said,
“And all that sin must die, and day by day
He sees your very act, and weighs each word,
And reads each secret thought; and by-and-bye,
It may be soon—e’en suddenly—He’ll come;
The trump will sound; the ghastly dead be raised,
The living changed—and then! what then? ah, then!
The wicked shall be judged, the sentence passed,
‘Depart ye cursed! ye who scorned my sway
And crucified the Lord of Life afresh—
In everlasting torment, fire and chains.’”
Much more he said, and each impression seemed
To burn into my soul: the good Lord God
Seemed brought to human mould with human powers,
And human passions; not a God of love,
Whose spirit yearned towards a fallen world,
Who gave a darling Son to plead and die,
And bear the burden of His creatures’ sins.
Not a kind Father, caring for His bairns
And mourning o’er their crimes and miseries—
Remembering that they are but feeble flesh,
And waiting, lovingly, with open arms
To take them to His heart: but a fierce Judge,
With thunder-brooding brow, and scorching breath,
And flashing eyes that watch and never wink:
A grim inquisitor, who takes delight
In torturing the erring, straying ones.
All this came rushing through my maddened brain,
And everywhere—on earth—mid clouds and gloom—
No matter where I cast my eyes—appeared
A dark enormous face, whose vision fierce
(As constant as a statue’s changeless eyes)
Glowered down or up on me, and seemed to scowl
A mocking exultation at my fall.
I know not why, but when I looked on him,
My suffering lad, and my poor inn’cent bairns,
I seemed to feel a sudden, desp’rate strength,.
A clenching of the hands, a knitting of
The thews, a setting of the teeth, a stern
Determination in my heart to live,
To work and strive—yes, I could work! and they,
My helpless ones, should never want, no, no!
I’ve thought since then ’twas wrong and heinous sin—
Defiance ’gainst the purpose of my God.
But from that day I toiled and strove for them—
For him who once so bravely wrought for me,
I seemed to have new life, new strength and heart;
I hardly knew myself; felt quite surprised
To find so dauntless and so strong.
One thing alone seemed clear to me—they need,
So I will be their prop and win the bread;
And so I did, worked day and night almost,
Took linen in to wash, and sewed, and knit,
Went twice a week to th’ mill, and washed and ironed;
And all seemed nothing to me; for when tired
The sight o’ them, the sound of one sweet voice
Would cheer me up again, and make me strong.
But once, I call to mind, ’twas nearly o’er;
They’d almost lost their last remaining prop—
’Twas in the winter; I had been to th’ mill,
And washed for th’ miller’s wife, an invalid:
All through the day the snow had sifted down,
And whitened all the frozen hills and plains.
Towards night a breeze had brisken’d up, which sent
The fleecy snow, with sudden, angry puffs
In spray-like jets about. ’Twas late ere I
Who had been rather cast i’ th’ morn, could start,
And o’er the hills the great black night had come,
And from the north the piercing, piercing wind
Grew every moment stronger; and the light
Died out completely from the wrath-browed sky,
But on and on I went with quickened breath,
With panting pulse, and wildly fluttering heart.
Ah me! two weary miles lay ’fore my face.
I never could recall the horrors of that night,
Or how I struggled through. It seemed to me
A maddened dream, a conflict hand to hand
With demon death; a horrid phantasy;
A desperate wrestling, wrenching, battling on;
A plunging, scrambling, ’mid huge drifts of snow;
A grappling up; a phrenzied struggling forth,
With clogged and slippery feet and frozen skirts,
While round me raged the deaf’ning hurricane.
The shuddering trees, bent double, howled again;
And from the adjacent fields, like powdered glass,
Caught up and hurled by the furious wind
Upon me poured a thick perpetual storm
Of cutting, blinding, suffocating snow.
I’d almost conquered—home was nigh— when lo!
I plunged headlong into a mountainous drift.
I strove to rise, but all my strength was gone:
I tried to shriek, but scarce could draw a breath.
My limbs grew numbed, but God was merciful!
A neighbouring youth, returning home from work,
Came stumbling up, and found me lying there,
(’Twas poor Joe Plant, the wheelwright’s only son,
A quiet lad was Joe—subject to fits.
They found him one day lying dead i’ th’ close,
Dropped in a fit—was suffocated—so
Th’ Cor’ner and the jury brought it in.
