THERE was a lady, who had early wed
One whom she saw and lov’d in her bright youth,
When life was yet untried–and when he said
He, too, lov’d her, he spoke no more than truth;
He lov’d as well as baser natures can,–
But a mean heart and soul were in that man.
And they dwelt happily, if happy be
Not with harsh words to breed unnatural strife:
The cold world’s Argus-watching failed to see
The flaw that dimm’d the lustre of their life;
Save that he seem’d tyrannical, tho’ gay,
Restless and selfish in his love of sway.
The calm of conscious power was not in him;
But rather, struggling into broader light,
The secret sense, they feel, however dim,
Whose chance position gives a sort of right
(As from the height of a prescriptive throne,)
To govern natures nobler than their own.
And as her youth waned slowly on, there fell
A nameless shadow on that lady’s heart;
And those she lov’d the best (and she lov’d well),
Had of her confidence nor share, nor part;
Her thoughts lay folded from Life’s lessening light,
Like the sweet flowers which close themselves at night.
And men began to whisper evil things
Against the honour of her wedded mate;
That which had pass’d for youth’s wild wanderings,
Showed more suspicious in his settled state;
Until at length,–he stood, at some chance game,
Discover’d,–branded with a Cheater’s name.
Out, and away he slunk, with felon air;
Then, calling to him one who was his friend,
Bid him to that unblemish’d wife repair
And tell her what had chanced, and what the end;
How they must leave the country of their birth,
And hide,–in some more distant spot of earth.
It was a coward’s thought: he could not bear
Himself to be narrator of his shame;
He that had trampled oft, now felt in fear
Of her who still must keep his blighted name,–
And shrank in fancy from that steadfast eye,
The window to a soul so pure and high.
She heard it. O’er her brow there pass’d a flush
Of sunset red; and then so white a hue,
So deadly pale, it seem’d as if no blush
Through that transparent cheek should shine anew;
As if the blood had frozen in that hour,
And her check’d pulse for ever lost its power.
And twice and once did she essay to speak;
And with a gesture almost of command,
(Though in its motion it was deadly weak)
She faintly lifted up her graceful hand:–
But then her soul came back to her, strength woke,
And with a low but even voice, she spoke:
‘Go! say to him who dream’d of other chance,
That HERE none sit in judgment on his sin;
That to his door the world’s scorn may advance,
And cloud his path, but doth not enter in.
Here dwell his Own: to share, to soothe disgrace;’–
Which having said, she cover’d up her face,
And, as he left her, sank in bitter prayer,–
If prayer that may be term’d which comes to all,
That sudden gushing of our vain despair,
When none but God can hear or heed our call;
And the wreck’d soul feels, in its helpless hour,
Where only dwells full mercy with full power.
And he came home, a crush’d and humbled wretch;
Whom when she saw, she but this comfort found,
In her kind arms that shrinking form to catch,
Which tenderly about his neck she wound,
As in the first proud days of love and trust,
E’er yet his reckless head was bow’d in dust!
And they departed to a distant shore;
But wheresoe’er they dwelt, however lone,
Shame, like a marble statue at his door,
Flung her ‘thwart shadow o’er his threshold stone;
Still darken’d all their daylight hours, and kept
Cold watch above them even while they slept.
And there was no more love between those two!
It died not in the shock of that dark hour–
Such shocks destroy not love, whose purple hue
Fades rather, like some autumn-wither’d flower,
Which day by day along the ruin’d walk
We see–then miss it from the sapless stalk;
And, while it fadeth, oft with gentle hand
Doth memory turn to life’s dark journal-book;
And, passing foul misdeeds, intently stand
On its first page of glorious hope to look;
Weeping she reads,–and, seeing all so fair,
Pleads hard for what we are, by what we were!
So through that hour love lived; and, though in part
‘Twas one of most unutterable pain,
It had its sweetness too, and told her heart
All she could do, and all she could sustain;
The holy love of woman buoy’d her up,
And God gave strength to drink the bitter cup.
But when, as days crept on, she saw him still
Less grateful than abash’d beneath her eye,
And studying not how best to banish ill,
But what he might conceal and what deny,
Her soul revolted, and conceived a scorn,
Sinful and harsh, although of virtue born.
And oft she pray’d, with earnestness and pain,
That heaven would bid that proud contempt depart,
And wept to find the prayer and effort vain,
Though it was breathed in agony of heart–
Vain as the murmur of ‘Thy will be done,’
Breathed by the death-bed of an only son!
For when her children err’d (as children will)
A sickening terror smote her heart with fears,
And scarce she measured the degree of ill,
Or made indulgence for their tender years;
They were HIS children; and the chance of shame
Kept watch for those who bore that father’s name.
And, thinking thus, reproof would take a tone
So strangely passionate, severe, and wild–
So deeply alter’d,–so unlike her own,–
It stung and terrified her startled child,
Whose innate sense of justice seem’d to show
Him over-chidden, being chidden so.
And then a gush of mother’s love would swell
Her grieving heart,–and she would fondly press
The young offending head she loved so well
Close to her own, with many a soft caress,
Whose reconciling sweetness all in vain
Stopp’d her boy’s tears, while her’s ran down like rain.
The world (which still pronounces from the show
Of outward things) whisper’d and talk’d of this;
Erring and obstinate, its crowds ne’er know
How much in judging they may judge amiss,
Or how much agony and broken peace
May lie beneath the seeming of caprice!
But he, her husband (for he was not dull),
Saw through these workings of a troubled mind,
And, that her cup of sorrow might be full,
He taunted her with words and looks unkind,
Which with a patient bowing of the heart
She took–like one resolved to do her part.
And years stole on (for years go by like days,
Leaving but scatter’d hours to mark their course),
And brightness faded from that lady’s gaze,
And her cheek hollow’d, and her step lost force,
Till it was plain to even a careless eye
That she was doom’d, before her time, to die.
She died, as she had lived, her secret soul
Shut from the sweet communion of true friends;
Her words, though not her thoughts, she could control,
And still with calm respect his name she blends:
They all stood round her whom she call’d her Own,
And saw her die–yet was that death-bed lone!
But in its darkest hour her thoughts were stirr’d,
And something falter’d from her dying tongue,
Mournful and tender–half pronounced, half heard–
For which he was too base–his boys too young;
So whatso’er the warning faintly given,
It lay between her parting soul and Heaven.
He wept for her–ah! who would not have wept
To see that worn face in its pallid shroud,
Proving how much she suffer’d ere she slept
At peace for ever! Violent and loud
Was the outbreaking of his sudden grief,
And, like all feelings in that heart, ’twas brief.
And something strange pass’d o’er his soul instead,
When thinking upon her whom he had lost,
Almost like a relief that she was dead:–
She, whose high nature scorn’d his fault the most,
And show’d it least,–had vanish’d from the earth,
And none could check his sin, or shame his mirth.
So he return’d to many an evil way,
Like one who strays when guiding light is gone;
And mid the profligate, miscall’d ‘the gay,’
Crept to a slippery place–his tale half known–
Ill look’d on, yet endured–the useful tool
Of every bolder knave, or richer fool.
And his two sons in careless beauty grew,
Like wild-flowers in his path: he mark’d them not,
Nor reck’d he what they needed, learnt, or knew,
Or what might be on earth their future lot;
But they died young–which is a thought of rest!
Unscorn’d, untempted, undefiled–so best.