Owen Meredith.

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The moon, swathed in storm, has long set: through the camp
No sound save the sentinel's slow sullen tramp,
The distant explosion, the wild sleety wind,
That seems searching for something it never can find.
The midnight is turning: the lamp is nigh spent:
And, wounded and lone, in a desolate tent
Lies a young British soldier whose sword...
In this place,
However, my Muse is compell'd to retrace
Her precipitous steps and revert to the past.
The shock which had suddenly shatter'd at last
Alfred Vargrave's fantastical holiday nature,
Had sharply drawn forth to his full size and stature
The real man, conceal'd till that moment beneath
All he yet had appear'd. From the gay broider'd sheath
Which a man in his wrath flings aside, even so
Leaps the keen trenchant steel summon'd forth by a blow.
And thus loss of fortune gave value to life.
The wife gain'd a husband, the husband a wife,
In that home which, though humbled and narrow'd by fate,
Was enlarged and ennobled by love. Low their state,
But large their possessions.
Sir Ridley, forgiven
By those he unwittingly brought nearer heaven
By one fraudulent act, than through all his sleek speech
The hypocrite brought his own soul, safe from reach
Of the law, died abroad.
Cousin John, heart and hand,
Purse and person, henceforth (honest man!) took his stand
By Matilda and Alfred; guest, guardian, and friend
Of the home he both shared and assured, to the end,
With his large lively love. Alfred Vargrave meanwhile
Faced the world's frown, consoled by his wife's faithful smile.
Late in life he began life in earnest; and still,
With the tranquil exertion of resolute will,
Through long, and laborious, and difficult days,
Out of manifold failure, by wearisome ways,
Work'd his way through the world; till at last he began
(Reconciled to the work which mankind claims for man),
After years of unwitness'd, unwearied endeavor,
Years impassion'd yet patient, to realize ever
More clear on the broad stream of current opinion
The reflex of powers in himself - that dominion
Which the life of one man, if his life be a truth,
May assert o'er the life of mankind. Thus, his youth
In his manhood renew'd, fame and fortune he won
Working only for home, love, and duty.
One son
Matilda had borne him; but scarce had the boy,
With all Eton yet fresh in his full heart's frank joy,
The darling of young soldier comrades, just glanced
Down the glad dawn of manhood at life, when it chanced
That a blight sharp and sudden was breath'd o'er the bloom
Of his joyous and generous years, and the gloom
Of a grief premature on their fair promise fell:
No light cloud like those which, for June to dispel,
Captious April engenders; but deep as his own
Deep nature. Meanwhile, ere I fully make known
The cause of this sorrow, I track the event.
When first a wild war-note through England was sent,
He, transferring without either token or word,
To friend, parent, or comrade, a yet virgin sword,
From a holiday troop, to one bound for the war,
Had march'd forth, with eyes that saw death in the star
Whence others sought glory. Thus fighting, he fell
On the red field of Inkerman; found, who can tell
By what miracle, breathing, though shatter'd, and borne
To the rear by his comrades, pierced, bleeding, and torn.
Where for long days and nights, with the wound in his side,
He lay, dark.


But a wound deeper far, undescried,
The young heart was rankling; for there, of a truth,
In the first earnest faith of a pure pensive youth,
A love large as life, deep and changeless as death,
Lay ensheath'd: and that love, ever fretting its sheath,
The frail scabbard of life pierced and wore through and through.
There are loves in man's life for which time can renew
All that time may destroy. Lives there are, though, in love,
Which cling to one faith, and die with it; nor move,
Though earthquakes may shatter the shrine.
Whence or how
Love laid claim to this young life, it matters not now.