His mother, poor old woman, took on so,
They had to hold her from him at the grave;
And when the sods fell on she fainted—dropped,
They had to bear her home; and after that
She fell into a rambling, withered state;)
He picked me up and bravely helped me home,
But I was speechless, wholly overcome;
And when the anxious, tearful faces flocked
Around, and th’ glowing embers shone on me,
I fainted right away and lay for hours
Insensible. Again, ’mid tears and pain,
A tiny breathless babe was born to me,
Again the weakness, want, despair, and gloom;
Again the desperate fight for life and bread;
And so the years wore on till twelve had passed
Without a change—except that all had changed.
I worked and strove and bore up under all
And kept a shelter o’er our heads, and want
At bay; and still my strength held out, although
The ruddy bloom of health had faded long,
No change, said I? ah, I was wrong. A change
Had come o’er me; I once was blithe and gay
And fair and buxom as a lass need be:
But now my face was shrunk, and pale, but calm;
My forehead trenched; my hair fallen off; my form
Was thin and bent; my heart was meeker, sadder;
But then my arms were strong—thank God for that;
And John was with me still: he braved the storm
And turned a narrow, very narrow point,
And after months and months of anguished doubt
Was raised again. But from that fatal shock
He never more recovered; ne’er again
Looked fairly up; but from that day became
A pale, enfeebled, bent and lame old man.
But then, you see, we had him still to love,
To look up to, to guide the helm as ’twere.
He filled his arm-chair in the corner still;
His word was still the law, his joy our joy.
And I was glad of this, for I could work
And win the bread. Ah, poor old John, in Heaven!
But no, not old and way-worn as thy mate,
For there the tired grow young again—I think
I loved thee dearer, ay, if that could be,
In thy dark hour, than in thy prosperous state;
And if thou couldst be near and see me now,
Or hear my words, or look into my heart,
As disembodied souls, they say, can do,
It surely would be sweet to thee, to know
How dear is the remembrance of that love
To thy old wife’s lone heart, brim full of tears;
How fondly chequered memory conjures up
That tender, suffering, sorrowing look of thine,
Fraught with a something never felt before.
God recompense thee there!
He got in time
To be of use; helped me of busy days;
Did little jobs for th’ neighbouring folk, and such,
And bits of fancy gardening for th’ squire,
Who ever after that was kind to us;
And so we scrambled onwards pretty well.
No change, said I? ah, all was changed, except
The weary round of toil, the fight with want,
The race with fate, the pains, the shades, the tears,
And sad realities of life. My bairns
Were nearly all grown up; all gone from me
But one, my youngest born, a gentle lad.
Two blooming lasses and a stalwart lad
Were out in service, far from home and me—
Gone from the little nest, with untried wings,
With beaming eyes, and eager hopeful hearts
To buffet with the great deceitful world—
Gone forth alone, pure lambs, not dreaming of
The lurking wolves, the pits, and shifting sands—
Full of bright dreams of future ecstasy,
Of fairer realms, and skies of summer hue—
That far-off golden summer-land of youth!
With kindling passions, faculties, and needs;
Dim dawnings of the ends and aims of life,
Awakenings of affections light and deep;
Perceptions of the chaste and beautiful;
Sunrises of the bright that yield the sad;
(Sweet visions that, alas! but fade too soon;
But youth is youth, and ever will be youth.)
Gone out with truth—stamped brows, but feeble wills;
With inexperienced, unsuspicious hearts,
Unarmed to brave Temptation’s demon siege.
Ah! many an anxious hour I thought of them,
And hoped and wept; oh! had I prayed as well,
The brooding cloud of anguish might have passed.
But ah! spirit’s light was darkness yet,
A fourth, my eldest born and dearest now,
Was in a foreign region, far away.
Two years before, a wondrous tale had swept,
Like some mad storm-wind, o’er the thirsty land;
Its burden gold—a fortune in a day.
Sublime discoveries—a golden paradise—
A country pregnant with the precious lore,
Begemmed inside and out with richest ore;
And through the startled land rough heads were bent,
Wide-opened eyes grew bright, and lips agape,
To catch the luscious sound; and kits were packed,
And many a noble heart went forth, to brave
The tempest and the tropics, to secure
The wealth that only needed picking up.
Alack! how few came back, and those how spent,
To tell how false, how hollow was the tale!
