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Poem by Elizabeth Barrett-Browning
Aurora Leigh. Fourth Book
THEY met still sooner. 'Twas a year from thence When Lucy Gresham, the sick semptress girl, Who sewed by Marian's chair so still and quick, And leant her head upon the back to cough More freely when, the mistress turning round, The others took occasion to laugh out,– Gave up a last. Among the workers, spoke A bold girl with black eyebrows and red lips,– 'You know the news? Who's dying, do you think? Our Lucy Gresham. I expected it As little as Nell Hart's wedding. Blush not, Nell, Thy curls be red enough without thy cheeks; And, some day, there'll be found a man to dote On red curls.–Lucy Gresham swooned last night, Dropped sudden in the street while going home; And now the baker says, who took her up And laid her by her grandmother in bed, He'll give her a week to die in. Pass the silk. Let's hope he gave her a loaf too, within reach, For otherwise they'll starve before they die, That funny pair of bedfellows! Miss Bell, I'll thank you for the scissors. The old crone Is paralytic–that's the reason why Our Lucy's thread went faster than her breath, Which went too quick, we all know. Marian Erle! Why, Marian Erle, you're not the fool to cry? Your tears spoil Lady Waldemar's new dress, You piece of pity!' Marian rose up straight, And, breaking through the talk and through the work, Went outward, in the face of their surprise, To Lucy's home, to nurse her back to life Or down to death. She knew by such an act, All place and grace were forfeit in the house, Whose mistress would supply the missing hand With necessary, not inhuman haste, And take no blame. But pity, too, had dues: She could not leave a solitary soul To founder in the dark, while she sate still And lavished stitches on a lady's hem As if no other work were paramount. 'Why, God,' thought Marian, 'has a missing hand This moment; Lucy wants a drink, perhaps. Let others miss me! never miss me, God!' So Marian sat by Lucy's bed, content With duty, and was strong, for recompense, To hold the lamp of human love arm-high To catch the death-strained eyes and comfort them, Until the angels, on the luminous side Of death, had got theirs ready. And she said, When Lucy thanked her sometimes, called her kind, It touched her strangely. 'Marian Erle called kind! What, Marian, beaten and sold, who could not die! 'Tis verily good fortune to be kind. Ah, you,' she said, 'who are born to such a grace, Be sorry for the unlicensed class, the poor, Reduced to think the best good fortune means That others, simply, should be kind to them.' From sleep to sleep while Lucy slid away So gently, like a light upon a hill, Of which none names the moment when it goes, Though all see when 'tis gone,–a man came in And stood beside the bed. The old idiot wretch Screamed feebly, like a baby overlain, 'Sir, sir, you won't mistake me for the corpse? Don't look at me, sir! never bury me! Although I lie here, I'm alive as you, Except my legs and arms,–I eat and drink, And understand,–(that you're the gentleman Who fits the funerals up, Heaven speed you, sir,) And certainly I should be livelier still If Lucy here . . sir, Lucy is the corpse . . Had worked more properly to buy me wine: But Lucy, sir, was always slow at work, I shan't lose much by Lucy. Marian Erle, Speak up and show the gentleman the corpse.' And then a voice said, 'Marian Erle.' She rose; It was the hour for angels–there, stood hers! She scarcely marvelled to see Romney Leigh. As light November snows to empty nests, As grass to graves, as moss to mildewed stones, As July suns to ruins, through the rents, As ministering spirits to mourners, through a loss, As Heaven itself to men, through pangs of death, He came uncalled wherever grief had come. 'And so,' said Marian Erle, 'we meet anew,' And added softly, 'so, we shall not part.' He was not angry that she had left the house Wherein he placed her. Well–she had feared it might Have vexed him. Also, when he found her set On keeping, though the dead was out of sight, That half-dead, half-live body left behind With cankerous heart and flesh,–which took your best And cursed you for the little good it did, (Could any leave the bedrid wretch alone, So joyless, she was thankless even to God, Much less to you?) he did not say 'twas well Yet Marian thought he did not take it ill,– Since day by day he came, and, every day, She felt within his utterance and his eyes A closer, tenderer presence of the soul, Until at last he said, 'We shall not part.' On that same day, was Marian's work complete: She had smoothed the empty bed, and swept the floor Of coffin sawdust, set the chairs anew The dead had ended gossip in, and stood In that poor room so cold and orderly, The door-key in her hand, prepared to go As they had, howbeit not their way. He spoke. 'Dear Marian, of one clay God made us all, And though men push and poke and paddle in't (As children play at fashioning dirt-pies) And call their fancies by the name of facts, Assuming difference, lordship, privilege, When all's plain dirt,–they come back to it at last; The first grave-digger proves it with a spade, And pats all even. Need we wait for this, You, Marian, and I, Romney?' She at that, Looked blindly in his face, as when one looks Through drying autumn-rains to find the sky. He went on speaking. 'Marian, I being born What men call noble, and you, issued from The noble people,–though the tyrannous sword Which pierced Christ's heart, has cleft the world in twain 'Twixt class and class, opposing rich to poor,– Shall we keep parted? Not so. Let us lean And strain together rather, each to each, Compress the red lips of this gaping wound, As far as two souls can,–ay, lean and league, I, from my superabundance,–from your want, You,–joining in a protest 'gainst the wrong On both sides!'– All the rest, he held her hand In speaking, which confused the sense of much; Her heart, against his words, beat out so thick They might as well be written on the dust Where some poor bird, escaping from hawk's beak, Has dropped, and beats its shuddering wings,–the lines Are rubbed so,–yet 'twas something like to this, –'That they two, standing at the two extremes Of social classes, had received one seal, Been dedicate and drawn beyond themselves To mercy and ministration,–he, indeed, Through what he knew, and she, through what she felt, He, by man's conscience, she, by woman's heart, Relinquishing their several 'vantage posts Of wealthy case and honourable toil, To work with God at love. And, since God willed That, putting out his hand to touch this ark, He found a woman's hand there, he'd accept The sign too, hold the tender fingers fast, And say, 'My fellow-worker, be my wife!' She told the tale with simple, rustic turns,– Strong leaps of meaning in her sudden eyes That took the gaps of any imperfect phrase Of the unschooled speaker: I have rather writ The thing I understood so, than the thing I heard so. And I cannot render right Her quick gesticulation, wild yet soft, Self-startled from the habitual mood she used, Half sad, half languid,–like dumb creatures (now A rustling bird, and now a wandering deer, Or squirrel against the oak-gloom flashing up His sidelong burnished head, in just her way Of savage spontaneity,) that stir Abruptly the green silence of the woods, And make it stranger, holier, more profound; As Nature's general heart confessed itself Of life, and then fell backward on repose. I kissed the lips that ended.