ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

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{North Coast and other Poems 1867}

 

                                                                                                                                                                 149

A SCOTTISH ECLOGUE.*

(NORTH COAST.)

 

SANDIE.

O LORD above, Thy wrath is swift and deep!
And yet by grace Thou sanctionest Thy sheep;
And blest are they who till the day o’ doom,
Like haddocks, bear the marking of Thy thumb;
And curst, in spite of works and prayers, are they
On whom Thy mark has ne’er been printed sae.
For while the non-elected lie beneath,
And fast in flaming fire, and gnash their teeth,
Above their heads, where streams of honey spring,
Thy Elders stand in shining sarks, and sing,
And bless Thy Name for present gifts and past. . .
O wife, John Galloway is gone, at last!

* See ante, p. 63. AN ENGLISH ECLOGUE.

                                                                                                                                                                 150

JEANIE.

Dead? Weel, we all are bound to GOD’s abode,
And John has started first upon the road.
A Christian man and kind was John, indeed,
And free o’ siller unto folk in need:
Ay, many a house will want now he is cold!
But GOD will give him back his gifts tenfold.

 

SANDIE.

O Jeanie Gourlay! keep thy clapper still;
It talks o’ things you understand but ill:
I doubt, I sorely doubt, John Galloway
Is ’neath the oxter* o’ the De’il this day:
True, in the way o’ sinful flesh, his mind
Was charitable, and his heart was kind;
But light he lacked as long as he drew breath,
And lost the Eldership before his death;
And he had many a ghostly whispering
To tell he was a miserable thing,
Doomed by the wisdom of the Just to be
Condemned with those who graceless live and dee.

* Armpit.

                                                                                                                                                                 151

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Ay, grace, I fear, John Galloway was denied,
Though loud and oft for grace he groaned and cried.
‘Sandie,’ he used to say, ‘I fear, I fear                                              152
I have no right among the holy here;
I fear, I fear that I am in the dark—
The LORD on me forgot to put His mark.
I canna steel my heart to folk who sin,
I canna put my thoughts to discipline;
Oft when I pray, I hear Him whisper plain,
“Jock Galloway, pray awa’, but ’tis in vain;”—
Nae sweet assurance arms me ’gainst the De’il,
Nae happy faith, like that my fellows feel;
I long for GOD, I beg Him on my knee,
But fear He hath to wrath previsioned me!’

 

JEANIE.

Poor man! his strife was sore; but, Sandie, mind,
Nae man can tell what folks are predestined;
Ev’n Sandie Gourlay may be one the De’il
Hath liberty to catch within his creel!

 

SANDIE.

Oh, blasphemy! Thou fool, forbear and cease!
The sign o’ grace is perfect faith and peace,
Such as the LORD, in spite o’ many a cross,
Vouchsafes to men like me and neighbour Ross.
But Galloway ever was a braxie sheep,                                              153
A whining thing who dug his doubts too deep.
Why, mind ye, when old Robin Caird himsel’—
A heretic, a rogue, a man o’ Bel,
Averring written Scripture was a lee,
And GOD was hard, stretched out his limbs to dee,
John by the sinner knelt and offered prayers:
‘LORD GOD,’ he said, ‘pity his poor white hairs!
Be kind unto him! Take him unto Thee!’
And paid the coffin and the burial fee.
‘Sandie,’ he said, when Caird was in his grave,
‘I doubt I am less holy than the lave:*
My blood is milk, and I am weak o’ brain,—
O LORD, it broke my heart to see his pain!
I thought—I dared to think—if I were GOD,
Poor Caird should never gang so dark a road,
And thought—ay, dared to think, the LORD forgi’e!—
To think the LORD was crueller than me;
Forgetting GOD is just, and knoweth best
What folk should burn in fire, what folk be blest.’
Such was his nature, neither strong nor deep,—
Unlike the stern strong leaders of His sheep:

* The rest.

 

We made an Elder of John Galloway!                                               154
Large seemed his heart, he ne’er was known to stray;
But he had little strength or wrath severe—
He softened at the sinful pauper's tear;
He gript his purse and pleaded like a fool
For every lassie on the cuttie-stool.

 

JEANIE.

Where had the parish bairns sae kind a friend?

 

SANDIE.

Bairns? did he teach them grace, and make them mend?
At Sunday School what lad or lass had care
For fear o’ flaming Hell, if John was there,—
Questioning blushing brats upon his knees,
And slyly slipping in their hands bawbees?*
Once while he talked to me o’ life and death,
I smelt the smell o’ whisky in his breath.
‘Drinking again, John Galloway?’ I said;
As gray as this pipe-reek, he hung his head.
‘O Sandie, Sandie!’ he replied, ‘I ken
I am indeed the weakest man o’ men.