And John, my eldest, after his father named,
And th’ very picture of him at his age—
Among the rest, drank in the sugary tale.
And naught would satisfy but he must go,
Although I begged him not with tearful eyes.
He met my prayers with stronger arguments;
“Bless you, my mother; you were always kind!
You would not hinder me from doing well?
And this may be my fairest chance in life;”
He said, and pictured what good things he’d do
When he returned.—We ne’er again should know
The pangs of want, and I should no more toil,
But live quite like a lady—so he said—
Well, in the spring, he and a neighbour’s son,
Staunch mates from boys—both of an age and size—
Swore lasting friendship, to defend and aid
And see each other safely home again,
And hurried off with buoyant hearts, to cross
Tempestuous seas and unknown lands for gold.
Just twelve months after that, my second-born,
A chaste and tender lass, with auburn hair
And lily features soft and delicate,
Had yielded up her maiden life to one
Ralph Wooliscroft, a brawny collier lad.
They took and bought and milked a cow,
Across the moor some half-a-mile from us;
And now had proved one year of married life.
Ah me! a twelve years’ lapse works change indeed.
The bairns that then all crowded in one nest
Were widely scattered now, and one a wife,
Would soon be mother too, if all went well.
But I had little time to think and brood;
My hands were full of work: beside my own,
I had to look to her. She always was
A very delicate and feeble thing;
But now she looked so tender and so frail,
No gaze fell on her, but the spirit sighed;
She was a very sadness to the soul.
It seemed impressed upon her mind for weeks
She should not live it o’er; and though I coaxed,
But oftener chid her for her childishness,
She, soon forgot herself and rambled on—
“If aught should happen to me, you’ll see to all;
You’ll lay me quietly in such a nook,
And so and so I’d like to bear me there.
If aught should happen me you’ll take this dress,
And when ’tis trimmed afresh, and bits let in,
’Twill make a nice warm winter’s frock for you.
If aught should happen me, you’ll love poor Ralph
Dear as your own? Ah me, he’ll be so lone!”
And though I rallied her, pooh-pooh’d and such,
Yet, heavens! how my yearning spirit ached!
“If it should live, and should be motherless,
There’s such and such I’d like stored up for it:
And this or that will make it something, when
’Tis grown a bit: and in the chest of drawers
My work you will find, the key of which
Is in my pocket here; if you will look
Deep in one corner, ’neath my Sunday cuffs,
There’s three scrawled notes, a valentine, a rose;
And in one frame, portraits of Ralph and me,
Mementoes of our joyous courting days;
Please lay them by, till it shall understand
How dear they should be for a mother’s sake.
And, mother, I have something on my mind;
Say, will you promise me, if I should die,
To take my child and bring it up for God ?”
This was too much, ’twas like a serpent’s sting,
Or dagger’s thrust to me; to think that I
Who ne’er had taught my children how to pray;
Who on the hearth of home had never reared
A hallowed shrine, round which the wandering feet
That toiled all day, might meet to pray at night;
To think that I, a mother, godless yet,
Should, ’neath so searching gaze, be asked by one
Who might have lived to brand me with neglect,
Nay, might in time have cursed me in the pit,
To take her child and bring it up for God!
My heart was bubbling up, my throat was full.
She took my hand in hers with fond caress,
And stroked it restlessly with either hand,
And looked at me with tender, pleading look—
“It would be better so,” she said, as in
Apology for having asked too much,
“Ralph might! I do not know;” she looked at me
Half sadly, half enquiringly—“might in
Awhile—a good long while you know;” she paused,
Then added, “when the first fierce storm was o’er,
And he had grown more lone than sorrowful,
Might find another he could love so well;
One who would love him not more dear than I,
But one who might be stronger, and might live
And fill his home with lots of winsome bairns,
And all his great good heart with tender joy.
If this should be—I do not say it will—
But if it should; in the far years to come,
When all the past was dead and I forgot
Except in name, and may be, now and then,
In melancholy hours, to truant thoughts,
My child might——” Here she stopped and bowed
Her head upon her breast and sobbed; and I—
I sobbed as well; for oh, my heart was full,
I drew the drooping head upon my breast,
And stroked the glossy hair, and kissed the lips,
And pressed her close, so close, as though she were
A little child again. . . . . .
