Wilfrid Wilson Gibson.

Livelihood, dramatic reveries online

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And him on the wrong side of it. Nevermore
She'ld hear his footstep on the threshold-
stone . . .

"You're not afraid to lie all night alone,

And Jim but newly drowned?" they'd asked: and


Had turned upon her neighbours wonderingly.
"Afraid of what? " she said. "Afraid of him; "
The neighbours answered. "Me afraid of Jim!
And after all these years!" she cried "and he
How can you think that he'ld bring harm to me?
You know him better, surely, even you !
And I . . ." Then they had left her, for they knew
Too well that any word that they could say
Would help her nothing.

When they'd gone away,
Leaving her to her trouble, she arose,
And, taking from the kist his Sunday clothes,
Folded so neatly, kept so carefully
In camphor, free of moth, half-absently
She shook them out, and hung them up to air
Before the fire upon his high-backed chair:



And then when they were aired she folded them
Carefully, seam to seam and hem to hem,
And smoothing them with tender hands, again
She laid them in the kist where they had lain
Six days a week for hard on forty year . . .

Ay, forty year they'd shared each hope and fear
They two, together yet she might not tend
With loving hands his body in the end.
The sea had taken him from her. And she
She could do nothing for him now. The sea
Had taken him from her. And nevermore
Might she do anything for him . . .

The door
Flapped in the wind. She shut and snecked it


But did not bolt it. Then she set a light
In the white-curtained window, where it shone
As clearly as on each night that he had gone
Out with the boats in all that forty year,
And each night she had watched it burning clear,
Alone and wakeful . . . and, though lonelier,
She'ld lie to-night as many a night she'd lain
On her left side, with face turned towards the


So that, if she should wake, at once she'ld see
If still her beacon-light burned steadily,
Feeling that, may be, somewhere in the night
Of those dark waters he could see the light
Far off and very dim, a little spark
Of comfort burning for him in the dark,



And, even though it should dwindle from his sight,
It seemed to her that he must feel the light
Burning within his heart, the light of home . . .

From those black cruel waters sudden foam
Flashed as she gazed; and with a shuddering stir,
As though cold drowning waves went over her,
She stood a moment gasping. Then she turned
From the bright window where her watch-light


And, taking off her clothes, crept into bed
To see if she could sleep. But when her head
Touched the cold pillow, such hot restlessness
She felt, she'd half-a-mind to rise and dress
Each moment, as she tossed from side to side.
The bed to-night seemed very big and wide
And hard and cold to her, though a hot ache
Held her whole body tingling wide awake
Turning and tossing half the endless night.

Then quieter she lay, and watched the light

Burning so steadily, until the flame

Dazzled her eyes, and golden memories came

Out of the past to comfort her. She lay

Remembering, remembering that day

Nigh twenty years since when she'd thought him

And after all ...

She heard again the sound
Of seas that swept a solid wall of green,
Such seas as living eye had never seen,



Over the rock-bound harbour, with a roar

Rushing the beach, tossing against the door

Driftwood and old cork-floats, slashing the pane

With flying weed again and yet again,

As toppling to disaster, sea on sea

Beneath that crashing wind broke furiously

Almost upon the very threshold-stone

In white tumultuous thunder. All alone

She watched through that long morn: too much


To stir or do a hand's turn, her heart prayed
One prayer unceasingly, though not a word
Escaped her lips; till in a lull she heard
A neighbour call out that the Morning Star
Had gone ashore somewhere beyond Hell Scar,
Hard by the Wick, and all ... and then the roar
Drowned everything. . . .

And how she reached the door
She never knew. She found herself outside
Suddenly face to face with that mad tide,
Battling for breach against a wind that fought
Each inch with her, as she turned North, and


Her bodily, and flung her reeling back
A dozen times before she reached the track
That runs along the crag-top to the Head.
Bent double, still she struggled on, half-dead,
For not a moment could she stand upright
Against that wind, striving with all her might
To reach the Wick. She struggled through that wind
As through cold clinging water, deaf and blind;


And numb and heavy in that icy air

Her battered body felt, as though, stark-bare,

She floundered in deep seas. Once in a lull

Flat on her face she fell. A startled gull

Rose skirling at her; and with burning eyes

She lay a moment, far too scared to rise,

Staring into a gully, black as night,

In which the seething waters frothing white

Thundered from crag to crag, and baffled leapt

A hundred feet in air. She'd nearly stept

Into that gully. Just in time the wind

Had dropt. One moment more, and headlong,


She'd tumbled into that pit of death . . . and Jim,
If he were living yet . . .

