ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

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{North Coast and other Poems 1867}

 

NORTH COAST

AND OTHER

POEMS.

 

                                                                                                                                                                 1

NOCO4

MEG BLANE.

(NORTH COAST, 18—.)

 

‘LORD, hearken to me!
     Help all poor men at sea!
     Thy breath is on their cheeks,—
Their cheeks are wan wi’ fear;
     Nae man speaks,
For wha could hear?
The long-haired sea-wives scream,
     The wind cries loud;
Ghaistly the fireflaughts gleam
     On tattered sail and shroud;                                                2
Under the red mast-light
     The hissing waters slip;
Thick reeks the storm o’ night
     Round him that steers the ship,
And his een are blind,
And he kens not where they run.
     LORD, be kind!
     Whistle back Thy wind,
For the sake of CHRIST Thy Son.’

And as she prayed she knelt not on her knee,
But, standing on the threshold, looked to sea;
     Yet all was blackness and a watery roar,
Save when the red light, glistening far away,
     Ghastlied the line of foam upon the shore,
And showed the ribbéd reef and surfy bay.
     There was no sign of life across the dark,
     No piteous light from fishing-boat or bark,
Albeit for such she listed so to pray.
With tattered plaid wrapt tight around her form,
     She stood a space, blown on by wind and rain;
Then, sighing deep, she turnéd from the storm,
     And crept into her lonely hut again.
                                                                                                         3

NOCO5

It was a wooden hut under the height,
     Shielded in the black shadow of the crag:
One blow of such a wind as blew that night
     Could rend so rude a dwelling like a rag;                                       4
But, gathering in the crannies overhead,
Down fell the spouting rain heavy as lead,
     So that the old walls and the rafters thin
Drippéd and steaméd, gloaming in the surf,
And the black rain-drops through the roof of turf
     Splashed momently on the mud floor within.
There, swinging from the roof, an earthen lamp
Waved to the wind and glimmered in the damp,
     And made strange shadows round the chamber bare
And on the household things of the poor place,
And glimmered faintly on the woman’s face
     Sooted with rain, and on her wringing hair.
         It was a piteous spot wherein to dwell,
         And yet she loved it well.

         ‘O mither, are ye there?’
A deep voice filled the dark, and she could hear.
     With hard hand she pushed back her dripping hair,
And kissed him. ‘Whisht, my bairn, for mither’s near.’
     Then on the shuttle bed a figure thin
         Sat rubbing sleeping eyes:
A bearded man, with heavy hanging chin,
     And on his face a light not over-wise.
‘Water!’ he said; and deep his thirst was quelled                                5
Out of the broken pitcher she upheld,
And yawning sleepily, he gazed around,
And stretched his limbs again, and soon slept sound.
Stooping, she smoothed his pillow ’neath his head,
     Still gazing down with eyes dewy and mild,
And while she gazed, softly he slumberéd,
     That bearded man, her child.
And a child’s dreams were his; for as he lay,
He uttered happy cries as if at play,
And his strong hand was lifted up on high,
In act to catch the bird or butterfly;
And often to his bearded lips there came
         That lonely woman’s name;
And though the storm of ocean roared so near,
         That one sweet word
         Was all the woman heard,
     And all she cared to hear.

Not old in years, though youth had passed away,
And the meek hair was tinged with silver gray,
Close to the gloaming of the day of life,
She stood, calm featured like a wedded wife;
And yet no wedded wife was she, but one
     Whose foot had left the pathways of the just,                                 6
And meekly, since her penance had been done,
     Her true eyes sought men’s faces, not the dust.
Her tearful days were over: she had found
Firm footing, work to do upon the ground;
The elements had welded her at length
         To their own truth and strength.

This woman was no slight and tear-strung thing,
Whose easy tears fall sweet on suffering,
But one in whom no stranger’s eyes would seek
         For pity mild and meek.
Man’s height was hers—man’s strength and will thereto,
     Her shoulders broad, her step man-like and long;
’Mong fishermen she dwelt, a rude, rough crew,
     And more than one had found her fist was strong.
And yet her face was gentle, though the sun
         Had made it dark and dun;
               Her silver-threaded hair
Was combed behind her ears with cleanly care;
And she had eyes liquid and sorrow-fraught,
     And round her mouth were delicate lines, that told
She was a woman sweet with her own thought,
     Though built upon a large, heroic mould.
                                                                                                       7

