Aurora Leigh: Book 6
The English have a scornful insular way
Of calling the French light. The levity
Is in the judgment only, which yet stands,
For say a foolish thing but oft enough
(And here's the secret of a hundred creeds,
Men get opinions as boys learn to spell,
By reiteration chiefly), the same thing
Shall pass at last for absolutely wise,
And not with fools exclusively. And so
We say the French are light, as if we said
The cat mews or the milch-cow gives us milk:
Say rather, cats are milked and milch-cows mew;
For what is lightness but inconsequence,
Vague fluctuation 'twixt effect and cause
Compelled by neither? Is a bullet light
That dashes from the gun-mouth, while the eye
Winks and the heart beats one, to flatten itself
To a wafer on the white speck on a wall
A hundred paces off? Even so direct,
So sternly undivertible of aim,
Is this French people.
Too absolute and earnest, with them all
The idea of a knife cuts real flesh;
And still, devouring the safe interval
Which Nature placed between the thought and act
With those two fiery and impatient souls,
They threaten conflagration to the world,
And rush with most unscrupulous logic on
Impossible practice. Set your orators
To blow upon them with loud windy mouths,
Through watchword phrases, jest or sentiment,
Which drive our burly brutal English mobs
Like so much chaff, whichever way they blow,
This light French people will not thus be driven.
They turn indeed, but then they turn upon
Some central pivot of their thought and choice,
And veer out by the force of holding fast.
That's hard to understand, for Englishmen
Unused to abstract questions, and untrained
To trace the involutions, valve by valve,
In each orbed bulb-root of a general truth,
And mark what subtly fine integument
Divides opposed compartments. Freedom's self
Comes concrete to us, to be understood,
Fixed in a feudal form incarnately
To suit our ways of thought and reverence,
The special form, with us, being still the thing.
With us, I say, though I'm of Italy
By mother's birth and grave, by father's grave
And memory; let it be a poet's heart
Can swell to a pair of nationalities,
However ill-lodged in a woman's breast.
And so I am strong to love this noble France,
This poet of the nations, who dreams on
And wails on (while the household goes to wreck)
For ever, after some ideal good,
Some equal poise of sex, some unvowed love
Inviolate, some spontaneous brotherhood,
Some wealth that leaves none poor and finds none tired,
Some freedom of the many that respects
The wisdom of the few. Heroic dreams!
Sublime, to dream so; natural, to wake:
And sad, to use such lofty scaffoldings,
Erected for the building of a church,
To build instead a brothel or a prison
May God save France!
And if at last she sighs
Her great soul up into a great man's face,
To flush his temples out so gloriously
That few dare carp at Cæsar for being bald,
What then? this Cæsar represents, not reigns,
And is no despot, though twice absolute:
This Head has all the people for a heart;
This purple's lined with the democracy,
Now let him see to it! for a rent within
Would leave irreparable rags without.
A serious riddle: find such anywhere
Except in France; and when 'tis found in France,
Be sure to read it rightly. So, I mused
Up and down, up and down, the terraced streets,
The glittering boulevards, the white colonnades
Of fair fantastic Paris who wears trees
Like plumes, as if man made them, spire and tower
As if they had grown by nature, tossing up
Her fountains in the sunshine of the squares,
As if in beauty's game she tossed the dice,
Or blew the silver down-balls of her dreams
To sow futurity with seeds of thought
And count the passage of her festive hours.
The city swims in verdure, beautiful
As Venice on the waters, the sea-swan.
What bosky gardens dropped in close-walled courts
Like plums in ladies' laps who start and laugh:
What miles of streets that run on after trees,
Still carrying all the necessary shops,
Those open caskets with the jewels seen!
And trade is art, and art's philosophy,
In Paris. There's a silk for instance, there,
As worth an artist's study for the folds
As that bronze opposite! nay, the bronze has faults,
Art's here too artful, conscious as a maid
Who leans to mark her shadow on the wall
Until she lose a vantage in her step.
Yet Art walks forward, and knows where to walk;
The artists also are idealists,
Too absolute for nature, logical
To austerity in the application of
The special theory, not a soul content
To paint a crooked pollard and an ass,
As the English will because they find it so
And like it somehow. There the old Tuileries
Is pulling its high cap down on its eyes,
Confounded, conscience-stricken, and amazed
By the apparition of a new fair face
In those devouring mirrors. Through the grate
Within the gardens, what a heap of babes,
Swept up like leaves beneath the chestnut-trees
From every street and alley of the town,
By ghosts perhaps that blow too bleak this way
A-looking for their heads! dear pretty babes,
I wish them luck to have their ball-play out
Before the next change. Here the air is thronged
With statues poised upon their columns fine,
As if to stand a moment were a feat,
Against that blue! What squares, what breathing-room
For a nation that runs fast, ay, runs against
The dentist's teeth at the corner in pale rows,
Which grin at progress, in an epigram.
I walked the day out, listening to the chink
Of the first Napoleon's bones in his second grave,
By victories guarded 'neath the golden dome
That caps all Paris like a bubble. "Shall
These dry bones live?" thought Louis Philippe once,
And lived to know. Herein is argument
For kings and politicians, but still more
For poets, who bear buckets to the well
Of ampler draught.
These crowds are very good
For meditation (when we are very strong)
Though love of beauty makes us timorous,
And draws us backward from the coarse town-sights
To count the daisies upon dappled fields
And hear the streams bleat on among the hills
In innocent and indolent repose,
While still with silken elegiac thoughts
We wind out from us the distracting world
And die into the chrysalis of a man,
And leave the best that may, to come of us,
In some brown moth. I would be bold and bear
To look into the swarthiest face of things,
For God's sake who has made them.
Six days' work;
The last day shutting 'twixt its dawn and eve
The whole work bettered of the previous five!
Since God collected and resumed in man
The firmaments, the strata, and the lights,
Fish, fowl, and beast, and insect, all their trains
Of various life caught back upon His arm,
Reorganised, and constituted man,
The microcosm, the adding up of works,
Within whose fluttering nostrils, then at last
Consummating Himself the Maker sighed,
As some strong winner at the foot-race sighs
Touching the goal.