–'So indeed He loves you, Marian?' 'Loves me!' She looked up With a child's wonder when you ask him first Who made the sun–a puzzled blush, that grew, Then broke off in a rapid radiant smile Of sure solution. 'Loves me! he loves all,– And me, of course. He had not asked me else To work with him for ever, and be his wife.' Her words reproved me. This perhaps was love– To have its hands too full of gifts to give, For putting out a hand to take a gift; To love so much, the perfect round of love Includes, in strictly conclusion, the being loved; As Eden-dew went up and fell again, Enough for watering Eden. Obviously She had not thought about his love at all: The cataracts of her soul had poured themselves And risen self-crowned in rainbow; would she ask Who crowned her?–it sufficed that she was crowned. With women of my class, 'tis otherwise: We haggle for the small change of our gold, And so much love, accord, for so much love, Rialto-prices. Are we therefore wrong? If marriage be a contract, look to it then, Contracting parties should be equal, just; Bit if, a simple fealty on one side, A mere religion,–right to give, is all, And certain brides of Europe duly ask To mount the pile, as Indian widows do, The spices of their tender youth heaped up, The jewels of their gracious virtues worn, More gems, more glory,–to consume entire For a living husband! as the man's alive, Not dead,–the woman's duty, by so much, Advanced in England, beyond Hindostan. I sate there, musing, till she touched my hand With hers, as softly as a strange white bird She feared to startle in touching. 'You are kind. But are you, peradventure, vexed at heart Because your cousin takes me for a wife? I know I am not worthy–nay, in truth, I'm glad on't, since, for that, he chooses me. He likes the poor things of the world the best; I would not therefore, if I could, be rich, It pleasures him to stoop for buttercups; I would not be a rose upon the wall A queen might stop at, near the palace-door, To say to a courtier, 'Pluck that rose for me, 'It's prettier than the rest.' O Romeny Leigh! I'd rather far be trodden by his foot, Than like in a great queen's bosom' Out of breath She paused. 'Sweet Marian, do you disavow The roses with that face?' She dropt her head As if the wind had caught that flower of her, And bent it in the garden,–then looked up With grave assurance. 'Well, you think me bold! But so we all are, when we're praying to God. And if I'm bold–yet, lady, credit me, That, since I know myself for what I am Much fitter for his handmaid than his wife, I'll prove the handmaid and the wife at once, Serve tenderly, and love obediently, And be a worthier mate, perhaps, than some Who are wooed in silk among their learned books; While I shall set myself to read his eyes, Till such grow plainer to me than the French To wisest ladies. Do you think I'll miss A letter, in the spelling of his mind?' No more than they do, when they sit and write Their flying words with flickering wild-fowl tails, Nor ever pause to ask how many t s, Should that be a y or i –they know't so well: I've seen them writing, when I brought a dress And waited,–floating out their soft white hands On shining paper. But they're hard sometimes, For all those hands!–we've used out many nights, And worn the yellow daylight into shreds Which flapped and shivered down our aching eyes Till night appeared more tolerable, just That pretty ladies might look beautiful, Who said at last . . 'You're lazy in that house! 'You're slow in sending home the work,–I count 'I've waited near an hour for't.' Pardon me– I do not blame them, madam, nor misprize; They are fair and gracious; ay, but not like you, Since none but you has Mister Leigh's own blood Both noble and gentle,–and without it . . well, They are fair, I said; so fair, it scarce seems strange That, flashing out in any looking-glass The wonder of their glorious brows and breasts, They are charmed so, they forget to look behind And mark how pale we've grown, we pitiful Remainders of the world. And so, perhaps, If Mister Leigh had chosen a wife from these, She might . . although he's better than her best, And dearly she would know it . . steal a thought Which should be all his, an eye-glance from his face, To plunge into the mirror opposite, In search of her own beauty's pearl: while I . . Ah, dearest lady, serge will outweigh silk For winter-wear, when bodies feel a-cold, And I'll be a true wife to your cousin Leigh.' Before I answered, he was there himself. I think he had been standing in the room, And listened probably to half her talk, Arrested, turned to stone,–as white as stone. Will tender sayings make men look so white? He loves her then profoundly. 'You are here, Aurora? Here I meet you!'–We clasped hands. 'Even so, dear Romney. Lady Waldemar Has sent me in haste to find a cousin of mine Who shall be.' 'Lady Waldemar is good.' 'Here's one, at least, who is good,' I sighed and touched Poor Marian's happy head, as, doglike, she Most passionately patient, waited on, A-tremble for her turn of greeting words; 'I've sat a full hour with your Marian Erle, And learnt the thing by heart,–and, from my heart, Am therefore competent to give you thanks For such a cousin.' 'You accept at last A gift from me, Aurora, without scorn? At last I please you?'–How his voice was changed! 'You cannot please a woman against her will, And once you vexed me. Shall we speak of that? We'll say, then, you were noble in it all, And I not ignorant–let it pass. And now, You please me, Romney, when you please yourself; So, please you, be fanatical in love, And I'm well pleased. Ah, cousin! at the old hall, Among the gallery portraits of our Leighs, We shall not find a sweeter signory Than this pure forehead's.' Not a word he said. How arrogant men are!