Aurora Leigh: Book 4
They met still sooner. 'Twas a year from thence
That Lucy Gresham, the sick sempstress girl,
Who sewed by Marian's chair so still and quick,
And leant her head upon its back to cough
More freely, when, the mistress turning round,
The others took occasion to laugh out,
Gave up at 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 sat 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,
If 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 when Lucy had slid away
So gently, like the light upon a hill,
Of which none names the moment that 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 met 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-alive 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 bed-rid wretch alone,
So joyless she was thankless even to God,
Much more 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 driving 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 ease 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 'gainst 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 strict conclusion, 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;
But 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 sat 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 Romney Leigh!
I'd rather far be trodden by his foot,
Than lie in a great queen's bosom."
Out of breath,
"Sweet Marian, do you disavow
The roses with that face?"
She dropped 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 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 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're 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 form and system! 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?"
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 Saint 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 . . . "Goodnight," 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 word'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 mincemeat of the very smallest talk,
Then helps to sugar her bohea at night
With your 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 hope,
Good statesmen who pulled ruin on the state,
Good patriots who for a theory risked a cause,
Good kings who disembowelled for a tax,
Good popes who brought all good to jeopardy,
Good Christians who sat 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 drops 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 fancy ball.
She loves you, sir, with passion, to lunacy;
She loves you like her diamonds . . . almost.
A month passed so, and then the notice came,
On such a day the marriage at the church.
I was not backward.
Half Saint Giles in frieze
Was bidden to meet Saint 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 down upon Pimlico,
Exasperating the unaccustomed air
With a 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 involution, 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 garment, the will dissolute as the act,
The passions loose and draggling in the dirt
To trip a 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 colours 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 need to wait in church,
We 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 Mistress Brookes,
Who told me Lady Waldemar told her
No, 'twasn't Mistress Brookes." "She's pretty?" "Who?
Mistress 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 methodised
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 Mayfair 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 . . . Shakespeare? 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 bride-groom, 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; the House of Lords
Has winked at such things, and we've all been young;
But here's an intermarriage 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!"
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 down 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 new 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 hock.
Whatever he believes, and it is much,
But nowise 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, while for all
His speeches have a noticeable weight.
Men like his books too (he has written books),
Which, safe to lie beside a bishop's chair,
At times 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 nowise 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 brutalised 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 courtfools
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? The black crowd, as an overstrained
Cord, quivered in vibration, 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 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's lost!
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 gentlefolk;
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 suppliant 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 dropped 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,
"'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
That 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.
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.
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!
I pray you mark, was Lady Waldemar.
She came to see me nine times, rather ten
So beautiful, she hurts one 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 loves you, Marian?' . . . in a sort of mild
Derisive sadness . . . as a mother asks
Her babe, 'You'll touch that star, you think?'
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
Yet 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
Saying '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 one tries unlike similitudes
Of now a spotted Hydra-skin cast off,
And now a screen of carven ivory
That shuts the heavens' conventual secrets up
From mortals overbold. 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 roadside 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, inquired 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 o'er 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 sat 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 our 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 at need repeat,
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."
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 of doors,
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 come torn, 'twas 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 missed 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.
"You take it gravely, cousin; you refuse
Your dreamland's 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 poll-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 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 hearken 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 unto that higher;
And none can stand a-tip toe 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 tease me still,
If that's your way, poor insect." That's your way!
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