Love’s Ordeal by George MacDonald

A recollection and attempted completion of a prose fragment read in childhood.

“Know’st thou that sound upon the window pane?”
Said the youth quietly, as outstretched he lay,
Where for an hour outstretched he had lain,
Pillowed upon her knees. To him did say
The thoughtful maiden: “It is but the rain
That hath been gathering in the West all day;
Be still, my dearest, let my eyes yet rest
Awhile upon thy face so calm and blest.”

“Know’st thou that sound, from silence slowly wrought?”
Said the youth, and his eyelids softly rose,
Revealing to her eyes the depths of thought
That lay beneath her in a still repose.
“I know it,” said the maiden; “it is nought
But the loud wintry wind that ever blows,
Swinging the great arms of the dreary pines,
Which each with others in its pain entwines.”

“Hear’st thou the baying of my hounds?” said he;
“Draw back the lattice-bar and let them in.”
Through a cloud-rift the light fell noiselessly
Upon the cottage floor; and, gaunt and thin,
Leaped in the stag-hounds, bounding as in glee,
Shaking the rain-drops from their shaggy skin;
And as the maiden closed the spattered glass,
A shadow faint over the floor did pass.

The youth, half-raised, was leaning on his hand;
And when again beside him sat the maid,
His eyes for a slow minute moving scanned
Her calm peace-lighted face; and then he said,
Monotonous, like solemn-read command:
“For love is of the earth, earthy, and laid
Down lifeless in its mother’s womb at last.”
The strange sound through the great pine-branches passed.

Again a shadow as it were of glass,
Over the moonbeams on the cottage floor,
Shapeless and dim, almost unseen, doth pass;
A mingled sound of rain-drops at the door,
But not a sound upon the window was.
A look of sorrowing doubt the youth’s face wore;
And the two hounds half-rose, and gazed at him,
Eyeing his countenance by the taper dim.

Now nothing of these things the maiden noted,
But turned her face with half-reproachful look,
As doubting whether he the words had quoted
Out of some evil, earth-begotten book;
Or upward from his spirit’s depths had floated
Those words like bubbles in a low dead brook;
But his eyes seemed to question,–Yea or No;
And so the maiden answered: “‘Tis not so;

“Love is of heaven, and heavenly.” A faint smile
Parted his lips, as a thought unexpressed
Were speaking in his heart; and for a while
He gently laid his head upon her breast;
His thought, a bark that by a sunny isle
At length hath found the haven of its rest,
Yet must not long remain, but forward go:
He lifted up his head, and answered: “No–

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“Maiden, I have loved other maidens.” Pale
Her red lips grew. “I loved them; yes, but they,
One after one, in trial’s hour did fail;
For after sunset, clouds again are grey.”
A sudden light flashed through the silken veil
That drooping hid her eyes; and then there lay
A stillness on her face, waiting; and then
The little clock rung out the hour of ten.

Moaning again the great pine-branches bow,
As if they tried in vain the wind to stem.
Still looking in her eyes, the youth said–“Thou
Art not more beautiful than some of them;
But more of earnestness is on thy brow;
Thine eyes are beaming like some dark-bright gem
That pours from hidden heart upon the night
The rays it gathered from the noon-day light.

“Look on this hand, beloved; thou didst see
The horse that broke from many, it did hold:
Two hours shall pass away, and it will be
All withered up and dry, wrinkled and old,
Big-veined, and skinny to extremity.”
Calmly upon him looked the maiden bold;
The stag-hounds rose, and gazed on him, and then,
With a low whine, laid themselves down again.

A minute’s silence, and the youth spake on:
“Dearest, I have a fearful thing to bear”
(A pain-cloud crossed his face, and then was gone)
“At midnight, when the moon sets; wilt thou dare
To go with me, or must I go alone
To meet an agony that will not spare?”
She spoke not, rose, and towards her mantle went;
His eyes did thank her–she was well content.

“Not yet, not yet; it is not time; for see
The hands have far to travel to the hour;
Yet time is scarcely left for telling thee
The past and present, and the coming power
Of the great darkness that will fall on me:
Roses and jasmine twine the bridal bower–
If ever bower and bridal joy be mine,
Horror and darkness must that bower entwine.”