Humanity is great;
And, if I would not rather pore upon
An ounce of common, ugly, human dust,
An artisan's palm or a peasant's brow,
Unsmooth, ignoble, save to me and God,
Than track old Nilus to his silver roots,
Or wait on all the changes of the moon
Among the mountain-peaks of Thessaly
(Until her magic crystal round itself
For many a witch to see in) set it down
As weakness, strength by no means. How is this,
That men of science, osteologists
And surgeons, beat some poets in respect
For nature, count nought common or unclean,
Spend raptures upon perfect specimens
Of indurated veins, distorted joints,
Or beautiful new cases of curved spine,
While we, we are shocked at nature's falling off,
We dare to shrink back from her warts and blains,
We will not, when she sneezes, look at her,
Not even to say "God bless her"? That's our wrong;
For that, she will not trust us often with
Her larger sense of beauty and desire,
But tethers us to a lily or a rose
And bids us diet on the dew inside,
Left ignorant that the hungry beggar-boy
(Who stares unseen against our absent eyes,
And wonders at the gods that we must be,
To pass so careless for the oranges!)
Bears yet a breastful of a fellow-world
To this world, undisparaged, undespoiled,
And (while we scorn him for a flower or two,
As being, Heaven help us, less poetical)
Contains himself both flowers and firmaments
And surging seas and aspectable stars
And all that we would push him out of sight
In order to see nearer. Let us pray
God's grace to keep God's image in repute,
That so, the poet and philanthropist
(Even I and Romney) may stand side by side,
Because we both stand face to face with men,
Contemplating the people in the rough,
Yet each so follow a vocation, his
I walked on, musing with myself
On life and art, and whether after all
A larger metaphysics might not help
Our physics, a completer poetry
Adjust our daily life and vulgar wants
More fully than the special outside plans,
Phalansteries, material institutes,
The civil conscriptions and lay monasteries
Preferred by modern thinkers, as they thought
The bread of man indeed made all his life,
And washing seven times in the "People's Baths"
Were sovereign for a people's leprosy,
Still leaving out the essential prophet's word
That comes in power. On which, we thunder down,
We prophets, poets, Virtue's in the word!
The maker burnt the darkness up with His,
To inaugurate the use of vocal life;
And, plant a poet's word even, deep enough
In any man's breast, looking presently
For offshoots, you have done more for the man
Than if you dressed him in a broad-cloth coat
And warmed his Sunday pottage at your fire.
Yet Romney leaves me . . .
God! what face is that?
O Romney, O Marian!
Walking on the quays
And pulling thoughts to pieces leisurely,
As if I caught at grasses in a field
And bit them slow between my absent lips
And shred them with my hands . . .
What face is that?
What a face, what a look, what a likeness! Full on mine
The sudden blow of it came down, till all
My blood swam, my eyes dazzled. Then I sprang . . .
It was as if a meditative man
Were dreaming out a summer afternoon
And watching gnats a-prick upon a pond,
When something floats up suddenly, out there,
Turns over . . . a dead face, known once alive . . .
So old, so new! it would be dreadful now
To lose the sight and keep the doubt of this:
He plunges ha! he has lost it in the splash.
I plunged I tore the crowd up, either side,
And rushed on, forward, forward, after her.
A woman sauntered slow in front,
Munching an apple, she left off amazed
As if I had snatched it: that's not she, at least.
A man walked arm-linked with a lady veiled,
Both heads dropped closer than the need of talk:
They started; he forgot her with his face,
And she, herself, and clung to him as if
My look were fatal. Such a stream of folk,
And all with cares and business of their own!
I ran the whole quay down against their eyes;
No Marian; nowhere Marian. Almost, now,
I could call Marian, Marian, with the shriek
Of desperate creatures calling for the Dead.
Where is she, was she? was she anywhere?
I stood still, breathless, gazing, straining out
In every uncertain distance, till at last
A gentleman abstracted as myself
Came full against me, then resolved the clash
In voluble excuses, obviously
Some learned member of the Institute
Upon his way there, walking, for his health,
While meditating on the last "Discourse;"
Pinching the empty air 'twixt finger and thumb,
From which the snuff being ousted by that shock
Defiled his snow-white waistcoat duly pricked
At the button-hole with honourable red;
"Madame, your pardon," there he swerved from me
A metre, as confounded as he had heard
That Dumas would be chosen to fill up
The next chair vacant, by his "men in us."
Since when was genius found respectable?
It passes in its place, indeed, which means
The seventh floor back, or else the hospital:
Revolving pistols are ingenious things,
But prudent men (Academicians are)
Scarce keep them in the cupboard next the prunes.
And so, abandoned to a bitter mirth,
I loitered to my inn. O world, O world,
O jurists, rhymers, dreamers, what you please,
We play a weary game of hide-and-seek!
We shape a figure of our fantasy,
Call nothing something, and run after it
And lose it, lose ourselves too in the search,
Till clash against us comes a somebody
Who also has lost something and is lost,
Philosopher against philanthropist,
Academician against poet, man
Against woman, against the living the dead,
Then home, with a bad headache and worse jest!
To change the water for my heliotropes
And yellow roses. Paris has such flowers;
But England, also. 'Twas a yellow rose,
By that south window of the little house,
My cousin Romney gathered with his hand
On all my birthdays for me, save the last;
And then I shook the tree too rough, too rough,
For roses to stay after.
Now, my maps.
I must not linger here from Italy
Till the last nightingale is tired of song,
And the last fire-fly dies off in the maize.
My soul's in haste to leap into the sun
And scorch and seethe itself to a finer mood,
Which here, in this chill north, is apt to stand
Too stiffly in former moulds.
That face persists,
It floats up, it turns over in my mind,
As like to Marian as one dead is like
The same alive. In very deed a face
And not a fancy, though it vanished so;
The small fair face between the darks of hair,
I used to liken, when I saw her first,
To a point of moonlit water down a well:
The low brow, the frank space between the eyes,
Which always had the brown, pathetic look
Of a dumb creature who had been beaten once
And never since was easy with the world.
Ah, ah now I remember perfectly
Those eyes, to-day, how overlarge they seemed,
As if some patient, passionate despair
(Like a coal dropped and forgot on tapestry,
Which slowly burns a widening circle out)
Had burnt them larger, larger. And those eyes,
To-day, I do remember, saw me too,
As I saw them, with conscious lids astrain
In recognition. Now a fantasy,
A simple shade or image of the brain,
Is merely passive, does not retro-act,
Is seen, but sees not.