Oh is it a phantom? a dream of the night?
A vision which fever hath fashion'd to sight?
The wind wailing ever, with motion uncertain,
Sways sighingly there the drench'd tent's tattered curtain,
To and fro, up and down.
But it is not the wind
That is lifting it now: and it is not the mind
That hath moulded that vision.
A pale woman enters,
As wan as the lamp's waning light, which concenters
Its dull glare upon her. With eyes dim and dimmer
There, all in a slumberous and shadowy glimmer,
The sufferer sees that still form floating on,
And feels faintly aware that he is not alone.
She is flitting before him. She pauses. She stands
By his bedside all silent. She lays her white hands
On the brow of the boy. A light finger is pressing
Softly, softly the sore wounds: the hot blood-stain'd dressing
Slips from them. A comforting quietude steals
Through the rack'd weary frame; and, throughout it, he feels
The slow sense of a merciful, mild neighborhood.
Something smooths the toss'd pillow. Beneath a gray hood
Of rough serge, two intense tender eyes are bent o'er him,
And thrill through and through him. The sweet form before him,
It is surely Death's angel Life's last vigil keeping!
A soft voice says... "Sleep!"
And he sleeps: he is sleeping.


He waked before dawn. Still the vision is there.
Still that pale woman moves not. A minist'ring care
Meanwhile has been silently changing and cheering
The aspect of all things around him.
Some power unknown, and benignant, he bless'd
In silence the sense of salvation. And rest
Having loosen'd the mind's tangled meshes, he faintly
Sigh'd... "Say what thou art, blessed dream of a saintly
And minist'ring spirit!"
A whisper serene
Slid, softer than silence... "The Soeur Seraphine,
A poor Sister of Charity. Shun to inquire
Aught further, young soldier. The son of thy sire,
For the sake of that sire, I reclaim from the grave.
Thou didst not shun death: shun not life: 'Tis more brave
To live than to die. Sleep!"
He sleeps: he is sleeping.


He waken'd again, when the dawn was just steeping
The skies with chill splendor. And there, never flitting,
Never flitting, that vision of mercy was sitting.
As the dawn to the darkness, so life seemed returning
Slowly, feebly within him. The night-lamp yet burning,
Made ghastly the glimmering daybreak.
He said,
"If thou be of the living, and not of the dead,
Sweet minister, pour out yet further the healing
Of that balmy voice; if it may be, revealing
Thy mission of mercy; whence art thou?"
"O son
Of Matilda and Alfred, it matters not! One
Who is not of the living nor yet of the dead:
To thee, and to others, alive yet"... she said...
"So long as there liveth the poor gift in me
Of this ministration; to them, and to thee,
Dead in all things beside. A French Nun, whose vocation
Is now by this bedside. A nun hath no nation.
Wherever man suffers, or woman may soothe,
There her land! there her kindred!"
She bent down to smooth
The hot pillow; and added... "Yet more than another
Is thy life dear to me. For thy father, thy mother,
I know them - I know them."
"Oh, can it be? you!
My dearest dear father! my mother! you knew,'
You know them?"
She bowed, half averting her head
In silence.
He brokenly, timidly said,
"Do they know I am thus?"
"Hush!"... she smiled, as she drew
From her bosom two letters: and - can it be true?
That beloved and familiar writing!
He burst
Into tears... "My poor mother - my father! the worst
Will have reach'd them!"
"No, no!" she exclaimed, with a smile,
"They know you are living; they know that meanwhile
I am watching beside you. Young soldier, weep not!"
But still on the nun's nursing bosom, the hot
Fever'd brow of the boy weeping wildly is press'd.
There, at last, the young heart sobs itself into rest:
And he hears, as it were between smiling and weeping,
The calm voice say... "Sleep!"
And he sleeps, he is sleeping.


And day follow'd day. And, as wave follow'd wave,
With the tide, day by day, life, re-issuing, drave
Through that young hardy frame novel currents of health.
Yet some strange obstruction, which life's health by stealth
Seemed to cherish, impeded life's progress. And still
A feebleness, less of the frame than the will,
Clung about the sick man - hid and harbor'd within
The sad hollow eyes: pinch'd the cheek pale and thin:
And clothed the wan fingers with languor.
And there,
Day by day, night by night, unremitting in care,
Unwearied in watching, so cheerful of mien,
And so gentle of hand, sat the Soeur Seraphine!