NOCO6

         Who did not know Meg Blane?
What hearth but heard the deeds that Meg had done?
         What fisher of the main
But knew her, and her little-witted son?
For in the fiercest waters of the coast
Her black boat hovered and her net was tost,
And lonely in the watery solitude
The son and mother fished for daily food.
When on calm nights the herring hosts went by,
     Her black boat followed the red smacks from shore,
And smoking in the stern the man would lie
     While Meg was hoisting sail or plying oar;
Till, a black speck against the morning sky,                                         8
     The boat came homeward, with its silver store.
And Meg was cunning in the ways of things,
     And watched what every changing lineament
     Of wind and sea and cloud and water meant,
Knowing how Nature threatens ere she springs.
     She knew the clouds as shepherds know their sheep,
To eyes unskilled alike, yet different each;
     She knew the wondrous voices of the deep;
The tones of sea-birds were to her a speech.
     Much faith was hers in GOD, who was her Guide;
Courage was hers such as GOD gives to few,
     For she could face His terrors fearless-eyed,
Yet keep the still weird woman’s nature true.
     Lives had she snatched out of the waste by night,
               When stormy winds were blowing,
     And to sick-beds her presence carried light,
     When like a thin sail lessening out of sight
Some rude, rough life to the unknown sea was going;
     For he who scorned a feeble woman’s wail
Would heark to one so strong and brave as she,
     Whose face had braved the lightning and the gale,
               And scarce grown pale,
Save when it looked on other lives at sea.

Yet often, as she lay a-sleeping there,                                                9
     She started up, blushing as if in shame,
And stretched out arms embracing the thin air,
               And named an unknown name;
And there was a strange listening in her face
     If sudden footsteps sounded in her ear;
And when strange seamen came unto the place
     She read their faces in a quiet fear;
And finding not the object of her quest,
Her hand she presséd hard upon her breast,
And wore a white look, and drew feeble breath,
               Like one that hungereth.

It was a night of summer, yet the wind
     Had wafted from the hills the rain-clouds dank,
Blown out heaven’s thousand eyes and made it blind,
Though now and then the moon gleamed moist behind
     The rack, till, smitten by the drift, she sank.
               But the deep roared;
Sucked to the black cloud, spumed the foamy main,
     While lightning rent the storm-rack like a sword,
And earthward rolled the gray smoke of the rain.

’Tis late, and yet the woman doth not rest,
But sitteth with chin drooping on her breast:
Weary she is, yet will not take repose;                                              10
Tiréd her eyes, and yet they cannot close;
She rocketh to and fro upon her chair,
               And stareth at the air.

Far, far away her thoughts were travelling:
     They could not rest—they wandered far and fleet,
Like wild white birds that o’er the waters wing,
     And cannot find a place to rest their feet;
And in her ear a thin voice murmuréd,
               ‘If he be dead—be dead!’
Then, even then, the woman’s face went white
     And awful, and her eyes were fixed in fear,
For suddenly all the wild cries of night
     Were hushed: the wind lay down, and she could hear
Strange voices gather round her in the gloom,
Sounds of invisible feet across the room,
     And after that the rustle of a shroud,
               And then a creaking door,
     And last the coronach, full shrill and loud,
Of women clapping hands and weeping sore.

Then Meg knew well that ill was close at hand,
               On water or on land,
Because the glamour touched her lids like breath,                              11
     And burned her heart; but in a waking swoon
Quiet she stayed,—not stirring,—cold as death,
               And heard those voices croon;
Then suddenly she heard a human shout,

NOCO7

The hurried falling of a foot without,
Then a hoarse voice—a knocking at the door—
               ‘Meg, Meg! a ship ashore!’

Now mark the woman! She has risen her height,
Her dripping plaid is wrapt around her tight;
Tight clenchéd in her palm her fingers are;                                          12
Her eye is steadfast as a fixéd star.
One look upon her child—he sleepeth on—
One step unto the door, and she is gone:
Barefooted out into the dark she fares,
     And comes where, rubbing eyelids thick with sleep,
The half-clad fishers mingle oaths and prayers,
               And look upon the deep.

               Black was the oozy lift,
         Black was the sea and land;
Hither and thither, thick with foam and drift,
               Did the deep waters shift,
     Swinging with iron clash on rock and sand.
Faintlier the heavy rain was falling,
Faintlier, faintlier the wind was calling
     With hollower echoes up the drifting dark,
And the swift rockets shooting through the night
Ghastlied the foamy reef with pale blue light,
     And showed the piteous outline of the bark
Rising and falling like a living thing,
               Shuddering, shivering,
While, howling beast-like, the white waters there
Spat blindness in the dank eyes of despair.
                                                                                                       13

NOCO8

Then one cried, ‘She has sunk!’ and on the shore
     Men shook, and on the heights the women cried;
But, lo! the outline of the bark once more!                                        14
     While blue and faint the rocket rose and died.
Ah, GOD, put out Thy hand! all for the sake
Of little ones, and weary hearts that wake!
     Be gentle! chain the fierce waves with a chain!
Let the gaunt seaman's little boys and girls
Sit on his knee and play with his black curls
               Yet once again!
And breathe the pale lad safely through the foam,
Back to the hungry mother in her home!
And spare the bad man, with his glazéd eye;
Kiss him, for CHRIST’S sake, bid Thy Death go by—
               He hath no heart to die!

