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Owen Meredith.

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Then follow'd, from Alfred, a few
Blotted heart-broken pages. He mournfully drew,
With pathos, the picture of that earnest youth,
So unlike his own; how in beauty and truth
He had nurtured that nature, so simple and brave!
And how he had striven his son's youth to save
From the errors so sadly redeem'd in his own,
And so deeply repented: how thus, in that son,
In whose youth he had garner'd his age, he had seem'd
To be bless'd by a pledge that the past was redeem'd,
And forgiven. He bitterly went on to speak
Of the boy's baffled love; in which fate seem'd to break
Unawares on his dreams with retributive pain,
And the ghosts of the past rose to scourge back again
The hopes of the future. To sue for consent
Pride forbade: and the hope his old foe might relent
Experience rejected... "My life for the boy's!"
(He exclaim'd); "for I die with my son, if he dies!
Lucile! Heaven bless you for all you have done!
Save him, save him, Lucile! save my son! save my son!"


XIX.


"Ay!" murmur'd the Soeur Seraphine... "heart to heart!
THERE, at least, I have fail'd not! Fulfill'd is my part?
Accomplish'd my mission? One act crowns the whole.
Do I linger? Nay, be it so, then!... Soul to soul!"
She knelt down, and pray'd. Still the boy slumber'd on,
Dawn broke. The pale nun from the bedside was gone.


XX.

Meanwhile, 'mid his aides-de-camp, busily bent
O'er the daily reports, in his well-order'd tent
There sits a French General - bronzed by the sun
And sear'd by the sands of Algeria. One
Who forth from the wars of the wild Kabylee
Had strangely and rapidly risen to be
The idol, the darling, the dream and the star
Of the younger French chivalry: daring in war,
And wary in council. He enter'd, indeed,
Late in life (and discarding his Bourbonite creed)
The Army of France: and had risen, in part
From a singular aptitude proved for the art
Of that wild desert warfare of ambush, surprise,
And stratagem, which to the French camp supplies
Its subtlest intelligence; partly from chance;
Partly, too, from a name and position which France
Was proud to put forward; but mainly, in fact,
From the prudence to plan, and the daring to act,
In frequent emergencies startlingly shown,
To the rank which he now held, - intrepidly won
With many a wound, trench'd in many a scar,
From fierce Milianah and Sidi-Sakhdar.


XXI.


All within, and without, that warm tent seems to bear
Smiling token of provident order and care.
All about, a well-fed, well-clad soldiery stands
In groups round the music of mirth-breathing bands.
In and out of the tent, all day long, to and fro,
The messengers come and the messengers go,
Upon missions of mercy, or errands of toil:
To report how the sapper contends with the soil
In the terrible trench, how the sick man is faring
In the hospital tent: and, combining, comparing,
Constructing, within moves the brain of one man,
Moving all.
He is bending his brow o'er some plan
For the hospital service, wise, skilful, humane.
The officer standing behind him is fain
To refer to the angel solicitous cares
Of the Sisters of Charity: one he declares
To be known through the camp as a seraph of grace;
He has seen, all have seen her indeed, in each place
Where suffering is seen, silent, active - the Soeur...
Soeur... how do they call her?
"Ay, truly, of her
I have heard much," the General, musing, replies;
"And we owe her already (unless rumor lies)
The lives of not few of our bravest. You mean
Ah, how do they call her?... the Soeur - Seraphine
(Is it not so?). I rarely forget names once heard."

"Yes; the Soeur Seraphine. Her I meant."
"On my word,
I have much wish'd to see her. I fancy I trace,
In some facts traced to her, something more than the grace
Of an angel; I mean an acute human mind,
Ingenious, constructive, intelligent. Find,
And if possible, let her come to me. We shall,
I think, aid each other."
"Oui, mon General:
I believe she has lately obtained the permission
To tend some sick man in the Second Division
Of our Ally; they say a relation."
"Ay, so?
A relation?"
"'Tis said so."
"The name do you know?"
Non, mon General."
While they spoke yet, there went
A murmur and stir round the door of the tent.
"A Sister of Charity craves, in a case
Of urgent and serious importance, the grace
Of brief private speech with the General there.
Will the General speak with her?"
"Bid her declare
Her mission."
"She will not. She craves to be seen
And be heard."
"Well, her name, then?"
"The Soeur Seraphine."
"Clear the tent. She may enter."


XXII.


