When maiden's love first known was firesh and fair.
He moaned, and slowly made unto the door,
Where sat a woman spinning in the sun,
Who oft belike had seen him there before,
Among those bright folk not the dullest one ;
But now when she had set her eyes upon
The wild thing hastening to her, for a space
She sat regarding him with scared white face ;
But as he neared her, fell her rock adown.
She rose, and fled with mouth that would have cried
But for her terror. Then did Walter groan :
" O wretched life ! how well might I have died
Here, where I stand, on many a happy tide.
When folk fled not from me, nor knew me cursed,
And yet who knoweth that I know the worst?"
Scarce formed upon his lips, the word " Return "
Rang in his heart once more ; but a cold cloud
Of all despair, however he might yearn.
All pleasure of that bygone dream did shroud.
And hopes and fears, long smothered, now 'gan crowd
About his heart : nor might he rest in pain.
But needs must struggle on, howe'or in vain.
4o6 THE EARTHLY PARADISE.
Into the empty house he passed withal ;
As in a dream the motes did dance and grow
Amidst the sun, that through the door did fall
Across its gloom, and on the board did show
A bag of silver pieces, many enow,
The goodman's market-silver ; and a spear
New-shafted, bright, that lay athwart it there.
Brooding he stood, till in him purpose grew \
Unto the peasants' coffer, known of old,
He turned, and raised the lid, and from it drew
Raiment well worn by miles of wind-beat wold.
And, casting to the floor his gauzy gold.
Did on these things, scarce thinking in meanwhile
How he should deal with his life's new-born toil.
But now, being clad, he took the spear and purse,
And on the board his clothes begemmed he laid.
Half wondering would their wealth turn to a curse.
As in the tales he once deemed vainly made
Of elves and such-like — once again he weighed
The bright web in his hand, and a great flood
Of evil memories fevered all his blood.
Blinded his eyes, and Avrung his heart full sore ;
Yet grew his purpose among men to dwell.
He scarce knew why, nor said he any more
Thai word " Return :" perchance the threatened hell.
Disbelieved once, seemed all too possible
THE HILL OF VENUS. 407
Amid this anguish, wherefrom if the grain
Of hope should fall, then hell would be a gain.
He went his ways, and once more crossed the stream.
And hastened through the wood, that scantier grew
Till from a low hill he could see the gleam
Of the great river that of old he knew,
Which drank the woodland stream : 'neath the light
Of the March sky, swirling and bright it ran,
A wonder and a tale to many a man.
He went on wondering not ; all tales were nought
Except his tale ; with ruin of his own life.
To ruin the world's life, hopeful once, seemed brought ;
The changing year seemed weary of the strife
Ever recurring, with all vain hope rife ;
Earth, sky, and water seemed too weak and old
To gain a little rest from waste and cold.
He wondered not, and no pain smote on him.
Though from a green hill on the further side,
Above the green meads set with poplars slim,
A white wall, buttressed well, made girdle wide
To towers and roofs where yet his kin did bide : —
— His father's ancient house ; yea, now he saw
His very pennon toward the river draw.
No pain these gave him, and no scorn withal
Of his old self ; no rage tiiat men were glad
4o8 THE EARTHLY PARADISE.
And went their ways, whatso on him might fall ;
For all seemed shadows to him, good or bad ;
At most the raiment that his yearning clad,
Yearning made blind with misery, for more life,
If it might be, love yet should lead the strife.
He stood a space and watched the ferrj'-boat
Take in its load of bright and glittering things ;
He watched its head adown the river float,
As o'er the water came the murmurings
Of broken talk : and as all memory clings
To such dumb sounds, so dreamlike came back now
The tale of how his life and love did grow.
He turned away and strode on, knowing not
What purpose moved him ; as the river flowed
He hastened, where the sun of March blazed hot
Upon the bounding wall and hard white road,
The terraced blossoming vines, the brown abode
Where wife and child and dog of vine-dressers
With mingled careless clamour cursed his ears.
— How can words measure misery, when the sun
Shines at its brightest over plague and ill ?
How can I tell the woe of any one.
When the soft showers with fair-hued sweetness fill,
Before the feet of those grief may not kill,
The tender meads of hopeful spring, that comes
With eager hours to mock all hopeless homes ?
THE HILL OF VENUS. 409
So let it pass, and ask me not to weigh
Grief against grief:- — ye who have ever woke
To wondering, ere came memory back, why day,
Bare, blank, immovable, upon you broke —
— Untold shall ye know all — to happy folk
All heaviest words no more of meaning bear
Than far-ofif bells saddening the summer air.