The thought of him

Startled her to her feet: and on once more
Against a fiercer wind along the shore
She struggled with set teeth, and dragging hair
Drenched in the sousing spray that leapt in air
Spinning and hissing, smiting her like hail.

Then when it almost seemed that she must fail
To reach the Wick, alive or dead, she found
That she was there already. To the ground
She sank, dead-beat. Almost too faint and weak
To lift her head, her wild eyes sought the creek;
But there she saw no sign of boat or man
Only a furious smother of seas that ran
Along the slanting jetty ceaselessly.
Groping for life, she searched that spumy sea

For sail or sign in vain: then knew no more . . .
Till she was lifted by strong arms that bore
Her safely through the storm, lying at rest
Without a care upon her husband's breast
Unquestioning, till she reached home, content
To feel his arms about her, as he bent
Over her tenderly and breathed her name.

And then she heard how, back from death, he


Unscathed to her, by some strange mercy thrown
Alive almost upon his threshold-stone:
When, hearing where she'd gone, he'd followed her
Hot-foot . . .

The breath of dawn began to blur
The shining pane with mist . . . And nevermore
His foot would follow her along that shore.
The sea had taken him from her, at last,
Had taken him to keep . . .

Then from the past
She waked with eyes that looked beyond the


Still burning clearly, into the lingering night,
Black yet, beyond the streaming window-pane
Down which big glistening drops of gentle rain
Trickled until they dazzled her; and she lay
Again remembering how ere break of day
When she was young she'd had to rise and go
Along the crag-top some five mile or so,
With other lads and lasses, to Skateraw
To gather bait . . .



Again her young eyes saw
Those silent figures with their creels, dead-black
Against the stars, climbing the sheer cliff : track
In single file before her, or quite bright
As suddenly the light-house flashed its light
Full on them, stepping up out of the night
On to the day-bright crag-top kindling white,
A moment, windy hair and streaming grass.
Again she trudged, a drowsy little lass,
The youngest of them all, across dim fields
By sleeping farms and ruined roofless bields,
Frightened by angry dogs that, roused from sleep,
Yelped after them, or by a startled sheep
That scurried by her suddenly, while she
Was staring at a ship's lights out at sea,
With dreaming eyes, or counting countless stars
That twinkled bright beyond the jagged scars:
Or stumbled over a slippery shingle-beach
Beneath her creel, and shuddered at the screech
And sudden clamour of wings that round her


Again she felt that cruel cold. Though hapt
In the big shawl, the raw wind searched her

Till every bone ached. Then once more she


Brief respite when at last they reached Skateraw
And rested till the dawn.

Again she saw

Those dark groups sitting quiet in the night
Awaiting the first blink of morning-light,


To set to work gathering the bait, while she
Sang to them as they sat beside the sea.
They always made her sing, for she'd a voice
When she was young, she had, and such a choice
Of words and airs by heart: and she was glad
To turn a tune for any lass or lad
Who'ld ask her, always glad to hear them say:
"Come, Singing Sally, give us l Duncan Gray/
'The De'il among the Tailors/ 'Elsie Marley/
'The Keel-Row' or 'The Wind among the Bar-
ley' ";
And always gladdest when 'twas Jim would ask.

Again, as they would settle to their task
Of gathering clammy mussels, that cold ache
Stole through her bones. It seemed her back must


Each time she stooped, or lifted up her head,
Though still she worked with fingers raw and


Until her creel was filled. But, toiling back,
Staggering beneath her load along the track,
Jim would come up with her and take her creel
And bear it for her, if she'ld sing a reel
To keep their hearts up as they trudged along.
Half-numb with sleep, she'ld start a dancing-song,
And sing, the fresh wind blowing in her face,
Until the dancing blood began to race
Through her young body, and her heart grew


Forgetting all the labours of the night . . .


Once more she walked light-foot to that gay air,
The wind of morning fresh on face and hair,
A girl again . . .

And Jim, 'twas always he
Who bore her burden for her . . .