* Halfpence.

 

Strange doubts torment me daily, and, alas!                                      155
I try to drown them in the poisoned glass.
By fits I fear! and in my chamber say,
LORD, is Thy mark on poor John Galloway?
And sorely troubled, stealing slyly out,
I try in drink to drown the imp o’ Doubt.’
Woman, is this the man ye would defend?
Nay, wheesht awhile, and hearken to his end.
When he fell sick, in Martinmas, his fears;
Grew deeper far; I found him oft in tears;
Though from the prophets of GOD’s might I read,
He hearkened, but was little comforted,
And even ‘Revelations’ had no power
To soothe the pangs of his departing hour.
A week before he left this vale of woe,
He at his window sat, and watched the snow
Falling and falling down without a sound,
Poured slowly from GOD’s hand upon the ground:
‘See, Sandie, how it snaws!’ I heard him say;
‘How many folk are cold, cold, cold this day!
How many want the fire that’s warming me!
How many starve!—and yet why should it be?’
And when I took the Book, explained, and read,
He only gave a groan and shook his head.
‘Clearer and clearer I perceive my sin,                                              156
How I to grace may never enter in;
That Book is for the strong, but I am weak.’—
And trembled, and a tear was on his cheek.

 

JEANIE.

Poor man! poor man! small peace on earth he found.

 

SANDIE.

The day he died, he called the elders round,
Shook hands, and said, ‘Friends, though I gang from here,
Down under earth, all will at last be clear.
Too long have I been dwelling in the dark,
The LORD on me forgot to put His mark,
GOD help me!’ And, till he was cold as clay,
His foolish lips had little more to say;
Yet after we had laid him down in dust,
Weak to the last we found him, and unjust;
For when his will was read, unto our shame,
The kirk was scarcely mentioned in the same!
But he had left what little gold he had
To Caird’s sick widow and her lass and lad!

 

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

 

                                                                                                       157

THE SAINT’S STORY.

(FRANCE, 13—.)

 

LA BELLE DAME Sans Mercy
Seldom knelt on her knee
To Saints of any degree
Ere she made a Saint of me!

Listen now as spirits can,
Spirit of the sacristan,
     And come and join me where I smile,
Sitting cross-legged on my own
Effigy, cut out in stone!
     Let us chatter for a while!

     How quietly, amid the moonshine faint,
The full-length figure of the blessed Saint
(Myself), with wrinkled brow and broken nose,
Eyes closed and full of dust, upturnéd toes,
And hands so meekly folded on his breast,                                        158
Lies in the melancholy crypt at rest;
See! how the round eye of the moon looks through
     The shapes embroidered on the window-panes,
Saints and Madonnas—purple, orange, blue—
     And with their ghosts the marble pavement stains;
Mark, too, the faint religious mist,
               Azure and amethyst!
Wherein along the fretted aisle and dim
The shadows of the good stalk now and hymn
               The distant cherubim!
Come, sit cross-legged and talk,
And watch them as they walk!
You with your pinched and melancholy face,
Your little nose out of place,
Sitting and stroking slowly at your ease
The spectres of your spider legs and knees,
And jingling spectral keys;
               Me, the spectre all forlorn,
               Tall and tattered, tossed and torn,
               Hollow of cheek, of aspect dreary!
               Domine, domine, miserere!
               But listen now as spirits can,
               Spirit of the sacristan!
               A long, long time ago,                                                        159
                   When you were sacristan,
                   A wheezy white-haired man,
               Who fluttered to and fro
Through the church shadows after prayers,
Or perching on the belfry stairs,
Looked like a big black moth against the light
Of such a moon as shineth here to-night,—
When you were in the land of life, old ghost,
But wrinkled, blind, and deaf as any post,
I was a fine young spark of twenty-one,
Airing my merry beauty in the sun!
Ringlets were curling on my back,
My eyes were bright, my beard was black,
My lips were juicy, and beneath
Sparkled two rows of ivory teeth;
And everywhere I went, by day or night,
The women smiled and tingled with delight.
I clad myself, that all the fair might see,
Like to a blossom-laden apple tree;
I oiled my hair, I gave moustache a twirl,
I rouged my cheeks, powdered my teeth with pearl,
Then, with the air of corsair kings afloat,
     The arm-sweep of a king, I drank red wine;
And, in the secret of my chamber, wrote,                                         160
On many a pink embroidered little note,
     Petrarchan sonnets, which I wrote out fine,
That she might read, perchance, and smile on me—
               La Belle Dame Sans Mercy.