–Even philanthropists, Who try to take a wife up in the way They put down a subscription-cheque,–if once She turns and says, 'I will not tax you so, Most charitable sir,'–feel ill at ease, As though she had wronged them somehow. I suppose We women should remember what we are, And not throw back an obolus inscribed With Cæsar's image, lightly. I resumed. 'It strikes me, some of those sublime Vandykes Were not too proud, to make good saints in heaven; And, if so, then they're not too proud to-day To bow down (now the ruffs are off their necks) And own this good, true, noble Marian, . . yours, And mine, I'll say!–For poets (bear the word) Half-poets even, are still whole democrats,– Oh, not that we're disloyal to the high, But loyal to the low, and cognisant Of the less scrutable majesties. For me, I comprehend your choice–I justify Your right in choosing.' 'No, no, no' he sighed, With a sort of melancholy impatient scorn, As some grown man, who never had a child, Puts by some child who plays at being a man; –'You did not, do not, cannot comprehend My choice, my ends, my motives, nor myself: No matter now–we'll let it pass, you say. I thank you for your generous cousinship Which helps this present; I accept for her Your favourable thoughts. We're fallen on days, We two, who are not poets, when to wed Requires less mutual love than common love, For two together to bear out at once Upon the loveless many. Work in pairs, In galley-couplings or in marriage-rings, The difference lies in the honour, not the work,– And such we're bound to, I and she. But love, (You poets are benighted in this age; The hour's too late for catching even moths, You've gnats instead,) love!–love's fool-paradise Is out of date, like Adam's. Set a swan To swim the Trenton, rather than true love To float its fabulous plumage safely down The cataracts of this loud transition-time,– Whose roar, for ever, henceforth, in my ears, Must keep me deaf to music.' There, I turned And kissed poor Marian, out of discontent. The man had baffled, chafed me, till I flung For refuge to the woman,–as, sometimes, Impatient of some crowded room's close smell, You throw a window open, and lean out To breathe a long breath, in the dewy night, And cool your angry forehead. She, at least, Was not built up, as walls are, brick by brick; Each fancy squared, each feeling ranged by line, The very heat of burning youth applied To indurate forms and systems! excellent bricks, A well-built wall,–which stops you on the road, And, into which, you cannot see an inch Although you beat your head against it–pshaw! 'Adieu,' I said, 'for this time, cousins both: And, cousin Romney, pardon me the word, Be happy!–oh, in some esoteric sense Of course!–I mean no harm in wishing well. Adieu, my Marian:–may she come to me, Dear Romney, and be married from my house? It is not part of your philosophy To keep your bird upon the blackthorn?' 'Ay,' He answered, 'but it is:–I take my wife Directly from the people,–and she comes, As Austria's daughter to imperial France, Betwixt her eagles, blinking not her race, From Margaret's Court at garret-height, to meet And wed me at St. James's, nor put off Her gown of serge for that. The things we do, We do: we'll wear no mask, as if we blushed.' 'Dear Romney, you're the poet,' I replied,– But felt my smile too mournful for my word, And turned and went. Ay, masks, I thought,–beware Of tragic masks, we tie before the glass, Uplifted on the cothurn half a yard Above the natural stature! we would play Heroic parts to ourselves,–and end, perhaps, As impotently as Athenian wives Who shrieked in fits at the Eumenides. His foot pursued me down the stair. 'At least, You'll suffer me to walk with you beyond These hideous streets, these graves, where men alive, Packed close with earthworms, burr unconsciously About the plague that slew them; let me go. The very women pelt their souls in mud At any woman who walks here alone. How came you here alone?–you are ignorant.' We had a strange and melancholy walk: The night came drizzling downward in dark rain; And, as we walked, the colour of the time, The act, the presence, my hand upon his arm, His voice in my ear, and mine to my own sense, Appeared unnatural. We talked modern books, And daily papers; Spanish marriage-schemes, And English climate–was't so cold last year? And will the wind change by to-morrow morn? Can Guizot stand? is London full? is trade Competitive? has Dickens turned his hinge A-pinch upon the fingers of the great? And are potatoes to grow mythical Like moly? will the apple die out too? Which way is the wind to-night? south-east? due east? We talked on fast, while every common word Seemed tangled with the thunder at one end, And ready to pull down upon our heads A terror out of sight. And yet to pause Were surelier mortal: we tore greedily up All silence, all the innocent breathing -points, As if, like pale conspirators in haste, We tore up papers where our signatures Imperilled us to an ugly shame or death. I cannot tell you why it was. 'Tis plain We had not loved nor hated: wherefore dread To spill gunpowder on ground safe from fire? Perhaps we had lived too closely, to diverge So absolutely: leave two clocks, they say, Wound up to different hours, upon one shelf, And slowly, through the interior wheels of each, The blind mechanic motion sets itself A-throb, to feel out for the mutual time. It was not so with us, indeed. While he Struck midnight, I kept striking six at dawn, While he marked judgment, I, redemption-day; And such exception to a general law, Imperious upon inert matter even, Might make us, each to either insecure, A beckoning mystery, or a troubling fear. I mind me, when we parted at the door, How strange his good-night sounded,–like good-night Beside a deathbed, where the morrow's sun Is sure to come too late for more good days:– And all that night I thought . . 'Good-night,' said he. And so, a month passed. Let me set it down At once,–I have been wrong, I have been wrong. We are wrong always, when we think too much Of what we think or are; albeit our thoughts Be verily bitter as self-sacrifice, We're no less selfish. If we sleep on rocks Or roses, sleeping past the hour of noon We're lazy. This I write against myself. I had done a duty in the visit paid To Marian, and was ready otherwise To give the witness of my presence and name Whenever she should marry.–Which, I thought Sufficed. I even had cast into the scale An overweight of justice toward the match; The Lady Waldemar had missed her tool, Had broken it in the lock as being too straight For a crooked purpose, while poor Marian Erle Missed nothing in my accents or my acts: I had not been ungenerous on the whole, Nor yet untender; so, enough. I felt Tired, overworked: this marriage somewhat jarred; Or, if it did not, all the bridal noise . . The pricking of the map of life with pins, In schemes of . . 