A visit to a cave some miles away
Was next in order. So, one sunny day,
Four prancing steeds conveyed a laughing load
Of merry pleasure-seekers o’er the road.
A basket picnic, music, and croquet
Were in the programme. Skies were blue and clear,
And cool winds whispered of the Autumn near.
The merry-makers filled the time with pleasure:
Some floated to the music’s rhythmic measure,
Some played, some promenaded on the green.
Ticked off by happy hearts, the moments passed.
The afternoon, all glow and glimmer, came.
Helen and Roy were leaders of some game,
And Vivian was not visible.
I challenge you to climb yon cliff with me!
And who shall tire, or reach the summit last
Must pay a forfeit,” cried a romping maid.
“Come! start at once, or own you are afraid.”
So challenged I made ready for the race,
Deciding first the forfeit was to be
A handsome pair of bootees to replace
The victor’s loss who made the rough ascent.
The cliff was steep and stony. On we went
As eagerly as if the path was Fame,
And what we climbed for, glory and a name.
My hands were bruised; my garments sadly rent,
But on I clambered. Soon I heard a cry,
“Maurine! Maurine! my strength is wholly spent!
You’ve won the boots! I’m going back–good-bye!”
And back she turned, in spite of laugh and jeer.
I reached the summit: and its solitude,
Wherein no living creature did intrude,
Save some sad birds that wheeled and circled near,
I found far sweeter than the scene below.
Alone with One who knew my hidden woe,
I did not feel so much alone as when
I mixed with th’ unthinking throngs of men.
Some flowers that decked the barren, sterile place
I plucked, and read the lesson they conveyed,
That in our lives, albeit dark with shade
And rough and hard with labour, yet may grow
The flowers of Patience, Sympathy, and Grace.
As I walked on in meditative thought,
A serpent writhed across my pathway; not
A large or deadly serpent; yet the sight
Filled me with ghastly terror and affright.
I shrieked aloud: a darkness veiled my eyes –
And I fell fainting ‘neath the watchful skies.
I was no coward. Country-bred and born,
I had no feeling but the keenest scorn
For those fine lady “ah’s” and “oh’s” of fear
So much assumed (when any man is near).
But God implanted in each human heart
A natural horror, and a sickly dread
Of that accursed, slimy, creeping thing
That squirms a limbless carcass o’er the ground.
And where that inborn loathing is not found
You’ll find the serpent qualities instead.
Who fears it not, himself is next of kin,
And in his bosom holds some treacherous art
Whereby to counteract its venomed sting.
And all are sired by Satan–Chief of Sin.
Who loathes not that foul creature of the dust,
However fair in seeming, I distrust.
I woke from my unconsciousness, to know
I leaned upon a broad and manly breast,
And Vivian’s voice was speaking, soft and low,
Sweet whispered words of passion, o’er and o’er.
I dared not breathe. Had I found Eden’s shore?
Was this a foretaste of eternal bliss?
“My love,” he sighed, his voice like winds that moan
Before a rain in Summer-time, “my own,
For one sweet stolen moment, lie and rest
Upon this heart that loves and hates you both!
O fair false face! Why were you made so fair!
O mouth of Southern sweetness! that ripe kiss
That hangs upon you, I do take an oath
HIS lips shall never gather. There!–and there!
I steal it from him. Are you his–all his?
Nay, you are mine, this moment, as I dreamed –
Blind fool–believing you were what you seemed –
You would be mine in all the years to come.
Fair fiend! I love and hate you in a breath.
O God! if this white pallor were but DEATH,
And I were stretched beside you, cold and dumb,
My arms about you, so–in fond embrace!
My lips pressed, so–upon your dying face!”
“Woman, how dare you bring me to such shame!
How dare you drive me to an act like this,
To steal from your unconscious lips the kiss
You lured me on to think my rightful claim!
O frail and puny woman! could you know
The devil that you waken in the hearts
You snare and bind in your enticing arts,
The thin, pale stuff that in your veins doth flow
Would freeze in terror.
Strange you have such power
To please or pain us, poor, weak, soulless things –
Devoid of passion as a senseless flower!
Like butterflies, your only boast, your wings.
There, now I scorn you–scorn you from this hour,
And hate myself for having talked of love!”