Now faintlier blew the wind, the thin rain ceased,
     The thick cloud cleared like smoke from off the strand,
For, lo! a faint blue glimmer in the east,—
               GOD putting out His hand!
And overhead the storm-rack thinnéd too,
               And through the smoky gorge
The wind drove past the stars, and faint they flew
               Like sparks blown from a forge;
And now the thousand foamy eyes o’ the sea
               Hither and thither glimmered visibly,
And gray lights hither and thither travelléd,                                          15
Like dim shapes searching for the drownéd dead;
And where these shapes most thickly glamoured by,
     Out on the ribbéd reef the black hulk lay,
And cast, against the glimmering eastern sky,
     Its shape gigantic on the falling spray.

Yet there upon the shore, the fishers fed
     Their eyes on horror, waiting for the close,
     When sudden in the midst a shrill voice rose;
               ‘The boat! the boat!’ it said.
Like creatures startled from a trance, they turned
     To her who spake: tall in the midst stood she,
With arms uplifted, and with eyes that yearned
               Out on the murmuring sea.
Some, shrugging shoulders, homeward turned their eyes,
     And others answered back in brutal speech;
But some, brave hearted, uttering shouts and cries,
     Followed the fearless woman up the beach.
A rush to seaward—black confusion—then
     A struggle with the sea upon the strand—
’Mid shrieks of women, cries of desperate men,
     The long oars smite, the black boat springs from land.
               Around the thick spray flies;
The waves roll round and seem to overwhelm.                                  16
     With blowing hair and onward-gazing eyes
The woman stands erect, and grips the helm. . . . .

NOCO9

Now fearless heart, Meg Blane, or all must die!
Let not the skilled hand thwart the steadfast eye!
The ridgéd wave comes near,—crag-like it towers
Above ye, scattering round its foamy showers:
One flutter of the hand, and all is done!
Now steel thy heart, thou woman-hearted one!
               Softly the good helm guides;
Round to the ridgéd waves the boat leaps light,—
Hidden an instant,—on the foamy height,                                          17
    
Dripping and quivering like a sea-bird, rides.
Now through the ragged rift the moon looms pale,
               Driven before the gale,
And makes a silver trouble with her breath,
Till duskily the water shimmereth;
And, lo! she gleameth on the reef, and on
     The black hull, as the fisher-boat comes nigh.
A crash!—the wreck upon the reef is gone!
     A scream!—and all is still beneath the sky,
     Save the weird waters as they foam and cry.

                                                                                                         18

NOCO10

II.

DAWN; and the deep was still. Without her door,
Meg, shading eyes against the morning sun,
Gazed seaward. After trouble, there was peace.
Smooth, many-coloured, as a ring-dove’s neck,
Stretchéd the deep, and on its eastern rim
The cool, sweet light, with rainy yellow beams,
Gleamed like a sapphire. Overhead, soft airs
To feathery cirrhus flecked the deepening blue;
Beneath, the smooth sea’s breathing made a breeze;
And up the weedy beach the blue waves crept,
Breaking in one thin line of creamy foam.

     Seaward the woman gazed, with keen eye fixed                            19
On a dark shape that floated on the calm,
Drifting as seaweed; still and black it lay,
The outline of a lifeless human shape:
And yet it was no drownéd mariner,
For she who looked was smiling, and her face
Looked merry; still more merry when a boat,
With pale and timorous fishermen, drew nigh;
And as the fearful fishers paused and gazed,
A boat’s length distant, leaning on their oars,
The shape took life—raised up a dripping head,
Screaming—flung up its body in white foam,
And, with a laugh they echoed with a curse,
Dived headlong, as a monster of the deep
Plunges deep down when startled on its couch
Of glassy waters. ’Twas the woman’s child,
The witless water-haunter—Angus Blane.

     For Angus Blane, not fearless as the wise
Are fearless, loved the waters like a thing
Born in their still depths of the slimy ooze.
A child, he sported on their rim, and crept
Splashing with little hands amid the foam;
And when his limbs were stronger, and he reached
A young man’s stature, the old sea had grown                                   20
Dear and familiar as his mother’s face.
Far out he swam, on windless summer days,
Floating like some sea-monster far from land,
Plunging from terror-stricken fishermen,
With eldrich cry and wild unearthly face;
And in the untrodden deeps below the sea,
Awaking wondrous echoes, that had slept
Since first the watery Spirit stirred and breathed.
On summer gloamings, in the bay for hours
He glistened like a sea-snake in the moon,
Splashing with trail of glistening phosphor-fire,
And laughing shrill till echo answeréd,
And the pale helmsman on the passing boat,
Thinking some demon of the waters cried,
Shivered and prayed. His playmates were the waves,
The sea his playground. On his ear were sounds
Kinder than human voices; on his soul,
Though misted with his witless thoughts, there passed
A motion and a glamour that at times
Broke through his lips, and troubled witless words
With weird sea-music. When he was a child
Children had mocked him—he had shunned their sports,
And haunted ocean places,—nurturing
The bright, fierce, animal splendour of a soul                                     21
That ne’er was clouded through the pensive mists
Of mind that smoke the souls of wiser men.
Only in winter seasons he was sad;
For then the loving Spirit of the Deep
Repulsed him, and its smile was kind no more;
And on the strand he wandered; from deep caves
Gazed at the tempest; and from day to day
Moaned to his mother for the happy time
When the white swallows glisten from the South,
And summer glimmers through the rain, and brings
Smiles and a windless silence to the sea.