With eyes upon the golden lamp she lay,
While, all unseen of her, the winter day
Behind the dim wet pane broke bleak and

She seemed to look upon a dawn of gold
That kindled every dancing wave to glee
As she walked homeward singing by the sea,
As she walked homeward with the windy stir
Fresh in her flying hair, and over her
Jim leant young lucky Jim a kindly lad
Taking the creel; and her girl's heart was

As ...

. . . clasped within each other's arms, the

Closed over them . . .

Smiling, she fell asleep.



Tapping the rails as he went by
And driving the slack wedges tight,
He walked towards the morning sky
Between two golden lines of light
That dwindled slowly into one
Sheer golden rail that ran right on
Over the fells into the sun.

And dazzling in his eyes it shone,
That golden track, as left and right
He swung his clinking hammer ay,
'Twas dazzling after that long night
In Hindfell tunnel, working by
A smoky flare, and making good
The track the rains had torn . . .

Clink, clink,

On the sound metal on the wood
A duller thwack!

It made him blink,
That running gold . . .

'Twas sixteen hours
Since he'd left home his garden smelt
So fragrant with the heavy showers
When he left home and now he felt
That it would smell more fresh and sweet


After the tunnel's reek and fume
Of damp warm cinders. 'Twas a treat
To come upon the scent and bloom
That topped the cutting by the wood
After the cinders of the track,
The cinders and tarred sleepers good
To lif t your eyes from gritty black
Upon that blaze of green and red . . .
And she'ld be waiting by the fence,
And with the baby . . .

Straight for bed

He'ld make, if he had any sense,
And sleep the day; but, like as not,
When he'd had breakfast, he'ld turn to
And hoe the back potato-plot:
'Twould be one mass of weeds he knew.
You'ld think each single drop of rain
Turned as it fell into a weed.
You seemed to hoe and hoe in vain.
Chickweed and groundsel didn't heed
The likes of him and bindweed, well,
You hoed and hoed still its white roots
Ran deeper . . .

'Twould be good to smell
The fresh turned earth, and feel his boots
Sink deep into the brown wet mould,
After hard cinders . . .

And, maybe,

The baby, sleeping good as gold
In its new carriage under a tree,
Would keep him company, while his wife


Washed up the breakfast- things.

'Twas strange,

The difference that she made to life,
That tiny baby-girl.

The change

Of work would make him sleep more sound.
'Twas sleep he needed. That long night
Shovelling wet cinders underground,
With breaking back, the smoky light
Stinging his eyes till they were sore . . .
He'd worked the night that she was born,
Standing from noon the day before
All through that winter's night till morn
Laying fog-signals on the line
Where it ran over Devil's Ghyll . . .

And she was born at half-past nine,
Just as he stood aside until
The Scots Express ran safely by ...
He'd but to shut his eyes to see
Those windows flashing blindingly
A moment through the blizzard he
Could feel again that slashing snow
That seemed to cut his face.

But they,

The passengers, they couldn't know
What it cost him to keep the way
Open for them. So snug and warm
They slept or chattered, while he stood
And faced all night that raking storm
The little house beside the wood


Forever in his thoughts: and he,

Not knowing what was happening . . .

But all went well as well could be
With Sally and the little thing.
And it had been worth while to wait
Through that long night with work to do,
To meet his mother at the gate
With such good news, and find it true,
Ay, truer than the truth.

He still

Could see his wife's eyes as he bent
Over the bairn . . .

The Devil's Ghyll

Had done its worst, and he was spent;
But he'ld have faced a thousand such
Wild nights as thon, to see that smile
Again, and feel that tender touch
Upon his cheek.

'Twas well worth while
With such reward. And it was strange,
The difference such a little thing
Could make to them how it could change
Their whole life for them, and could bring
Such happiness to them, though they
Had seemed as happy as could be
Before it came to them.

The day

Was shaping well. And there was she,
The lassie sleeping quietly
Within her arms, beside the gate.

The storm had split that lilac tree.
But he was tired, and it must wait.


And after all, 'twas snug and weather-tight,
His garret. That was much on such a night
To be secure against the wind and sleet
At his age, and not wandering the street,
A shuffling, shivering bag-of-bones.