He pushed me from him. And I felt as those
Doomed angels must, when pearly gates above
Are closed against them.
With a feigned surprise
I started up and opened wide my eyes,
And looked about. Then in confusion rose
And stood before him.
“Pardon me, I pray!”
He said quite coldly. “Half an hour ago
I left you with the company below,
And sought this cliff. A moment since you cried,
It seemed, in sudden terror and alarm.
I came in time to see you swoon away.
You’ll need assistance down the rugged side
Of this steep cliff. I pray you take my arm.”
So, formal and constrained, we passed along,
Rejoined our friends, and mingled with the throng
To have no further speech again that day.
Next morn there came a bulky document,
The legal firm of Blank and Blank had sent,
Containing news unlooked for. An estate
Which proved a cosy fortune–nowise great
Or princely–had in France been left to me,
My grandsire’s last descendant. And it brought
A sense of joy and freedom in the thought
Of foreign travel, which I hoped would be
A panacea for my troubled mind,
That longed to leave the olden scenes behind
With all their recollections, and to flee
To some strange country.
I was in such haste
To put between me and my native land
The briny ocean’s desolating waste,
I gave Aunt Ruth no peace, until she planned
To sail that week, two months: though she was fain
To wait until the Springtime. Roy Montaine
Would be our guide and escort.
No one dreamed
The cause of my strange hurry, but all seemed
To think good fortune had quite turned my brain.
One bright October morning, when the woods
Had donned their purple mantles and red hoods
In honour of the Frost King, Vivian came,
Bringing some green leaves, tipped with crimson flame, –
First trophies of the Autumn time.
Made a proposal that we all should go
And ramble in the forest for a while.
But Helen said she was not well–and so
Must stay at home. Then Vivian, with a smile,
Responded, “I will stay and talk to you,
And they may go;” at which her two cheeks grew
Like twin blush roses–dyed with love’s red wave,
Her fair face shone transfigured with great joy.
And Vivian saw–and suddenly was grave.
Roy took my arm in that protecting way
Peculiar to some men, which seems to say,
“I shield my own,” a manner pleasing, e’en
When we are conscious that it does not mean
More than a simple courtesy. A woman
Whose heart is wholly feminine and human,
And not unsexed by hobbies, likes to be
The object of that tender chivalry,
That guardianship which man bestows on her,
Yet mixed with deference; as if she were
Half child, half angel.
Though she may be strong,
Noble and self-reliant, not afraid
To raise her hand and voice against all wrong
And all oppression, yet if she be made,
With all the independence of her thought,
A woman womanly, as God designed,
Albeit she may have as great a mind
As man, her brother, yet his strength of arm,
His muscle and his boldness she has not,
And cannot have without she loses what
Is far more precious, modesty and grace.
So, walking on in her appointed place,
She does not strive to ape him, nor pretend
But that she needs him for a guide and friend,
To shield her with his greater strength from harm.
We reached the forest; wandered to and fro
Through many a winding path and dim retreat,
Till I grew weary: when I chose a seat
Upon an oak-tree, which had been laid low
By some wind storm, or by some lightning stroke.
And Roy stood just below me, where the ledge
On which I sat sloped steeply to the edge
Of sunny meadows lying at my feet.
One hand held mine; the other grasped a limb
That cast its checkered shadows over him;
And, with his head thrown back, his dark eyes raised
And fixed upon me, silently he gazed
Until I, smiling, turned to him and spoke:
“Give words, my cousin, to those thoughts that rise,
And, like dumb spirits, look forth from your eyes.”
The smooth and even darkness of his cheek
Was stained one moment by a flush of red.
He swayed his lithe form nearer as he stood
Still clinging to the branch above his head.
His brilliant eyes grew darker; and he said,
With sudden passion, “Do you bid me speak?
I cannot, then, keep silence if I would.
That hateful fortune, coming as it did,
Forbade my speaking sooner; for I knew
A harsh-tongued world would quickly misconstrue
My motive for a meaner one. But, sweet,
So big my heart has grown with love for you
I cannot shelter it or keep it hid.
And so I cast it throbbing at your feet,
For you to guard and cherish, or to break.
Maurine, I love you better than my life.
My friend–my cousin–be still more, my wife!
Maurine, Maurine, what answer do you make?”
