Speak kindly, wife; the little ones will grow
Fairest and straightest in the warmest sun.
We talk so often of the seed we sow;
But, maybe, when we think our labour done,
And when we look to gather in the grain,
We'll find these stones, we fling about, again
Strewing the fruitless sod,
Having crush'd down and stunted the sweet life
That bore the likeness of the life of God.
All your hard words of bitterness and strife
Will lie upon their love, as stones would lie;
You think to pick them up, but, by-and-by,
You'll find where they have lain
By the poor, meagre, crooked ears of grain.
You will be sorry then.
Speak kindly, wife; you know not half the wealth
Kind words bring in. Ah! I remember when
I was a little lad, all youth and health,
How I went wrong for want of one, and how
One saved my life—ay, keeps it steady now.
* * * * *
My mother died, you know, when I had seen
Only a few days' light; they say her face
Was fair and young—and so it might have been;
I cannot tell. But she, who took her place,
Was coarse and hard, and had a shrewish tongue
That fretted all the household into strife.
Ah, how that sharp voice rung
Through ear and heart—through all the peace of life!
It drove my father from his home at length,
And drove him to the ale-house, where he learn'd
To drink away the good name he had earn'd,
And drink away his precious health and strength.
I can remember well how he would sigh,
Would sigh, and turn from his own chimney nook;
And how, though wintry winds blew fierce and high,
He fumbled at the door with hands that shook,
And pass'd out slowly, as though caring not
Whither he went. And she, who tempted him,
Was first to see the change—to mark the blot
That made his manhood's beauty blurred and dim—
But had no mercy and no help for him.
I think I see her now!
Standing, with that red flush upon her brow,
Hurling her stinging insults thick and fast,
As he was sadly creeping through the door;
Until he raised his grizzled head, and swore,
And suddenly struck her, growing mad at last.
Was that the way to better him? Ah, no;
She taunted him, and stung his spirit so,
That what was weakness became sin and crime.
Wife, did you ever hear
What happen'd in that dark and dreadful time?
One night, when I was wide awake for fear,
Straining my baby ears to catch the sound
Of the fierce voices that were storming near—
One night, I heard a cry—
So sharp! so shrill! a strange and fearful cry—
And then a heavy fall upon the ground;
And then—and then—in the grey morning light
I saw her lie,
With her hard face so strangely still and white,
With a broad purple stain upon her brow,
And dusky shadows on her lips and eyes.
Ah me! ah me! I think I see her now,
Wrapped in that awful death-sleep, as she lies!
I well remember how I cried and shook
In childish terror, and with what a look
I turn'd to all the living faces there,
Seeking in vain,
With the first dreary thrill of my despair,
The one face that I never saw again!
* * * * *
I was so young—a little lad, a child—
And it was hard, ay, very hard, to be
So helpless and so ignorant and wild,
With not a soul to love and care for me.
She, when she storm'd about,
Had roughly used me, and had turn'd me out
Into the streets, to gather what I could
And what I liked of all the evil there;
But he, my father, at odd times he would
Sit, with his arms flung round me, in his chair,
And tell me, as he stroked my curly head,
How he could see the mother that was dead
In my blue eyes and in my golden hair.
And now I was alone—quite, quite alone.
Ah, you can never know how I was toss'd
From place to place; how like a thing of stone,
Frozen for want of just a kindly tone,
My heart became—all its good instincts cross'd!
And how like some distorted tree I grew,
Barren of all things beautiful and true.
Sullen, and hard, and reckless, I was fit
And ready, when the devil laid his snare—
Quite ready—to rush headlong into it.
And who was there to care?
In a wild night—a well-remember'd night,
When I was prowling in a darken'd street,
Trying to hush the echo of my feet,
Trying to hide me out of sound and sight—
Just as I heard the bells begin to call
From a church-tower—as I caught a gleam
Of marble pillars, standing white and tall,
And saw the stream
Of tender, mellow light make, as it were,
A shining pathway in the misty air,
Whither soft footsteps trod
Out of the world into the courts of God—
Just then they found me out—
They who had watch'd and follow'd me so long—
They found me as I idly hung about
That stately doorway; and I felt the strong
Relentless grip upon my arm—I saw
The quiet, cruel, smiling eyes, and saw
That I was bound.
That night I lay awake upon the ground
Of a dark cell. The moonlight quiver'd in,
Tender, and pure, and sweet, and hover'd round—
Trying to cool the raging fire within
My eyes and heart; like tender mother's touch,
It wander'd over lips, and hands, and hair.
I think I feel it now—it came with such
An unexpected pity to me there!
It was so dark—and I was all alone.
No gentle tone
To comfort and to keep me from despair!
A blessing had been sent—ah, now I know,
Just by that little moonbeam; its white glow
Lay on my heart, till the tears fell like rain.
The long-endured, sullen sense of pain,
So dark and deep,
Was stirred and touch'd, and almost lighten'd, when
I plunged my face into my hands to weep.
Somehow the boyish spirit came again,
With just a little of its softness, then;
The burning fever cool'd, and I could sleep.