'Twas a real face,
Perhaps a real Marian.
Which being so,
I ought to write to Romney, "Marian's here;
Be comforted for Marian."
My pen fell,
My hands struck sharp together, as hands do
Which hold at nothing. Can I write to him
A half-truth? can I keep my own soul blind
To the other half, . . . the worse? What are our souls,
If still, to run on straight a sober pace
Nor start at every pebble or dead leaf,
They must wear blinkers, ignore facts, suppress
Six tenths of the road? Confront the truth, my soul!
And oh, as truly as that was Marian's face,
The arms of that same Marian clasped a thing
. . . Not hid so well beneath the scanty shawl,
I cannot name it now for what it was.
A child. Small business has a castaway
Like Marian with that crown of prosperous wives
At which the gentlest she grows arrogant
And says "My child." Who finds an emerald ring
On a beggar's middle finger and requires
More testimony to convict a thief?
A child's too costly for so mere a wretch;
She filched it somewhere, and it means, with her,
Instead of honour, blessing, merely shame.
I cannot write to Romney, "Here she is,
Here's Marian found! I'll set you on her track:
I saw her here, in Paris, . . . and her child.
She put away your love two years ago,
But, plainly, not to starve. You suffered then;
And, now that you've forgot her utterly
As any last year's annual, in whose place
You've planted a thick-flowering evergreen,
I choose, being kind, to write and tell you this
To make you wholly easy she's not dead,
But only . . . damned."
Stop there: I go too fast;
I'm cruel like the rest, in haste to take
The first stir in the arras for a rat,
And set my barking, biting thoughts upon't.
A child! what then? Suppose a neighbour's sick,
And asked her, "Marian, carry out my child
In this Spring air," I punish her for that?
Or say, the child should hold her round the neck
For good child-reasons, that he liked it so
And would not leave her she had winning ways
I brand her therefore that she took the child?
I will not write to Romney Leigh,
For now he's happy, and she may indeed
Be guilty, and the knowledge of her fault
Would draggle his smooth time. But I, whose days
Are not so fine they cannot bear the rain,
And who moreover having seen her face
Must see it again, . . . will see it, by my hopes
Of one day seeing heaven too. The police
Shall track her, hound her, ferret their own soil;
We'll dig this Paris to its catacombs
But certainly we'll find her, have her out,
And save her, if she will or will not child
Or no child, if a child, then one to save!
The long weeks passed on without consequence.
As easy find a footstep on the sand
The morning after spring-tide, as the trace
Of Marian's feet between the incessant surfs
Of this live flood. She may have moved this way,
But so the star-fish does, and crosses out
The dent of her small shoe. The foiled police
Renounced me. "Could they find a girl and child,
No other signalment but girl and child?
No data shown but noticeable eyes
And hair in masses, low upon the brow,
As if it were an iron crown and pressed?
Friends heighten, and suppose they specify:
Why, girls with hair and eyes are everywhere
In Paris; they had turned me up in vain
No Marian Erle indeed, but certainly
Mathildes, Justines, Victoires, . . . or, if I sought
The English, Betsis, Saras, by the score.
They might as well go out into the fields
To find a speckled bean, that's somehow specked,
And somewhere in the pod." They left me so.
Shall I leave Marian? have I dreamed a dream?
I thank God I have found her! I must say
"Thank God," for finding her, although 'tis true
I find the world more sad and wicked for't.
I'll write about her, presently.
My hand's a-tremble, as I had just caught up
My heart to write with, in the place of it.
At least you'd take these letters to be writ
At sea, in storm! wait now. . . .
A simple chance
Did all. I could not sleep last night, and, tired
Of turning on my pillow and harder thoughts,
Went out at early morning, when the air
Is delicate with some last starry touch,
To wander through the Market-place of Flowers
(The prettiest haunt in Paris), and make sure
At worst that there were roses in the world.
So wandering, musing, with the artist's eye,
That keeps the shade-side of the thing it loves,
Half-absent, whole-observing, while the crowd
Of young, vivacious, and black-braided heads
Dipped, quick as finches in a blossomed tree,
Among the nosegays, cheapening this and that
In such a cheerful twitter of rapid speech,
My heart leapt in me, startled by a voice
That slowly, faintly, with long breaths that marked
The interval between the wish and word,
Inquired in stranger's French, "Would that be much,
That branch of flowering mountain-gorse?" "So much?
Too much for me, then!" turning the face round
So close upon me that I felt the sigh
It turned with.
"Marian, Marian!" face to face
"Marian! I find you. Shall I let you go?"
I held her two slight wrists with both my hands;
"Ah Marian, Marian, can I let you go?"
She fluttered from me like a cyclamen,
As white, which taken in a sudden wind
Beats on against the palisade. "Let pass,"
She said at last. "I will not," I replied;
"I lost my sister Marian many days,
And sought her ever in my walks and prayers,
And, now I find her . . . do we throw away
The bread we worked and prayed for, crumble it
And drop it, . . . to do even so by thee
Whom still I've hungered after more than bread,
My sister Marian? can I hurt thee, dear?
Then why distrust me? Never tremble so.
Come with me rather where we'll talk and live,
And none shall vex us. I've a home for you
And me and no one else." . . .
She shook her head.
"A home for you and me and no one else
Ill suits one of us: I prefer to such,
A roof of grass on which a flower might spring,
Less costly to me than the cheapest here;
And yet I could not, at this hour, afford
A like home even. That you offer yours,
I thank you. You are good as heaven itself
As good as one I knew before. . . . Farewell."
I loosed her hands: "In his name, no farewell!"
(She stood as if I held her.) "For his sake,
For his sake, Romney's! by the good he meant,
Ay, always! by the love he pressed for once,
And by the grief, reproach, abandonment,
He took in change" . . .
"He? Romney! who grieved him?
Who had the heart for't? what reproach touched him?
Be merciful, speak quickly."
I answered with authority. "I think
We dare to speak such things and name such names
In the open squares of Paris!"
Not a word
She said, but in a gentle humbled way
(As one who had forgot herself in grief)
Turned round and followed closely where I went,
As if I led her by a narrow plank
Across devouring waters, step by step;
And so in silence we walked on a mile.
And then she stopped: her face was white as wax.
"We go much farther?"
"You are ill," I asked,
She looked the whiter for her smile.