Under his head the maiden put her arm,
And knelt beside, half leaning on his breast;
As, soul and body, she would shield all harm
From him whose love had made her being blest;
And well the healing of her eyes might charm
His doubting thoughts again to trusting rest.
He drew and hid her face his heart upon,
Then spoke with low voice sounding changeless on.

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Strange words they were, and fearful, that he spake;
The maiden moved not once, nor once replied;
And ever as he spoke, the wind did make
A feebler moan until away it died;
Then the rain ceased, and not a movement brake
The silence, save the clock that did divide
The hours into quick moments, sparks of time
Scorching the soul that watcheth for the chime.

He spoke of sins that pride had caused in him;
Of sufferings merciful, and wanderings wild;
Of fainting noontides, and of oceans dim;
Of earthly beauty that had oft beguiled;
And then the sudden storm and contest grim;
From each emerging new-born, more a child;
Wandering again throughout the teaching earth,
No rest attaining, only a new birth.

“But when I find a heart that’s like to mine,
With love to live through the unloving hour,
Folded in faith, like violets that have lien
Folded in warm earth, till the sunny shower
Calleth them forth; thoughts with my thoughts to twine,
Weaving around us both a fragrant bower,
Where we within may sleep, together drawn,
Folded in love until the morning dawn;

“Then shall I rest, my weary day’s work o’er,
A deep sleep bathing, steeping all my soul,
Dissolving out the earth-stains evermore.
Thou too shalt sleep with me, and be made whole.
All, all time’s billows over us shall pour,
Then ebb away, and far beneath us roll:
We shall behold them like a stormy lake,
‘Neath the clear height of peace where we awake.”

Her face on his, her lips on his lips pressed,
Was the sole answer that the maiden made.
With both his arms he held her to his breast;
‘Twas but a moment; yet, before he said
One other word, of power to strengthen, lest
She should give way amid the trial dread,
The clock gave out the warning to the hour,
And on the thatch fell sounds as of a shower.

One long kiss, and the maiden rose. A fear
Fell like a shadow dim upon her heart,
A trembling as at something ghostly near;
But she was bold, for they were not to part.
Then the youth rose, his cheek pale, his eyes clear;
And helped the maid, whose trembling hands did thwart
Her haste to tie her gathered mantle’s fold;
Then forth they went into the midnight cold.

The moon was sunken low in the dim west,
Curled upwards on the steep horizon’s brink,
A leaf of glory falling to its rest.
The maiden’s hand, still trembling, scarce could link
Her to his side; but his arm round her waist
Stole gently; so she walked, and did not sink;
Her hand on his right side soon held him fast,
And so together wound, they onward passed.

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And, clinging to his side, she felt full well
The strong and measured beating of his heart;
But as the floating moon aye lower fell,
Slowly she felt its bounding force depart,
Till like a throbbing bird; nor can she tell
Whether it beats, at length; and with a start
She felt the arm relax around her flung,
And on her circling arm he leaned and hung.

But as his steps more and more feeble grow,
She feels her strength and courage rise amain.
He lifted up his head; the moon was low,
Almost on the world’s edge. A smile of pain
Was on his lips, as his large eyes turned slow
Seeking for hers; which, like a heavy rain,
Poured love on him in many a love-lit gleam.
So they walked like two souls, linked by one dream.[2]

[Footnote 2:

In a lovely garden walking,
Two lovers went hand in hand;
Two wan, sick figures, talking,
They sat in the flowery land.

On the cheek they kissed each other,
And they kissed upon the mouth;
Fast clasped they one another–
And back came their health and youth.

Two little bells rang shrilly,
And the dream went with the hour:
She lay in the cloister stilly,
He far in the dungeon-tower.

Translated from Uhland.]

Hanging his head, behind each came a hound,
With slow and noiseless paws upon the road.
What is that shining on the weedy ground?
Nought but the bright eyes of the dingy toad.
The silent pines range every way around;
A deep stream on the left side hardly flowed.
Their path is towards the moon, dying alone–
It touches the horizon, dips, is gone.

Its last gleam fell upon dim glazed eyes;
An old man tottered feebly in her hold,
Stooping with bended knees that could not rise;
Nor longer could his arm her waist infold.
The maiden trembled; but through this disguise
Her love beheld what never could grow old;
And so the aged man, she, young and warm,
Clasped closer yet with her supporting arm.

