I was with my lady when she died:
I it was who guided her weak hand
For a blessing on each little head,
Laid her baby by her on the bed,
Heard the words they could not understand.
And I drew them round my knee that night,
Hushed their childish glee, and made them say
They would keep her words with loving tears,
They would not forget her dying fears
Lest the thought of her should fade away.
I, who guessed what her last dread had been,
Made a promise to that still, cold face,
That her children’s hearts, at any cost,
Should be with the mother they had lost,
When a stranger came to take her place.
And I knew so much! for I had lived
With my lady since her childhood: known
What her young and happy days had been,
And the grief no other eyes had seen
I had watched and sorrowed for alone.
Ah! she once had such a happy smile!
I had known how sorely she was tried:
Six short years before, her eyes were bright
As her little blue-eyed May’s that night,
When she stood by her dead mother’s side.
No–I will not say he was unkind;
But she had been used to love and praise.
He was somewhat grave–perhaps, in truth,
Could not weave her joyous, smiling youth,
Into all his stern and serious ways.
She, who should have reigned a blooming flower,
First in pride and honour, as in grace,–
She, whose will had once ruled all around,
Queen and darling of us all–she found
Change indeed in that cold, stately place.
Yet she would not blame him, even to me,
Though she often sat and wept alone;
But she could not hide it near her death,
When she said with her last struggling breath,
“Let my babies still remain my own!”
I it was who drew the sheet aside,
When he saw his dead wife’s face. That test
Seemed to strike right to his heart. He said,
In a strange, low whisper, to the dead,
“God knows, love, I did it for the best!”
And he wept–Oh yes, I will be just–
When I brought the children to him there–
Wondering sorrow in their baby eyes;
And he soothed them with his fond replies,
Bidding me give double love and care.
Ah, I loved them well for her dear sake:
Little Arthur, with his serious air;
May, with all her mother’s pretty ways,
Blushing, and at any word of praise
Shaking out her sunny golden hair.
And the little one of all–poor child!
She had cost that dear and precious life.
Once Sir Arthur spoke my lady’s name,
When the baby’s gloomy christening came,
And he called her “Olga–like my wife!”
Save that time, he never spoke of her;
He grew graver, sterner, every day;
And the children felt it, for they dropped
Low their voices, and their laughter stopped
While he stood and watched them at their play.
No, he never named their mother’s name.
But I told them of her: told them all
She had been; so gentle, good, and bright;
And I always took them every night
Where her picture hung in the great hall.
There she stood: white daisies in her hand,
And her red lips parted as to speak
With a smile; the blue and sunny air
Seemed to stir her floating golden hair,
And to bring a faint blush on her cheek.
Well, so time passed on; a year was gone,
And Sir Arthur had been much away.
Then the news came! I shed many tears
When I saw the truth of all my fears
Rise before me on that bitter day.
Any one but her I could have borne!
But my lady loved her as her friend.
Through their childhood and their early youth,
How she used to count upon the truth
Of this friendship that would never end!
Older, graver than my lady was,
Whose young, gentle heart on her relied,
She would give advice, and praise, and blame,
And my lady leant on Margaret’s name,
As her dearest comfort, help, and guide.
I had never liked her, and I think
That my lady grew to doubt her too,
Since her marriage; for she named her less,
Never saw her, and I used to guess
At some secret wrong I never knew.
That might be or not. But now, to hear
She would come and reign here in her stead,
With the pomp and splendour of a bride:
Would no thought reproach her in her pride
With the silent memory of the dead?
So, the day came, and the bells rang out,
And I laid the children’s black aside;
And I held each little trembling hand,
As I strove to make them understand
They must greet their father’s new-made bride.
Ah, Sir Arthur might look grave and stern,
And his lady’s eyes might well grow dim,
When the children shrank in fear away,–
Little Arthur hid his face, and May
Would not raise her eyes, or speak to him.
When Sir Arthur bade them greet their “mother,”
I was forced to chide, yet proud to hear
How my little loving May replied,
With her mother’s pretty air of pride,–
“Our dear mother has been dead a year!”
Ah, the lady’s tears might well fall fast,
As she kissed them, and then turned away.
She might strive to smile or to forget,
But I think some shadow of regret
Must have risen to blight her wedding-day.
She had some strange touch of self-reproach;
For she used to linger day by day,
By the nursery door, or garden gate,
With a sad, calm, wistful look, and wait
Watching the three children at their play.
But they always shrank away from her
When she strove to comfort their alarms,
And their grave, cold silence to beguile:
Even little Olga’s baby-smile
Quivered into tears when in her arms.