And from that day
A shadow gathered slowly round my heart;
I never once believed the words she said,
But deemed them drooping thoughts, love phantasies,
Or plaintive babblings of a sick, spoiled child.
And yet, in quiet hours, they haunted me,
Like prophet-whispers from an unseen hand.
The days went on, and came the dreaded time,
And sick anxiety, strained by suspense
Unto the highest tension, settled calm,
And waited still, with fever-starting eye.
’Tis strange how calm one is, in hours like these,
When only half the weight—the pain we feel,
Would make us rave and weep a sea of tears.
’Twas in the gloaming that I stood and gazed
Out through the windows on the far away—
The misty twilight settled softly down,
And from the drowsy blue, the solemn stars
Stole silently; and came a flittering breeze
With soothing cadence like a lullaby,
And rustled mid the garlands of the hills,
And uttered by the reedy, lisping brooks,
Low whisperings of prayer. ’Twas strange that I
Should think, “How mild it is for April weather,
How sweet a night ’twill be for the tired soul
To start upon its wanderings, should she die.”
At last ’twas o’er, the anguish, doubt and dread,
And racked suspense, and agonizing hope,
Were with anticipation buried in
Uncertainty’s dim grave; and glad surprise
Rose up with kindling eye and quivering lip
And dropped upon their dust a rain of tears—
Relieving tears of thankfulness and joy!
As bright-eyed spring wakes from the lethargy
Of sorrow’s mute prostration, and comes forth
And o’er the tomb of patriarch winter, weeps
The soothing droppings of her April grief.
The child was born—a wee, white, dar1ing boy,
And all went well, ay, marvellously well;
Grim-harnessed death seemed never farther off;
And sweet security, and new-born joy
Incontinently laughed, with feverish mirth,
At credulous fancy brooding in the shade—
Pronounced, for once, a lying prophet sprite.
How beautiful that morn my sweet child looked!
How quietly she lay! how softly smiled
In all the luxury of listlessness!
How tenderly she kissed her fair first-born!
What glad gleams of gratitude she cast above!
What blessings quivered on her voiceless lips!
How full my heart was as I bent o’er them,
To feel their warm breath flutter on my cheek;
Ere from the cot I stole, and left them there
So angel-like, so peaceful; sleeping, turned,
The mother, fair and spotless as the child!
My heart was light, e’en girlish, as I sped
Across the dim expanse that April morn.
The restless soul of day was slumbering yet
So quietly, that not one breath of air
Swept with awakening kiss the earth’s damp cheek.
The curtain of the dawn half drawn aside,
Let in a flush of drowsy, flossy light,
Which changed the myriad, myriad pendant drops
To coral studs, and wreaths of crystal beads;
As virtue’s charms, obscured, unheeded here,
Dim while the dusk of earth enclouds them round,
Burst into splendour ’mid the dawn of heaven.
A great blank, freckled shore of high-up clouds,
Whose ether tide-line stretched above me, marked
An undulating coast from north to south,
Floated its dark uncertain substance far
Upon the dim sea of retreating night.
And all the western world was lost amid
The swooning mists, that lounged their sluggish bulk
Along the rear of night from hill to hill.
The solemn east glowed ’neath a sky of blue—
Intensely dusky blue, unflecked, ungemmed,
Save that the morning star, dull as a knob
Of rusted brass, with red and sleepy eye
Winked drowsily above the heathy ridge.
But, oh! the rapturous chorus of the birds
That fluttered ’mid the many-jewelled trees,
And skipped about, and shook the limpid drops
In one another’s wings as if in play;
As fair-haired children, ’mid the orchard’s bloom,
With many an antic, laugh, and shout, shake off
The snowy blossoms on each other’s heads;
The robin with its crimson pulsing breast
Sang hopefully amid the spray—like lime;
And e’en the frogs amid the misty pools
Croked lustily a morning chant of joy,
And on I went with feelings glad and strange;
The rapture of the scene was on my soul.
I turned upon the threshold of my home, and gazed
Again upon the fascinating scene:
A crimson glow grew dimply up the east
Till half the blue had blushed to daffodil.
The first stiff yawn of day was flushing o’er
The quivering lashes of the dreamy hills.
