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The flute-player and other poems online

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Rizzio. 23

Prithee, speak more close,
My ears are strangely dull, and yet, and yet
I hear the wrack of bursting worlds !

More close,
God ! I am blind. More close, and guide my

hands
To find again thy face.

Ah, Heart of mine !
Death is so potent ! It is very dark,
Night hath no stars.

I drain this stirrup-cup
For love and for the Queen !

(He clings to Mary's knees, and then rolls over
upon the floor. George Douglass snatches Darnley's
dagger, and, reaching across Mary's lap, drives it
into the dead body of Rizzio.)

Douglass.

This for the King !



WOMAN-O'-THE-WATCH.

I.

A SLOPING stretch of beach that bore away

Monotonously northward, while beyond,
Across the glintings of a little bay
Indented in the coast-line, lay more beach
That feathered off to mist and lost itself
In indistinguishable haze of sand and sky.
Nearer, a reef that ever at low tide
Rose with bared head and looked askance to land
Like some poltroon detected in a lie ;
While over all there hung the neutral tints
Of a cool sea-sky, cumbered at its edge
With masses of gray cloud, and flecked across,
Nearer the zenith, with pale nimbus strips
That scudded to the South before the wind.
A path ran backward from the beach's edge,
Beginning at the place where the scant sedge
Made a path's presence visible, and thence,
Leading o'er bits of firmer ground, it wound
With indirect directness to the mill,
The mill, a crazy tower with arms atop,
That caught a fragment of the untamed wind
And chained it to the bidding of the town.
Half a mile back the streaks of south-blown smoke,
24



Woman-o -the- Watch. 25

Which left the cottage chimneys palely blue,
Whitened and faded, and in fading formed
The dim horizon's dusk.

Below, the shore

Grew bolder, and a little wharf was built,
Littered with anchors, nets, and half worn ropes,
And quaint, mysterious masses of hard hemp
Smelling of tar and salt. A sloop there was
That rode with lazy motion on the swell
And curtsied to the strand, while fishing-boats,
Bearing bright-blazoned titles 'thwart the sterns,
Bespoke the occupation of the town.

Now the slant shadows of the dipping masts
Tapered to spar-like spindles, long and lean
As nodding needles, for the day declined
And the flat-falling, low-reclining rays
Told that the time lacked but a transient hour
Of sunset.

Hence it was that silent steps
Which lately lingered on the yielding sand
Grew quicker, steps of two whose threads of life
Seemed confluent : one a man with sun-browned

face,
Broad shouldered, heavy limbed ; not lacking

grace,

Yet of all grace unconscious ; such an one
As years of sea life might be looked to make :
The other a slight girl, with form as lithe
As willow, and her hair as full of lights
And deepening shadows as a forest stream.
And these two seemed intent on their one theme,






26 Woman o -t lie- Watch.

Unmindful of all else without the world
Which held their love, for they were to be wed
God willing on the morning of the day
Which brought another week, and even now
The man (Edward she called him) whispered low
Sweet sentences of what the future held,
A waiting treasure-trove of untold joys,
To fill her soul and his. So long, indeed,
Upon the unrestful bosom of the deep
He like a waif had wandered, that the thought
Of home and hearth and her he loved, all his,
Of tidy curtains drawn to half conceal
The Paradise within from him who stood
Without, perhaps the glow and hallowed light
Of childish faces pressed against the pane,
Seemed like a long-sought haven of repose
To over-weary hearts.

Such pictures now

He drew, while she, with quickening tumult filled,
Drank in his words and dared not lift her eyes
Lest, lifted, they betrayed more light of love
Than heart had faith to utter. Then he laughed
And said : " It is not long to-night I go
To gather store will ease the coming hours
Of our sweet honeymoon ; but I shall come
To thee again on Thursday, mark the time,
On Thursday ere the sun begin to sink."
And full of happy hopes of that near day,
He sang in undertones an old love song,
Tender and quaint, sea-savoured, and withal
Melodious :



Woman-o' -the- Watch. 27

My love, my love, the tide is flowing

And slipping under our polished keel ;
My love, my love, the breeze is blowing,
And over the waves the red sun glowing
Tips the spars as they rock and reel.