The tent has been clear'd,
The chieftain stroked moodily somewhat his beard,
A sable long silver'd: and press'd down his brow
On his hand, heavy vein'd. All his countenance, now
Unwitness'd, at once fell dejected, and dreary,
As a curtain let fall by a hand that's grown weary,
Into puckers and folds. From his lips, unrepress'd,
Steals th' impatient sigh which reveals in man's breast
A conflict conceal'd, and experience at strife
With itself, - the vex'd heart's passing protest on life.
He turn'd to his papers. He heard the light tread
Of a faint foot behind him: and, lifting his head,
Said, "Sit, Holy Sister! your worth is well known
To the hearts of our soldiers; nor less to my own.
I have much wish'd to see you. I owe you some thanks;
In the name of all those you have saved to our ranks
I record them. Sit! Now then, your mission?"
The nun
Paused silent. The General eyed her anon
More keenly. His aspect grew troubled. A change
Darken'd over his features. He mutter'd "Strange! strange!
Any face should so strongly remind me of HER!
Fool! again the delirium, the dream! does it stir?
Does it move as of old? Psha!
"Sit, Sister! I wait
Your answer, my time halts but hurriedly. State
The cause why you seek me."
"The cause? ay, the cause!"
She vaguely repeated. Then, after a pause, -
As one who, awaked unawares, would put back
The sleep that forever returns in the track
Of dreams which, though scared and dispersed, not the less
Settle back to faint eyelids that yield 'neath their stress,
Like doves to a pent-house, - a movement she made,
Less toward him than away from herself; droop'd her head
And folded her hands on her bosom: long, spare,
Fatigued, mournful hands! Not a stream of stray hair
Escaped the pale bands; scarce more pale than the face
Which they bound and lock'd up in a rigid white case.
She fix'd her eyes on him. There crept a vague awe
O'er his sense, such as ghosts cast.
"Eugene de Luvois,
The cause which recalls me again to your side,
Is a promise that rests unfulfill'd," she replied.
"I come to fulfil it."
He sprang from the place
Where he sat, press'd his hand, as in doubt, o'er his face;
And, cautiously feeling each step o'er the ground
That he trod on (as one who walks fearing the sound
Of his footstep may startle and scare out of sight
Some strange sleeping creature on which he would 'light
Unawares), crept towards her; one heavy hand laid
On her shoulder in silence; bent o'er her his head,
Search'd her face with a long look of troubled appeal
Against doubt: stagger'd backward, and murmur'd... "Lucile?
Thus we meet then?... here!... thus?"
"Soul to soul, ay,
Eugene,
As I pledged you my word that we should meet again.
Dead,..." she murmur'd, "long dead! all that lived in our lives -
Thine and mine - saving that which ev'n life's self survives,
The soul! 'Tis my soul seeks thine own. What may reach
From my life to thy life (so wide each from each!)
Save the soul to the soul? To thy soul I would speak.
May I do so?"
He said (work'd and white was his cheek
As he raised it), "Speak to me!"
Deep, tender, serene,
And sad was the gaze which the Soeur Seraphine
Held on him. She spoke.


XXIII.


As some minstrel may fling,
Preluding the music yet mute in each string,
A swift hand athwart the hush'd heart of the whole,
Seeking which note most fitly must first move the soul;
And, leaving untroubled the deep chords below,
Move pathetic in numbers remote; - even so
The voice which was moving the heart of that man
Far away from its yet voiceless purpose began,
Far away in the pathos remote of the past;
Until, through her words, rose before him, at last,
Bright and dark in their beauty, the hopes that were gone
Unaccomplish'd from life.
He was mute.


XXIV.


She went on
And still further down the dim past did she lead
Each yielding remembrance, far, far off, to feed
'Mid the pastures of youth, in the twilight of hope,
And the valleys of boyhood, the fresh-flower'd slope
Of life's dawning land!
'Tis the heart of a boy,
With its indistinct, passionate prescience of joy!
The unproved desire - the unaim'd aspiration -
The deep conscious life that forestalls consummation
With ever a flitting delight - one arm's length
In advance of the august inward impulse.
The strength
Of the spirit which troubles the seed in the sand
With the birth of the palm-tree! Let ages expand
The glorious creature! The ages lie shut
(Safe, see!) in the seed, at time's signal to put
Forth their beauty and power, leaf by leaf, layer on layer,
Till the palm strikes the sun, and stands broad in blue air.
So the palm in the palm-seed! so, slowly - so, wrought
Year by year unperceived, hope on hope, thought by thought,
Trace the growth of the man from its germ in the boy.
Ah, but Nature, that nurtures, may also destroy!
Charm the wind and the sun, lest some chance intervene!
While the leaf's in the bud, while the stem's in the green,
A light bird bends the branch, a light breeze breaks the bough,
Which, if spared by the light breeze, the light bird, may grow
To baffle the tempest, and rock the high nest,
And take both the bird and the breeze to its breast.
Shall we save a whole forest in sparing one seed?
Save the man in the boy? in the thought save the deed?
Let the whirlwind uproot the grown tree, if it can!
Save the seed from the north wind. So let the grown man
Face our fate. Spare the man-seed in youth.
He was dumb.
She went one step further.


XXV.