But tells my tale, that all that day he went
Along the highway by the river side,
Urged on by restlessness without intent ;
Until when he was caught by evening-tide.
Worn out withal, at last must he abide
At a small homestead, where he gat him food
And bed of straw, among tired folk and rude.
A weary ghost within the poor hall there,
He sat amid their weariness, who knew
No whit of all his case, yet half with fear
And half with scorn gazed on him, as, with few
And heavy words, about the fire they drew,
The goodman and goodwife, both old and grey.
Three stout sons, and one rough uncared-for may.
A ghost he sat, and as a ghost he heard
What things they spoke of; but sleep-laden night
Seemed to have crushed all memory of their word,
\\Tien on the morrow, in the young sun's light,
He plodded o'er the highway hard and wliite ;
4 1 o THE EAR THL V PARADISE.
Unto wliat end he knew not : though swift thought
^Memory of things long spoken to him brought.
That day he needs must leave the streamside road,
Whereon he met of wayfarers no few ;
For sight of wondering eyes now 'gan to goad
His misery more, as still more used he grew
To that dull world he had returned unto ;
So into a deep-banked lane he turned aside,
A little more his face from men to hide.
Slowly he went, for afternoon it was,
And with the long way was he much foreworn ;
Nor far between the deep banks did he pass,
Ere on the wind unto his ears was borne
A stranger sound than he had heard that morn,
Sweet sound of mournful singing ; then he stayed
His feet, and gazed about as one afraid :
He shuddered, feeling as in time long past,
When mid the utter joy of his young days
The sudden sound of music would be cast
Upon the bright world with the sun ablaze,
And he would look to see a strange hand raise
The far-off blue, and God in might come down
To judge the earth, and make all hid things kno^vn.
And therewithal came memory of that speech
Of yesternight, and how those folk had said.
THE HILL OF VENUS. 411
That now so far did wrong and misery reach,
That soon beUke earth would be visited
At last with that supreme day of all dread ;
When right and wrong, and weal and woe of earth,
Should change amid its fiery second birth.
He hastened toward the road as one who thought
God's visible glory would be passing by,
But, when he looked forth tremblingly, saw nought
Of glorious dread to quench his misery ;
There was the sky, and, like a second sky,
The broad stream, the white road, the whispering trees
Swaying about in the sound-laden breeze.
For nigher and nigher ever came the song.
And presently at turning of the way
A company of pilgrims came along,
Mostly afoot, in garments brown and grey :
Slowly they passed on through the windy day.
Led on by priests who bore aloft the rood,
Singing with knitted brows as on they strode.
Then sank his heart adown, however sweet.
Pensive and strange, their swinging song might be.
For nought like this he had in heart to meet ;
But rather something was he fain to see.
That should change all the old tale utterly ; —
— The old tale of the world, and love and death,
And all the wild things that man's yearning saith.
4 1 2 THE EAR THL V PARADISE.
Nathless did he abide their coming there,
And noted of them as they drew anigh,
That in that fellowship were Avomen fair,
And young men meet for joyous company.
Besides such elders, as might look to die
In few years now, or monks who long had striven
^^'ith life desired and feared, life for death given.
Way-worn they seemed, yet many there strode on.
With flashing eyes and flushed cheeks, as though all
Within a little space should be well won :
Still as he gazed on them, despair did fall
Upon his wasted heart ; a fiery wall
Of scorn and hate seemed 'twixt their hearts and his ;
While delicate images of bygone bliss
Grew clear before his eyes, as rood and saint
Gleamed in the sun o'er raiment coarse and foul,
O'er dusty limbs, and figures worn and faint :
'\^'ell-nigh he shrieked ; yet in his inmost soul
He felt that he must ask them of their goal.
And knew not why : so at a man he clutched.
Who, as he passed, his shoulder well-nigh touched.
" Where goest thou then, O pilgrim, with all these?"'
" Stay me not !" cried he ; " unto life I go.
To life at last, and hope of rest and peace ;
I whom my dreadful crime hath hunted so
For years, though I am young — O long and slow
THE HILL OF VENUS. 413
The way to where the change awaiteth me —
To Rome, where God nigh visible shall be !
" Where He who knoweth all, shall know this too,
That I am man — e'en that which He hath made.
Nor be confounded at aught man can do. —
— And thou, who seemest too with ill down-weighed,
Come on with us, nor be too much afraid.
Though some men deem there is but left small space,
Or ere the world shall see the Judge's face."
He answered not, nor moved ; the man's words
An echo of his thoughts, and, as he passed,
Word and touch both might well be only dreamed.