A great lank fork of cloud stole up the front
Of the red glory. Silently I watched;
It rose and rose until a mermaid form
With long, low, luminous hair, and weird white head
Bent down and eastward turned; one arm upraised
With long, fair, maiden fingers reaching far;
The other downward thrown below the rim,
As beckoning up and pointing out the course
Of the great sun, with fate-like potency,
Stretched out its shape upon the sheeny sea
The light and glory of the world and God,
Like a great deluge surged around me there,
And rose and rose, and burst into my soul,
And snatched it from its sordid shrine of clay,
And bore it up and up upon its tide,
And filled it so with worship of the good—
Spontaneous worship of the good, until
It seemed nigh bursting with unspoken praise.
How long I stood there ’tranced, I scarcely knew:
The sun was teeming out a dazzling flood
From every rift and crevice of the cloud,
And all the scene was breaking into life
When I awoke as ’twere, and found my hands
Clasped right before me, ’neath the awful God.
With conscious sin I turned and went my way,
Whilst from each cheek slid off a pendant tear.
’Twas strange that it should move me thus, who ne’er
Looked up to Him in prayer, nor read His word:
It seems a sort of instinct which we have
In common with the soulless things of earth.
How strangely every object, every scene,
Ah! every thought and action of that day
Is fastened on the page of memory.
’Tis even so when some unlooked-for blow,
Some sudden withering blight falls on the heart—
The common objects of the world and life,
The scenes most trivial, insignificant,
Seem stamped into the soul, or photographed
E’en as a sudden lightning’s blaze will limb
The leafy trees upon the stolid pane—
Seared in or buried down, to rise again
With all their natural hues, and shapes and scents
In the sad dreaming of the after calm.
I entered in: John looked into my face,
And his less wistful grew, and opened out,
And broke into a smile, the while he scanned
The happy light of peace that glowed on mine.
“How is she, Mary?” “Very well, thank God.”
“What is it?” “A sweet boy,” said I, and each
Went forth without another word, to do
The duties of the day, with lightened hearts.
There was a singing in my soul that day,
A joyous undertone, that now and then
Swelled up and quivered on my tongue and lips,
In the broken echoes of the songs I knew
And loved in that lost life, my maiden-day.
How tenderly they linger on the soul,
Those sweet refrains—those spirit-stirring strains!
They cling amid the fibres of our hearts,
Through all the tangled warp and weft of life.
How sweetly comes their soft aroma back!
And yet how sad—how sad the spirit grows
Beneath their influence. There seems to be
A wailing in the soul when they come back,
A welling upward of a font of tears;
A grieving, which we have when Autumn’s hand
Lies mutely on the tresses of the world,
When low winds mourn, and flowers fade silently;
An undefined something, which we feel
When leaves are falling—falling noiselessly;
A sort of bending o’er a fading form;
A brooding watching, of the sun go down
Upon the glory of a day of joy
Looked forward to, through long and darker days,
Now dawned and vanished all too suddenly;
When in our hearts we feel a consciousness
That few such glories dawn upon a life;
A musing o’er a sleeping infant form,
A gazing o’er a solemn stretch of graves;
Ah! all things sadder grow; and none, alas!
Are what we deemed them when we sang those songs.
And yet we love them; would not part with them—
Ah, God! no, no! we could not part with them—
They seem a portion of that hidden life,
An undercurrent of that spirit-world
We share not with our kind, nor ever may.
I often think that those we know the best
Are mysteries to us still, and will be aye;
Ah! strange! the soul hath depths unfathomed e’en
By its own plummet; only now and then
Some haunting voice or presence surges up
A train of echoes, undefined and deep,
Which sound it not, but only hint its depths,
Like pebbles tossed down chasms vast and deep;
Such echoes are these dim-remembered songs!
The thought came once, “they’ll call me granny now,”
And thereupon a shadow, wan and lorn,
Peeped through the curtain of the future’s dusk;
A tottering shade of sour decrepitude,
Of withered cheeks and thin and snowy hair,
And head bent downward towards the dust again,
A chilling whisper from the frosts of age,
A sort of creeping back into the dark.