But tide may flow,

And breeze may blow,

Yet love, my love !

While Heaven 's above

I am thine, love, I am thine !

Sweetheart, sweetheart, the wind is droning

And sighing sadly among the shrouds ;
Sweetheart, sweetheart, the timbers groaning
Sound i' the air like a spirit moaning
Under the gray of the angry clouds.

Let timbers groan,

And spirits moan,

But, sweetheart, sweet !

Tho' time fly fleet

Thou art mine, love, thou art mine !

And drawing closer that half drooping head
Till all its burnt gold saddened into brown
Under his shoulder's shadow, Edward led
Their steps close to the little wharf, and then,
Half-playful, half in earnest, drew from out
His rough sea-jacket's ample inner folds,
A curious scarf of brilliant-colored stuffs
Inwoven with much pain of cunning hand
Into quaint emblems, meaningless or not,






28 Woman-o -the-Watch.

According to the power of him who sought

To find a meaning. All the colors, bright

As painted rainbows on a screen, quick caught

The eye, and thus had Edward, when he voyaged

In the last trading trip, seen at a booth

In some brisk Indian port this gewgaw which

He bought and carried home to please a whim

For brilliant hues. Now, drawing forth the scarf,

He held it to the girl and laughing cried :

" This be the sign love's duty first shall give

Of love's own sweet remembrance ; fasten thou

This, as a flag, upon some bit of staff

From out the scattered rubbish of the beach,

And when, heart-hungered, I shall sail near home

On Thursday, ere the sun begin to sink,

There, first of all land signals which I see,

Shall be this emblem fretting in the wind

And painting all its length against the sky ;

And so my heart shall gather firmer strength

To stay its further waiting, and the sign

Will waft assurance over leagues of air,

Saying, " Sweetheart, I wait, thy Ethel waits ;

Oh lover, husband, come ! " And then he turned

Quickly to catch the blood upon her cheek

Which that last word had brought, for well he

knew

How surely it would bring it, and so leaned
And kissed her. And, ere either knew, they

reached

The wharf. There Edward, once more cautioning :
" Forget not Thursday, ere the sun go down."



Woman-o -t he-Watch. 29

And whispering that whereof no man may know,
Save that it drew a flood of tender light
Across the violet shadows of her eyes,
Turned from her and was gone, and Ethel stood
Still as a statue, looking out to sea,
The scarf of inwrought emblems in her hand.
And on her face emblems yet deeper wrought,
Till clear-cut cordage barred across the sun,
And he had sailed into the West.

II.

Time moves

With fateful fingers on the dial, and oft
Resteps in his old footprints ; so I came
To that same stretch of beach that bore away
Monotonously northward. Now there stood
A thriving, bustling town, compactly built
And cut with streets rectangular, and neat
As woodbine tacked against a cottage wall,
Whereon the eye rests, with a wish the while
To see it tangled and half lost in grass.
The path that forty years before had led
With indirect directness to the mill
Was blotted out and covered o'er with flag,
And at the place where once the wharf had been
Arose a ponderous pier, its space o'erpacked
With merchandise piled in long tiers and placed
In orderly confusion. Out beyond,
A goodly show of shipping, taut and trim,
Spoke of the commerce of the little port,



3O Wonmn-o-thc- Watch'.