"There's one at home," she said, "has need of me
By this time, and I must not let him wait."
"Not even," I asked, "to hear of Romney Leigh?"
"Not even," she said, "to hear of Mister Leigh."
"In that case," I resumed, "I go with you,
And we can talk the same thing there as here.
None waits for me: I have my day to spend."
Her lips moved in a spasm without a sound,
But then she spoke. "It shall be as you please;
And better so 'tis shorter seen than told:
And though you will not find me worth your pains,
That, even, may be worth some pains to know
For one as good as you are."
Then she led
The way, and I, as by a narrow plank
Across devouring waters, followed her,
Stepping by her footsteps, breathing by her breath,
And holding her with eyes that would not slip;
And so, without a word, we walked a mile,
And so, another mile, without a word.
Until the peopled streets being all dismissed,
House-rows and groups all scattered like a flock,
The market-gardens thickened, and the long
White walls beyond, like spiders' outside threads,
Stretched, feeling blindly toward the country-fields,
Through half-built habitations and half-dug
Foundations, intervals of trenchant chalk
That bit betwixt the grassy uneven turfs
Where goats (vine-tendrils trailing from their mouths)
Stood perched on edges of the cellarage
Which should be, staring as about to leap
To find their coming Bacchus. All the place
Seemed less a cultivation than a waste.
Men work here, only, scarce begin to live:
All's sad, the country struggling with the town,
Like an untamed hawk upon a strong man's fist,
That beats its wings and tries to get away,
And cannot choose be satisfied so soon
To hop through court-yards with its right foot tied,
The vintage plains and pastoral hills in sight.
We stopped beside a house too high and slim
To stand there by itself, but waiting till
Five others, two on this side, three on that,
Should grow up from the sullen second floor
They pause at now, to build it to a row.
The upper windows partly were unglazed
Meantime, a meagre, unripe house: a line
Of rigid poplars elbowed it behind,
And, just in front, beyond the lime and bricks
That wronged the grass between it and the road,
A great acacia with its slender trunk
And overpoise of multitudinous leaves
(In which a hundred fields might spill their dew
And intense verdure, yet find room enough)
Stood reconciling all the place with green.
I followed up the stair upon her step.
She hurried upward, shot across a face,
A woman's, on the landing, "How now, now!
Is no one to have holidays but you?
You said an hour, and stayed three hours, I think,
And Julie waiting for your betters here?
Why if he had waked he might have waked, for me."
Just murmuring an excusing word, she passed
And shut the rest out with the chamber-door,
Myself shut in beside her.
'Twas a room
Scarce larger than a grave, and near as bare;
Two stools, a pallet-bed; I saw the room:
A mouse could find no sort of shelter in't,
Much less a greater secret; curtainless,
The window fixed you with its torturing eye,
Defying you to take a step apart
If peradventure you would hide a thing.
I saw the whole room, I and Marian there
Alone? She threw her bonnet off,
Then, sighing as 'twere sighing the last time,
Approached the bed, and drew a shawl away:
You could not peel a fruit you fear to bruise
More calmly and more carefully than so,
Nor would you find within, a rosier flushed
There he lay upon his back,
The yearling creature, warm and moist with life
To the bottom of his dimples, to the ends
Of the lovely tumbled curls about his face;
For since he had been covered over-much
To keep him from the light-glare, both his cheeks
Were hot and scarlet as the first live rose
The shepherd's heart-blood ebbed away into
The faster for his love. And love was here
As instant; in the pretty baby-mouth,
Shut close as if for dreaming that it sucked,
The little naked feet, drawn up the way
Of nestled birdlings; everything so soft
And tender, to the tiny holdfast hands,
Which, closing on a finger into sleep,
Had kept the mould of't.
While we stood there dumb,
For oh, that it should take such innocence
To prove just guilt, I thought, and stood there dumb,
The light upon his eyelids pricked them wide,
And, staring out at us with all their blue,
As half perplexed between the angelhood
He had been away to visit in his sleep,
And our most mortal presence, gradually
He saw his mother's face, accepting it
In change for heaven itself with such a smile
As might have well been learnt there, never moved,
But smiled on, in a drowse of ecstasy,
So happy (half with her and half with heaven)
He could not have the trouble to be stirred,
But smiled and lay there. Like a rose, I said?
As red and still indeed as any rose,
That blows in all the silence of its leaves,
Content in blowing to fulfil its life.
She leaned above him (drinking him as wine)
In that extremity of love, 'twill pass
For agony or rapture, seeing that love
Includes the whole of nature, rounding it
To love . . . no more, since more can never be
Than just love. Self-forgot, cast out of self,
And drowning in the transport of the sight,
Her whole pale passionate face, mouth, forehead, eyes,
One gaze, she stood: then, slowly as he smiled
She smiled too, slowly, smiling unaware,
And drawing from his countenance to hers
A fainter red, as if she watched a flame
And stood in it a-glow. "How beautiful,"
I answered, trying to be cold.
(Must sin have compensations, was my thought,
As if it were a holy thing like grief?
And is a woman to be fooled aside
From putting vice down, with that woman's toy
A baby?) "Ay! the child is well enough,"
I answered. "If his mother's palms are clean
They need be glad of course in clasping such;
But if not, I would rather lay my hand,
Were I she, on God's brazen altar-bars
Red-hot with burning sacrificial lambs,
Than touch the sacred curls of such a child."
She plunged her fingers in his clustering locks,
As one who would not be afraid of fire;
And then with indrawn steady utterance said,
"My lamb, my lamb! although, through such as thou,
The most unclean got courage and approach
To God, once, now they cannot, even with men,
Find grace enough for pity and gentle words."
"My Marian," I made answer, grave and sad,
"The priest who stole a lamb to offer him,
Was still a thief. And if a woman steals
(Through God's own barrier-hedges of true love,
Which fence out license in securing love)
A child like this, that smiles so in her face,
She is no mother, but a kidnapper,
And he's a dismal orphan, not a son,
Whom all her kisses cannot feed so full
He will not miss hereafter a pure home
To live in, a pure heart to lean against,
A pure good mother's name and memory
To hope by, when the world grows thick and bad
And he feels out for virtue."