The tide of day was ebbing silently
O’er the brown mountains of the saffron west,
When, all my duty done, I clomb into
My upper room, and dived into a row
Of ancient drawers, from whose capacious maws
I musingly disgorged a heap of things
That long had lain in darkness undisturbed;
Half worn-out garments, ruffled caps and cuffs
Too little grown for those that wore them long;
Brown faded, mildewed, memory-haunted things,
I’d cherished long for love of those that grew
And cast them, as the callow young its shell,
And passed into the world away from me—
And hunted from the midst a pair of socks,
A tiny baby-cap, and crumpled dress,
That, long ago, I’d stowed away in grief,
Half thinking that the time would come when they
Would be of use, and wondering if it would;
And while I called and mused the time had skipped
In noiseless haste away: and in the dim,
Obscure recesses of the room, the dusk
Had gathered, with its sallow, silent brood.
I gathered up my waifs and rose to go,
When palpable and plain before my eyes,
A tiny milk-white form, with infant face,
Stole noiselessly from out a sombre nook
And glided, glided, with a glow of eyes
Turned full upon me, so mysteriously,
Across the narrow space and faded out.
I was not scared at first, for reason, thought,
And every faculty seemed merged in sight,
I only watched and watched in dazzled calm
Until the apparition faded out, and till
Stunned, startled consciousness awoke, and sent
A rush of frenzied blood along my veins,
Was I quite sure I saw it? Yes! although
The folk of now-a-day, grown more acute,
And wiser than their fathers—so they think—
Would call it superstition or the like;
Say I’d been dreaming, thinking over-much,
Until my senses had deceived themselves,
And conjured up a waif of air, to give
To give a shape to all their dark engenderings.
The bold would ridicule me openly;
Those more considerate would listen to
My childish babblings, with an inward yawn,
And smile incredulous as you now smile,
But then such things were seen, and, ay, believed—
I stood a while in idiotic trance,
Then fled with awful swiftness down the stairs,
And on the hearth came face to face with John.
He stared into my white scared face a bit,
And neither of us spoke; I scarce could breathe.
He gasped; “Good heavens! what ails you, Mary?”
“Oh, John I’ve seen a token.” There we stood,
Till suddenly we both burst out, “Our Girl.”
I felt like fainting for a little while,
And dropped my head face downwards on the squab.
Just now a hesitating step was heard without;
A trembling hand came fumbling at the latch.
The shadowed features of a neighbour’s lad
Looked in upon us mutely—furtively.
“Ralph wants you, mother, now,” the urchin said,
And paused and coughed, then clenched, “the child is dead,”
And hastily withdrew himself. I looked
In John’s face, grown intensely white, and he
With painful soul-intensive eyes in mine,
But neither of us spoke a single word;
Insentiently I rose and donned my shawl
And hood, and hurried out, and closed the door,
And sped across the moor. I reached the cot,
I scarce knew how; my senses all seemed dazed;
My feet scarce seemed to touch the ground they trod.
Ralph sat besides the fire with head bent down
Upon his hands; and though I went to him
And laid my hand in silence on his head
He neither looked nor spoke. I sought the couch
Where, in the dawn, I’d left my child asleep.
She lay there quietly, as if asleep,
With Ralph’s old mother bending o’er her head.
I went and touched her cheek; the eyes unclosed
With such a weary sadness in their depths.
Her cheeks had paled; her lips grown white and dry.
I did not speak, but felt an agony
To weep myself, and make her weep away
The stony agony that filled her soul.
I kissed the lips, which quivered quietly,
As if an utterance struggled in the throat,
But nothing came; no word, not e’en a tear.
She feebly raised her arm, and pointed, mute.
I turned, and found the tiny-curtained crib.
I drew the snowy sheet down silently,
And there the figure lay, all cold and stiff
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Just then Ralph’s mother came and stood by me.
I said, “How did it happen ?” and she said,
“Convulsions took it, and it died in one.”
I kissed it reverently, and cloaked it up;
Then doffed my shawl, and calmly set to work
To tidy up the room, and drive away
The tearless gloom which hung around the house;
And hoping to divert the sorrow-stunned,
Gasped down the bitterness within my heart;
Yet even stealthily I watched my girl.
Sometimes her eyes unopened languidly,
And watched my motions, oh! so listlessly;
Sometimes she raised them to me wistfully,
But never spoke, or sighed, or wept at all.
I cannot speak the agonizing pain
That draped the cot, and would not if I could.
At last the day arrived; we nestled it,
Ah! snug within its tiny downy box,
And sat in silence in the darkened room.
We two old women looked on it and wept,
Wept heartily at last, and seemed refreshed.
She raised her hand and laid it on its face,
And then we raised her up to look at it.