And led the eye to wander, as did mine,

Seeking the farther limits of the view

Half hid in haze. But soon, as though a spell,

Wielded by some resistless outer force,

Had fallen upon me, motionless I gazed

Upon a single object, wan and weird

As troubled dreams at dawn. There, in relief,

Sharp drawn against the background of the sky,

I saw the figure of a woman, tall,

But bent as with the weight of added years,

Stand peering out o'er misty miles of sea,

As though between the dull red vapor globe

Which marked the sun's position and herself

She looked to see some vision of a god

Float landward with the tide. Her left hand held

A slender rod, from whose half-splintered top

Fluttered a rag, flag-fashion, flapping hard

To rush away upon the gusty wind,

While with the right she shaded well her brow,

Nor seemed to know of aught without that space

Of sea and sky whereon her gaze was set.

And as I paused, regarding closer yet

That strange, quaint figure, close to where I stood

There passed a waterman, with slouching gait,

Who whistled a quick-changing sailor tune,

Full of queer grace-notes and untuneful trills,

That broke the current of my thought, and him

I beckoned, and, as being one' who knew

The local gossip of the port, I begged

That I might learn who the wan woman was

That stood so still facing the wind. And he,



Woman-o-t he-Watch. 31

Half doubting if the question asked were asked
In jest or earnest, raised his brows and smiled
That it were asked at all.

"I thought," he said,

" That all who ever came here knew the tale
Of Woman-o -the- Watch ! Why there she stands
Where she has stood once every week for more
Than forty years. I mind me of the times
When I, a lisping child playing among
The anchors and the nets, saw that same hand
Uphold that same split flag-staff, and those eyes
Look out to sea with that same longing look.
Master, I think I be full come to years
Of manhood, and that woman stood as now
Ere I was born."

And here he paused, with arm
Outstretched, pointing his words with gesture.

Then

Reflectively, as one who conjured up
Remembrances of childhood, he went on :
" I oft have heard my father tell the tale
How that old Ethel (she who stands there now)
Once on a time was deemed as fair a lass
As sailor's heart could pine for, and that when
One loved her and had won her love as well,
And they were to be wed, he that she loved
Had left her to be gone but half a week,
For he was, like the rest, a fisherman,
And thought to swell his store by one more trial
Against their coming marriage. But or e'er
Two days had marked his going there arose



32 Woman-o -the-Watch.

A tempest such as those whose frosted heads
First saw the sunlight on this coast had ne'er
Before beheld a tempest wild as war
And pitiless as death.

" Full well all knew

No fishing boat could live in such a sea,
And those whose fathers, husbands, brothers, sons,
Were out, like stricken deer, rushed up and down,
Some raving, others praying, and all wild ;
The women wrung their hands and wept, save one
(This one before us), who stood cold and white,
And never spake a word. The long night through
She seemed like some stone sculpture of despair
Or terror turned to ice. And when the day
Broke she was left like some dismantled barque,
Her eye despoiled of lustre, and across
Her sweet brow written nothingness. Her wits
Had gone out in the darkness of that night,
And naught was left but love.

" Thus sore bereft,
She, as it were, became a little child,
Pleased with a plaything, frightened by a frown ;
And even as a little child will find
In the same toy which yesterday beguiled,
Another toy quite fresh and new to-day,
To tire of now and want again to-morrow ;
So Ethel, with all ideas lost save one,
Because her lover, ere he went away,
Had bade her look on Thursday for his sail,
Has kept her curious calendar encased
Within her heart of heart, forgetful as



Woman-o-the- Watch. 3 3

Each Thursday's sun goes down that Thursday's sun

Has risen. Thus each week for forty years,

Like a wan worshipper at a sacred shrine,

She comes on Thursday ere the sun goes down,

Unfurling her poor pennon to the breeze

Upon the pier. She never fails, and so

The sailors call her Woman-d 1 -the- Watch.

That, master, is her story."