At the Duke’s court, despite my admiration,
               Her charms made no sensation,
Although she was, the Duke himself admitted,
               Pleasing and subtle-witted.
Stuff! she was frivolous and narrow,—
Wit? with the brains of a she-sparrow!
               But, ah! the witty eyes;
     The ringlets shining golden as they shook;
The soft, soft tinkling laughter; and the wise
     Half innocent, half crafty look,
Wherewith, with small white finger fluttering gay
To tap your hand, she spake your heart away.
Her lips were sweet bon mots, her eyes a pun,
     Her cheeks were sarcasms mocking one to bliss;
And she would give her little glove in fun
     The sweetest of all epigrams—a kiss;
Well, for the rest, though older, bolder, colder,
She scarcely reached my shoulder—
         A sweetling pale, too delicate to be human,                              161
         A little white mouse of a woman!

     What wonder, then, that there ’mong beauties tall,
And plump, and proud, she wandered lost and small?
And small she was indeed, though sweet,—so sweet,
From little shining head to tiny feet!
And, even as a small doe cropping flowers,
She minced between her teeth this speech of ours,
Till it was small and full of honey-juice,
               And fitted for her use.
And there it was! When hidden quite among
The flounced and furbelowed and flimsy throng,
She seemed so meek, so tiny, so unsinning,
I smiled, and dreamed she would be easy winning;
     For I was passing comely, as I thought,
And, further, gilded with a little gold;
     But, ah! for wealth and glitter she cared nought,
And as for love,—now mark me!—she was cold.

     Cold, ancient comrade—yes!
Not cold, though, to her poodle or her dress;
Not cold to the Court scandal and its sweets;
Not cold to ragged hunger in the streets;
Not cold to deep and noticeable grief                                                162
     Or gladness, whatsoe’er the rank and place of it;
Not cold unto the world; and, to be brief,
     Not even cold to me upon the face of it.
You take me? Warm as fire
     To whatsoever nice sensation chose
     To hover ’neath her nose,
Begging her eyes to pity or admire:
Not cold to gracious notice from the Duke;
Not cold entirely to my passionate look;
Not cold unto the dish that she was eating;
Not cold unto the friend whom she was meeting;
Not cold when hearing of your pain or strife;
     Not cold to kindly hint or savage comment;
     Not cold to aught she looked on, for the moment,
But cold to all the earth, for lasting life.

     So, though so sweet and small, as I have stated,
She seemed less charmed than I anticipated,
When, perfumed, powdered, pale, and hungry-eyed,
I followed in her silken train, and sighed.
When on my knee I gave her lily or rose,
     Oh, friend! to see her smiles and happy flushes!
To see her hold the gift up to her nose,
     And flutter, till the bliss broke out in blushes!                                 163
But plague! ay, plague upon the wanton head!
               Whate’er you did or said,
Whate’er you placed before her peerless eyes,
Within her little bosom would arise
But one emotion, still the same—SURPRISE!
For lily or rose to smell, for book to read,
For the fresh glimpses of the woody mead,
For peeps in spring-tide at a sparrow’s nest,
For peeps all seasons at a bleeding breast,
For compliment, praise, sorrow, wrath, admonishment,
         Her answer was—ASTONISHMENT!

     Even as a bee a rose’s sweetness rifles,
She played with life, and sipped it best in trifles,
Nor took too greedy draughts of grief or pleasure,
But, slowly tasting, had of both her measure,
Since her small heart discovered deep enjoyment,
Her small brain amplest action and employment,
In delicately hovering on the brink
Of earnest, seeing others plunge and sink.
Thus, floating on the tide where’er it went,
Where’er it chose to carry her content,
She found for ever something here and there
               Supremely sweet and fair,                                                 164
Which for the minute occupied the whole
               Of body and of soul,
And though she tripped divinely on the border
     Of folly, could be wicked in a way,
Keeping her little heart in icy order,
     So that it never tempted her astray.
And, mark: had I but known the way to win it,
And had I chosen just the proper minute,
Her heart, though neither amorous nor warm,
Might have been won by storm;
But, just as I approached her on the tide
Of faces, and she raised her hands, and cried,
     With blush divine and flutter of amaze,
‘Oh, what a sweet young man!’
     Some other novelty drew off her gaze.—
               But listen still as spirits can,
               Spirit of the sacristan.