Lo! manhood is come.
And love, the wild song-bird, hath flown to the tree.
And the whirlwind comes after. Now prove we, and see:
What shade from the leaf? what support from the branch?
Spreads the leaf broad and fair? holds the bough strong and staunch?
There, he saw himself - dark, as he stood on that night,
The last when they met and they parted: a sight
For heaven to mourn o'er, for hell to rejoice!
An ineffable tenderness troubled her voice;
It grew weak, and a sigh broke it through.
Then he said
(Never looking at her, never lifting his head,
As though, at his feet, there lay visibly hurl'd
Those fragments), "It was not a love, 'twas a world,
'Twas a life that lay ruin'd, Lucile!"


XXVI.


She went on.
"So be it! Perish Babel, arise Babylon!
From ruins like these rise the fanes that shall last,
And to build up the future heaven shatters the past."
"Ay," he moodily murmur'd, "and who cares to scan
The heart's perish'd world, if the world gains a man?
From the past to the present, though late, I appeal;
To the nun Seraphine, from the woman Lucile!"


XXVII.


Lucile!... the old name - the old self! silenced long:
Heard once more! felt once more!
As some soul to the throng
Of invisible spirits admitted, baptized
By death to a new name and nature - surprised
'Mid the songs of the seraphs, hears faintly, and far,
Some voice from the earth, left below a dim star,
Calling to her forlornly; and (sadd'ning the psalms
Of the angels, and piercing the Paradise palms!)
The name borne 'mid earthly beloveds on earth
Sigh'd above some lone grave in the land of her birth; -
So that one word... Lucile!... stirr'd the Soeur Seraphine,
For a moment. Anon she resumed here serene
And concentrated calm.
"Let the Nun, then, retrace
The life of the soldier!"... she said, with a face
That glow'd, gladdening her words.
"To the present I come:
Leave the Past!"
There her voice rose, and seem'd as when some
Pale Priestess proclaims from her temple the praise
Of her hero whose brows she is crowning with bays.
Step by step did she follow his path from the place
Where their two paths diverged. Year by year did she trace
(Familiar with all) his, the soldier's existence.
Her words were of trial, endurance, resistance;
Of the leaguer around this besieged world of ours:
And the same sentinels that ascend the same towers
And report the same foes, the same fears, the same strife,
Waged alike to the limits of each human life.
She went on to speak of the lone moody lord,
Shut up in his lone moody halls: every word
Held the weight of a tear: she recorded the good
He had patiently wrought through a whole neighborhood;
And the blessing that lived on the lips of the poor,
By the peasant's hearthstone, or the cottager's door.
There she paused: and her accents seem'd dipp'd in the hue
Of his own sombre heart, as the picture she drew
Of the poor, proud, sad spirit, rejecting love's wages,
Yet working love's work; reading backwards life's pages
For penance; and stubbornly, many a time,
Both missing the moral, and marring the rhyme.
Then she spoke of the soldier!... the man's work and fame,
The pride of a nation, a world's just acclaim!
Life's inward approval!


XXVIII.


Her voice reach'd his heart,
And sank lower. She spoke of herself: how, apart
And unseen, - far away, - she had watch'd, year by year,
With how many a blessing, how many a tear,
And how many a prayer, every stage in the strife:
Guess'd the thought in the deed: traced the love in the life:
Bless'd the man in the man's work!
"THY work... oh, not mine!
Thine, Lucile!"... he exclaim'd... "all the worth of it thine,
If worth there be in it!"
Her answer convey'd
His reward, and her own: joy that cannot be said
Alone by the voice... eyes - face - spoke silently:
All the woman, one grateful emotion!
And she
A poor Sister of Charity! hers a life spent
In one silent effort for others!...
She bent
Her divine face above him, and fill'd up his heart
With the look that glow'd from it.
Then slow, with soft art,
Fix'd her aim, and moved to it.


XXIX.