A strange woman truly! not young; yet her face,
Wan and worn as it was, bore about it the trace
Of a beauty which time could not ruin. For the whole
Quiet cheek, youth's lost bloom left transparent, the soul
Seemed to fill with its own light, like some sunny fountain
Everlastingly fed from far off in the mountain
That pours, in a garden deserted, its streams,
And all the more lovely for loneliness seems.
So that, watching that face, you could scarce pause to guess
The years which its calm careworn lines might express,
Feeling only what suffering with these must have past
To have perfected there so much sweetness at last.


Thus, one bronzen evening, when day had put out,
His brief thrifty fires, and the wind was about,
The nun, watchful still by the boy, on his own
Laid a firm quiet hand, and the deep tender tone
Of her voice moved the silence.
She said... "I have heal'd
These wounds of the body. Why hast thou conceal'd,
Young soldier, that yet open wound in the heart?
Wilt thou trust NO hand near it?"
He winced, with a start,
As of one that is suddenly touched on the spot
From which every nerve derives suffering.
Lies my heart, then, so bare?" he moaned bitterly.
With compassionate accents she hastened to say,
"Do you think that these eyes are with sorrow, young man,
So all unfamiliar, indeed, as to scan
Her features, yet know them not?
"Oh, was it spoken,
'Go ye forth, heal the sick, lift the low, bind the broken!'
Of the body alone? Is our mission, then, done,
When we leave the bruised hearts, if we bind the bruised bone?
Nay, is not the mission of mercy twofold?
Whence twofold, perchance, are the powers that we hold
To fulfil it, of Heaven! For Heaven doth still
To us, Sisters, it may be, who seek it, send skill
Won from long intercourse with affliction, and art
Help'd of Heaven, to bind up the broken of heart.
Trust to me!" (His two feeble hands in her own
She drew gently.) "Trust to me!" (she said, with soft tone):
"I am not so dead in remembrance to all
I have died to in this world, but what I recall
Enough of its sorrow, enough of its trial,
To grieve for both - save from both haply! The dial
Receives many shades, and each points to the sun.
The shadows are many, the sunlight is one.
Life's sorrows still fluctuate: God's love does not.
And His love is unchanged, when it changes our lot.
Looking up to this light, which is common to all,
And down to these shadows, on each side, that fall
In time's silent circle, so various for each,
Is it nothing to know that they never can reach
So far, but what light lies beyond them forever?
Trust to me! Oh, if in this hour I endeavor
To trace the shade creeping across the young life
Which, in prayer till this hour, I have watch'd through its strife
With the shadow of death, 'tis with this faith alone,
That, in tracing the shade, I shall find out the sun.
Trust to me!"
She paused: he was weeping. Small need
Of added appeal, or entreaty, indeed,
Had those gentle accents to win from his pale
And parch'd, trembling lips, as it rose, the brief tale
Of a life's early sorrow. The story is old,
And in words few as may be shall straightway be told.


A few years ago, ere the fair form of Peace
Was driven from Europe, a young girl - the niece
Of a French noble, leaving an old Norman pile
By the wild northern seas, came to dwell for a while
With a lady allied to her race - an old dame
Of a threefold legitimate virtue, and name,
In the Faubourg Saint Germain.
Upon that fair child,
From childhood, nor father nor mother had smiled.
One uncle their place in her life had supplied,
And their place in her heart: she had grown at his side,
And under his roof-tree, and in his regard,
From childhood to girlhood.
This fair orphan ward
Seem'd the sole human creature that lived in the heart
Of that stern rigid man, or whose smile could impart
One ray of response to the eyes which, above
Her fair infant forehead, look'd down with a love
That seem'd almost stern, so intense was its chill
Lofty stillness, like sunlight on some lonely hill
Which is colder and stiller than sunlight elsewhere.

