'Tis an old dial, dark with many a stain;
In summer crowned with drifting orchard bloom,
Tricked in the autumn with the yellow rain,
And white in winter like a marble tomb.
And round about its gray, time-eaten brow
Lean letters speak,--a worn and shattered row:
=I am a Shade; a Shadowe too art thou:
I marke the Time: saye, Gossip, dost thou soe?=
Here would the ring-doves linger, head to head;
And here the snail a silver course would run,
Beating old Time; and here the peacock spread
His gold-green glory, shutting out the sun.
The tardy shade moved forward to the noon;
Betwixt the paths a dainty Beauty stept,
That swung a flower, and, smiling hummed a tune,--
Before whose feet a barking spaniel leapt.
O'er her blue dress an endless blossom strayed;
About her tendril-curls the sunlight shone;
And round her train the tiger-lilies swayed,
Like courtiers bowing till the queen be gone.
She leaned upon the slab a little while,
Then drew a jewelled pencil from her zone,
Scribbled a something with a frolic smile,
Folded, inscribed, and niched it in the stone.
The shade slipped on, no swifter than the snail;
There came a second lady to the place,
Dove-eyed, dove-robed, and something wan and pale,--
An inner beauty shining from her face.
She, as if listless with a lonely love,
Straying among the alleys with a book,--
Herrick or Herbert,--watched the circling dove,
And spied the tiny letter in the nook.
Then, like to one who confirmation found
Of some dread secret half-accounted true,--
Who knew what hearts and hands the letter bound,
And argued loving commerce 'twixt the two,--
She bent her fair young forehead on the stone;
The dark shade gloomed an instant on her head;
And 'twixt her taper fingers pearled and shone
The single tear that tear-worn eyes will shed.
The shade slipped onward to the falling gloom;
Then came a soldier gallant in her stead,
Swinging a beaver with a swaling plume,
A ribboned love-lock rippling from his head.
Blue-eyed, frank-faced, with clear and open brow,
Scar-seamed a little, as the women love;
So kindly fronted that you marvelled how
The frequent sword-hilt had so frayed his glove;
Who switched at Psyche plunging in the sun;
Uncrowned three lilies with a backward swinge;
And standing somewhat widely, like to one
More used to 'Boot and Saddle' than to cringe
As courtiers do, but gentleman withal,
Took out the note;--held it as one who feared
The fragile thing he held would slip and fall;
Read and re-read, pulling his tawny beard;
Kissed it, I think, and hid it in his breast;
Laughed softly in a flattered, happy way,
Arranged the broidered baldrick on his crest,
And sauntered past, singing a roundelay.
* * * * *
The shade crept forward through the dying glow;
There came no more nor dame nor cavalier;
But for a little time the brass will show
A small gray spot,--the record of a tear.
Just for a space I met her –
Just for a day in the train!
It began when she feared it would wet her,
That tiniest spurtle of rain:
So we tucked a great rug in the sashes,
And carefully padded the pane;
And I sorrow in sackcloth and ashes,
Longing to do it again!
Then it grew when she begged me to reach her
A dressing-case under the seat;
She was “really so tiny a creature,
That she needed a stool for her feet.! ”
Which was promptly arranged to her order
With a care that was even minute,
And a glimpse – of an open- worked border,
And a glance – of the fairyest boot.
Then it drooped, and revived at some hovels –
“Were they houses for men or for pigs? ”
Then it shifted to muscular novels,
With a little digression on prigs:
She thought “Wives and Daughters” “so jolly”;
“Had I read it? ” She knew when I had,
Like the rest, I should dote upon “Molly”;
And “poor Mrs Gaskell – how sad! ”
“Like Browning? ” “But so-so.” His proof lay
“Too deep for her frivolous mood,
That preferred your mere metrical soufflé
To the stronger poetical food;
Yet at times he was good – “as a tonic”;
Was Tennyson writing just now?
And was this new poet Byronic,
And clever, and naughty, or how?
Then we trifled with concerts and croquet,
Then she daintily dusted her face;
Then she sprinkled herself with “Ess Bouquet”,
Fished out from the foregoing case;
And we chattered of Gassier and Grisi,
And voted Aunt Sally a bore;
Discussed if the tight rope were easy,
Or Chopin much harder than Spohr.
And oh! The odd things that she quoted,
With the prettiest possible look,
And the price of two buns that she noted
In the prettiest possible book;
While her talk like a musical rillet
Flashed on with the hours that flew,
And the carriage, her smile seemed to fill it
With just enough summer – for Two.
Till at last in her corner, peeping
From a nest of rugs and of furs,
With the white shut eyelids sleeping
On those dangerous looks of hers,
She seemed like a snowdropp breaking,
Not wholly alive nor dead,
But with one blind impulse making
To the sounds of the spring overhead;
And I watched in the lamplights’s swerving
The shade of the down-dropped lid,
And the lip-line’s delicate curving,
Where a slumbering smile lay hid,
Till I longed that, rather than sever,
The train should shriek into space,
And carry us onward – for ever –
Me and that beautiful face.