As the man

Finished, we came quite close to where she stood
(For we had walked the while he told the tale),
And I regarded well those far-off eyes,
Seeking their solemn secret. O'er her face
There glowed a strange flush, centering in the

cheeks,

Which told of lying hope, hope long deferred
And feeding on itself. Her hair, outblown,
Was nearly white, and all her figure seemed
But an embodied dream. Then, as the sea
Brake far adown the shore, a harmony
Of fast incoming tides, I heard her sing,
In tones so weakened with o'er-freighted days
The melody seemed drowned in half-spent tears :

" My love, my love, the tide is flowing

And slipping under our polished keel ;
My love, my love, the breeze is blowing,
And over the waves the red sun glowing
Tips the spars as they rock and reel.
But tide may flow,
And breeze may blow,



34 Woman-o -the- WatcJi.

Yet love, my love !

While Heaven 's above

I am thine, love, I am thine ! "

And I, who watched her closely, saw the light
The strange perennial light of those sad eyes
Flame dully, as a dying ember flames,
And half athwart her visage stole a smile
More pitiful than weeping, and anon
The eager tension of the muscles drew
The anxious look into her face again,
And she was once more peering out to sea
Silent as stone. But still the restless deep
In minor chords its requiem rolled abroad,
And once again she sang :

" Sweet-heart, sweet-heart, "

There the voice broke and faltered for a space,
As a dim memory of the shipwrecked mind
Stung the hurt heart to anguish, but ere long
She seemed upborne by some supernal force
That stirred the slumbering fires of her soul
And gave her youth and beauty. Once again
Erect she stood, her eye far-flashing with
The light of old, her form, remoulded, drawn
In gracefuller curves against the leaden sky.
The wind, which came in wet gusts from the sea,
Tore at her skirts and wrappings, and again,
Tugging with baffled malice at the flag,
The poor, frayed rag whose emblems, once in-
wrought,



Woman-o -the- Watcli. 35

Had wept themselves to whiteness in the storms
Of forty years, howled yet intent to drown
All voices save its own. Yet still her tones
Upswelled, defiant with their new-found strength ;
Her blood coursed quickly and the breath of youth
Came to her lips, and so the melody
Bore forth the words of that old, tender song,
Like the triumphant cry of him who fights
And conquers all :

" Sweet-heart, sweet-heart, the wind is droning

And sighing sadly among the shrouds :
Sweet-heart, sweet-heart, the timbers groaning
Sound i' the air like a spirit moaning
Under the gray of the angry clouds.

Let timbers groan,

And spirits moan,

But, sweet-heart, sweet !

Tho' time fly fleet

Thou art mine, love, thou art mine ! "

The strain rose glorified as though it held
A love outlasting death, and backward hurled
Defiance to the moth and rust of time !
Rose as that wondrous cry, triumphant, yet
So tender, which of old broke on the ears
Of Thracian women as they looked upon
The trunkless head of Orpheus, rushing on
Adown the tide of Hebrus, that wild cry :
" Eurydice, Eurydice, my own ! "
Then, as she finished, all her new-found fire
Faded and sank as sank the setting sun ;



36 Woman-o'-the- Watch.

And I turned sadly. And the woman stood
There in the deep'ning twilight.

Now the wind

Rose to a gale, and ere, with hasten'd steps,
I reached the nearer edges of the town,
Swirled the dry sand in circles, and anon
Broke 'round the angles into wails of woe ;
Yet once but for a moment bore along,
As it had been the fragment of a song,
Sung in the rhythm of another sphere,
A dying cadence, sad as falling leaves :

" Sweet-heart, sweet-heart, "

And then the mad wind veered,
And I heard nothing save its own wild chords
And the low sobs of the eternal sea.



MAGDALENE.
I.

HPHERE is a headland that o'erlooks the West

And on its forehead at each set of sun
Takes the warm farewell kisses of the day.
A windmill, too, with empty arms that plead
In desolation, widowed of the wind ;
And long unused stones, grown granulous,
As though the petulance of age and dearth
Cankered their disposition.

Half adown

The sloping hillside, walled from careless feet
And all the mild mutations of the field,
Stands in its sanctity a little plot
Set off forever to the silent dead,
The beautiful, wise dead, and here in peace
Sleep generations dreaming of the sun,
The footsore travellers of the island town
Who rest and wait the morrow.

