One golden twelfth-part of a checkered year;
One summer month, of sunlight, moonlight, mirth,
With not a hint of shadows lurking near,
Or storm-clouds brewing.
‘Twas a royal day:
Voluptuous July held her lover, Earth,
With her warm arms, upon her glowing breast,
And twined herself about him, as he lay
Smiling and panting in his dream-stirred rest.
She bound him with her limbs of perfect grace,
And hid him with her trailing robe of green,
And wound him in her long hair’s shimmering sheen,
And rained her ardent kisses on his face.
Through the glad glory of the summer land
Helen and I went wandering, hand in hand.
In winding paths, hard by the ripe wheat-field,
White with the promise of a bounteous yield,
Across the late shorn meadow–down the hill,
Red with the tiger-lily blossoms, till
We stood upon the borders of the lake,
That like a pretty, placid infant, slept
Low at its base: and little ripples crept
Along its surface, just as dimples chase
Each other o’er an infant’s sleeping face.
Helen in idle hours had learned to make
A thousand pretty, feminine knick-knacks:
For brackets, ottomans, and toilet stands –
Labour just suited to her dainty hands.
That morning she had been at work in wax,
Moulding a wreath of flowers for my room, –
Taking her patterns from the living blows,
In all their dewy beauty and sweet bloom,
Fresh from my garden. Fuchsia, tulip, rose,
And trailing ivy, grew beneath her touch,
Resembling the living plants as much
As life is copied in the form of death:
These lacking but the perfume, and that, breath.
And now the wreath was all completed, save
The mermaid blossom of all flowerdom,
A water-lily, dripping from the wave.
And ’twas in search of it that we had come
Down to the lake, and wandered on the beach,
To see if any lilies grew in reach.
Some broken stalks, where flowers late had been;
Some buds, with all their beauties folded in,
We found, but not the treasure that we sought.
And then we turned our footsteps to the spot
Where, all impatient of its chain, my boat,
The Swan, rocked, asking to be set afloat.
It was a dainty row-boat–strong, yet light;
Each side a swan was painted snowy white:
A present from my uncle, just before
He sailed, with Death, to that mysterious strand,
Where freighted ships go sailing evermore,
But none return to tell us of the land.
I freed the Swan, and slowly rowed about,
Wherever sea-weeds, grass, or green leaves lifted
Their tips above the water. So we drifted,
While Helen, opposite, leaned idly out
And watched for lilies in the waves below,
And softly crooned some sweet and dreamy air,
That soothed me like a mother’s lullabies.
I dropped the oars, and closed my sun-kissed eyes,
And let the boat go drifting here and there.
Oh, happy day! the last of that brief time
Of thoughtless youth, when all the world seems bright,
Ere that disguised angel men call Woe
Leads the sad heart through valleys dark as night,
Up to the heights exalted and sublime.
On each blest, happy moment, I am fain
To linger long, ere I pass on to pain
And sorrow that succeeded.
As golden as the summer noontide’s beams,
I was awakened by a voice that cried:
“Strange ship, ahoy! Fair frigate, whither bound?”
And, starting up, I cast my gaze around,
And saw a sail-boat o’er the water glide
Close to the Swan, like some live thing of grace;
And from it looked the glowing, handsome face
“Beauteous sirens of the sea,
Come sail across the raging main with me!”
He laughed; and leaning, drew our drifting boat
Beside his own. “There, now! step in!” he said;
“I’ll land you anywhere you want to go –
My boat is safer far than yours, I know:
And much more pleasant with its sails all spread.
The Swan? We’ll take the oars, and let it float
Ashore at leisure. You, Maurine, sit there –
Miss Helen here. Ye gods and little fishes!
I’ve reached the height of pleasure, and my wishes.
Adieu despondency! farewell to care!”
‘Twas done so quickly: that was Vivian’s way.
He did not wait for either yea or nay.
He gave commands, and left you with no choice
But just to do the bidding of his voice.
His rare, kind smile, low tones, and manly face
Lent to his quick imperiousness a grace
And winning charm, completely stripping it
Of what might otherwise have seemed unfit.
Leaving no trace of tyranny, but just
That nameless force that seemed to say, “You must.”
Suiting its pretty title of the Dawn,
(So named, he said, that it might rhyme with Swan),
Vivian’s sail-boat was carpeted with blue,
While all its sails were of a pale rose hue.
The daintiest craft that flirted with the breeze;
A poet’s fancy in an hour of ease.
Whatever Vivian had was of the best.
His room was like some Sultan’s in the East.
His board was always spread as for a feast,
Whereat, each meal, he was both host and guest.
He would go hungry sooner than he’d dine
At his own table if ’twere illy set.