     And as the deepening of strange melody,
Caught from the unknown shores beyond the seas,
Was the outspreading of his life to her
Who bare him; yea, at times, the woman's womb
Seemed laden with the throes of him unborn,
So close his being clave unto her flesh,
So strangely linked his spirit with her own.
For the forebodings of her heart, when first
She saw the mind-mists in his infant eyes,
And knew him witless, turned as years went on
Into more spiritual, mysterious love
Than common mothers feel; and he had power                                   22
To make her nature deeper, more alive
Unto the spiritual feet that walk
Our dark and troubled waters. Thence was born
Much of her courage on the sea, her trust
In the sea’s MASTER; thence, moreover, grew
Her faith in visions, warnings, fantasies,
Such as came thronging on her heart when most
Her eyes looked inward—to the place wherein
She hid a secret sorrow.

                                         While she gazed,
Smiling, the bearded face of Angus rose
Nearer to shore, and panting in the sun,
Laughed at the fishers. Then the woman turned,
And took, with man-like step and slow, a path
That, creeping through the shadows of the cliffs,
Wound to the clachan. In the clear, bright dawn
Lay Thornock glittering, while, thin and blue,
Curled peat-smoke from the line of fisher-huts
That parted the high shingle from the land.
The sea was low: amid the tangled weeds
And many-coloured rocks and sparkling pools,
Went stooping men and women, seeking spoil,
Treasure or drift-wood floating from the wreck;                                23
Beyond, some stood in fish-boats, peering down,
Seeking the drownéd dead; and, near at hand,
So near, a tall man might have waded thither
With a dry beard, the reef loomed black with weed,

NOCO11

And there the sea-fowl ever and anon
Rose like a cloud of foam, whirled in the air,
And, screaming, settled. But not thitherward
Wandered Meg Blane. Along the huts she went—
Among the rainy pools where, shouting, played
Brown and barefooted bairns—among the nets
Stretched steaming in the sun—until she reached                                24
The cottage she was seeking. At the door,
Smoking his pipe, a grizzly fisher sat,
Looking to sea. With him she spake awhile,
Then, with a troubled look, entered the hut,
And sought the inner chamber.

                                                   Faint and pale
Light glimmered through a loop-hole in the wall,
A deep white streak across the rush-strewn floor,
All else in shadow; and the room was still,
Save for a heavy breathing, as of one
In quiet sleep. Within the wall’s recess,
On the rude bed of straw the sleeper lay,
His head upon his arm, the sick thin light
Touching his upturned face; while Meg drew near,
And gazed upon him with a stranger’s eyes,
Quiet and pitying. Though his sleep was sound,
His dreams were troubled. Throwing up his arms,
He seemed to beckon, muttering; then his teeth
Clenched tight, a white smile wrinkled on his brow,
And still he lay like one awaiting doom;
But suddenly, in agony supreme,
He breathed like one who struggles, sinks, and drowns.
Struggling, with wavering arms and quivering limbs,                            25
And screaming in his throat, he fought for life;
Till, half-awakening with the agony,
His glazéd eyes he oped and glaréd round,
While Meg drew shivering back into the shade;
And then, with deeper breath, as if relieved,
Dropped down his bearded face upon his arm,
And slept again.

                             Then Meg stole stilly forth,
And in the outer chamber found a lamp,
And lit the same in silence, and returned
On tiptoe to the sleeper. As she went,
White as a murdered woman’s grew her face,
Her mouth was clenchéd as in death; her eyes
With ring on ring of widening wonder glared
Fixéd to fascination upon him
Who slumbered. Closer still she crept,
Holding the lamp aloft, until his breath
Was hot upon her cheek,—so gaunt, so white,
It seemed her time was come. Yet in her look
Was famine. As one famished looks on food
After long agony, and thinks it dream,
She gazed and gazed, nor stirred, nor breathed, nor lived,
Save in her spirit’s hunger gleaming forth                                           26
Out of her eyes; till suddenly the man,
Half-opening his eyes, reached out his arms
And gript her, crying, ‘Silence! pray to GOD!
She’s sinking!’ and, with shrill and eldritch groan,
Awakened.

                       Then the woman would have fled
Had he not gript her. In her face he gazed,
Thrusting one hand into his silvered hair,
And sought to gather close his scattered thoughts.
And his eye brightened, and he murmured low,
‘Where am I? Dead or living? Ah, I live!
The ship? the ship?’ Meg answered not, but shrank
Into the shadow; till she saw the mists
Pass from his bearded face and leave it clear,
And heard his voice grow calmer, measuréd
By tranquil heart-beats. Then he asked again,
‘The ship? How many live of those aboard?’
And when she answered he alone was saved,
He groaned; but with a sailor’s fearless look,
‘Thank GOD for that,’ he said; ‘and yet He might
Have spared a better man. Where am I, friend?’
‘On the north coast,’ said Meg, ‘upon the shore
At Thornock.’
                                                                                                       27

NOCO12

               Could the seaman, while she spake,
Have marked the wondering light on that pale face,
All else,—the storm, the terrible fight with death,—                           28
Had been forgotten; but his glazéd eye
Saw dimly. Grasping still her quivering wrist,
He questioned on; and, summoning strength of heart,
In her rude speech she told him of the storm:
How to the watery gulf the ship had rolled
When aid was nigh; how, hovering near its tomb,
The fishers from the whirling waters dragged
Two drownéd seamen and himself, a corpse
In seeming; how by slow and gentle means
They wound his thin and bloody thread of life
Out of the slowly-loosening hands of Death.