"Oh," she smiled
With bitter patience, "the child takes his chance;
Not much worse off in being fatherless
Than I was, fathered. He will say, belike,
His mother was the saddest creature born;
He'll say his mother lived so contrary
To joy, that even the kindest, seeing her,
Grew sometimes almost cruel: he'll not say
She flew contrarious in the face of God
With bat-wings of her vices. Stole my child,
My flower of earth, my only flower on earth,
My sweet, my beauty!" . . . Up she snatched the child,
And, breaking on him in a storm of tears,
Drew out her long sobs from their shivering roots,
Until he took it for a game, and stretched
His feet and flapped his eager arms like wings
And crowed and gurgled through his infant laugh:
"Mine, mine," she said. "I have as sure a right
As any glad proud mother in the world,
Who sets her darling down to cut his teeth
Upon her church-ring. If she talks of law,
I talk of law! I claim my mother-dues
By law, the law which now is paramount,
The common law, by which the poor and weak
Are trodden underfoot by vicious men,
And loathed for ever after by the good.
Let pass! I did not filch, I found the child."
"You found him, Marian?"
"Ay, I found him where
I found my curse, in the gutter, with my shame!
What have you, any of you, to say to that,
Who all are happy, and sit safe and high,
And never spoke before to arraign my right
To grief itself? What, what, . . . being beaten down
By hoofs of maddened oxen into a ditch,
Half-dead, whole mangled, when a girl at last
Breathes, sees . . . and finds there, bedded in her flesh
Because of the extremity of the shock,
Some coin of price! . . . and when a good man comes
(That's God! the best men are not quite as good)
And says 'I dropped the coin there: take it you,
And keep it, it shall pay you for the loss,'
You all put up your finger 'See the thief!
'Observe what precious thing she has come to filch.
'How bad those girls are!' Oh, my flower, my pet,
I dare forget I have you in my arms
And fly off to be angry with the world,
And fright you, hurt you with my tempers, till
You double up your lip? Why, that indeed
Is bad: a naughty mother!"
I interrupted; "if I loved you not,
I should not, Marian, certainly be here."
"Alas," she said, "you are so very good;
And yet I wish indeed you had never come
To make me sob until I vex the child.
It is not wholesome for these pleasure-plats
To be so early watered by our brine.
And then, who knows? he may not like me now
As well, perhaps, as ere he saw me fret,
One's ugly fretting! he has eyes the same
As angels, but he cannot see as deep,
And so I've kept for ever in his sight
A sort of smile to please him, as you place
A green thing from the garden in a cup,
To make believe it grows there. Look, my sweet,
My cowslip-ball! we've done with that cross face,
And here's the face come back you used to like.
Ah, ah! he laughs! he likes me. Ah, Miss Leigh,
You're great and pure; but were you purer still,
As if you had walked, we'll say, no otherwhere
Than up and down the New Jerusalem,
And held your trailing lutestring up yourself
From brushing the twelve stones, for fear of some
Small speck as little as a needle-prick,
White stitched on white, the child would keep to me,
Would choose his poor lost Marian, like me best,
And, though you stretched your arms, cry back and cling,
As we do when God says it's time to die
And bids us go up higher. Leave us, then;
We two are happy. Does he push me off?
He's satisfied with me, as I with him."
"So soft to one, so hard to others! Nay,"
I cried, more angry that she melted me,
"We make henceforth a cushion of our faults
To sit and practise easy virtues on?
I thought a child was given to sanctify
A woman, set her in the sight of all
The clear-eyed heavens, a chosen minister
To do their business and lead spirits up
The difficult blue heights. A woman lives,
Not bettered, quickened toward the truth and good
Through being a mother? . . . then she's none! although
She damps her baby's cheeks by kissing them,
As we kill roses."
"Kill! O Christ," she said,
And turned her wild sad face from side to side
With most despairing wonder in it, "What,
What have you in your souls against me then,
All of you? am I wicked, do you think?
God knows me, trusts me with the child; but you,
You think me really wicked?"
I answered softly, "to a wrong you've done,
Because of certain profits, which is wrong
Beyond the first wrong, Marian. When you left
The pure place and the noble heart, to take
The hand of a seducer" . . .
"Whom? whose hand?
I took the hand of" . . .
Springing up erect,
And lifting up the child at full arm's length,
As if to bear him like an oriflamme
Unconquerable to armies of reproach,
"By him," she said, "my child's head and its curls,
By these blue eyes no woman born could dare
A perjury on, I make my mother's oath,
That if I left that Heart, to lighten it,
The blood of mine was still, except for grief!
No cleaner maid than I was took a step
To a sadder end, no matron-mother now
Looks backward to her early maidenhood
Through chaster pulses. I speak steadily;
And if I lie so, . . . if, being fouled in will
And paltered with in soul by devil's lust,
I dared to bid this angel take my part, . . .
Would God sit quiet, let us think, in heaven,
Nor strike me dumb with thunder? Yet I speak:
He clears me therefore. What, 'seduced' 's your word!
Do wolves seduce a wandering fawn in France?
Do eagles, who have pinched a lamb with claws,
Seduce it into carrion? So with me.
I was not ever, as you say, seduced,
But simply, murdered."
There she paused, and sighed
With such a sigh as drops from agony
To exhaustion, sighing while she let the babe
Slide down upon her bosom from her arms,
And all her face's light fell after him
Like a torch quenched in falling. Down she sank,
And sat upon the bedside with the child.
But I, convicted, broken utterly,
With woman's passion clung about her waist
And kissed her hair and eyes, "I have been wrong,
Sweet Marian" . . . (weeping in a tender rage) . . .
"Sweet holy Marian! And now, Marian, now,
I'll use your oath although my lips are hard,
And by the child, my Marian, by the child,
I swear his mother shall be innocent
Before my conscience, as in the open Book
Of Him who reads for judgment. Innocent,
My sister! let the night be ne'er so dark
The moon is surely somewhere in the sky;
So surely is your whiteness to be found
Through all dark facts. But pardon, pardon me,
And smile a little, Marian, for the child,
If not for me, my sister."
The poor lip
Just motioned for the smile and let it go:
And then, with scarce a stirring of the mouth,
As if a statue spoke that could not breathe,
But spoke on calm between its marble lips,
"I'm glad, I'm very glad you clear me so.