Yea, when the vine-clad terraced hill at last
Had hid them all, and the slim poplars cast
Blue shadows on the road, that scarce did show
A trace of their passed feet, he did not know
But all had been a dream ; all save the pain,
That, mingling with the palpable things around.
Showed them to be not wholly vague and vain.
And him not dead, in whatso hard bonds bound.
Of wandering fate, whose source shall ne'er be found.
He shivered, turned away, and down the same
Deep lane he wandered, whence e'en now he came.
He toward the night through hapless day-dreams
4 1 4 TJTE EARTHL V PARADISE.
That knew no God to come, no love : he stood
Before a little town's grey gate at last,
And in the midst of his lost languid mood,
Turned toward the western sky, as red as blood.
As bright as sudden dawn across the dark.
And through his soul fear shot a kindling spark.
But as he gazed, the rough-faced gate-warder,
Who leaned anigh upon his spear, must turn
Eyes on him, with an answering anxious fear,
That silent, questioning, dared not to learn,
If he too deemed more than the sun did burn
Behind the crimson clouds that made earth grey —
If yet perchance God's host were on its way.
So too, being come unto his hostelry,
His pain was so much dulled by weariness,
That he might hearken to men's words, whereby
It seemed full sure that great fear did oppress
Men's hearts that tide, that the world's life, grown less
Through time's unnoted lapse, this thousandth year
Since Christ was born, unto its end drew near.
Time and again, he, listening to such word.
Felt his heart kindle ; time and again did seem
As though a cold and hopeless tune he heard.
Sung by grey mouths amidst a dull-eyed dream ;
Time and a^rain across his heart would stream
THE HILL OF VENUS. 415
The pain of fierce desire whose aim was gone,
Of baffled yearning loveless and alone.
Other words heard he too, that served to show
The meaning of that earnest pilgrim train ;
For the folk said that many a man would go
To Rome that Easter, there more sure to gain
Full pardon for all sins, since frail and vain.
Cloudlike the very earth grew 'neath men's feet :
Yea, many thought, that there at Rome would meet
The half-forgotten Bridegroom with the Bride,
Stained with the flushed feast of the world ; that He,
Through AVTack and flame, would draw unto His side
In the new earth where there is no more sea.
So spake men got together timorously ;
Though pride slew fear in some men's souls, that they
Had lived to see the firm earth melt away.
Next mom were folk about the market cross
Gathered in throngs, and as through these he went
He saw above them a monk's brown arms toss
About his strained and eager mouth, that sent
Strong speech around, whose burden was ' Repent ; '
He passed by toward the gate that Romeward lay.
Yet on its other side his feet did stay.
Upon a daisied patch of road-side grass
He cast himself, and down the road he gazed ;
4 1 6 THE EAR THL V PARADISE.
And therewithal the thought through him did pass,
How long and wretched was the way he faced.
Therewith the smouldering fire again outblazed
Within him, and he moaned : " O empty earth.
What shall 1 do, then, mid thy loveless dearth?"
But as he spake, there came adown the wind
From out the town the sound of pilgrims' song.
And other thoughts were borne across his mind.
And hope strove with desire so hopeless strong.
Till in his heart, wounded with pain and wrong.
Something like will was born ; until he knew
Now, ere they came, what thing he meant to do.
So through the gate at last the pilgrims came,
Led by an old priest, fiery-eyed and grey ;
Then Walter held no parley with his shame.
But stood before him midmost of the way.
" Will one man's sin so heavy on you weigh,"
He cried, " that ye shall never reach your end ?
Unto God's pardon with you would I wend."
The old man turned to him : " My son," he said,
" Come with us, and be of us ! turn not back
When once thine hand upon the plough is laid ;
The telling of thy sin we well may lack,
Because the Avenger is upon our track.
And who can say the while we tarry here.
Amid this seeming peace, but God draws near?"
THE HILL OF VENUS. 417
The crowd had stayed their song to hear the priest,
But now, when Walter joined their company,
Like a great shout it rose up and increased,
And on their way they went so fervently
That swept away from earth he seemed to be ;
And many a thought o'er which his heart had yearned
Amid their fire to white ash now seemed burned.
For many days they journeyed on, and still
Whate'er he deemed that he therein should do,
The hope of Rome his whole soul seemed to fill ;
And though the priest heard not his story through.
Yet from him at the last so much he knew.
That he had promised when they reached the place.
To bring him straight before the Pope's own face.