She gazed upon it long and earnestly,
And kissed it once, and backward dropped again;
And only when they screwed the coffin lid,
And hid the darkened face for evermore,
Her features quivered—quivered brokenly—
And solemnly a great, bright, swollen tear
Slid off and made a spot upon the sheet.
And when they bore it off, she followed it
With great, wide, dry, and hungry eyes, until
’Twas lost to her, and then she turned them up,
Far up to God. I left her then, for, oh!
I felt accursed in the breath of prayer.
We buried it, and went our ways again.
The days went on, sadder and slower, perhaps,
But ever on, and sunny June arrived,
And she had risen from her couch of pain,
And had assumed the duties of her home.
We never heard her murmur, never once;
She bowed her will, and bore it patiently
As far as outward seeming went; no word
Or sad rebellious tear gave potent sign!
But, ah! we knew how deep a bitterness,
How keen a want was hungering in her heart.
Far less we judged from what she said and showed
Than what she said but half, or left unsaid.
Sometimes when self-restraint was off its guard,
And the strong will had ceased its vigilance,
The prisoned soul would wander mournfully
Amid its dead and buried loves and dreams,
And suddenly betray its sorrowings
With some great sign, or far-off dreaming gaze;
A sudden pause amid her work, as if
She wanted something which she had forgot,
Or sought to bring to mind some cherished thought
That had escaped her puzzled memory,
And now and then would say what might have been,
“If it had only lived.” Thus picturing,
By contrast sad, how deep the loss must be.
But though she bore it all so patiently,
And though she strove to work again and live,
Yet something sad had fallen upon her life,
Or something bright, a charm, a vital power
Had gone from her and fled for evermore.
We watched her day by day with anxious eyes
And felt she was not, could not be the same,
And yet we knew not why; but only hope
With sighing hearts that all might turn out well;
But evermore the shadow deeper fell.
’Twas but the twilight of the night of death!
A little, thirsty, intermissive cough,
A frothy, restive, indecisive cough,
So silent and so subtle that it passed
For weeks and weeks almost unnoticed, came
And fretted sedulously at her life.
Her form grew frail and thin, her garments hung
In flaggy, windy folds about her limbs,
And even seemed about to drop from her;
Her long white lady-hands disclosed to view
The shape of bones and joints, the muscles’ play;
Her features sharper, more intensive grew,
And ever whiter, save that evermore
On either cheek a small unnatural spot,
A vivid star of crimson came and went;
Her brow grew smoother and more prominent.
And yet she murmured not, nor took alarm,
And never pined, nor spoke her thought, although
I think she knew her fate, ay, from the first;
And so she faded, faded as the world
Fades in the mournful autumn, constantly;
And by-and-bye we came to realise
The truth, which in our hearts so long had lain
In mute impressions, never shaped in words.
One night I went to her, as was my wont
When I could snatch an hour from my own toil,
To help her out a bit, and found her worse.
Her strength had given out; she lay at rest
In listless attitude upon her couch.
I bent o’er her, and, as she did not speak,
But seemed too tired and weary e’en for that,
I felt a breaking, bursting in my heart,
And fell a weeping, baby that I was
(I could not help it for the life of me),
And sobbed, and gushed out my storm of grief,
So long fermenting, but compressed within,
And, child-like, cried until I could not cry.
She got my hand in hers and bade me sit,
And looked on me with fixed and languid eyes,
And spoke anon, “There, you’ll be better now.
I saw you coming o’er the paddock stile,
And thought to tell you all that now you know.
Or why these tears? Well, it is better thus.
It pains me much to see you sorrow so
Because the truth has proved itself at last.
It would have pained me deeper to have been
The truth’s interpreter to my mother’s ears.
And now we’ll talk of what you know, and I,
I know, have known and felt so long ago,
That I am going, going noiselessly,
But feel that I am going, like the brook
That runs adown the dingle variously
Amid the broken rocks, all joyously
It skips and trips awhile, and sings a song—
A glad, unshadowed song—and ripples back
The trickling laughter of the sun. Anon
It comes into an almost level course;
The banks grow narrower, closer to the brink
Of a great chasm. There the waters move
So silent and so deep within themslves,
Without a smile, a ripple, or a song,
Till suddenly they drop themselves amid
The yawning gulph that opens underneath.”
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