I should be sorry that you set me down
With harlots, or with even a better name
Which misbecomes his mother. For the rest,
I am not on a level with your love,
Nor ever was, you know, but now am worse,
Because that world of yours has dealt with me
As when the hard sea bites and chews a stone
And changes the first form of it. I've marked
A shore of pebbles bitten to one shape
From all the various life of madrepores;
And so, that little stone, called Marian Erle,
Picked up and dropped by you and another friend,
Was ground and tortured by the incessant sea
And bruised from what she was, changed! death's a change,
And she, I said, was murdered; Marian's dead.
What can you do with people when they are dead
But, if you are pious, sing a hymn and go;
Or, if you are tender, heave a sigh and go;
But go by all means, and permit the grass
To keep its green feud up 'twixt them and you?
Then leave me, let me rest. I'm dead, I say,
And if, to save the child from death as well,
The mother in me has survived the rest,
Why, that's God's miracle you must not tax,
I'm not less dead for that: I'm nothing more
But just a mother. Only for the child
I'm warm, and cold, and hungry, and afraid,
And smell the flowers a little and see the sun,
And speak still, and am silent, just for him!
I pray you therefore to mistake me not
And treat me haply as I were alive;
For though you ran a pin into my soul,
I think it would not hurt nor trouble me.
Here's proof, dear lady, in the market-place
But now, you promised me to say a word
About . . . a friend, who once, long years ago,
Took God's place toward me, when He leans and loves
And does not thunder, . . . whom at last I left,
As all of us leave God. You thought perhaps
I seemed to care for hearing of that friend?
Now, judge me! we have sat here half an hour
And talked together of the child and me,
And I not asked as much as 'What's the thing
'You had to tell me of the friend . . . the friend?'
He's sad, I think you said, he's sick perhaps?
'Tis nought to Marian if he's sad or sick.
Another would have crawled beside your foot
And prayed your words out. Why, a beast, a dog,
A starved cat, if he had fed it once with milk,
Would show less hardness. But I'm dead, you see,
And that explains it."
Poor, poor thing, she spoke
And shook her head, as white and calm as frost
On days too cold for raining any more,
But still with such a face, so much alive,
I could not choose but take it on my arm
And stroke the placid patience of its cheeks,
Then told my story out, of Romney Leigh,
How, having lost her, sought her, missed her still,
He, broken-hearted for himself and her,
Had drawn the curtains of the world awhile
As if he had done with morning. There I stopped,
For when she gasped, and pressed me with her eyes,
"And now . . . how is it with him? tell me now,"
I felt the shame of compensated grief,
And chose my words with scruple slowly stepped
Upon the slippery stones set here and there
Across the sliding water. "Certainly,
As evening empties morning into night,
Another morning takes the evening up
With healthful, providential interchange;
And, though he thought still of her "
"Yes, she knew,
She understood: she had supposed indeed
That, as one stops a hole upon a flute,
At which a new note comes and shapes the tune,
Excluding her would bring a worthier in,
And, long ere this, that Lady Waldemar
He loved so" . . .
"Loved," I started, "loved her so!
Now tell me" . . .
"I will tell you," she replied:
"But, since we're taking oaths, you'll promise first
That he in England, he, shall never learn
In what a dreadful trap his creature here,
Round whose unworthy neck he had meant to tie
The honourable ribbon of his name,
Fell unaware and came to butchery:
Because, I know him, as he takes to heart
The grief of every stranger, he's not like
To banish mine as far as I should choose
In wishing him most happy. Now he leaves
To think of me, perverse, who went my way,
Unkind, and left him, but if once he knew . . .
Ah, then, the sharp nail of my cruel wrong
Would fasten me for ever in his sight,
Like some poor curious bird, through each spread wing
Nailed high up over a fierce hunter's fire,
To spoil the dinner of all tenderer folk
Come in by chance. Nay, since your Marian's dead,
You shall not hang her up, but dig a hole
And bury her in silence! ring no bells."
I answered gaily, though my whole voice wept,
"We'll ring the joy-bells, not the funeral-bells,
Because we have her back, dead or alive."
She never answered that, but shook her head;
Then low and calm, as one who, safe in heaven,
Shall tell a story of his lower life,
Unmoved by shame or anger, so she spoke.
She told me she had loved upon her knees,
As others pray, more perfectly absorbed
In the act and inspiration. She felt his
For just his uses, not her own at all,
His stool, to sit on or put up his foot,
His cup, to fill with wine or vinegar,
Whichever drink might please him at the chance,
For that should please her always: let him write
His name upon her . . . it seemed natural;
It was most precious, standing on his shelf,
To wait until he chose to lift his hand.
Well, well, I saw her then, and must have seen
How bright her life went floating on her love,
Like wicks the housewives send afloat on oil
Which feeds them to a flame that lasts the night.
To do good seemed so much his business,
That, having done it, she was fain to think,
Must fill up his capacity for joy.
At first she never mooted with herself
If he was happy, since he made her so,
Or if he loved her, being so much beloved.
Who thinks of asking if the sun is light,
Observing that it lightens? who's so bold
To question God of His felicity?
Still less. And thus she took for granted first
What first of all she should have put to proof,
And sinned against him so, but only so.
"What could you hope," she said, "of such as she?
You take a kid you like, and turn it out
In some fair garden: though the creature's fond
And gentle, it will leap upon the beds
And break your tulips, bite your tender trees;
The wonder would be if such innocence
Spoiled less: a garden is no place for kids."
And, by degrees, when he who had chosen her
Brought in his courteous and benignant friends
To spend their goodness on her, which she took
So very gladly, as a part of his,
By slow degrees it broke on her slow sense
That she too in that Eden of delight
Was out of place, and, like the silly kid,
Still did most mischief where she meant most love.
A thought enough to make a woman mad
(No beast in this but she may well go mad),
That saying "I am thine to love and use"
May blow the plague in her protesting breath
To the very man for whom she claims to die,
That, clinging round his neck, she pulls him down
And drowns him, and that, lavishing her soul,
She hales perdition on him. "So, being mad,"
Said Marian . . .
"Ah who stirred such thoughts,you ask?
Whose fault it was, that she should have such thoughts?
None's fault, none's fault. The light comes, and we see:
But if it were not truly for our eyes,
There would be nothing seen, for all the light.
And so with Marian: if she saw at last,
The sense was in her, Lady Waldemar
Had spoken all in vain else."
"O my heart,
O prophet in my heart," I cried aloud,
"Then Lady Waldemar spoke!"