He, the soldier humane,
He, the hero; whose heart hid in glory the pain
Of a youth disappointed; whose life had made known
The value of man's life!... that youth overthrown
And retrieved, had it left him no pity for youth
In another? his own life of strenuous truth
Accomplish'd in act, had it taught him no care
For the life of another?... oh no! everywhere
In the camp which she moved through, she came face to face
With some noble token, some generous trace
Of his active humanity...
"Well," he replied,
"If it be so?"
"I come from the solemn bedside
Of a man that is dying," she said. "While we speak,
A life is in jeopardy."
"Quick then! you seek
Aid or medicine, or what?"
"'Tis not needed," she said.
"Medicine? yes, for the mind! 'Tis a heart that needs aid!
You, Eugene de Luvois, you (and you only) can
Save the life of this man. Will you save it?"
"What man?
How?... where?... can you ask?"
She went rapidly on
To her object in brief vivid words... The young son
Of Matilda and Alfred - the boy lying there
Half a mile from that tent door - the father's despair,
The mother's deep anguish - the pride of the boy
In the father - the father's one hope and one joy
In the son: - -the son now - wounded, dying! She told
Of the father's stern struggle with life: the boy's bold,
Pure, and beautiful nature: the fair life before him
If that life were but spared... yet a word might restore him!
The boy's broken love for the niece of Eugene!
Its pathos: the girl's love for him; how, half slain
In his tent, she had found him: won from him the tale;
Sought to nurse back his life; found her efforts still fail
Beaten back by a love that was stronger than life;
Of how bravely till then he had stood in that strife
Wherein England and France in their best blood, at last,
Had bathed from remembrance the wounds of the past.
And shall nations be nobler than men? Are not great
Men the models of nations? For what is a state
But the many's confused imitation of one?
Shall he, the fair hero of France, on the son
Of his ally seek vengeance, destroying perchance
An innocent life, - here, when England and France
Have forgiven the sins of their fathers of yore,
And baptized a new hope in their sons' recent gore?
She went on to tell how the boy had clung still
To life, for the sake of life's uses, until
From his weak hands the strong effort dropp'd, stricken down
By the news that the heart of Constance, like his own,
Was breaking beneath...
But there "Hold!" he exclaim'd,
Interrupting, "Forbear!"... his whole face was inflamed
With the heart's swarthy thunder which yet, while she spoke,
Had been gathering silent - at last the storm broke
In grief or in wrath...
"'Tis to him, then," he cried,...
Checking suddenly short the tumultuous stride,
"That I owe these late greetings - for him you are here -
For his sake you seek me - for him, it is clear,
You have deign'd at the last to bethink you again
Of this long-forgotten existence!"
"Eugene!"
"Ha! fool that I was!"... he went on,... "and just now,
While you spoke yet, my heart was beginning to grow
Almost boyish again, almost sure of ONE friend!
Yet this was the meaning of all - this the end!
Be it so! There's a sort of slow justice (admit!)
In this - that the word that man's finger hath writ
In fire on my heart, I return him at last.
Let him learn that word - Never!"
"Ah, still to the past
Must the present be vassal?" she said. "In the hour
We last parted I urged you to put forth the power
Which I felt to be yours, in the conquest of life.
Yours, the promise to strive: mine - to watch o'er the strife.
I foresaw you would conquer; you HAVE conquer'd much,
Much, indeed, that is noble! I hail it as such,
And am here to record and applaud it. I saw
Not the less in your nature, Eugene de Luvois,
One peril - one point where I feared you would fail
To subdue that worst foe which a man can assail, -
Himself: and I promised that, if I should see
My champion once falter, or bend the brave knee,
That moment would bring me again to his side.
That moment is come! for that peril was pride,
And you falter. I plead for yourself, and another,
For that gentle child without father or mother,
To whom you are both. I plead, soldier of France,
For your own nobler nature - and plead for Constance!"
At the sound of that name he averted his head.
"Constance!... Ay, she enter'd MY lone life" (he said)
"When its sun was long set; and hung over its night
Her own starry childhood. I have but that light,
In the midst of much darkness! Who names me but she
With titles of love? And what rests there for me
In the silence of age save the voice of that child?
The child of my own better life, undefiled!
My creature, carved out of my heart of hearts!"
"Say,"
Said the Soeur Seraphine - "are you able to lay
Your hand as a knight on your heart as a man
And swear that, whatever may happen, you can
Feel assured for the life you thus cherish?"
"How so?"
He look'd up. "if the boy should die thus?"
"Yes, I know
What your look would imply... this sleek stranger forsooth!
Because on his cheek was the red rose of youth
The heart of my niece must break for it!"
She cried,
"Nay, but hear me yet further!"
With slow heavy stride,
Unheeding her words, he was pacing the tent,
He was muttering low to himself as he went.
Ay, these young things lie safe in our heart just so long
As their wings are in growing; and when these are strong
They break it, and farewell! the bird flies!"...
The nun
Laid her hand on the soldier, and murmur'd, "The sun
Is descending, life fleets while we talk thus! oh, yet
Let this day upon one final victory set,
And complete a life's conquest!"
He said, "Understand!
If Constance wed the son of this man, by whose hand
My heart hath been robb'd, she is lost to my life!
Can her home be my home? Can I claim in the wife
Of that man's son the child of my age? At her side
Shall he stand on my hearth? Shall I sue to the bride
Of... enough!
"Ah, and you immemorial halls
Of my Norman forefathers, whose shadow yet falls
On my fancy, and fuses hope, memory, past,
Present, - all, in one silence! old trees to the blast
Of the North Sea repeating the tale of old days,
Nevermore, nevermore in the wild bosky ways


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Online LibraryOwen MeredithLucile → online text (page 17 of 18)