And yet

Things would be snugger if he could forget
The bundle of old dripping rags that slouched
Before him down the Cannongate, and crouched
Close to the swing-doors of the Spotted Cow.
Why, he could see that poor old sinner now,
Ay! and could draw him, if he'd had the knack
Of drawing anything a steamy, black
Dilapidation, basking in the glare,
And sniffing with his swollen nose in air
To catch the hot reek when the door swings


And shows the glittering paradise inside,
Where men drink golden fire on seats of plush
Lolling like gods : he stands there in the slush
Shivering, from squelching boots to sopping hat
One sodden clout, and blinking like a bat
Be-dazzled by the blaze of light: his beard
Waggles and drips from lank cheeks pocked and


And the whole dismal night about him drips,
As he stands gaping there with watering lips


And burning eyes in the cold sleety drench
Afire with thirst that only death may quench.

Yet he had clutched the sixpence greedily

As if sixpennyworth of rum maybe

Would satisfy that thirst. Who knows! It might

Just do the trick perhaps on such a night,

And death would be a golden, fiery drink

To that old scarecrow. 'Twould be good to think

His money'd satisfied that thirst, and brought

Rest to those restless fevered bones that ought

Long since to have dropped for ever out of


It wasn't decent, wandering the night
Like that not decent. While it lived it made
A man turn hot to see it, and afraid
To look it in the face lest he should find
That bundle was himself, grown old and blind
With thirst unsatisfied.

He'd thirsted, too,

His whole life long, though not for any brew
That trickled out of taps in gaudy bars
For those with greasy pence to spend!

The stars

Were not for purchase, neither bought nor sold
By any man for silver or for gold.

Still, he was snug and sheltered from the storm.
He sat by his own hearth secure and warm,
And that was much indeed on such a night.
The little room was pleasant with the light


Glowing on lime-washed walls, kindling to red
His copper pots, and, over the white bed,
The old torn Rembrandt print to golden gloom.
'Twas much on such a night to have a room
Four walls and ceiling storm-tight overhead.
Denied the stars well, you must spend instead
Your sixpences on makeshifts. Life was naught
But toiling for the sixpences that bought
Makeshifts for stars.

'Twas snug to hear the sleet
Lashing the panes and sweeping down the street
Towards Holyrood and out into the night
Of hills beyond. Maybe it would be white
On Arthur's Seat to-morrow, white with snow
A white hill shining in the morning glow
Beyond the chimney-pots, that was a sight
For any man to see a snowy height
Soaring into the sunshine. He was glad
Though he must live in slums, his garret had
A window to the hills.

And he was warm,

Ay, warm and snug, shut in here from the storm.
The sixpences bought comfort for old bones
That else must crouch all night on paving-stones
Unsheltered from the cold.

'Twas hard to learn

In his young days that this was life to earn
By life-long labour just your board and bed
Although the stars were singing overhead,
The sons of morning singing together for joy
As they had sung for every bright-eyed boy


With ears to hear since life itself was young
And leave so much unseen, so much unsung.

He'd had to learn that lesson. 'Twas no good

To go star-gazing for a livelihood

With empty belly. Though he had a turn

For seeing things, when you have got to earn

Your daily bread first, there is little time

To paint your dream or set the stars to rhyme:

Nay, though you have the vision and the


You cannot draw the outline of a hill
To please yourself, when you get home half-

After the day's work hammers in your head
Still tapping, tapping . . .

Always mad to draw
The living shape of everything he saw
He'd had to spend his utmost skill and strength
Learning a trade to live by, till at length
Now he'd the leisure the old skill was dead.

Born for a painter as it seemed, instead
He'd spent his life upholstering furniture.
'Twas natural enough men should prefer
Upholstery to pictures, and their ease
To little coloured daubs of cows and trees.
He didn't blame them, 'twas no fault of theirs
That they saw life in terms of easy chairs,
And heaven, like that old sinner in the slush,
A glittering bar upholstered in red plush.


J Twas strange to look back on it now, his life . . .
His father, married to a second wife;
And home, no home for him since he could mind,
Save when the starry vision made him blind
To all about him, and he walked on air
For days together, and without a care . . .
But as the years passed, seldomer they came
Those starry dazzling nights and days aflame,
And of tener a sudden gloom would drop
Upon him, drudging all day in the shop
With his young brother John John always gay
Taking things as they came, the easy way,
Not minding overmuch if things went wrong
At home, and always humming a new song . . .

And then she came into his life, and shook
All heaven about him. He had but to look
On her to find the stars within his reach.
But, ere his love had trembled into speech,
He'd waked one day to know that not for him
Were those bright living eyes that turned dreams


To know that while he'd worshipped, John and she
Had taken to each other easily . . .