                                                                                                       29

NOCO13

III.

     Then, with strange trouble in her eyes, Meg Blane
Crept swiftly back unto her hut again,
Like one that fleéth from some fearful thing;
Then sat and made a darkness, covering
Her face with apron old, and thought apart;
And yet she scarce could think, for ache of heart,
But saw dead women and dead men go by,
And felt the wind, and heard the waters cry,                                       30
And on the waters, as they washed to shore,
Saw one Face float alone and glimmer hoar
Through the green darkness of the breaking brine.

     And Meg was troubled deep, nor could divine
The wherefore of her trouble, since ’twas clear
The face long wishéd for at last was near,
Since all her waiting on was at an end.
Ay, Meg was dull, and could not comprehend
How GOD put out His breath that day, and blew
Her sailor to her feet before she knew,
And misted the dull future from her sight;
Wherefore she staréd down on her delight
As on a dead face washing in from sea.
But when she understood full certainlie
The thing had come according to her prayer,
Her strength came back upon her unaware,
And she thanked GOD, albeit the pleasure seemed
Less absolute a bliss than she had dreamed
When it was a sweet trouble far away;
For she was conscious how her hair was gray,
Her features worn, her flesh’s freshness gone,
Through toiling in the sun and waiting on;
And quietlie she murmured, weeping not,                                          31
‘Perchance—for men forget—he hath forgot.’

     And two long days she was too dazed and weak
To step across the sands to him, and speak;
But on the third day, pale with her intent,
She took the great hand of her son, and went,
Not heeding while the little-witted one
Mouthed at the sea and muttered in the sun;
And firmly stepping on along the shore,
Beheld afar off, at the cottage door,
The figure of her shipwrecked marinere;
When, deeply troubled by a nameless fear,
She lingered o’er her footsteps, pale and wan.

     Then, coming near, she noted how the man
Sat sickly, holding out his arm to please
A fisher bairn he held between his knees,
Whose eyes looked on the mighty arm and bare,
Where ships, strange faces, anchors, pictured were,
Pricked blue into the skin with many a stain;
And, sharply marking the man’s face, Meg Blane
Was cheered and holpen, and she trembled less,
Thinking, ‘His heart is full of kindliness.’
And, feeling that the thing if to be done                                              32
Must be done straight, she hastened with her son,
And, though she saw the man’s shape growing dim,
Came up with feverish smile and spoke to him,
Pausing not, though she scarce could hear or see,
‘Has Angus Macintyre forgotten me?’
And added quickly, ‘I am Maggie Blane!’

     Whereat the man was smit by sudden pain
And wonder—yea, the words he heard her speak
Were like a jet of fire upon his cheek;
And, rising up erect, ‘Meg Blane!’ he cried,
And, white and chilly, thrust the bairn aside,
And peered upon the woman all amazed,
While, pressing hard upon her heart, she gazed
Blankly at the dim mist she knew was he.

     Then for a space both stood confusedlie,
In silence; but the man was first to gain
Calmness to think and power to speak again;
And, though his bloodless lips were presséd tight,
Into his eyes he forced a feeble light,
And took her shivering hand, and named her name
In forced kind tones, yet with a secret shame,
Nor sought to greet her more with touch or kiss.
But she, who had waited on so long for this,                                       33
Feeling her hand between his fingers rest,
Could bear no more, but fell upon his breast,
Sobbing and moaning like a little bairn.

     Then, while her arms were round him, he looked stern,
With an unwelcome burden ill at ease,
What time she freed her heart in words like these—
‘At last! at last! O Angus, let me greet!
GOD’s good! I never hoped that we would meet!
Lang, lang hae I been waiting by the sea,
Waiting and waiting, praying on my knee;
And GOD said I should look again on you,
And, though I daredna hope, GOD’s word comes true,
And He hath put an end to my distress!’
And, as she spoke, her child plucked at her dress,
Made fierce grimaces at the man, and tried
To draw her from the breast whereon she cried;
But looking up, she pointed to her child,
And gazed full piteous at the man, and smiled.
‘GOD help him, Angus! ’Tis the bairn!’ she said;—
Nor noted how the man grew shamed and red,
With child and mother ill at ease and wroth,
And wishing he were many a mile from both.