'Here we'll go,' and 'There we'll stay,' And 'Everywhere we'll prosper in our love,' Was scarce my business. Let them order it; Who else should care? I threw myself aside, As one who had done her work and shuts her eyes To rest the better. I, who should have known, Forereckoned mischief! Where we disavow Being keeper to our brother, we're his Cain. I might have held that poor child to my heart A little longer! 'twould have hurt me much To have hastened by its beats the marriage day, And kept her safe meantime from tampering hands, Or, peradventure, traps? What drew me back From telling Romney plainly, the designs Of Lady Waldemar, as spoken out To me . . me? had I any right, ay, right, With womanly compassion and reserve To break the fall of woman's impudence?– To stand by calmly, knowing what I knew, And hear him call her good? Distrust that word. 'There is none good save God,' said Jesus Christ. If He once, in the first creation-week, Called creatures good,–for ever afterward, The Devil only has done it, and his heirs. The knaves who win so, and the fools who lose; The world's grown dangerous. In the middle age, I think they called malignant fays and imps Good people. A good neighbour, even in this Is fatal sometimes,–cuts your morning up To mince-meat of the very smallest talk, Then helps to sugar her bohea at night With her reputation. I have known good wives, As chaste, or nearly so, as Potiphar's; And good, good mothers, who would use a child To better an intrigue; good friends, beside. (Very good) who hung succinctly round your neck And sucked your breath, as cats are fabled to do By sleeping infants. And we all have known Good critics, who have stamped out poet's hopes; Good statesmen, who pulled ruin on the state; Good patriots, who for a theory, risked a cause Good kings, who disemboweled for a tax; Good popes, who brought all good to jeopardy; Good Christians, who sate still in easy chairs, And damned the general world for standing up.– Now, may the good God pardon all good men! How bitterly I speak,–how certainly The innocent white milk in us is turned, By much persistent shining of the sun! Shake up the sweetest in us long enough With men, it drips to foolish curd, too sour To feed the most untender of Christ's lambs. I should have thought . . .a woman of the world Like her I'm meaning,–centre to herself, Who has wheeled on her own pivot half a life In isolated self-love and self-will, As a windmill seen at distance radiating Its delicate white vans against the sky, So soft and soundless, simply beautiful,– Seen nearer . . what a roar and tear it makes, How it grinds and bruises! . . if she loves at last, Her love's a re-adjustment of self-love, No more; a need felt of another's use To her one advantage,–as the mill wants grain, The fire wants fuel, the very wolf wants prey; And none of these is more unscrupulous Than such a charming woman when she loves. She'll not be thwarted by an obstacle So trifling as . . her soul is, . . much less yours!– Is God a consideration?–she loves you, Not God; she will not flinch for him indeed: She did not for the Marchioness of Perth, When wanting tickets for the birthnight ball. She loves you, sir, with passion, to lunacy; She loves you like her diamonds . . almost. Well, A month passed so, and then the notice came; On such a day the marriage at the church. I was not backward. Half St. Giles in frieze Was bidden to meet St. James in cloth of gold, And, after contract at the altar, pass To eat a marriage-feast on Hampstead Heath. Of course the people came in uncompelled, Lame, blind, and worse–sick, sorrowful, and worse, The humours of the peccant social wound All pressed out, poured out upon Pimlico. Exasperating the unaccustomed air With hideous interfusion: you'd suppose A finished generation, dead of plague, Swept outward from their graves into the sun, The moil of death upon them. What a sight! A holiday of miserable men Is sadder than a burial-day of kings. They clogged the streets, they oozed into the church In a dark slow stream, like blood. To see that sight, The noble ladies stood up in their pews, Some pale for fear, a few as red for hate, Some simply curious , some just insolent, And some in wondering scorn,–'What next? what next?' These crushed their delicate rose-lips from the smile That misbecame them in a holy place, With broidered hems of perfumed handkerchiefs; Those passed the salts with confidence of eyes And simultaneous shiver of moiré silk; While all the aisles, alive and black with heads, Crawled slowly toward the altar from the street, As bruised snakes crawl and hiss out of a hole With shuddering involutions, swaying slow From right to left, and then from left to right, In pants and pauses. What an ugly crest Of faces, rose upon you everywhere, From that crammed mass! you did not usually See faces like them in the open day: They hide in cellars, not to make you mad As Romney Leigh is.–Faces?–O my God, We call those, faces? men's and women's . . ay, And children's;–babies, hanging like a rag Forgotten on their mother's neck,–poor mouths. Wiped clean of mother's milk by mother's blow Before they are taught her cursing. Faces . . phew, We'll call them vices festering to despairs, Or sorrows petrifying to vices: not A finger-touch of God left whole on them; All ruined, lost–the countenance worn out As the garments, the will dissolute as the acts, The passions loose and draggling in the dirt To trip the foot up at the first free step!– Those, faces! 'twas as if you had stirred up hell To heave its lowest dreg-fiends uppermost In fiery swirls of slime,–such strangled fronts, Such obdurate jaws were thrown up constantly, To twit you with your race, corrupt your blood, And grind to devilish colors all your dreams Henceforth, . . though, haply, you should drop asleep By clink of silver waters, in a muse On Raffael's mild Madonna of the Bird. I've waked and slept through many nights and days Since then,–but still that day will catch my breath Like a nightmare. There are fatal days, indeed, In which the fibrous years have taken root So deeply, that they quiver to their tops Whene'er you stir the dust of such a day. My cousin met me with his eyes and hand, And then, with just a word, . . that 'Marian Erle Was coming with her bridesmaids presently,' Made haste to place me by the altar-stair, Where he and other noble gentlemen And high-born ladies, waited for the bride. We waited. It was early: there was time For greeting, and the morning's compliment; And gradually a ripple of women's talk Arose and fell, and tossed about a spray Of English s s, soft as a silent hush, And, notwithstanding, quite as audible As louder phrases thrown out by the men. –'Yes really, if we've need to wait in church, We've need to talk there.'