Ah, I remember, as I lay there, she
I never knew came gliding through my dream,
As through the shadows that encompass'd me
Glided the tender moonshine; I could see,
Dim and yet purely bright—just in the gleam
That cross'd the prison-floor—a girlish face,
Divinely beautiful—an angel's face;
And long robes, fair and white,
Shadow'd with wings that shone like living light.
I seem'd to feel, e'en in that gloomy place,
The soft, sweet kisses stray
Over my feverish forehead as I lay;
But when I woke, and look'd with glistening eyes
Up through the grating, I could only see
The pale rose-colour dawning in the skies
From whence that message had come down to me.
I was so lonely! Yet more lonely far
In the bright day-time, when my sight was bound
By cold, hard, scornful faces all around,
Instead of prison-wall and iron bar.
More lonely—ay, so much more lonely! They,
My judges and accusers, and the crowd
That witness'd all my misery that day,
They knew not that my spirit was as proud,
As sensitive to suffering, as theirs.
They knew the sweet hearth-love, that makes the cares
And storms of life so light!
And the great safeguard against sin and crime
Stood round about their homes by day and night.
But I had no one in that bitter time,
No one, I thought—no one to stand by me,
No one to teach me or to care for me!
I pass'd through fire as I stood waiting—stood
In that great, dreary, dreadful, crowded place;
A fire that scorch'd out even the faintest trace
My tearful dream had left, of good and true.
* * * * *
Wearily, wearily, I laid me down
Within my little prison-cell that night;
And then I long'd for death to come, and drown
The sinful, lonely, sorrowful earthly life
That always seem'd at strife
With God and man. I know it was not right—
I know it, dear; but it is hard to be
Shut out from all the pleasant, genial life
That makes life worth!—and it was hard for me.
And so I lay, and fix'd a vacant stare
Upon my grated bars, now dimly drawn
Across a grey-blue thunder-cloud; for there
The moonlight came, and there the rosy dawn
Peep'd in—a kind and friendly face to see;
One thing, at least, of peace and purity.
And dark thoughts brooded in my heart and brain,
Such wicked, reckless thoughts! I wonder'd why
I had been born to so much misery,
Born to so large a heritage of pain!
Sure it was wrong, I murmur'd bitterly,
Setting my teeth again.
And then there slowly drifted through my mind—
Vaguely and darkly, gaining shape at length—
A thought whose likeness it were hard to find
In any common words. I felt the strength
Of stern endurance and resolve die out,
And felt a fierce new strength creep round about
My smouldering heart. Eager I turn'd to gaze
At my new vision—and the warning doubt
Died in the passion that was set ablaze.
What was the vision? Wife, I scarcely dare
Paint it again.
It's very memory enfolds such pain!
A river, dark, and deep, and dreadful, where
The moaning eddies swirl'd about the piers
Of a high bridge; lights twinkling in the air;
Unnumber'd voices thrilling in my ears;
And one—one only—speaking to me there—
Calling from out the deep,
Dark water, in its slow, reluctant sweep . . . . .
An awful space of shadows; then the gleam
Of steely ripples, lying far below,
Like bright snakes coil'd together on the stream;—
Ah, wife, you know! you know!
I saw—but did not see—the grey-blue cloud
Change into black; the thunder roar'd aloud;
And shining arrows glanced across the floor,
Striking a blaze upon my staring eyes;—
Darling, these are such painful memories,
I cannot tell you more.
* * * * *
But in the day that follow'd—when the sun
Was high in heaven, and the crimson flame
Danced on the bleak white wall above me—one
Bearing a sweet and holy message, came.
He found me lying motionless, alone,
Passionately quiet, and as hard as stone;
And he stepped softly, and bent over me
Until I saw his face—
Fair as an angel's, with a shining crown
Of wavy golden hair—a boyish face,
But shadow'd with a wondrous dignity.
As he bent down,
His grave eyes looking deeply into mine,
The dignity seem'd born of the divine.
Ah me, he was so good! so true! so kind!
He melted that black shadow on my mind
With his sweet, earnest tones; I sat and wept
Just like a child; and a new life and light
Once more, as he sat by me, gently crept
Into my spirit, that was dark as night.
He did not talk as if he were above
The sins and follies of his fellow-men;
But all his words were sympathy and love—
Or I had never listen'd to them then.
He did not once reproach me, though he heard—
Because he would not ask it—every word
I had to tell him; but he counselled me,
Framing his lips in that humility
Which seems the stamp of a good man and true.
Saying not, “I know this,” but “God has said;”
Saying not, with the solemn warning, “you,”
But mostly “we;” yet over all he shed
The high and special dignity he bore.
One felt he was a priest, as if he wore
His surplice—standing in the church, instead
Of on a prison-floor.
* * * * *
And those kind words—they brought a blessed morn
Unto my soul; I never wish'd again
That I might die; I never felt forlorn,
As if my life were given me in vain.
But I went out into the world, and fought
Against its legions, with an arm of strength!
Wife, though I often falter'd, what he taught
Nerved me to courage, and I won at length.