     For now Meg’s heart was many a mile away,                               34
And unto her it seemed but yesterday
That, standing inland in a heathery dell,
At dead o’ night, she bade the man farewell,
And heard him swear full fondly in her ear
Sooner or late to come with gold and gear,
And marry her in kirk by holy rite;
And at the memory a quiet light,
Rose-like and maiden, came upon her face,
And softened her tall shape to nameless grace,
As low winds blowing on a birk-tree green
Make it one rippling trouble of white sheen.

     But soon from that remembrance driven again
By the man’s silence and his pallid pain,
She shivered for a moment as with cold,
And left his bosom, looking grieved and old,
Yet smiling, forcing a sweet smile, and seeking
For tokens in his face more sweet than speaking.

     But he was dumb, and with a pallid frown,
Twitching his fingers quick, was looking down.
‘What ails thee, Angus?’ cried the woman, reading
His face with one sharp look of interceding;
Then, looking downward too, standing apart,                                    35
With blood like water slipping through her heart,
Because she thought, ‘’Tis ill if it should be
That Angus cares no more for mine and me,
Since I am old and worn with sharp distress,
And men like pretty looks and daintiness;
And since we parted twenty years have past,
And that, indeed, is long for a man’s heart to last.’

     But, agonized with looking at her woe,
And bent to end her hope with one sharp blow,
The troubled man, uplifting hands, spake thus,
In rapid accents, sharp and tremulous:
‘Too late, Meg Blane! seven years ago I wed
Another woman, thinking you were dead,—
And I have bairns!’ And there he paused, for fear.

     As when, with ghostly voices in her ear,
While in her soul, as in a little well,
The dusky silver of the glamour fell,
She had been wont to hark o’ nights alone,
So stood she now, not stirring, still as stone,
While in her soul, with desolate refrain,
The words, ‘Too late!’ rang o’er and o’er again;
                                                                                                       36

NOCO14

And gazéd on his face with chill white stare;
Then raising her wild arms into the air,
Pinching her face together in sharp fear,
She quivered to the ground without a tear,
And put her face into her hands, and thrust
Her hair between her teeth, and spat it forth like dust.

And though, with pity in his guilty heart,
The man spake on and sought to heal her smart,
She heard not, but was dumb and deaf in woe;                                 37
But when, in pain to see her grieving so,
Her son put down his hand, and named her name,
And whispered, ‘Mither! mither! let us hame!’
She gript the hand, and smoothed her features wan,
And rose erect, not looking at the man,
But, gazing down, moved slowly from the spot.

     Over this agony I linger not,
Nor shall I picture how upon that shore
They met and spoke and parted yet once more,
So calmly that the woman understood
Her hope indeed had gone away for good.
But ere the man departed from the place
It seemed to Meg, contemplating his face,
Her love for him had ne’er been so intense
As it had seemed when he was far from thence;
And many a thing in him seemed little-hearted
And mean and loveless; so that ere they parted
She seemed unto her sorrow reconciled.
And when he went away, she almost smiled,
But bitterlie, and turned to toil again,
And felt most hard to all the world of men.

                                                                                                         38

IV.

               LORD, with how small a thing
Thou canst prop up the heart against the grave!
                   A little glimmering
                         Is all we crave;
                   The coming of a love
                         That hath no being;
         The thin point of a little star above,
                   Flashing and fleeing,
                   Contents our seeing.
The house that never will be built; the gold
               That never will be told;
The task we leave undone when we are cold;
The dear face that returns not, but is lying,
     Licked by the leopard, in an Indian cave;
The coming rest that cometh not, till, sighing,
     We turn our weary eyes upon the grave.
               And, LORD, how should we dare
                   Thither in peace to fall,
         But for a feeble glimmering even there—                                  39
                   Falsest, perchance, of all?
We are as children in Thy hands indeed,
And Thou hast easy comfort for our need,—
The shining of a lamp, the tinkling of a bell,
                         Content us well.

And even when Thou bringest to our eyes
     A little thing, to show its worthlessness,
Anon we see another thing arise,
     And we are comforted in our distress;
And, waiting on, we watch it glittering,
Till in its turn it is a worthless thing;
                   And even as we weep
Another rises, and we smile again;
Till, wearied out with watching on in vain,
                   We fall to sleep.

And often one poor light that looks divine
     Is all one soul seeketh along the ground;
                   There are no more to shine
               When that one thing is found.
     If it be worthless, then what shall suffice?
The lean hand grips a speck that was a spark,
                   The heart is turned to ice,                                              40
                         And all the world is dark.
Hard are Thy ways when that one thing is brought
     Close, touched, and proven nought.
Far off it is a mighty spell, and strong
                   To help a life along.
But, lo! it darkens hitherward, and now
     Droppeth, a rayless stone, upon the sod.—
The world is lost: perchance not even Thou
                   Survivest it, LORD GOD!