–'She? 'Tis Lady Ayr In blue–not purple! that's the dowager.' –'She looks as young.'–'She flirts as young, you mean! Why if you had seen her upon Thursday night, You'd call Miss Norris modest.'–' You again! I waltzed with you three hours back. Up at six, Up still at ten: scarce time to change one's shoes. I feel as white and sulky as a ghost, So pray don't speak to me, Lord Belcher.'–'No, I'll look at you instead, and it's enough While you have that face.' 'In church, my lord! fie, fie!' –'Adair, you stayed for the Division?'–'Lost By one.' 'The devil it is! I'm sorry for't. And if I had not promised Mistress Grove' . . –'You might have kept your word to Liverpool.' 'Constituents must remember, after all, We're mortal.'–'We remind them of it.'–'Hark, The bride comes! Here she comes, in a stream of milk!' –'There? Dear, you are asleep still; don't you know The five Miss Granvilles? always dressed in white To show they're ready to be married.'–'Lower! The aunt is at your elbow.'–'Lady Maud, Did Lady Waldemar tell you she had seen This girl of Leigh's?' 'No,–wait! 'twas Mrs. Brookes, Who told me Lady Waldemar told her– No, 'twasn't Mrs. Brookes.'–'She's pretty?'–'Who? Mrs.Brookes? Lady Waldemar?'–'How hot! Pray is't the law to-day we're not to breathe? You're treading on my shawl–I thank you, sir.' –'They say the bride's a mere child, who can't read, But knows the things she shouldn't, with wide-awake Great eyes. I'd go through fire to look at her.' –'You do, I think.'–'and Lady Waldemar (You see her; sitting close to Romney Leigh; How beautiful she looks, a little flushed!) Has taken up the girl, and organised Leigh's folly. Should I have come here, you suppose, Except she'd asked me?'–'She'd have served him more By marrying him herself.' 'Ah–there she comes, The bride, at last!' 'Indeed, no. Past eleven. She puts off her patched petticoat to-day And puts on May-fair manners, so begins By setting us to wait.'–'Yes, yes, this Leigh Was always odd; it's in the blood, I think; His father's uncle's cousin's second son Was, was . . you understand me–and for him, He's stark!–has turned quite lunatic upon This modern question of the poor–the poor: An excellent subject when you're moderate; You've seen Prince Albert's model lodging-house? Does honour to his royal highness. Good: But would he stop his carriage in Cheapside To shake a common fellow by the fist Whose name was . . Shakspeare? no. We draw a line, And if we stand not by our order, we In England, we fall headlong. Here's a sight,– A hideous sight, a most indecent sight,– My wife would come, sir, or I had kept her back. By heaven, sir, when poor Damiens' trunk and limbs Were torn by horses, women of the court Stood by and stared, exactly as to-day On this dismembering of society, With pretty troubled faces.' 'Now, at last. She comes now.' 'Where? who sees? you push me, sir, Beyond the point of what is mannerly. You're standing, madam, on my second flounce– I do beseech you.' 'No–it's not the bride. Half-past eleven. How late! the bridegroom, mark, Gets anxious and goes out.' 'And as I said . . These Leighs! our best blood running in the rut! It's something awful. We had pardoned him A simple misalliance, got up aside For a pair of sky-blue eyes; our House of Lords Has winked at such things, and we've all been young. But here's an inter-marriage reasoned out, A contract (carried boldly to the light, To challenge observation, pioneer Good acts by a great example) 'twixt the extremes Of martyrised society,–on the left, The well-born,–on the right, the merest mob. To treat as equals!–'tis anarchical! It means more than it says–'tis damnable! Why, sir, we can't have even our coffee good, Unless we strain it.' 'Here, Miss Leigh!' 'Lord Howe, You're Romney's friend. What's all this waiting for?' 'I cannot tell. The bride has lost her head (And way, perhaps!) to prove her sympathy With the bridegroom.' 'What,–you also, disapprove!' 'Oh I approve of nothing in the world,' He answered; 'not of you, still less of me, Nor even of Romney–though he's worth us both. We're all gone wrong. The tune in us is lost: And whistling in back alleys to the moon, Will never catch it.' Let me draw Lord Howe; A born aristocrat, bred radical, And educated socialist, who still Goes floating, on traditions of his kind, Across the theoretic flood from France,– Though, like a drenched Noah on a rotten deck, Scarce safer for his place there. He, at least, Will never land on Ararat, he knows, To recommence the world on the old plan: Indeed, he thinks, said world had better end; He sympathises rather with the fish Outside, than with the drowned paired beasts within Who cannot couple again or multiply: And that's the sort of Noah he is, Lord Howe. He never could be anything complete, Except a loyal, upright gentleman, A liberal landlord, graceful diner-out, And entertainer more than hospitable, Whom authors dine with and forget the port. Whatever he believes, and it is much, But no-wise certain . . now here and now there, . . He still has sympathies beyond his creed, Diverting him from action. In the House, No party counts upon him, and all praise: All like his books too, (for he has written books) Which, good to lie beside a bishop's chair, So oft outreach themselves with jets of fire At which the foremost of the progressists May warm audacious hands in passing by. –Of stature over-tall, lounging for ease; Light hair, that seems to carry a wind in it, And eyes that, when they look on you, will lean Their whole weight half in indolence, and half In wishing you unmitigated good, Until you know not if to flinch from him Or thank him.–'Tis Lord Howe. 'We're all gone wrong,' Said he, 'and Romney, that dear friend of ours, Is no-wise right. There's one true thing on earth; That's love! He takes it up, and dresses it, And acts a play with it, as Hamlet did, To show what cruel uncles we have been, And how we should be uneasy in our minds, While he, Prince Hamlet, weds a pretty maid (Who keeps us too long waiting, we'll confess) By symbol, to instruct us formally To fill the ditches up 'twixt class and class, And live together in phalansteries. What then?–he's mad, our Hamlet! clap his play, And bind him.' 'Ah, Lord Howe, this spectacle Pulls stronger at us than the Dane's. See there! The crammed aisles heave and strain and steam with life– Dear Heaven, what life!' 