I could never chide them: for I saw
How their mother’s memory grew more deep
In their hearts. Each night I had to tell
Stories of her whom I loved so well
When a child, to send them off to sleep.
But Sir Arthur–Oh, this was too hard!–
He, who had been always stern and sad
In my lady’s time, seemed to rejoice
Each day more; and I could hear his voice
Even, sounding younger and more glad.
He might perhaps have blamed them, but his wife
Never failed to take the children’s part:
She would stay him with her pleading tone,
Saying she would strive, and strive alone,
Till she gained each little wayward heart.
And she strove indeed, and seemed to be
Always waiting for their love, in vain;
Yet, when May had most her mother’s look,
Then the lady’s calm, cold accents shook
With some memory of reproachful pain.
Little May would never call her Mother:
So, one day, the lady, bending low,
Kissed her golden curls, and softly said,
“Sweet one, call me Margaret, instead,–
Your dear mother used to call me so.”
She was gentle, kind, and patient too,
Yet in vain: the children held apart.
Ah, their mother’s gentle memory dwelt
Near them, and her little orphans felt
She had the first claim upon their heart.
So three years passed; then the war broke out;
And a rumour seemed to spread and rise;
First we guessed what sorrow must befall,
Then all doubt fled, for we read it all
In the depths of her despairing eyes.
Yes; Sir Arthur had been called away
To that scene of slaughter, fear, and strife,–
Now he seemed to know with double pain,
The cold, bitter gulf that must remain
To divide his children from his wife.
Nearer came the day he was to sail,
Deeper grew the coming woe and fear,
When, one night, the children at my knee
Knelt to say their evening prayer to me,
I looked up and saw Sir Arthur near.
There they knelt with folded hands, and said
Low, soft words in stammering accents sweet;
In the firelight shone their golden hair
And white robes: my darlings looked so fair,
With their little bare and rosy feet!
There he waited till their low “Amen;”
Stopped the rosy lips raised for “Good night!”–
Drew them with a fond clasp, close and near,
As he bade them stay with him, and hear
Something that would make his heart more light.
Little Olga crept into his arms;
Arthur leant upon his shoulder; May
Knelt beside him, with her earnest eyes
Lifted up in patient, calm surprise–
I can almost hear his words to-day.
“Years ago, my children, years ago,
When your mother was a child, she came
From her northern home, and here she met
Love for love, and comfort for regret,
In one early friend,–you know her name.
“And this friend–a few years older–gave
Such fond care, such love, that day by day
The new home grew happy, joy complete,
Studies easier, and play more sweet,
While all childish sorrows passed away.
“And your mother–fragile, like my May–
Leant on this deep love,–nor leant in vain.
For this friend (strong, generous, noble heart!)
Gave the sweet, and took the bitter part,–
Brought her all the joy, and kept the pain.
“Years passed on, and then I saw them first:
It was hard to say which was most fair,
Your sweet mother’s bright and blushing face,
Or the graver Margaret’s stately grace;
Golden locks, or braided raven hair.
“Then it happened, by a strange, sad fate,
One thought entered into each young soul:
Joy for one–if for the other pain;
Loss for one–if for the other gain:
One must lose, and one possess the whole.
“And so this–this–what they cared for–came
And belonged to Margaret: was her own.
But she laid the gift aside, to take
Pain and sorrow for your mother’s sake,
And none knew it but herself alone.
“Then she travelled far away, and none
The strange mystery of her absence knew.
Margaret’s secret thought was never told:
Even your mother thought her changed and cold,
And for many years I thought so too.
“She was gone; and then your mother took
That poor gift which Margaret laid aside:
Flower, or toy, or trinket, matters not:
What it was had better be forgot . . .
It was just then she became my bride.
“Now, I think May knows the hope I have.
Arthur, darling, can you guess the rest?
Even my little Olga understands
Great gifts can be given by little hands,
Since of all gifts Love is still the best.
“Margaret is my dear and honoured wife,
And I hold her so. But she can claim
From your hearts, dear ones, a loving debt
I can neither pay, nor yet forget:
You can give it in your mother’s name.
“Earth spoils even Love, and here a shade
On the purest, noblest heart may fall:
Now your mother dwells in perfect light,
She will bless us, I believe, to-night,–
She is happy now, and she knows all.”
Next day was farewell–a day of tears;
Yet Sir Arthur, as he rode away,
And turned back to see his lady stand
With the children clinging to her hand,
Looked as if it were a happy day.
Ah, they loved her soon! The little one
Crept into her arms as to a nest;
Arthur always with her now; and May
Growing nearer to her every day:–
–Well, I loved my own dear lady best.
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