I scarce could breathe for wonderment; and numb
With truth that fell too suddenly, sat dumb
With sheer amaze, and stared at Roy with eyes
That looked no feeling but complete surprise.
He swayed so near his breath was on my cheek.
“Maurine, Maurine,” he whispered, “will you speak?”
Then suddenly, as o’er some magic glass
One picture in a score of shapes will pass,
I seemed to see Roy glide before my gaze.
First, as the playmate of my earlier days –
Next, as my kin–and then my valued friend,
And last, my lover. As when colours blend
In some unlooked-for group before our eyes,
We hold the glass, and look them o’er and o’er,
So now I gazed on Roy in his new guise,
In which he ne’er appeared to me before.
His form was like a panther’s in its grace,
So lithe and supple, and of medium height,
And garbed in all the elegance of fashion.
His large black eyes were full of fire and passion,
And in expression fearless, firm, and bright.
His hair was like the very deeps of night,
And hung in raven clusters ’round a face
Of dark and flashing beauty.
He was more
Like some romantic maiden’s grand ideal
Than like a common being. As I gazed
Upon the handsome face to mine upraised,
I saw before me, living, breathing, real,
The hero of my early day-dreams: though
So full my heart was with that clear-cut face,
Which, all unlike, yet claimed the hero’s place,
I had not recognised him so before,
Or thought of him, save as a valued friend.
So now I called him, adding,
Each word of love you utter aims a blow
At that sweet trust I had reposed in you.
I was so certain I had found a true,
Steadfast man friend, on whom I could depend,
And go on wholly trusting to the end.
Why did you shatter my delusion, Roy,
By turning to a lover?”
Because I loved you more than any brother,
Or any friend could love.” Then he began
To argue like a lawyer, and to plead
With all his eloquence. And, listening,
I strove to think it was a goodly thing
To be so fondly loved by such a man,
And it were best to give his wooing heed,
And not deny him. Then before my eyes,
In all its clear-cut majesty, that other
Haughty and poet-handsome face would rise
And rob my purpose of all life and strength.
Roy urged and argued, as Roy only could,
With that impetuous, boyish eloquence.
He held my hands, and vowed I must, and should
Give some least hope; till, in my own defence,
I turned upon him, and replied at length:
“I thank you for the noble heart you offer:
But it deserves a true one in exchange.
I could love you if I loved not another
Who keeps my heart; so I have none to proffer.”
Then, seeing how his dark eyes flashed, I said:
“Dear Roy! I know my words seem very strange;
But I love one I cannot hope to wed.
A river rolls between us, dark and deep.
To cross it–were to stain with blood my hand.
You force my speech on what I fain would keep
In my own bosom, but you understand?
My heart is given to love that’s sanctified,
And now can feel no other.
Be you kind,
Dear Roy, my brother! speak of this no more,
Lest pleading and denying should divide
The hearts so long united. Let me find
In you my cousin and my friend of yore.
And now come home. The morning, all too soon
And unperceived, has melted into noon.
Helen will miss us, and we must return.”
He took my hand, and helped me to arise,
Smiling upon me with his sad, dark eyes,
Where passion’s fires had, sudden, ceased to burn.
“And so,” he said, “too soon and unforeseen
My friendship melted into love, Maurine.
But, sweet! I am not wholly in the blame
For what you term my folly. You forgot,
So long we’d known each other, I had not
In truth a brother’s or a cousin’s claim.
But I remembered, when through every nerve
Your lightest touch went thrilling; and began
To love you with that human love of man
For comely woman. By your coaxing arts,
You won your way into my heart of hearts,
And all Platonic feelings put to rout.
A maid should never lay aside reserve
With one who’s not her kinsman, out and out.
But as we now, with measured steps, retrace
The path we came, e’en so my heart I’ll send,
At your command, back to the olden place,
And strive to love you only as a friend.”
I felt the justice of his mild reproof,
But answered, laughing, “‘Tis the same old cry:
‘The woman tempted me, and I did eat.’
Since Adam’s time we’ve heard it. But I’ll try
And be more prudent, sir, and hold aloof
The fruit I never once had thought so sweet
‘Twould tempt you any. Now go dress for dinner,
Thou sinned against! as also will the sinner.
And guard each act, that no least look betray
What’s passed between us.”