He so loved things artistic in design –
Order and beauty, all about him. Yet
So kind he was, if it befell his lot
To dine within the humble peasant’s cot,
He made it seem his native soil to be,
And thus displayed the true gentility.
Under the rosy banners of the Dawn,
Around the lake we drifted on, and on.
It was a time for dreams, and not for speech.
And so we floated on in silence, each
Weaving the fancies suiting such a day.
Helen leaned idly o’er the sail-boat’s side,
And dipped her rosy fingers in the tide;
And I among the cushions half reclined,
Half sat, and watched the fleecy clouds at play,
While Vivian with his blank-book, opposite,
In which he seemed to either sketch or write,
Was lost in inspiration of some kind.
No time, no change, no scene, can e’er efface
My mind’s impression of that hour and place;
It stands out like a picture. O’er the years,
Black with their robes of sorrow–veiled with tears,
Lying with all their lengthened shapes between,
Untouched, undimmed, I still behold that scene.
Just as the last of Indian-summer days,
Replete with sunlight, crowned with amber haze,
Followed by dark and desolate December,
Through all the months of winter we remember.
The sun slipped westward. That peculiar change
Which creeps into the air, and speaks of night
While yet the day is full of golden light,
We felt steal o’er us.
Vivian broke the spell
Of dream-fraught silence, throwing down his book:
“Young ladies, please allow me to arrange
These wraps about your shoulders. I know well
The fickle nature of our atmosphere, –
Her smile swift followed by a frown or tear, –
And go prepared for changes. Now you look,
Like–like–oh, where’s a pretty simile?
Had you a pocket mirror here you’d see
How well my native talent is displayed
In shawling you. Red on the brunette maid;
Blue on the blonde–and quite without design
(Oh, where IS that comparison of mine?)
Well–like a June rose and a violet blue
In one bouquet! I fancy that will do.
And now I crave your patience and a boon,
Which is to listen, while I read my rhyme,
A floating fancy of the summer time.
‘Tis neither witty, wonderful, nor wise,
So listen kindly–but don’t criticise
My maiden effort of the afternoon:
“If all the ships I have at sea
Should come a-sailing home to me,
Ah, well! the harbour could not hold
So many sails as there would be
If all my ships came in from sea.
“If half my ships came home from sea,
And brought their precious freight to me,
Ah, well! I should have wealth as great
As any king who sits in state –
So rich the treasures that would be
In half my ships now out at sea.
“If just one ship I have at sea
Should come a-sailing home to me,
Ah, well! the storm-clouds then might frown:
For if the others all went down
Still rich and proud and glad I’d be,
If that one ship came back to me.
“If that one ship went down at sea,
And all the others came to me,
Weighed down with gems and wealth untold,
With glory, honour, riches, gold,
The poorest soul on earth I’d be
If that one ship came not to me.
“O skies be calm! O winds blow free –
Blow all my ships safe home to me.
But if thou sendest some a-wrack
To never more come sailing back,
Send any–all that skim the sea,
But bring my love-ship home to me.”
Helen was leaning by me, and her head
Rested against my shoulder: as he read,
I stroked her hair, and watched the fleecy skies,
And when he finished, did not turn my eyes.
I felt too happy and too shy to meet
His gaze just then. I said, “‘Tis very sweet,
And suits the day; does it not, Helen, dear?”
But Helen, voiceless, did not seem to hear.
“‘Tis strange,” I added, “how you poets sing
So feelingly about the very thing
You care not for! and dress up an ideal
So well, it looks a living, breathing real!
Now, to a listener, your love song seemed
A heart’s out-pouring; yet I’ve heard you say
Almost the opposite; or that you deemed
Position, honour, glory, power, fame,
Gained without loss of conscience or good name,
The things to live for.”
“Have you? Well, you may,”
Laughed Vivian, “but ’twas years–or months’ ago!
And Solomon says wise men change, you know!
I now speak truth! if she I hold most dear
Slipped from my life, and no least hope were left,
My heart would find the years more lonely here
Than if I were of wealth, fame, friends, bereft,
And sent, an exile, to a foreign land.”
His voice was low, and measured: as he spoke,
New, unknown chords of melody awoke
Within my soul. I felt my heart expand
With that sweet fulness born of love. I turned
To hide the blushes on my cheek that burned,
And leaning over Helen, breathed her name.
She lay so motionless I thought she slept:
But, as I spoke, I saw her eyes unclose,
And o’er her face a sudden glory swept,
And a slight tremor thrilled all through her frame.
“Sweet friend,” I said, “your face is full of light
What were the dreams that made your eyes so bright?”
She only smiled for answer, and arose
From her reclining posture at my side,
Threw back the clust’ring ringlets from her face
With a quick gesture, full of easy grace,
And, turning, spoke to Vivian. “Will you guide
The boat up near that little clump of green
Off to the right? There’s where the lilies grow.