                   In poverty, in pain,
               For weary years and long,
One hope, one fear, had comforted Meg Blane,
               Yea, made her brave and strong;
A hope so faint, it seemed not hope at all,
     But a sweet trouble and a dreamy fear,
A hearkening for a voice, a soft footfall,
     She never hoped in sober heart to hear:
                   This had been all her cheer;
                         And with this balm
                         Her soul might have kept calm
                   For many another year.
                   In terror and in desolation, she
                         Had been sustained,                                                 41
                   And never felt abandoned utterly
                         While that remained.
LORD, in how small and poor a space can hide
The motives of our terror and our pride,
The clue unto the fortunate man’s distress,
The secret of the hero’s fearlessness!
What had sustained this woman on the sea
                   When strong men turned to flee?
                         Not courage, not despair,
                         Not pride, not household care,
                   Not faith in Thee!
Nought but a hungry instinct blind and dim—
                   A fear, a nameless pain,
A dreamy wish to gaze again on him
     She never wholly hoped to see again.

Nor all at once,—nor in an hour, a day,
     Did the strong woman feel her force depart,
Or know how utterly had passed away
                   The meaning of her heart;
It was not love she missed, for love was dead,
     And surely had been dead long ere she knew;
She did not miss the man’s face when it fled,
                   As passionate women do:                                              42
She saw him turn into the world again,
                   And had no pain;
She shook him by the hand, and watched him go,
                   And thought it better so.
She turnéd to her task-work as of old,
Kissed her bearded child with love tenfold,
Hoisted the sails and plied the oar,
                   And wandered out from shore,
                         And for a little space
                         Wore an unruffled face,
Though wind and water helped her heart no more.
But, mark: she knelt less often on her knees,
                   For, labour as she might,
                         By day or night,
She could not work enough to give her ease;
And presently her tongue, with sharper chimes,
                         Chided at times.
And she who had endured such sharp distress
Grew peevish, flushing at her peevishness;
                   And though she did not weep,
     Her features seemed with tears disfiguréd,
And in the night, when bitterest mourners sleep,
     She feverishly tossed upon her bed.

Slowly the trouble grew, and soon she found                                    43
     Less pleasure in the loud unrestful sea;
The wind and water had a duller sound,
     The moon and stars were sick as corpse-lights be;
Then more and more strange voices filled her ear,
                   And ghostly feet came near,
And strange fire blew her eyelids down, and then
                   Dead women and dead men,
Dripping with phosphor, rose, and, ere she wist,
                   Went by in a cold mist;
Nor left her strengthenéd at heart and bold,
                   As they had done of old;
     But ever after they had gone away
               She had no heart to pray.
                   Bitter and dull and cold,
     She shivered back into the common day.

                   Out of the east by night
                         Drifted the black storm-cloud;
The air was hushed with snow-flakes falling white,
                         But the seas below were loud;
         And out upon the reef the piteous light
                   Rose from a shipwrecked bark
                             Into the dark.
Pale stood the fishers, watching for the close,                                    44
Till suddenly the fearless cry arose,
And forth into the foam the black boat flew,
And fearless to their places leapt the crew.
Then one called out, ‘Meg Blane!’
     But Meg stood by, and trembled and was dumb,
Till, smit unto the heart by sudden pain,
     Into her hair she thrust her fingers numb,
                   And fell upon the sands,
And spake not while the wondering fishers called,
     And tore the slippery seaweed with her hands,
                   And screamed, and was appalled.

And in that hour the woman’s fearless strength
                   Snapt like a thread at length,
And tears, ev’n such as suffering women cry,
                   Fell from her eyes anon;
And she knew well, although she knew not why,
     The charm she had against the deep was gone.
                   And after that dark hour,
                         She as a feeble shadow anguishéd.
                   All terrible things of power
                         Turned into things of dread,
         And all the peace of all the world had fled.
                                                                                                       45

NOCO15

Then only in still weather did she dare
     To seek her bread on ocean, as of old,
And in the stormy time her shelf was bare,
     And her hearth black and cold;                                                    46
Then very bitterly, with heart gone wild,
                   She clung about her child,
And hated all the earth beneath the skies,
Because she saw the hunger in his eyes.

For on his mother’s strength the witless wight
                   Had leant for guide and light,
And food had ever come unto his hand,
     And he had known no thought of suffering;
Yea, all his life and breath on sea and land
                   Had been an easy thing.
And now there was a change in his sole friend
                   He could not comprehend.
But, lo! unto the shade of her distress
His nature shaped itself in gentleness;
And when he found her weeping, he too wept,
     And if she laughed, laughed out in company;
And often to the fisher-huts he crept,
     And begged her bread, and brought it tenderly,
And held it to her mouth, and till she ate
     Would touch no piece, although he hungered sore.
And these things were a solace to her fate,
     But wrung her heart the more.

     Yea, to the bitter dolour of her days,                                            47
In witless mimicry he shaped his ways.
He fared but seldom now upon the sea,
     But wandered with his mother hand in hand,

NOCO16

Hunting for faggots on the inland lea,
     Or picking dulse for food upon the strand.
Something had made the world more sad and strange,
But easily he changéd with the change.
For in the very trick of woe he clad 48
His features, and was sad since she was sad,
And leant his chin upon his hands like her,
     And looked at vacancy; and when the deep
     Was troublous, and she started up from sleep,
He too awoke, with fearful heart astir;
And aye the more her bitter tears she shed
     Upon his neck, in woe to mark his woe,
The more in blind, deep love he fashionéd
     His grief to hers, and was contented so.