Grass grew in the court-yard; the chambers were bare
In that ancient mansion; when first the stern tread
Of its owner awaken'd their echoes long dead:
Bringing with him this infant (the child of a brother),
Whom, dying, the hands of a desolate mother
Had placed on his bosom. 'Twas said - right or wrong -
That, in the lone mansion, left tenantless long,
To which, as a stranger, its lord now return'd,
In years yet recall'd, through loud midnights had burn'd
The light of wild orgies. Be that false or true,
Slow and sad was the footstep which now wander'd through
Those desolate chambers; and calm and severe
Was the life of their inmate.
Men now saw appear
Every morn at the mass that firm sorrowful face,
Which seem'd to lock up in a cold iron case
Tears harden'd to crystal. Yet harsh if he were,
His severity seem'd to be trebly severe
In the rule of his own rigid life, which, at least,
Was benignant to others. The poor parish priest,
Who lived on his largess, his piety praised.
The peasant was fed, and the chapel was raised,
And the cottage was built, by his liberal hand.
Yet he seem'd in the midst of his good deeds to stand
A lone, and unloved, and unlovable man.
There appear'd some inscrutable flaw in the plan
Of his life, that love fail'd to pass over.
That child
Alone did not fear him, nor shrink from him; smiled
To his frown, and dispell'd it.
The sweet sportive elf
Seem'd the type of some joy lost, and miss'd, in himself.
Ever welcome he suffer'd her glad face to glide
In on hours when to others his door was denied:
And many a time with a mute moody look
He would watch her at prattle and play, like a brook
Whose babble disturbs not the quietest spot,
But soothes us because we need answer it not.

But few years had pass'd o'er that childhood before
A change came among them. A letter, which bore
Sudden consequence with it, one morning was placed
In the hands of the lord of the chateau. He paced
To and fro in his chamber a whole night alone
After reading that letter. At dawn he was gone.
Weeks pass'd. When he came back again he return'd
With a tall ancient dame, from whose lips the child learn'd
That they were of the same race and name. With a face
Sad and anxious, to this wither'd stock of the race
He confided the orphan, and left them alone
In the old lonely house.
In a few days 'twas known,
To the angry surprise of half Paris, that one
Of the chiefs of that party which, still clinging on
To the banner that bears the white lilies of France,
Will fight 'neath no other, nor yet for the chance
Of restoring their own, had renounced the watchword
And the creed of his youth in unsheathing his sword,
For a Fatherland father'd no more (such is fate!)
By legitimate parents.
And meanwhile, elate
And in no wise disturbed by what Paris might say,
The new soldier thus wrote to a friend far away: -
"To the life of inaction farewell! After all,
Creeds the oldest may crumble, and dynasties fall,
But the sole grand Legitimacy will endure,
In whatever makes death noble, life strong and pure.
Freedom! action!... the desert to breathe in - the lance
Of the Arab to follow! I go! vive la France!"