Then I turned away
And sought my room, low humming some old air
That ceased upon the threshold; for mine eyes
Fell on a face so glorified and fair
All other senses, merged in that of sight,
Were lost in contemplation of the bright
And wond’rous picture, which had otherwise
Made dim my vision.
Waiting in my room,
Her whole face lit as by an inward flame
That shed its halo ’round her, Helen stood;
Her fair hands folded like a lily’s leaves
Weighed down by happy dews of summer eves.
Upon her cheek the colour went and came
As sunlight flickers o’er a bed of bloom;
And, like some slim young sapling of the wood,
Her slender form leaned slightly; and her hair
Fell ’round her loosely, in long curling strands
All unconfined, and as by loving hands
Tossed into bright confusion.
Her starry eyes uplifted, she did seem
Like some unearthly creature of a dream;
Until she started forward, gliding slowly,
And broke the breathless silence, speaking lowly,
As one grown meek, and humble in an hour,
Bowing before some new and mighty power.
“Maurine, Maurine!” she murmured, and again,
“Maurine, my own sweet friend, Maurine!”
Laying her love-light hands upon my head,
She leaned, and looked into my eyes, and said
With voice that bore her joy in ev’ry tone,
As winds that blow across a garden bed
Are weighed with fragrance, “He is mine alone,
And I am his–all his–his very own.
So pledged this hour, by that most sacred tie
Save one beneath God’s over-arching sky.
I could not wait to tell you of my bliss:
I want your blessing, sweetheart! and your kiss.”
So hiding my heart’s trouble with a smile,
I leaned and kissed her dainty mouth; the while
I felt a guilt-joy, as of some sweet sin,
When my lips fell where his so late had been.
And all day long I bore about with me
A sense of shame–yet mixed with satisfaction,
As some starved child might steal a loaf, and be
Sad with the guilt resulting from her action,
While yet the morsel in her mouth was sweet.
That ev’ning when the house had settled down
To sleep and quiet, to my room there crept
A lithe young form, robed in a long white gown:
With steps like fall of thistle-down she came,
Her mouth smile-wreathed; and, breathing low my name,
Nestled in graceful beauty at my feet.
“Sweetheart,” she murmured softly, “ere I sleep,
I needs must tell you all my tale of joy.
Beginning where you left us–you and Roy.
You saw the colour flame upon my cheek
When Vivian spoke of staying. So did he; –
And, when we were alone, he gazed at me
With such a strange look in his wond’rous eyes.
The silence deepened; and I tried to speak
Upon some common topic, but could not,
My heart was in such tumult.
In this wise
Five happy moments glided by us, fraught
With hours of feeling. Vivian rose up then,
And came and stood by me, and stroked my hair.
And, in his low voice, o’er and o’er again,
Said, ‘Helen, little Helen, frail and fair.’
Then took my face, and turned it to the light,
And looking in my eyes, and seeing what
Was shining from them, murmured, sweet and low,
‘Dear eyes, you cannot veil the truth from sight.
You love me, Helen! answer, is it so?’
And I made answer straightway, ‘With my life
And soul and strength I love you, O my love!’
He leaned and took me gently to his breast,
And said, ‘Here then this dainty head shall rest
Henceforth for ever: O my little dove!
My lily-bud–my fragile blossom-wife!’
And then I told him all my thoughts; and he
Listened, with kisses for his comments, till
My tale was finished. Then he said, ‘I will
Be frank with you, my darling, from the start,
And hide no secret from you in my heart.
I love you, Helen, but you are not first
To rouse that love to being. Ere we met
I loved a woman madly–never dreaming
She was not all in truth she was in seeming.
Enough! she proved to be that thing accursed
Of God and man–a wily vain coquette.
I hate myself for having loved her. Yet
So much my heart spent on her, it must give
A love less ardent, and less prodigal,
Albeit just as tender and as true –
A milder, yet a faithful love to you.
Just as some evil fortune might befall
A man’s great riches, causing him to live
In some low cot, all unpretending, still
As much his home–as much his loved retreat,
As was the princely palace on the hill,
E’en so I give you all that’s left, my sweet!
Of my heart-fortune.’
‘That were more to me,’
I made swift smiling answer, ‘than to be
The worshipped consort of a king.’ And so
Our faith was pledged. But Vivian would not go
Until I vowed to wed him New Year day.