'Why , yes,–a poet sees; Which makes him different from a common man. I, too, see somewhat, though I cannot sing; I should have been a poet, only that My mother took fright at the ugly world, And bore me tongue-tied. If you'll grant me now That Romney gives us a fine actor-piece To make us merry on his marriage-morn,– The fable's worse than Hamlet's, I'll concede The terrible people, old and poor and blind, Their eyes eat out with plague and poverty From seeing beautiful and cheerful sights, We'll liken to a brutalized King Lear, Led out,–by no means to clear scores with wrongs– His wrongs are so far back, . . he has forgot; All's past like youth; but just to witness here A simple contract,–he, upon his side, And Regan with her sister Goneril And all the dappled courtiers and court-fools, On their side. Not that any of these would say They're sorry, neither. What is done, is done. And violence is now turned privilege, As cream turns cheese, if buried long enough. What could such lovely ladies have to do With the old man there, in those ill-odorous rags, Except to keep the wind-side of him? Lear Is flat and quiet, as a decent grave; He does not curse his daughters in the least. Be these his daughters? Lear is thinking of His porridge chiefly . . is it getting cold At Hampstead? will the ale be served in pots? Poor Lear, poor daughters? Bravo, Romney's play?' A murmur and a movement drew around; A naked whisper touched us. Something wrong! What's wrong! That black crowd, as an overstrained Cord, quivered in vibrations, and I saw Was that his face I saw? . . his . . Romney Leigh's. Which tossed a sudden horror like a sponge Into all eyes,–while himself stood white upon The topmost altar-stair, and tried to speak, And failed, and lifted higher above his head A letter, . . as a man who drowns and gasps. 'My brothers, bear with me! I am very weak. I meant but only good. Perhaps I meant Too proudly,–and God snatched the circumstance And changed it therefore. There's no marriage–none She leaves me,–she departs,–she disappears,– I lose her. Yet I never forced her 'ay' To have her 'no' so cast into my teeth In manner of an accusation, thus. My friends, you are all dismissed. Go, eat and drink According to the programme,–and farewell!' He ended. There was silence in the church; We heard a baby sucking in its sleep At the farthest end of the aisle. Then spoke a man, 'Now, look to it, coves, that all the beef and drink Be not filched from us like the other fun; For beer's spilt easier than a woman is! This gentry is not honest with the poor; They bring us up, to trick us.'–'Go it, Jim,' A woman screamed back,–'I'm a tender soul; I never banged a child at two years old And drew blood from him, but I sobbed for it Next moment,–and I've had a plague of seven. I'm tender; I've no stomach even for beef. Until I know about the girl that's lost, That's killed, mayhap. I did misdoubt, at first, The fine lord meant no good by her, or us. He, maybe, got the upper hand of her By holding up a wedding-ring, and then . . A choking finger on her throat, last night, And just a clever tale to keep us still, As she is, poor lost innocent. 'Disappear!' Who ever disappears except a ghost? And who believes a story of a ghost? I ask you,–would a girl go off, instead Of staying to be married? a fine tale! A wicked man, I say, a wicked man! For my part I would rather starve on gin Than make my dinner on his beef and beer.'– At which a cry rose up–'We'll have our rights. We'll have the girl, the girl! Your ladies there Are married safely and smoothly every day, And she shall not drop through into a trap Because she's poor and of the people: shame! We'll have no tricks played off by gentlefolks; We'll see her righted. Through the rage and roar I heard the broken words which Romney flung Among the turbulent masses, from the ground He held still, with his masterful pale face– As huntsmen throw the ration to the pack, Who, falling on it headlong, dog on dog In heaps of fury, rend it, swallow it up With yelling hound jaws,–his indignant words, His piteous words, his most pathetic words, Whereof I caught the meaning here and there By his gesture . . torn in morsels, yelled across, And so devoured. From end to end, the church Rocked round us like the sea in storm, and then Broke up like the earth in earthquake. Men cried out 'Police!'–and women stood and shrieked for God, Or dropt and swooned; or, like a herd of deer, (For whom the black woods suddenly grow alive, Unleashing their wild shadows down the wind To hunt the creatures into corners, back And forward) madly fled, or blindly fell, Trod screeching underneath the feet of those Who fled and screeched. The last sight left to me Was Romney's terrible calm face above The tumult!–the last sound was 'Pull him down! Strike–Kill him!' Stretching my unreasoning arms, As men in dreams, who vainly interpose 'Twixt gods and their undoing, with a cry I struggled to precipitate myself Head-foremost to the rescue of my soul In that white face, . . till some one caught me back, And so the world went out,–I felt no more. What followed, was told after by Lord Howe, Who bore me senseless from the strangling crowd In church and street, and then returned alone To see the tumult quelled. The men of law Had fallen as thunder on a roaring fire, And made all silent,–while the people's smoke Passed eddying slowly from the emptied aisles. Here's Marian's letter, which a ragged child Brought running, just as Romney at the porch Looked out expectant of the bride. He sent The letter to me by his friend Lord Howe Some two hours after, folded in a sheet On which his well-known hand had left a word. Here's Marian's letter. 'Noble friend, dear saint Be patient with me. Never think me vile, Who might to-morrow morning be your wife But that I loved you more than such a name. Farewell, my Romney. Let me write it once,– My Romney. ''Tis so pretty a coupled word, I have no heart to pluck it with a blot. We say 'My God' sometimes, upon our knees, Who is not therefore vexed: so bear with it . . And me. I know I'm foolish, weak, and vain; Yet most of all I'm angry with myself For losing your last footstep on the stair, The last time of your coming,–yesterday! The very first time I lost step of yours, (Its sweetness comes the next to what you speak) But yesterday sobs took me by the throat, And cut me off from music. 'Mister Leigh, You'll set me down as wrong in many things. You've praised me, sir, for truth,–and now you'll learn I had not courage to be rightly true. I once began to tell you how she came, The woman . . and you stared upon the floor In one of your fixed thoughts . . which put me out For that day. After, some one spoke of me, So wisely, and of you, so tenderly, Persuading me to silence for your sake . . . Well, well! it seems this moment I was wrong In keeping back from telling you the truth: There might be truth betwixt us two, at least, If nothing else. And yet 'twas dangerous. Suppose a real angel came from heaven To live with men and women! he'd go mad, If no considerate hand should tie a blind Across his piercing eyes. 