And as a tree inclineth, weak and bare,
Under an unseen weight of wintry air,
Beneath her load the weary woman bent,
And, stooping double, trembled as she went;
And the days snowed their snows upon her head
                         As they went by,
                   And ere a year had fled
                         She felt that she must die.

Then like a thing whom very witlessness
     Maketh indifferent, she lingered on,
Not caring to abide with her distress,
                   Not caring to be gone;
But gazing with a dull and fixéd eye,                                                  49
                   And seeing dreams pass by;
Not speculating whither she would go,
But feeling there was nought she cared to know,
                   And melting even as snow.
Save when the man’s hand slipped into her own,
                   And fluttered fondly there,
And she would feel her life again, and groan,
‘My GOD! when I am gone, how will he fare?’
         And for a little time, for Angus’ sake,
                   Her bruiséd heart would ache,
         And all life’s stir and anguish once again
                   Would swoon across her brain.

                   ‘O bairn, when I am dead,
                         How shall ye keep frae harm?
                   What hand will gie ye bread?
                         What fire will keep ye warm?
         How shall ye dwell on earth awa’ frae me?’—
                         ‘O mither, dinna dee!’

                   ‘O bairn, by night or day
                         I hear nae sounds ava’,
                         But voices o’ winds that blaw,
                   And the voices o’ ghaists that say                                   50
                             I must awa’.
     The LORD that made the wind, and made the sea,
                   Is hard on my bairn and me,
               And I melt in His breath like snaw,’—
                         ‘O mither, dinna dee!’

         ‘O bairn, it is but closing up the een,
               And lying down never to rise again.
         Many a strong man’s sleeping hae I seen,—
                             There is nae pain!
         I’m weary, weary, and I kenna why;
                         My summer has gone by,
     And sweet were sleep, but for the sake o’ thee.’—
                         ‘O mither, dinna dee!’

But when sweet summer scents were on the sea,
     And ’neath the moon the waves plashed bright and cool,
     Outside the hut she sat upon a stool,
While Angus leant his head against her knee,
And with thin fingers fashioned carefully
         A long white dress of wool.
‘O mither,’ cried the man, ‘what make ye there?’
         ‘A blanket for our bed!’                                                         51
‘O mither, it is like the sark folk wear
         When they are drowned and dead!’

NOCO17

And Meg said nought, but kissed him on the lips,
     And looked with dull eye seaward, where the moon
Silvered the white sails of the passing ships,
     Into the land where she was going so soon.

     And in the reaping-time she lay abed,                                           52
And by her side the dress unfinishéd,
And with dull eyes that knew not even her child
She gazed at vacancy, and sometimes smiled;
And ever her fingers worked, for in her thought,
Stitching and stitching, still the dress she wrought;
And then a beldame old, with blearéd ee,
Came to the hut for CHRIST and charitie,
And stilly sewed the woollen shroud herself,
And set the salt and candle on a shelf.
And like a dumb thing crouching moveless there,
                   Gripping the fingers wan,
Marking the face with wild and wandering stare,
     And whining beast-like, watched the witless man.

     Then like a light upon a headland set,
In winds that came from far-off waters blowing,
     The faint life glimmered—fainter—fainter yet;
But suddenly it brightened at its going;
And Meg sat up, and, lo! her features wore
The fearless sweetness they had known of yore;
And delicate lines were round her mouth; sweet rest
     Was in her eyes, though they were waxing dim;
And when the man crept close unto her breast,
                   She calmly kisséd him.                                                   53
                         And it was clear
She had heard tidings it was sweet to hear,
And had no longer any care or fear.
‘I gang, my bairnie, and ye will come to me!’
                   ‘O mither, dinna dee!’
But as he spake she dropped upon the bed,
And darkened, while the breath came thick and fleet:
‘O Jessie, see they mind my bairn!’ she said,
     And quivered,—and was sleeping at GOD’s feet.

When on her breast the plate of salt was laid,
     And the corpse-candle burnt with sick blue light,
The man crouched, fascinated and afraid,
     Beside her, whining through the night;
And answered not the women who stole near,
                   And would not see nor hear;
And when a day and night had come and gone,
Ate at the crusts they brought, and gazéd on;
And when they took her out upon a bier,
He followed quietlie without a tear;
And when upon the kist fell dust and stone,
     He murmured a thin answer to the sound,
And at the end he sat, with a dull moan,
                   Upon the new-made mound.                                         54

And as a dog that mourns a master dead,
     The man did haunt the grave in dull dumb pain;
Creeping away to beg a little bread,
                   Then stealing back again;
And he was held accursed who did not give
The gift of bread or meal, that he might live;—
                   Till, dull and piteous-eyed,
He moaned beneath a load too hard to bear.
                   ‘Mither!’ he cried,—
And crawled into the dark, to seek her there.

 

[Note:
The revised version of ‘Meg Blane’ is available in the North Coast - Revisions section.]

_____

 

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