Few and rare were the meetings henceforth, as years fled,
'Twixt the child and the soldier. The two women led
Lone lives in the lone house. Meanwhile the child grew
Into girlhood; and, like a sunbeam, sliding through
Her green quiet years, changed by gentle degrees
To the loveliest vision of youth a youth sees
In his loveliest fancies: as pure as a pearl,
And as perfect: a noble and innocent girl,
With eighteen sweet summers dissolved in the light
Of her lovely and lovable eyes, soft and bright!
Then her guardian wrote to the dame,... "Let Constance
Go with you to Paris. I trust that in France
I may be ere the close of the year. I confide
My life's treasure to you. Let her see, at your side,
The world which we live in."
To Paris then came
Constance to abide with that old stately dame
In that old stately Faubourg.
The young Englishman
Thus met her. 'Twas there their acquaintance began,
There it closed. That old miracle, Love-at-first-sight,
Needs no explanations. The heart reads aright
Its destiny sometimes. His love neither chidden
Nor check'd, the young soldier was graciously bidden
An habitual guest to that house by the dame.
His own candid graces, the world-honor'd name
Of his father (in him not dishonor'd) were both
Fair titles to favor. His love, nothing loath,
The old lady observed, was return'd by Constance.
And as the child's uncle his absence from France
Yet prolong'd, she (thus easing long self-gratulation)
Wrote to him a lengthen'd and moving narration
Of the graces and gifts of the young English wooer:
His father's fair fame; the boy's deference to her;
His love for Constance, - unaffected, sincere;
And the girl's love for him, read by her in those clear
Limpid eyes; then the pleasure with which she awaited
Her cousin's approval of all she had stated.

At length from that cousin an answer there came,
Brief, stern; such as stunn'd and astonish'd the dame.

"Let Constance leave Paris with you on the day
You receive this. Until my return she may stay
At her convent awhile. If my niece wishes ever
To behold me again, understand, she will never
Wed that man.
"You have broken faith with me. Farewell!"
No appeal from that sentence.
It needs not to tell
The tears of Constance, nor the grief of her lover:
The dream they had laid out their lives in was over.
Bravely strove the young soldier to look in the face
Of a life where invisible hands seemed to trace
O'er the threshold these words... "Hope no more!"

Had his love been, the strong manful heart would have spurn'd
That weakness which suffers a woman to lie
At the roots of man's life, like a canker, and dry
And wither the sap of life's purpose. But there
Lay the bitterer part of the pain! Could he dare
To forget he was loved? that he grieved not alone?
Recording a love that drew sorrow upon
The woman he loved, for himself dare he seek
Surcease to that sorrow, which thus held him weak,
Beat him down, and destroy'd him?
News reach'd him indeed,
Through a comrade, who brought him a letter to read
From the dame who had care of Constance (it was one
To whom, when at Paris, the boy had been known,
A Frenchman, and friend of the Faubourg), which said
That Constance, although never a murmur betray'd
What she suffer'd, in silence grew paler each day,
And seem'd visibly drooping and dying away.
It was then he sought death.


Thus the tale ends. 'Twas told
With such broken, passionate words, as unfold
In glimpses alone, a coil'd grief. Through each pause
Of its fitful recital, in raw gusty flaws,
The rain shook the canvas, unheeded; aloof,
And unheeded, the night-wind around the tent-roof
At intervals wirbled. And when all was said,
The sick man, exhausted, droop'd backward his head,
And fell into a feverish slumber.
Long while
Sat the Soeur Seraphine, in deep thought. The still smile
That was wont, angel-wise, to inhabit her face
And made it like heaven, was fled from its place
In her eyes, on her lips; and a deep sadness there
Seem'd to darken the lines of long sorrow and care,
As low to herself she sigh'd...
"Hath it, Eugene,
Been so long, then, the struggle?... and yet, all in vain!
Nay, not all in vain! shall the world gain a man,
And yet Heaven lose a soul? Have I done all I can?
Soul to soul, did he say? Soul to soul, be it so!
And then - soul of mine, whither? whither?"


Large, slow,
Silent tears in those deep eyes ascended, and fell.
"HERE, at least, I have fail'd not"... she mused... "this is well!"
She drew from her bosom two letters.
In one,
A mother's heart, wild with alarm for her son,
Breathed bitterly forth its despairing appeal.
"The pledge of a love owed to thee, O Lucile!
The hope of a home saved by thee - of a heart
Which hath never since then (thrice endear'd as thou art!)
Ceased to bless thee, to pray for thee, save! save my son!
And if not"... the letter went brokenly on,
"Heaven help us!"

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Online LibraryOwen MeredithLucile → online text (page 16 of 18)