Through many a town they passed ; till on a night
Long through the darkness they toiled on and on
Down a straight road, until a blaze of light
On the grey carving of an old gate shone ;
And fast the tears fell down from many an one,
And rose a quavering song, for they were come
Unto the threshold of that mighty Rome.
They entered : like a town of ghosts it seemed
To Walter, a beleaguered town of ghosts ;
And he felt of them, little if he dreamed
Amid his pain of all the marshalled hosts
That lay there buried mid forgotten boasts ;
4 E E
41 8 THE EAR THL Y PARADISE.
But dead he seemed as those his pleasures were,
Dead in a prison vast and void and drear.
Unto a convent that eve were they brought,
Where with the abbot spake the priest for long.
Then bade the hapless man to fear him nought,
But that the Pope next day would right his wrong ;
" And let thy heart," quoth he, " O son, be strong.
For no great space thou hast to sin anew :
The days of this ill world are grown but few."
Night passed, day dawned, and at the noon thereof
The priest came unto Walter : " Fair my son.
Now shalt thou know," he said, " of God's great love ;
Moreover thou shalt talk with such an one
As hath heard told the worst deeds man hath done,
And will not start at thine or mock at thee :
Be of good heart, and come thy ways with me."
Amid the tumult of his heart, they went
Through the calm day, by wonders wrought of old ;
And fresh young folk they met, and men intent
On eager life ; the wind and the sun's gold
Were fresh on bands of monks that did uphold
The carven anguish of the rood above
The wayfarers, who trusted in God's love.
But no more dead the grey old temples seemed
To him than fresh-cheeked girl or keen-eyed man ;
THE HILL OF VENUS. 419
And like a dream for some dim purpose dreamed,
And half forgotten, was the image wan
Nailed on the cross : no tremor through him ran,
No hope possessed him, though his lips might say,
" O love of God, be nigh to me to-day ! "
For surely all things seemed but part of him ;
Therefore what help in them ? Still on he passed
Through all, and still saw nothing blurred or dim,
Though with a dread air was the world o'ercast,
As of a great fire somewhere ; till at last.
At a fair convent door the old priest stayed,
And touched his fellow's shoulder, as he said :
"Thou tremblest not ; thou look'st as other men :
Come then, for surely all will soon be well.
And like a dream shall be that ill day, when
Thou hangedst on the last smooth step of hell ! "
But from his shoulder therewith his hand fell,
And long he stared astonished in his place,
At a new horror fallen o'er Walter's face.
Then silently he led him on again
Through daintily wrought cloisters, to a door,
Whereby there stood a gold-clad chamberlain :
Then, while the monk his errand to him ])ore,
Walter turned round and cast a wild look o'er
Fair roof, and painted walls, and sunlit green,
That showed the slim and twisted shafts between.
420 THE EARTHL \ ' PARADISE.
He shut his eyes and moaned sore, for as clear
As he beheld these, did he now behold
A woman white and lovely drawing near,
Whose face amidst her flower- wreathed hair of gold.
Mocked the faint images of saints of old ;
Mocked with sweet smile the pictured mother of God,
As o'er the knee-w^orn floor her fair feet trod.
Through his shut eyes he saw her still, as he
Heard voices, and stepped onward, as he heard
The door behind him shut to noisily,
And echo down the cloisters, and a word
Spoke by a tliin low voice : " Be not afeard !
Look up ! for though most surely God is nigh,
Yet nowise is he with us visibly."
He looked up, and beside him still she stood.
With eyes that seemed to question ; What dost tJioii,
What wilt thou say ? The fever of his blood
Abated not, because before him now
There sat an old man with high puckered brow,
Thin lips, long chin, and wide brown eyes and mild,
That o'er the sternness of his mouth still smiled.
"Wilt thou kneel down, my son?" he heard him say,
" God is anigh, though not to give thee fear ;
Folk tell me thou hast journeyed a long way.
That I the inmost of thine heart might hear ;
It glads me that thou boldest me so dear.
THE HILL OF VENUS. 421
But more of this thy love I yet would win,
By telling thee that God forgives thy sin."
He knelt down, but all silent did abide
While the Pope waited silent ; on the ground
His eyes were fixed, but still anigh his side
He knew she stood ; and all the air around
Was odorous with her, yea, the very sound
Of her sweet breath, moving of hair and limb.
Mixed Avith his own breath in the ears of him.
Outside the sparrows twittered ; a great tree
Stirred near the window, and the city's noise
Still murmured : long the Pope sat patiently
Amid that silence, till the thin weak voice
Spake out and said : " O son, have the world's joys
Made thee a coward ? what is thy degree ?