"Did she speak,"
Mused Marian softly, "or did she only sign?
Or did she put a word into her face
And look, and so impress you with the word?
Or leave it in the foldings of her gown,
Like rosemary smells a movement will shake out
When no one's conscious? who shall say, or guess?
One thing alone was certain from the day
The gracious lady paid a visit first,
She, Marian, saw things different, felt distrust
Of all that sheltering roof of circumstance
Her hopes were building into with clay nests:
Her heart was restless, pacing up and down
And fluttering, like dumb creatures before storms,
Not knowing wherefore she was ill at ease."
"And still the lady came," said Marian Erle,
"Much oftener than he knew it, Mister Leigh.
She bade me never tell him she had come,
She liked to love me better than he knew,
So very kind was Lady Waldemar:
And every time she brought with her more light,
And every light made sorrow clearer . . . Well,
Ah, well! we cannot give her blame for that;
'Twould be the same thing if an angel came,
Whose right should prove our wrong. And every time
The lady came, she looked more beautiful
And spoke more like a flute among green trees,
Until at last, as one, whose heart being sad
On hearing lovely music, suddenly
Dissolves in weeping, I brake out in tears
Before her, asked her counsel, 'Had I erred
'In being too happy? would she set me straight?
'For she, being wise and good and born above
'The flats I had never climbed from, could perceive
'If such as I might grow upon the hills;
'And whether such poor herb sufficed to grow,
'For Romney Leigh to break his fast upon't,
'Or would he pine on such, or haply starve?'
She wrapped me in her generous arms at once,
And let me dream a moment how it feels
To have a real mother, like some girls:
But when I looked, her face was younger . . . ay,
Youth's too bright not to be a little hard,
And beauty keeps itself still uppermost,
That's true! Though Lady Waldemar was kind
She hurt me, hurt, as if the morning-sun
Should smite us on the eyelids when we sleep,
And wake us up with headache. Ay, and soon
Was light enough to make my heart ache too:
She told me truths I asked for, 'twas my fault,
'That Romney could not love me, if he would,
'As men call loving: there are bloods that flow
'Together like some rivers and not mix,
'Through contraries of nature. He indeed
'Was set to wed me, to espouse my class,
'Act out a rash opinion, and, once wed,
'So just a man and gentle could not choose
'But make my life as smooth as marriage-ring,
'Bespeak me mildly, keep me a cheerful house,
'With servants, brooches, all the flowers I liked,
'And pretty dresses, silk the whole year round' . . .
At which I stopped her, 'This for me. And now
'For him.' She hesitated, truth grew hard;
She owned ''Twas plain a man like Romney Leigh
'Required a wife more level to himself.
'If day by day he had to bend his height
'To pick up sympathies, opinions, thoughts,
'And interchange the common talk of life
'Which helps a man to live as well as talk,
'His days were heavily taxed. Who buys a staff
'To fit the hand, that reaches but the knee?
'He'd feel it bitter to be forced to miss
'The perfect joy of married suited pairs,
'Who, bursting through the separating hedge
'Of personal dues with that sweet eglantine
'Of equal love, keep saying, "So we think,
'"It strikes us, that's our fancy."' When I asked
If earnest will, devoted love, employed
In youth like mine, would fail to raise me up
As two strong arms will always raise a child
To a fruit hung overhead, she sighed and sighed . . .
'That could not be,' she feared. 'You take a pink,
'You dig about its roots and water it
'And so improve it to a garden-pink,
'But will not change it to a heliotrope,
'The kind remains. And then, the harder truth
'This Romney Leigh, so rash to leap a pale,
'So bold for conscience, quick for martyrdom,
'Would suffer steadily and never flinch,
'But suffer surely and keenly, when his class
'Turned shoulder on him for a shameful match,
'And set him up as nine-pin in their talk
'To bowl him down with jestings.' There, she paused.
And when I used the pause in doubting that
We wronged him after all in what we feared
'Suppose such things could never touch him more
'In his high conscience (if the things should be)
'Than, when the queen sits in an upper room,
'The horses in the street can spatter her!'
A moment, hope came, but the lady closed
That door and nicked the lock and shut it out,
Observing wisely that 'the tender heart
'Which made him over-soft to a lower class,
'Would scarcely fail to make him sensitive
'To a higher, how they thought and what they felt.'
"Alas, alas!" said Marian, rocking slow
The pretty baby who was near asleep,
The eyelids creeping over the blue balls,
"She made it clear, too clear I saw the whole!
And yet who knows if I had seen my way
Straight out of it by looking, though 'twas clear,
Unless the generous lady, 'ware of this,
Had set her own house all a-fire for me
To light me forwards? Leaning on my face
Her heavy agate eyes which crushed my will,
She told me tenderly (as when men come
To a bedside to tell people they must die),
'She knew of knowledge, ay, of knowledge knew,
'That Romney Leigh had loved her formerly.
'And she loved him, she might say, now the chance
'Was past, but that, of course, he never guessed,
'For something came between them, something thin
'As a cobweb, catching every fly of doubt
'To hold it buzzing at the window-pane
'And help to dim the daylight. Ah, man's pride
'Or woman's which is greatest? most averse
'To brushing cobwebs? Well, but she and he
'Remained fast friends; it seemed not more than so,
'Because he had bound his hands and could not stir.
'An honourable man, if somewhat rash;
'And she, not even for Romney, would she spill
'A blot . . . as little even as a tear . . .
'Upon his marriage-contract, not to gain
'A better joy for two than came by that:
'For, though I stood between her heart and heaven,
'She loved me wholly.'"
Did I laugh or curse?
I think I sat there silent, hearing all,
Ay, hearing double, Marian's tale, at once,
And Romney's marriage vow, "I'll keep to thee,"
Which means that woman-serpent. Is it time
For church now?
"Lady Waldemar spoke more,"
Continued Marian, "but, as when a soul
Will pass out through the sweetness of a song
Beyond it, voyaging the uphill road,
Even so mine wandered from the things I heard
To those I suffered. It was afterward
I shaped the resolution to the act.
For many hours we talked. What need to talk?
The fate was clear and close; it touched my eyes;
But still the generous lady tried to keep
The case afloat, and would not let it go,
And argued, struggled upon Marian's side,
Which was not Romney's! though she little knew
What ugly monster would take up the end,
What griping death within the drowning death
Was ready to complete my sum of death."