'Tis thus with you: You see us too much in your heavenly light; I always thought so, angel,–and indeed There's danger that you beat yourself to death Against the edges of this alien world, In some divine and fluttering pity. 'Yes It would be dreadful for a friend of yours, To see all England thrust you out of doors And mock you from the windows. You might say, Or think (that's worse), 'There's some one in the house I miss and love still.' Dreadful! 'Very kind, I pray you mark, was Lady Waldemar. She came to see me nine times, rather ten– So beautiful, she hurts me like the day Let suddenly on sick eyes. 'Most kind of all, Your cousin!–ah, most like you! Ere you came She kissed me mouth to mouth: I felt her soul Dip through her serious lips in holy fire. God help me, but it made me arrogant; I almost told her that you would not lose By taking me to wife: though, ever since, I've pondered much a certain thing she asked . . 'He love's you, Marian?' . . in a sort of mild Derisive sadness . . as a mother asks Her babe, 'You'll touch that star, you think?' 'Farewell! I know I never touched it. 'This is worst: Babes grow, and lose the hope of things above; A silver threepence sets them leaping high– But no more stars! mark that. 'I've writ all night, And told you nothing. God, if I could die, And let this letter break off innocent Just here! But no–for your sake . . 'Here's the last: I never could be happy as your wife, I never could be harmless as your friend, I never will look more into your face, Till God says, 'Look!' I charge you, seek me not, Nor vex yourself with lamentable thoughts That peradventure I have come to grief; Be sure I'm well, I'm merry, I'm at ease, But such a long way, long way, long way off, I think you'll find me sooner in my grave; And that's my choice, observe. For what remains, An over-generous friend will care for me, And keep me happy . . happier . . 'There's a blot! This ink runs thick . . we light girls lightly weep . . And keep me happier . . was the thing to say, . . Than as your wife I could be!–O, my star, My saint, my soul! for surely you're my soul, Through whom God touched me! I am not so lost I cannot thank you for the good you did, The tears you stopped, which fell down bitterly, Like these–the times you made me weep for joy At hoping I should learn to write your notes And save the tiring of your eyes, at night; And most for that sweet thrice you kissed my lips And said 'Dear Marian.' ''Twould be hard to read, This letter, for a reader half as learn'd, But you'll be sure to master it, in spite Of ups and downs. My hand shakes, I am blind, I'm poor at writing, at the best,–and yet I tried to make my g s the way you showed. Farewell–Christ love you.–Say 'Poor Marian' now.' Poor Marian!–wanton Marian!–was it so, Or so? For days, her touching, foolish lines We mused on with conjectural fantasy, As if some riddle of a summer-cloud On which some one tries unlike similitudes Of now a spotted Hydra-skin cast off, And now a screen of carven ivory That shuts the heaven's conventual secrets up From mortals over-bold. We sought the sense: She loved him so perhaps, (such words mean love,) That, worked on by some shrewd perfidious tongue, (And then I thought of Lady Waldemar) She left him, not to hurt him; or perhaps She loved one in her class,–or did not love, But mused upon her wild bad tramping life, Until the free blood fluttered at her heart, And black bread eaten by the road-side hedge Seemed sweeter than being put to Romney's school Of philanthropical self-sacrifice, Irrevocably.–Girls are girls, beside, Thought I, and like a wedding by one rule. You seldom catch these birds, except with chaff: They feel it almost an immoral thing To go out and be married in broad day, Unless some winning special flattery should Excuse them to themselves for't, . . 'No one parts Her hair with such a silver line as you, One moonbeam from the forehead to the crown!' Or else . . 'You bite your lip in such a way, It spoils me for the smiling of the rest'– And so on. Then a worthless gaud or two, To keep for love,–a ribbon for the neck, Or some glass pin,–they have their weight with girls. And Romney sought her many days and weeks: He sifted all the refuse of the town, Explored the trains, enquired among the ships, And felt the country through from end to end; No Marian!–Though I hinted what I knew,– A friend of his had reasons of her own For throwing back the match–he would not hear: The lady had been ailing ever since, The shock had harmed her. Something in his tone Repressed me; something in me shamed my doubt To a sigh, repressed too. He went on to say That, putting questions where his Marian lodged, He found she had received for visitors, Besides himself and Lady Waldemar And, that once, me–a dubious woman dressed Beyond us both. The rings upon her hands Had dazed the children when she threw them pence. 'She wore her bonnet as the queen might hers, To show the crown,' they said,–'a scarlet crown Of roses that had never been in bud.' When Romney told me that,–for now and then He came to tell me how the search advanced, His voice dropped: I bent forward for the rest: The woman had been with her, it appeared, At first from week to week, then day by day, And last, 'twas sure . . I looked upon the ground To escape the anguish of his eyes, and asked As low as when you speak to mourners new Of those they cannot bear yet to call dead, If Marian had as much as named to him A certain Rose, an early friend of hers, A ruined creature.' 'Never.'–Starting up He strode from side to side about the room, Most like some prisoned lion sprung awake, Who has felt the desert sting him through his dreams. 'What was I to her, that she should tell me aught? A friend! Was I a friend? I see all clear. Such devils would pull angels out of heaven, Provided they could reach them; 'tis their pride; And that's the odds 'twixt soul and body-plague! The veriest slave who drops in Cairo's street, Cries, 'Stand off from me,' to the passengers; While these blotched souls are eager to infect, And blow their bad breath in a sister's face As if they got some ease by it.' I broke through. 'Some natures catch no plagues. I've read of babes Found whole and sleeping by the spotted breast Of one a full day dead. I hold it true, As I'm a woman and know womanhood, That Marian Erle, however lured from place, Deceived in way, keeps pure in aim and heart, As snow that's drifted from the garden-bank To the open road.' 