But she suddenly woke in a fidget,
With fears she was “nearly at home”,
And talk of a certain Aunt Bridget,
Whom I mentally wished – well at Rome;
Got out at the very next station,
Looking back with a merry bon soir,
Adding, too, to my utter vexation,
A surplus, unkind Au Revoir.
So left me to muse on her graces,
To doze and to muse, till I dreamed
That we sailed through the sunniest places
In a glorified galley, it seemed;
But the cabin was made of a carriage,
And the ocean was Eau-de-Cologne,
And we split on a rock labelled MARRIAGE,
And I woke, - as cold as a stone.
And that’s how I lost her – a jewel,
Incognita – one in a crowd,
Not prudent enough to be cruel,
Not worldly enough to be proud.
It was just a shut lid and its lashes,
Just a few hours in a train,
And I sorrow in sackcloth and ashes,
Longing to see her again
A Dead Letter
I DREW it from its china tomb;—
It came out feebly scented
With some thin ghost of past perfume
That dust and days had lent it.
An old, letter,—folded still!
To read with due composure,
I sought the sun-lit window-sill,
Above the gray enclosure,
That glimmering in the sultry haze,
Faint flowered, dimly shaded,
Slumbered like Goldsmith’s Madam Blaize,
Bedizened and brocaded.
A queer old place! You ’d surely say
Some tea-board garden-maker
Had planned it in Dutch William’s day
To please some florist Quaker,
So trim it was. The yew-trees still,
With pious care perverted,
Grew in the same grim shapes; and still
The lipless dolphin spurted;
Still in his wonted state abode
The broken-nosed Apollo;
And still the cypress-arbor showed
The same umbrageous hollow.
Only,—as fresh young Beauty gleams
From coffee-colored laces,—
So peeped from its old-fashioned dreams
The fresher modern traces;
For idle mallet, hoop, and ball
Upon the lawn were lying;
A magazine, a tumbled shawl,
Round which the swifts were flying;
And, tossed beside the Guelder rose,
A heap of rainbow knitting,
Where, blinking in her pleased repose,
A Persian cat was sitting.
“A place to love in,—live,—for aye,
If we too, like Tithonus,
Could find some God to stretch the gray
Scant life the Fates have thrown us;
“But now by steam we run our race,
With buttoned heart and pocket;
Our Love’s a gilded, surplus grace,—
Just like an empty locket!
“‘The time is out of joint.’ Who will,
May strive to make it better;
For me, this warm old window-sill,
And this old dusty letter.”
“Dear John (the letter ran), it can’t, can’t be,
For Father’s gone to Chorley Fair with Sam,
And Mother’s storing Apples,—Prue and Me
Up to our Elbows making Damson Jam:
But we shall meet before a Week is gone,—
‘’T is a long Lane that has no turning,’ John!
“Only till Sunday next, and then you ’ll wait
Behind the White-Thorn, by the broken Stile—
We can go round and catch them at the Gate,
All to Ourselves, for nearly one long Mile;
Dear Prue won’t look, and Father he’ll go on,
And Sam’s two Eyes are all for Cissy, John!
“John, she ’s so smart,—with every ribbon new,
Flame-colored Sack, and Crimson Padesoy;
As proud as proud; and has the Vapours too,
Just like My Lady;—calls poor Sam a Boy,
And vows no Sweet-heart’s worth the Thinking-on
Till he ’s past Thirty … I know better, John!
“My Dear, I don’t think that I thought of much
Before we knew each other, I and you;
And now, why, John, your least, least Finger-touch,
Gives me enough to think a Summer through.
See, for I send you Something! There, ’t is gone!
Look in this corner,—mind you find it, John!”
This was the matter of the note,—
A long-forgot deposit,
Dropped in an Indian dragon’s throat,
Deep in a fragrant closet,
Piled with a dapper Dresden world,—
Beaux, beauties, prayers, and poses,—
Bonzes with squat legs undercurled,
And great jars filled with roses.
Ah, heart that wrote! Ah, lips that kissed!
You had no thought or presage
Into what keeping you dismissed
Your simple old-world message!
A reverent one. Though we to-day
Distrust beliefs and powers,
The artless, ageless things you say
Are fresh as May’s own flowers,
Starring some pure primeval spring,
Ere Gold had grown despotic,—
Ere Life was yet a selfish thing,
Or Love a mere exotic!
I need not search too much to find
Whose lot it was to send it,
That feel upon me yet the kind,
Soft hand of her who penned it;
And see, through twoscore years of smoke,
In by-gone, quaint apparel,
Shine from yon time-black Norway oak
The face of Patience Caryl,—
The pale, smooth forehead, silver-tressed;
The gray gown, primly flowered;
The spotless, stately coif whose crest
Like Hector’s horse-plume towered;
And still the sweet half-solemn look
Where some past thought was clinging,
As when one shuts a serious book
To hear the thrushes singing.
I kneel to you! Of those you were,
Whose kind old hearts grow mellow,—
Whose fair old faces grow more fair
As Point and Flanders yellow;
Whom some old store of garnered grief,
Their placid temples shading,
Crowns like a wreath of autumn leaf
With tender tints of fading.
Peace to your soul! You died unwed—
Despite this loving letter.
And what of John? The less that ’s said
Of John, I think, the better.