Faring once

Across the headland, down the hillside, I
Came to this warm God's acre, and drew near,
Reading, as one who cons remembered lore,
The brief memorials cut in cumbering stone,
37



38 Magdalene.

The names of men revered and women loved,

Of children broken even as unoped buds

From stems that never healed them of the hurt,

Of kindred honored and friends gone before.

The headstones stood like sculptured sentinels

Anticipant in posture. One there was,

Partly in shadow of the loving grass,

Which drew my gaze by its elusive spell

And struck me into wonder. Over half

The legend-bearing stone the moss had grown,

Weaving a green, impenetrable veil,

And lichen, closer clinging than doth cling

Love's lips to lips that falter a farewell,

Covered it deeper into mystery.

So stood the tablet, bearing to the light

One half a history, while the shrouding bloom

Of reticent nature blotted out the rest.

I read a name, Honoria. To the right

A fair sunlit inscription. To the left

Naught but the masking greenery.

II.

So I came

And knelt before the cryptic stone, and bent
The sunburnt grasses back, and read the clear
Uncovered story of the sleeper :

" Here

Lies one whose hands were wrought to sacrifice ;
She visited the poor ; she served the sick ;
She did the Christ's work in a weary world."



Magdalene. 39

Then I, with heart that knew the weight of te?rs
And ever a haunting sense of life's strange coil,
With mine own soul communed : " In very truth
This woman was as one elect of God."
And yet the moss-grown riddle was unread ;
What message 'neath that mantle should I find ?
W'herefore this mutilated epitaph,
This tribute marred of half its meaning, blurred
To imperfection by the touch of Time ?

I stooped and painfully sought how to force
The moss and lichen from their stony soil ;
I c'ave the uprooted tendrils, piece by piece,
And tore the green delights whose cool caress
Lay like a storied palimpsest. Yet still
Those firm fond fingers of a dryad maid
Clung to the stone as love to life, and I
Won with hard toil a letter, then a word,
Wringing from weeping Nature what she held
In sacred trust of secrecy, and so
Filching a sentence from her shielding hand
In characters tear-stained to darker hue,
The record of a maimed life :

" She loved

Nor well nor wisely, and fell off apace,
And lived, alas ! unfaithful to her vows."

III.

Over the headland grieved the cadenced wind,
And fell among the grasses, and died off ;
A little ghost of perfume from a rose



4O Magdalene.

That nestled to the shelter of the mounds,
Touched me like spiritual fingers.

May not, then,

The sense of human justice be appeased,
That thus it graves a frailty into stone ?
Honoria, that hast ministered to need
And heard the low voice of the Nazarene,
Why has thy brother blazoned here thy sin ?
For this thy tomb thy noble deeds alone
Were fitting record. Nature's mercy knows
More than man's rigor dreams of, and has woven
Her careful web o'er his impeachment ; ay,
Even in thy fall, Honoria, thou hast found
The kiss of God upon thy ruined brow.

I climbed the hillside where the windmill stands
With pleading arms ; no sails, lateen and lank,
Shall ever again entice the breeze to sing
Light-hearted at its work ; and yet I thought
There came a whispered promise on the air
That loitered mid the field flowers, voluble :
" Much is forgiven, for she loved much."

And all the warm gold of the setting sun
Hallowed the headland that o'erlooks the West.
NANTUCKET.



D



THE WOOD ROBIN.

|EEP in the hooded aisles,
Green-gloomed recesses,
Where solitude beguiles
My mobled grief to smiles,

And half expresses

Dreams of song-music mystically sung ;
As one who bows to share
The benison of prayer,
My soul confesses

Madness in melody like fragrance flung
Fair over bloomy miles.