But that was years ago . . . and now he sat
Beside a lonely hearth. And they were fat
Ay, fat and old they were, John and his wife,
And with a grown-up family. Their life
Had not been over-easy: they'd their share
Of trouble, ay, more than enough to spare:


But they had made the best of things, and taken
Life as it came with courage still unshaken.
They'd faced their luck, but never gone half-way
To meet fresh trouble. Life was always gay
For them between the showers: the roughest


Might do its worst they always stood together
To bear the brunt, together stood their ground
And came through smiling cheerfully. They'd


Marriage a hard-up, happy business
Of hand-to-mouth existence more or less;
But taking all in all, well worth their while
To look on the bright side of things to smile
When all went well, not fearing overmuch
When life was suddenly brought to the touch
And you'd to sink or swim. And they'd kept


And even now, though they were fat and old
They'd still a hearty grip on life ...

They'ld be

Sitting there in their kitchen after tea
On either side the fire-place even now
Jane with her spectacles upon her brow,
And nodding as she knitted, listening
While John, in shirt-sleeves, scraped his fiddle-

With one ear hearkening lest a foot should stop
And some rare customer invade the shop
To ask the price of that old Flanders' chest
Or oaken ale-house settle . . .


They'd the best
Of life, maybe, together . . .

And yet he

Though he'd not taken life so easily,
Had always hated makeshifts more or less,
Grudging to swop the stars for sixpences,
And was an old man now, with that old thirst
Unsatisfied ay, even at the worst
He'd had his compensations, now and then
A starry glimpse. You couldn't work with men
And quite forget the stars. Though life was


In drudgery, it hadn't only meant
Upholstering chairs in crimson plush for bars . . .
Maybe it gave new meaning to the stars,
The drudgery, who knows!

At least the rare
Wild glimpses he had caught at whiles were


Yet living in his mind. When much was dim
And drudgery forgotten, bright for him
Burned even now in memory old delights
That had been his in other days and nights.
He'd always seen, though never could express
His eyes' delight, or only more or less:
But things once clearly seen, once and for all
The soul's possessions naught that may befall
May ever dun, and neither moth nor rust
Corrupt the dream, that, shedding mortal dust,
Has soared to life and spread its wings of gold
Within the soul . . .



And yet when they were told
These deathless visions, little things they seemed
Though something of the beauty he had dreamed
Burned in them, something of his youth's desire . . .

And as he sat there, gazing at the fire
Once more he lingered, listening in the gloom
Of that great silent warehouse, in the room
Where stores were kept, one hand upon a shelf,
And heard a lassie singing to herself
Somewhere unseen without a thought who heard,
Just singing to herself like any bird
Because the heart was happy in her breast,
As happy as the day was long. At rest
He lingered, listening, and a ray of light
Streamed from the dormer-window up a height;
Down on the bales of crimson cloth, and lit
To sudden gold the dust that danced in it,
Till he was dazzled by the golden motes
That kept on dancing to those merry notes
Before his dreaming eyes, and danced as long
As he stood listening to the lassie's song . . .

Then once again, his work-bag on his back,
He climbed that April morning up the track
That took you by a short cut through the wood
Up to the hill-top where the great house stood,
When suddenly beyond the firs' thick night
He saw a young fawn frisking in the light:
Shaking the dew-drops in a silver rain
From off his dappled hide, he leapt again


As though he'ld jump out of his skin for joy.
With laughing eyes light-hearted as a boy
He watched the creature unaware of him
Quivering with eager life in every limb,
Leaping and frisking on the dewy green
Beneath the flourish of the snowy gean,
While every now and then the long ears pricked,
And budding horns, as he leapt higher, flicked
The drooping clusters of wild-cherry bloom.
Shaking their snow about him. From the gloom
Of those dark wintry firs, his eyes had won
A sight of April sporting in the sun
Young April leaping to its heart's delight
Among the dew beneath the boughs of white . . .

And there'd been days among the hills, rare


And rarer nights among the heathery ways
Rare golden holidays when he had been
Alone in the great solitude of green
Wave-crested hills, a rolling shoreless sea
Flowing for ever through eternity

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Online LibraryWilfrid Wilson GibsonLivelihood, dramatic reveries → online text (page 5 of 6)