I thought, Perhaps he's sliding now the ring
Upon that woman's finger . . .
She went on:
"The lady, failing to prevail her way,
Upgathered my torn wishes from the ground
And pieced them with her strong benevolence;
And, as I thought I could breathe freer air
Away from England, going without pause,
Without farewell, just breaking with a jerk
The blossomed offshoot from my thorny life,
She promised kindly to provide the means,
With instant passage to the colonies
And full protection, 'would commit me straight
'To one who once had been her waiting-maid
'And had the customs of the world, intent
'On changing England for Australia
'Herself, to carry out her fortune so.'
For which I thanked the Lady Waldemar,
As men upon their death-beds thank last friends
Who lay the pillow straight: it is not much,
And yet 'tis all of which they are capable,
This lying smoothly in a bed to die.
And so, 'twas fixed; and so, from day to day,
The woman named came in to visit me."
Just then the girl stopped speaking, sat erect,
And stared at me as if I had been a ghost
(Perhaps I looked as white as any ghost),
With large-eyed horror. "Does God make," she said,
"All sorts of creatures really, do you think?
Or is it that the Devil slavers them
So excellently, that we come to doubt
Who's stronger, He who makes, or he who mars?
I never liked the woman's face or voice
Or ways: it made me blush to look at her;
It made me tremble if she touched my hand;
And when she spoke a fondling word I shrank
As if one hated me who had power to hurt;
And, every time she came, my veins ran cold
As somebody were walking on my grave.
At last I spoke to Lady Waldemar:
'Could such an one be good to trust?' I asked.
Whereat the lady stroked my cheek and laughed
Her silver-laugh (one must be born to laugh,
To put such music in it), 'Foolish girl,
'Your scattered wits are gathering wool beyond
'The sheep-walk reaches! leave the thing to me.'
And therefore, half in trust, and half in scorn
That I had heart still for another fear
In such a safe despair, I left the thing.
"The rest is short. I was obedient:
I wrote my letter which delivered him
From Marian to his own prosperities,
And followed that bad guide. The lady? hush,
I never blame the lady. Ladies who
Sit high, however willing to look down,
Will scarce see lower than their dainty feet;
And Lady Waldemar saw less than I
With what a Devil's daughter I went forth
Along the swine's road, down the precipice,
In such a curl of hell-foam caught and choked,
No shriek of soul in anguish could pierce through
To fetch some help. They say there's help in heaven
For all such cries. But if one cries from hell . . .
What then? the heavens are deaf upon that side.
"A woman . . . hear me, let me make it plain, . . .
A woman . . . not a monster . . . both her breasts
Made right to suckle babes . . . she took me off
A woman also, young and ignorant
And heavy with my grief, my two poor eyes
Near washed away with weeping, till the trees,
The blessed unaccustomed trees and fields
Ran either side the train like stranger dogs
Unworthy of any notice, took me off
So dull, so blind, so only half-alive,
Not seeing by what road, nor by what ship,
Nor toward what place, nor to what end of all.
Men carry a corpse thus, past the doorway, past
The garden-gate, the children's playground, up
The green lane, then they leave it in the pit,
To sleep and find corruption, cheek to cheek
With him who stinks since Friday.
To go down with one's soul into the grave,
To go down half-dead, half-alive, I say,
And wake up with corruption, . . . cheek to cheek
With him who stinks since Friday! There it is,
And that's the horror of't, Miss Leigh.
You understand? no, do not look at me,
But understand. The blank, blind, weary way,
Which led, where'er it led, away at least;
The shifted ship, to Sydney or to France,
Still bound, wherever else, to another land;
The swooning sickness on the dismal sea,
The foreign shore, the shameful house, the night,
The feeble blood, the heavy-headed grief, . . .
No need to bring their damnable drugged cup,
And yet they brought it. Hell's so prodigal
Of devil's gifts, hunts liberally in packs,
Will kill no poor small creature of the wilds
But fifty red wide throats must smoke at it,
As his at me . . . when waking up at last . . .
I told you that I waked up in the grave.
"Enough so! it is plain enough so. True,
We wretches cannot tell out all our wrong
Without offence to decent happy folk.
I know that we must scrupulously hint
With half-words, delicate reserves, the thing
Which no one scrupled we should feel in full.
Let pass the rest, then; only leave my oath
Upon this sleeping child, man's violence,
Not man's seduction, made me what I am,
As lost as . . . I told him I should be lost.
When mothers fail us, can we help ourselves?
That's fatal! And you call it being lost,
That down came next day's noon and caught me there,
Half-gibbering and half-raving on the floor,
And wondering what had happened up in heaven,
That suns should dare to shine when God Himself
Was certainly abolished.
"I was mad,
How many weeks, I know not, many weeks.
I think they let me go when I was mad,
They feared my eyes and loosed me, as boys might
A mad dog which they had tortured. Up and down
I went, by road and village, over tracts
Of open foreign country, large and strange,
Crossed everywhere by long thin poplar-lines
Like fingers of some ghastly skeleton Hand
Through sunlight and through moonlight evermore
Pushed out from hell itself to pluck me back,
And resolute to get me, slow and sure;
While every roadside Christ upon his cross
Hung reddening through his gory wounds at me,
And shook his nails in anger, and came down
To follow a mile after, wading up
The low vines and green wheat, crying 'Take the girl!
'She's none of mine from henceforth.' Then I knew
(But this is somewhat dimmer than the rest)
The charitable peasants gave me bread
And leave to sleep in straw: and twice they tied,
At parting, Mary's image round my neck
How heavy it seemed! as heavy as a stone;
A woman has been strangled with less weight:
I threw it in a ditch to keep it clean
And ease my breath a little, when none looked;
I did not need such safeguards: brutal men
Stopped short, Miss Leigh, in insult, when they had seen
My face, I must have had an awful look.
And so I lived: the weeks passed on, I lived.
'Twas living my old tramp-life o'er again,
But, this time, in a dream, and hunted round
By some prodigious Dream-fear at my back,
Which ended yet: my brain cleared presently;
And there I sat, one evening, by the road,
I, Marian Erle, myself, alone, undone,
Facing a sunset low upon the flats
As if it were the finish of all time,
The great red stone upon my sepulchre,
Which angels were too weak to roll away.
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