Despite thy garb no churl thou seem'st to me."
Fearfully Walter raised his eyes, and turned,
As though to ask that vision what to say,
And with a bitter pain his vexed heart burned,
When now he found all vanished clean away :
Great wrath stirred in him ; shame most grievous lay
Upon his heart, and spreading suddenly
His hands abroad, he 'gan at last to cry :
"Look at me, father ! I have been a knight,
And held my own mid men : such as I kneel
42 2 THE EARTHLY PARADISE,
Before thee now, amidst a hopeless fight
Have I stood firm against the hedge of steel,
Casting aside all hope of life and weal
For nought — because folk deemed I would do so,
Though nought there was to gain or win unto.
"Yet before thee an old man small and weak
I quail indeed : not because thou art great,
Not because God through thy thin pipe doth speak.
As all folk trow : but, rather, that man's hate,
Man's fear, God's scorn shall fall in all their weight
Upon my love when I have spoken out —
— Yea, let me bide a minute more in doubt !
" Man hates it and God scorns, and I, e'en I —
— How shall I hate my love and scorn my love?
Weak, weak are words — but, O my misery !
More hate than man's hate in my soul doth move ;
Greater my scorn than scorn of God above —
And yet I love on. — Is the pain enow
That thou some hope unto my heart mayst show ? —
" Some hope of peace at last that is not death ?
Because with all these things I know for sure
I cannot die, else had I stopped my breath
Long time agone — thereto hath many a lure
Drawn on my hand ; but now God doth endure,
And this my love, that never more shall bring
Delight to me or help me anything."
THE HILL OF VENUS. 423
Calm sat the Pope, and said : " Hope, rather, now ;
For many a sinner erewhile have I shriven
As utterly o'erwhelmed in soul as thou,
Who, when awhile with words his mouth had striven.
Went forth from me at peace and well forgiven.
Fall we to talk ; and let me tell thee first,
That there are such as fain would be the worst
" Among all men, since best they cannot be.
So strong is that wild lie that men call pride ;
And so to-day it is, perchance, with thee —
Cast it aside, son ; cast it clean aside.
Nor from my sight thy utmost vileness hide ;
Nought worse it makes thy sin, when all is done,
That every day men do the same, my son !"
The strained lines of the kneeling wretch's face
Were softened ; as to something far away
He seemed a-listening : silent for a space
The two men were — who knows what 'twixt them lay,
What world of wondrous visions, of a day
Passed or to come? — to one lost love so clear,
God's glory to the other present there.
At last the Pope spake ; well-nigh musical
His voice was grown, and in his thin dry cheek
There rose a little flush : " Tell of thy fall,
And how thy weak heart its vain lust must seek.
Cursing the kind and treading down the weak !
424 THE EARTHL V PARADISE.
Tell all the blindness of thy cruelties,
Thy treason, thine unkindness and thy lies ! —
"And be forgiven — these things are of earth:
The fire of God shall burn them up apace,
And leave thee calm in thy pure second birth ;
No sin, no lust forgotten, in the place
Where, litten by the glory of God's face.
The souls that He hath made for ever move
Mid never-dying, never-craving love.
" How fair shall be the dawning of that day
When thy cleared eyes behold the thing thou wast,
"Wlierefore, and all the tale : hate cast away.
And all the yearning of thy love at last
Full satisfied, and held for ever fast !
O never-dying souls, how sweet to hear
Your laughter in the land that knows no fear !
"All this thou gainest if to God thou turn,
Since nought but with thy fellows hast thou dealt.
And well He wotteth how vexed hearts may yearn,
Who in the very midst of them hath dwelt,
Whose own soul, too, the world's hard wrong hath felt,
The serpent's burning clutch upon his heel — -
Speak, then, and pray, and earn unending weal !"
A strange look crossed the knight's face as he said :
" Surely all these shall love their God full well ;
THE HILL OF VENUS. 425
Good to be one of these ; yet have I read
That other things God made, and that they dwell
In that abode He made, too, men call hell.
If every man that will become God's friend
Shall have great joy that nevermore shall end, —
" Yet is it so that evil dureth still,
Unslain of God — what if a man's love cling,
In sore despite of reason, hope, and will.
Unto the false heart of an evil thing? —
— O me !" he cried, " that scarce heard murmuring
Beside me, and that faint sound of thy feet !
Must thou be wordless this last time we meet ? "
Then the Pope trembled, for, half-risen now,
Walter glared round him through the empty air ;
" O man," he said, " speak out : what seest thou ?
What ill thing 'twixt thy God and thee stands there?''