Now, when I made my passionate profession,
     With eyes serene she criticised my dress,
Peeped at my face, blushing at its expression,
     And smiling so divinely, you would guess
Her little mind was busy all the time
                                                                                                         165

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               With sentiments sublime.
Then as my speech more passionate-languaged grew,
     Fuller of feelings exquisite and choice,
     And the full heart was thrilling in the voice,                                    166
Tears gathered quickly in her eyes of blue;
And then she noticed suddenly the fact
That my fine voice had husky grown and cracked,
By an accurséd draught caught through a door,
At the Duke's ball a night or two before.
And, ah! she trembled, fluttering and panting,
     While on my knees I fell, with voice that broke,
Urging me on divinely, and half granting
My boon with an astonishment enchanting,
     And thinking—in how thick a voice I spoke!
And when I paused, she thoughtfully perused me,
     And fluttering from my side, grew icy cold;
Then, softening to sweet sorrow, she refused me,—
               Because I had caught cold!

     These women! never to be made out!
               Spirit of the sacristan!
     The prologue of the business was played out,
               My vanity was paid out,
         But listen, ancient one, as spirits can.

     First, by the cinders rescued from the flame
That roasted sweet St. Lawrence, by the blest
     Toenails of Blois, by clippings from the same,                              167
By the red nipples of St. Jonquil’s breast,
By rags of St. Augustine’s chemisette,
               Still odorous with her sweat,
By relics down below, by saints above,
I swear that I had loved as few men love!
Instead of seeking out the usual cure,
In lips more willing sweet, I grew demure,
Lost appetite, avoided all friends’ faces,
Cried like a babe in solitary places,
Spilt in hot tears the wine I tippled nightly,
     Neglected dress, and cared not to be clean,
Till in the end a figure more unsightly
               Was nowhere to be seen.
Then, friend, between the liquor and the woe,
My wits began to wander, memory failed me,
My brain was going—I could feel it go—
               And horrid dreams assailed me:
Then (while the friends and gossips deemed I lay
Butchered and dead in some untrodden way)
For human company and speech unfit,
     I sought, outside the town, the Swines’ society,
And there the weathercock of my weak wit
               Turned suddenly to Piety!
         Tall and tattered, tossed and torn,                                            168
         Ragged and bare, and all forlorn,
With beard unkempt upon my breast unclean,
               Hair matted on my shoulders,
Behold me—changed from what I once had been,
               A sight to amaze beholders!
Sitting where swine resort, I shared
Their husks, and smote my bosom bared,
And prayed and prayed both day and night
To all the saints with all my might,
For heaven athirst, of life full weary,
                   Domine, domine, miserere!
               But listen on as spirits can,
               Spirit of the sacristan.

     Here, in the city, spent in those days
               His pious and morose days,
A long and lantern-featured Carmelite,
     As melancholy as the garb he wore,
Famed for his horror of all lewd delight,
Unspiritual feats at dead of night,
     And for a vow that he had made—no more
     To look on water, till his days were o’er;
A grimy man, with eye like any hawk,
                                                                                                       169

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               Sententious, hating talk.
To him I bent my steps one evening late,
     Half naked, hairy, foul, and sick for food,                                     170
And found him standing at the convent gate,
     Moodily scowling underneath his hood.
And after benedicite was uttered
There was a pause; and, while I shook and fluttered,
He noticed, with complaisance and amaze,
My dirty dress and my lack-lustre gaze,
My skeleton frame, and hollow sunken cheek,
               Wild hair, and beard antique.
Then, gripping at his robe, I questioned greedily
     How such a poor unfortunate as I
Might purchase for his spirit, and most speedily,
     A place among the blesséd in the sky?

               With wild anticipation
The hair upon my hapless body bristled,
As, pursing up his lips, gravely he whistled;
               And with deliberation
Widening the hawk’s eye, deeplier black than soot,
               Eyed me from head to foot.
Long did he meditate in silence, eyeing me
As if I were a brute, and he were buying me;
And when at last he had appraised me fully,
He stopped, and whispered coolly,
               ‘Be of good cheer, my son!                                                171
Thy place among the holy shall be won,
And in a speedy manner, if unpleasant:
We are in want of a new SAINT at present,-
A place not easily nor lightly had;
               But in my estimation,
You are a very likely sort of lad
               To fill the situation.’