And I am sad because you go away
Before that time. I shall not feel half wed
Without you here. Postpone your trip and stay,
And be my bridesmaid.”
“Nay, I cannot, dear!
‘Twould disarrange our plans for half a year.
I’ll be in Europe New Year day,” I said,
“And send congratulations by the cable.”
And from my soul thanked Providence for sparing
The pain, to me, of sharing in, and wearing,
The festal garments of a wedding scene,
While all my heart was hung with sorrow’s sable.
Forgetting for a season, that between
The cup and lip lies many a chance of loss,
I lived in my near future, confident
All would be as I planned it; and, across
The briny waste of waters, I should find
Some balm and comfort for my troubled mind.
The sad Fall days, like maidens auburn-tressed
And amber-eyed, in purple garments dressed,
Passed by, and dropped their tears upon the tomb
Of fair Queen Summer, buried in her bloom.
Roy left us for a time, and Helen went
To make the nuptial preparations. Then,
Aunt Ruth complained one day of feeling ill:
Her veins ran red with fever; and the skill
Of two physicians could not stem the tide.
The house, that rang so late with laugh and jest,
Grew ghostly with low whispered sounds: and when
The Autumn day, that I had thought to be
Bounding upon the billows of the sea,
Came sobbing in, it found me pale and worn,
Striving to keep away that unloved guest
Who comes unbidden, making hearts to mourn.
Through all the anxious weeks I watched beside
The suff’rer’s couch, Roy was my help and stay;
Others were kind, but he alone each day
Brought strength and comfort, by his cheerful face,
And hopeful words, that fell in that sad place
Like rays of light upon a darkened way.
November passed; and Winter, crisp and chill,
In robes of ermine walked on plain and hill.
Returning light and life dispelled the gloom
That cheated Death had brought us from the tomb.
Aunt Ruth was saved, and slowly getting better –
Was dressed each day, and walked about the room.
Then came one morning in the Eastern mail,
A little white-winged birdling of a letter.
I broke the seal and read,
“Maurine, my own!
I hear Aunt Ruth is better, and am glad.
I felt so sorry for you; and so sad
To think I left you when I did–alone
To bear your pain and worry, and those nights
Of weary, anxious watching.
Your plans are changed now, and you will not sail
Before the Springtime. So you’ll come and be
My bridesmaid, darling! Do not say me nay.
But three weeks more of girlhood left to me.
Come, if you can, just two weeks from to-day,
And make your preparations here. My sweet!
Indeed I am not glad Aunt Ruth was ill –
I’m sorry she has suffered so; and still
I’m thankful something happened, so you stayed.
I’m sure my wedding would be incomplete
Without your presence. Selfish, I’m afraid
You’ll think your Helen. But I love you so,
How can I be quite willing you should go?
Come Christmas Eve, or earlier. Let me know,
And I will meet you, dearie! at the train.
Your happy, loving Helen.”
Then the pain
That, hidden under later pain and care,
Had made no moan, but silent, seemed to sleep,
Woke from its trance-like lethargy, to steep
My tortured heart in anguish and despair.
I had relied too fully on my skill
In bending circumstances to my will:
And now I was rebuked and made to see
That God alone knoweth what is to be.
Then came a messenger from Vivian, who
Came not himself, as he was wont to do,
But sent his servant each new day to bring
A kindly message, or an offering
Of juicy fruits to cool the lips of fever,
Or dainty hot-house blossoms, with their bloom
To brighten up the convalescent’s room.
But now the servant only brought a line
From Vivian Dangerfield to Roy Montaine,
“Dear Sir, and Friend”–in letters bold and plain,
Written on cream-white paper, so it ran:
“It is the will and pleasure of Miss Trevor,
And therefore doubly so a wish of mine,
That you shall honour me next New Year Eve,
My wedding hour, by standing as best man.
Miss Trevor has six bridesmaids I believe.
Being myself a novice in the art –
If I should fail in acting well my part,
I’ll need protection ‘gainst the regiment
Of outraged ladies. So, I pray, consent
To stand by me in time of need, and shield
Your friend sincerely, Vivian Dangerfield.”
The last least hope had vanished; I must drain,
E’en to the dregs, this bitter cup of pain.