Till with short, dragging steps, he turned aside
Into a closer thicket of tall firs,
Whose bare, straight, slender stems behind them hide
A smooth grey rock. Not a pine-needle stirs
Till they go in. Then a low wind blows wide
O’er their cone-tops. It swells until it whirrs
Through the long stems, as if aeolian chords
For moulding mystic sounds in lack of words.

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But as they entered by a narrow cleft
Into the rock’s heart, suddenly it ceased;
And the tall pines stood still as if bereft
Of a strong passion, or from pain released;
Once more they wove their strange, dark, moveless weft
O’er the dull midnight sky; and in the East
A mist arose and clomb the skyey stairs;
And like sad thoughts the bats came unawares.

‘Tis a dark chamber for the bridal night,
O poor, pale, saviour bride! A faint rush-lamp
He kindled with his shaking hands; its light
Painted a tiny halo on the damp
That filled the cavern to its unseen height,
Like a death-candle on the midnight swamp.
Within, each side the entrance, lies a hound,
With liquid light his green eyes gleaming round.

A couch just raised above the rocky floor,
Of withered oak and beech-leaves, that the wind
Had tossed about till weary, covered o’er
With skins of bears which feathery mosses lined,
And last of lambs, with wool long, soft, and hoar,
Received the old man’s bended limbs reclined.
Gently the maiden did herself unclothe,
And lay beside him, trusting, and not loath.

Again the storm among the trees o’erhead;
The hounds pricked up their ears, their eyes flashed fire;
Seemed to the trembling maiden that a tread
Light, and yet clear, amid the wind’s loud ire,
As dripping feet o’er smooth slabs hither sped,
Came often up, as with a fierce desire,
To enter, but as oft made quick retreat;
And looking forth the hounds stood on their feet.

Then came, half querulous, a whisper old,
Feeble and hollow as from out a chest:
“Take my face on your bosom, I am cold.”
Straightway she bared her bosom’s white soft nest;
And then his head, her gentle hands, love-bold,
With its grey withered face against her pressed.
Ah, maiden! it was very old and chill,
But thy warm heart beneath it grew not still.

Again the wind falls, and the rain-clouds pour,
Rushing to earth; and soon she heard the sound
Of a fierce torrent through the thick night roar;
The lamp went out as by the darkness drowned;
No more the morn will dawn, oh, never more!
Like centuries the feeble hours went round;
Dead night lay o’er her, clasping, as she lay,
Within her holy place, unburied clay.

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The hours stood still; her life sunk down so low,
That, but for wretchedness, no life she knew.
A charnel wind sung on a moaning–No;
Earth’s centre was the grave from which it blew;
Earth’s loves and beauties all passed sighing slow,
Roses and lilies, children, friends, the few;
But so transparent blanched in every part,
She saw the pale worm lying in each heart.

And worst of all, O death of gladsome life!
A voice within awoke and cried: In sooth,
There is no need of sorrow, care, and strife;
For all that women beauty call, and truth,
Is but a glow from hearts with fancy rife,
Passing away with slowly fading youth.
Gaze on them narrowly, they waver, blot;
Look at them fixedly, and they are not.

And all the answer the poor child could make
Lay in the tightened grasp of her two hands;
She felt as if she lay mouldering awake
Within the sepulchre’s fast stony bands,
And cared not though she died, but for his sake.
And the dark horror grew like drifting sands,
Till nought seemed beautiful, not God, nor light;
And yet she braved the false, denying night.

But after hope was dead, a faint, light streak
Crept through a crevice in the rocky wall;
It fell upon her bosom and his cheek.
From God’s own eye that light-glance seemed to fall.
Backward he drew his head, and did not speak,
But gazed with large deep eyes angelical
Upon her face. Old age had fled away–
Youth everlasting in her bosom lay.

With a low cry of joy closer she crept,
And on his bosom hid a face that glowed,
Seeking amends for terror while he slept.
She had been faithful: the beloved owed
Love, youth, and gladness unto her who wept
Gushingly on his heart. Her warm tears flowed
A baptism for the life that would not cease;
And when the sun arose, they slept in peace.

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