               Listen on, as spirits can,
               Spirit of the sacristan.
Ere long a rumour travelled up and down,
And grew from street to street, and stirred the town,
That grace at last had fallen in a shower
               Upon the holy Brothers Carmelite,
Ev’n in the figure of a saint, whose power
               Made even faith turn white,
And whom a brother found one evening late
Dropped as from heaven at the cloister gate,
Pale as the dead, naked and bare completely,
And praying in strange tongues, and smiling sweetly.
Wonder of wonders!—when these holy men
     Bare him within, he frowning turned from bread,
Nor had he taken bite or sup since then,
     But sat apart, with ashes on his head,                                          172
Full of deep rapture, in a dripping cell,
     While rats and lizards crawled on head and breast;
And whoso, being sick, approached, was well,
     And whoso filled his lap with gifts, was blest.
Wonders!—ay, miracles! Rich and poor came near!
Fine ladies in their coaches, prince and peer;
     The ill, the well, the youthful, and the hoary:
While I, now dimly shaping my insanity
               Into a ghastly vanity,
         Went starving up to glory.

Ha, ha! And yet you question, my old friend,
The bodily bliss of such a hungry end.
But take, I pray, into consideration
               The spiritual exaltation,
               The great and beautiful goal
That body was employed to earn for soul;
     And now, if still you think I did amiss,
And should have ta’en my fill of fleshly passion,
     Lean over your old ears, and answer this—
Who, when the wondrous Saint had grown the fashion,
Was first to kneel unto him on her knee?—
               La Belle Dame Sans Mercy!

Now, hold your breath and hearken! While                                       173
     I sat upon my bed and prayed,
With glazéd eye and vacant smile,
     Nor saw nor heeded those who paid
     Their vows before me in the shade,
Suddenly from my trance I started:
     The spell seemed broken; through my brain
Strange whispers from the world there darted,—
     My heart was thick with a strange pain;
               And I was ’ware
Of a sweet voice that filled the air!
And of a rustling dress, and of a smell
More pleasing than the odour of the cell;
And, darkly stirred from my ecstatic doze,
     I yawned and rolled my black eyes round to see,
     And, lo! a slight shape kneeling close to me,
Holding a smelling-bottle to her nose;
               And at the sight
My eyeballs seemed to burst and burn with light!
My skin was like a snake’s, wrinkled and curled,
     I felt the blood like lava froth and roll;
Yet still I sat as stone, while all the world
     Came back upon my soul!

               O GOD! to see her there!                                                    174
               The tearful face, the golden hair!
To sicken in the perfumes of her dress,
To drink her breath, to feel her loveliness,
To see the rapturous worship in her eyes,
True (for that minute) as the changeless skies,
     To feel, to smell, to burn, to see,
To hear her musical accents fall and rise,
         Praying to me, to me!
And there we sat in the dim dusk, alone,
     She looking down, and pale with passionate prayer,
Till at her ear I made a ghastly groan,
     And, looking up, she met my frozen stare;
And then, with fingers in her palms compressed,
     Screaming and fluttering, gasping at the air,
         Fell fainting on my breast!

     Now all the world was mine! I could not think!
But to hold tight my burthen, and to drink
     Her beauty like wild wine, was all my care;
Or dipping in the ashes and the sands,
Slowly to let them trickle through my hands
     Upon the powdered face and scented hair,
And laugh, and laugh in ecstasy divine,
                                                                                                       175

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Feeling the flutter of her heart on mine;
Or tearing at her boddice, with dark mouth
     To kiss her snowy breasts and leave the stains,                             176
And drink the joy, as though I slaked my drouth
               Out of her purple veins!

Even as we sat, behold! a flash of light,
     Then thunder, following soon;
And, as the tempest deepened through the night,
     She wakened from her swoon;
While the pale meteors flickered through the place,
     Frightening the rats and lizards to their lair.
Great joy was mine to gaze into her face,
     And drink her breath, and toy with her soft hair,
               And feel she could not scream,
Nor stir, but only lie in a wild dream,
And look into my eyes, and feel my breath,
     While the light flickered and the thunder rolled;
Until I knew that she had swooned to death,
               Because she grew so cold!

               Ere morning, at her side,
The Saint stretched out his skeleton limbs and died;
The rapture of that night was far too rare
               For one so blest to bear;
But afterwards ’twas made a tale of wonder,
     That late at evening, when the little dame                                      177
     Confessed her sins before the Saint, there came
A terrible Fiend, with lightning and with thunder,
Intending for the soul o’ the Saint that night
               To risk a last fierce fight;
But being overthrown, of course, entirely
     By one whose sinless nature could defy him,
The Fiend had thereupon demolished direly
               The sinful dame close by him;
In sign of which the pious folk might note
Those stains like finger-marks upon her throat!

               You shiver, friend! He! he!
     Well, now my tale is told, you may repose,—
And, for the rest, there in the crypt you see
     My saintship—broken nose and turned-up toes!
               But, hark! that distant crowing,
Familiar, ancient ghost, to me and you!
The morn is breaking. Cock-a-doodle-doo!
               ’T is time that we were going!

_____

 

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