What art thou that canst bring

Such sweet nepenthe,
That I, who hear thee sing,
Elated, seem to wing

To Him who sent thee,
Far thro' the luminate and spacious sky ?
How from thy dulcet throat
Distillest thou the note
Delight hath lent thee
To ravish hearts till lips forget to sigh,
Lost in thy carolling ?
41



42 The Wood Robin.

From collied depths of trees,

In rhythmic motion,
Thy quavering gospel frees
Lays liquid as the seas

Sing to the ocean
Or leaves list in the whisper of the rain.

Messiah of the sky !

Incarnate Rhapsody !

In thy devotion,

Like Love's breath breathed across the lips of Pain,
Song shudders down the breeze.

Brother of Philomel,

Impassioned singer,
In thy full-throated swell
Such rest and rapture dwell

That joy, Joy-bringer,
Throbs thro' the threnody of weary years.
A-tremble down the green
Of married dusk and sheen
Thy wood-notes linger
In cadences whose laughter breaks to tears,
Forth faltering " Farewell."



SERVUS SERVORUM DEI.
(FROM A PICTURE.)

A SCENT of olive faltered in the air,

And Fra Anselmo, with his well-fed lip
Drawn up in contemplation, felt his brow
And pondered o'er his cards ; his brother there
Had thrown an ace, and smiling even now
As though he held the game, placed hand on hip
And half winked at Anselmo.

These two sat

Within the monastery garden, snug
And comfortable, with a flask of wine
And fruit upon a salver at their hand,
Fra Bartolomeo, lean and featured fine,
And Fra Anselmo, sensuously fat,
While on the breeze, as from a distant land,
A dreamful voice of bells hung rapturously
And broke to splintered music 'mid the boughs
That bended South and seemed intent to hug
The sun-soaked coping of the garden wall.
" Brother, I played an ace." The holy vows
Of Bartolomeo had not hurt his love
Of winning hands at cards. " Oh, is that all ? "
43



44 Servus Servorum Dei.

Anselmo laughed, " I'll cover it with this,
The diamond is the trump, I think, you said."

And ere he ceased to speak, a haggard man
Peered through the fretted gate, a man above
Whose brow were lines of toil, and whose bent back,
Grown callous by long journeyings, seemed wed
To the hard angles of his cumbrous pack.
A child was with him whose bewildered eyes
Held that within them which in time should fan
A man's heart into flame, but now there dwelt
Naught there but sadness and the light to seize
The rainbows hid in tears. These two had felt
Hard want together, and their postures plead
More eloquently than all spoken words.
Then from his pack the wayworn peddler drew
Some crucifixes carved in olive wood
And strung with chains of cunning handiwork,
And holding out his wares, in reverence stood
And begged the monks to purchase : " May it

please,

I have sold naught to-day." Anselmo threw
An angry glance, and with impatient jerk
Of his shaved head, ordered the man away,
The while the child looked wonderingly and wept
To see the sacred emblems sadly placed
Again within the pack : " Naught, naught to-day,"
She murmured, and they passed adown the road.

" I threw an ace," Fra Bartolomeo said.
The echoes of receding footsteps chased



Scrvus Scrvorum Dei. 45

Each other into distance, steps that strode

And steps that pattered, man and child who kept

Together on their weary way. And so

The image of the dying Christ passed, too,

And in the dusty highway disappeared.

Then mid the whispering leaves a note of woe

Seemed mingled with the chimes, and ever through

The music of the vespers wove a sigh.

" I threw an ace," Fra Bartolomeo said ;

And Fra Anselmo answered : " Yes, and I

Have thrown a diamond, 't is the trump that wins

(Whether the cards be spotted black or red),

Most of the games played in this world of sins."

And once again a sob was in the bells :
Fra Bartolomeo sipped his wine and smiled.
The sun was setting, and the East grew wan
As one whose pallor hasting death foretells.
Anselmo dealt his cards. The sad-eyed child,
The bended man, the broken Christ were gone.



THE SEA.

T LLIMITABLE Brahman of the Earth !

Great Self to which the World-Soul gravitates !


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Online LibraryFrancis Howard WilliamsThe flute-player and other poems → online text (page 2 of 5)