'Twas hard to hear him laugh. 'The figure's happy. Well–a dozen carts And trampers will secure you presently A fine white snow-drift. Leave it there, your snow! 'Twill pass for soot ere sunset. Pure in aim? She's pure in aim, I grant you,–like myself, Who thought to take the world upon my back To carry it over a chasm of social ill, And end by letting slip through impotence A single soul, a child's weight in a soul, Straight down the pit of hell! yes, I and she Have reason to be proud of our pure aims.' Then softly, as the last repenting drops Of a thunder shower, he added, 'The poor child; Poor Marian! 'twas a luckless day for her, When first she chanced on my philanthropy.' He drew a chair beside me, and sate down; And I, instinctively, as women use Before a sweet friend's grief,–when, in his ear, They hum the tune of comfort, though themselves Most ignorant of the special words of such, And quiet so and fortify his brain And give it time and strength for feeling out To reach the availing sense beyond that sound,– Went murmuring to him, what, if written here, Would seem not much, yet fetched him better help Than, peradventure, if it had been more. I've known the pregnant thinkers of this time And stood by breathless, hanging on their lips, When some chromatic sequence of fine thought In learned modulation phrased itself To an unconjectured harmony of truth. And yet I've been more moved, more raised, I say, By a simple word . . a broken easy thing, A three-years infant might say after you,– A look, a sigh, a touch upon the palm, Which meant less than 'I love you' . . than by all The full-voiced rhetoric of those master-mouths. 'Ah, dear Aurora,' he began at last, His pale lips fumbling for a sort of smile, 'Your printer's devils have not spoilt your heart: That's well. And who knows but, long years ago, When you and I talked, you were somewhat right In being so peevish with me? You, at least, Have ruined no one through your dreams! Instead, You've helped the facile youth to live youth's day With innocent distraction, still perhaps Suggestive of things better than your rhymes. The little shepherd-maiden, eight years old, I've seen upon the mountains of Vaucluse, Asleep i' the sun her head upon her knees, The flocks all scattered,–is more laudable Than any sheep-dog trained imperfectly, Who bites the kids through too much zeal.' 'I look As if I had slept, then?' He was touched at once By something in my face. Indeed 'twas sure That he and I,–despite a year or two Of younger life on my side, and on his, The heaping of the years' work on the days,– The three-hour speeches from the member's seat, The hot committees, in and out the House, The pamphlets, 'Arguments,' 'Collective Views,' Tossed out as straw before sick houses, just To show one's sick and so be trod to dirt, And no more use,–through this world's underground The burrowing, groping effort, whence the arm And heart came bleeding,–sure, that he and I Were, after all, unequally fatigued! That he, in his developed manhood, stood A little sunburnt by the glare of life; While I . . it seemed no sun had shone on me, So many seasons I had forgot my Springs; My cheeks had pined and perished from their orbs. And all the youth blood in them had grown white As dew on autumn cyclamens: alone My eyes and forehead answered for my face. He said . . 'Aurora, you are changed–are ill!' 'Not so, my cousin,–only not asleep!' I answered, smiling gently. 'Let it be. You scarcely found the poet of Vaucluse As drowsy as the shepherds. What is art, But life upon the larger scale, the higher, When, graduating up in a spiral line Of still expanding and ascending gyres, It pushes toward the intense significance Of all things, hungry for the Infinite? Art's life,–and where we live, we suffer and toil.' He seemed to sift me with his painful eyes. 'Alas! You take it gravely; you refuse Your dreamland, right of common, and green rest. You break the mythic turf where danced the nymphs, With crooked ploughs of actual life,–let in The axes to the legendary woods, To pay the head-tax. You are fallen indeed On evil days, you poets, if yourselves Can praise that art of yours no otherwise; And, if you cannot, . .better take a trade And be of use! 'twere cheaper for your youth.' 'Of use!' I softly echoed, 'there's the point We sweep about for ever in an argument; Like swallows, which the exasperate, dying year Sets spinning in black circles, round and round, Preparing for far flights o'er unknown seas. And we . . where tend we?' 'Where?' he said, and sighed. 'The whole creation, from the hour we are born, Perplexes us with questions. Not a stone But cries behind us, every weary step, 'Where, where?' I leave stones to reply to stones. Enough for me and for my fleshly heart To harken the invocations of my kind, When men catch hold upon my shuddering nerves And shriek, 'What help? what hope? what bread i' the house, 'What fire i' the frost?' There must be some response, Though mine fail utterly. This social Sphinx, Who sits between the sepulchres and stews, Makes mock and mow against the crystal heavens, And bullies God,–exacts a word at least From each man standing on the side of God, However paying a sphinx-price for it. We pay it also if we hold our peace, In pangs and pity. Let me speak and die. Alas! you'll say, I speak and kill, instead.' I pressed in there; 'The best men, doing their best, Know peradventure least of what they do: Men usefullest i' the world, are simply used; The nail that holds the wood, must pierce it first, And He alone who wields the hammer, sees The work advanced by the earliest blow. Take heart.' 'Ah, if I could have taken yours!' he said, 'But that's past now.' Then rising . . 'I will take At least your kindness and encouragement. I thank you. Dear, be happy. Sing your songs, If that's your way! but sometimes slumber too, Nor tire too much with following, out of breath, The rhymes upon your mountains of Delight. Reflect, if Art be, in truth, the higher life, You need the lower life to stand upon, In order to reach up into that higher: And none can stand a-tiptoe in the place He cannot stand in with two stable feet. Remember then!–for art's sake, hold your life.' We parted so. I held him in respect. I comprehended what he was in heart And sacrificial greatness. Ay, but he Supposed me a thing too small to deign to know; He blew me, plainly, from the crucible, As some intruding, interrupting fly Not worth the pains of his analysis Absorbed on nobler subjects. Hurt a fly! He would not for the world: he's pitiful To flies even. 'Sing,' says he, 'and teaze me still, If that's your way, poor insect.' That's your way!
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