We quite forgot our errand here, Maurine,
And our few moments have grown into hours.
What will Aunt Ruth think of our ling’ring so?
There–that will do–now I can reach the flowers.”
“Hark! just hear that!” and Vivian broke forth singing,
“‘Row, brothers, row.’ The six o’clock bell’s ringing!
Who ever knew three hours to go so fast
In all the annals of the world, before?
I could have sworn not over one had passed.
Young ladies, I am forced to go ashore!
I thank you for the pleasure you have given;
This afternoon has been a glimpse of heaven.
Good-night–sweet dreams! and by your gracious leave,
I’ll pay my compliments to-morrow eve.”
A smile, a bow, and he had gone his way:
And, in the waning glory of the day,
Down cool, green lanes, and through the length’ning shadows,
Silent, we wandered back across the meadows.
The wreath was finished, and adorned my room;
Long afterward, the lilies’ copied bloom
Was like a horrid spectre in my sight,
Staring upon me morning, noon, and night.
The sun went down. The sad new moon rose up,
And passed before me like an empty cup,
The Great Unseen brims full of pain or bliss,
And gives His children, saying, “Drink of this.”
A light wind, from the open casement, fanned
My brow and Helen’s, as we, hand in hand,
Sat looking out upon the twilight scene,
In dreamy silence. Helen’s dark-blue eyes,
Like two lost stars that wandered from the skies
Some night adown the meteor’s shining track,
And always had been grieving to go back,
Now gazed up, wistfully, at heaven’s dome,
And seemed to recognise and long for home.
Her sweet voice broke the silence: “Wish, Maurine,
Before you speak! you know the moon is new,
And anything you wish for will come true
Before it wanes. I do believe the sign!
Now tell me your wish, and I’ll tell you mine.”
I turned and looked up at the slim young moon;
And, with an almost superstitious heart,
I sighed, “Oh, new moon! help me, by thine art,
To grow all grace and goodness, and to be
Worthy the love a true heart proffers me.”
Then smiling down, I said, “Dear one! my boon,
I fear, is quite too silly or too sweet
For my repeating: so we’ll let it stay
Between the moon and me. But if I may
I’ll listen now to your wish. Tell me, please!”
All suddenly she nestled at my feet,
And hid her blushing face upon my knees.
Then drew my hand against her glowing cheek,
And, leaning on my breast, began to speak,
Half sighing out the words my tortured ear
Reached down to catch, while striving not to hear.
“Can you not guess who ’twas about, Maurine?
Oh, my sweet friend! you must ere this have seen
The love I tried to cover from all eyes
And from myself. Ah, foolish little heart!
As well it might go seeking for some art
Whereby to hide the sun in noonday skies.
When first the strange sound of his voice I heard,
Looked on his noble face, and, touched his hand,
My slumb’ring heart thrilled through and through and stirred
As if to say, ‘I hear, and understand.’
And day by day mine eyes were blest beholding
The inner beauty of his life, unfolding
In countless words and actions that portrayed
The noble stuff of which his soul was made.
And more and more I felt my heart upreaching
Toward the truth, drawn gently by his teaching,
As flowers are drawn by sunlight. And there grew
A strange, shy something in its depths, I knew
At length was love, because it was so sad
And yet so sweet, and made my heart so glad,
Yet seemed to pain me. Then, for very shame,
Lest all should read my secret and its name,
I strove to hide it in my breast away,
Where God could see it only. But each day
It seemed to grow within me, and would rise,
Like my own soul, and look forth from my eyes,
Defying bonds of silence; and would speak,
In its red-lettered language, on my cheek,
If but his name was uttered. You were kind,
My own Maurine! as you alone could be,
So long the sharer of my heart and mind,
While yet you saw, in seeming not to see.
In all the years we have been friends, my own,
And loved as women very rarely do,
My heart no sorrow and no joy has known
It has not shared at once, in full, with you.
And I so longed to speak to you of this,
When first I felt its mingled pain and bliss;
Yet dared not, lest you, knowing him, should say,
In pity for my folly–‘Lack-a-day!
You are undone: because no mortal art
Can win the love of such a lofty heart.’
And so I waited, silent and in pain,
Till I could know I did not love in vain.
And now I know, beyond a doubt or fear.
Did he not say, ‘If she I hold most dear
Slipped from my life, and no least hope were left,
My heart would find the years more lonely here
Than if I were of wealth, fame, friends, bereft,
And sent, an exile, to a foreign land’?
Oh, darling, you must LOVE, to understand
The joy that thrilled all through me at those words.
It was as if a thousand singing birds
Within my heart broke forth in notes of praise.
I did not look up, but I knew his gaze
Was on my face, and that his eyes must see
The joy I felt almost transfigured me.
He loves me–loves me! so the birds kept singing,
And all my soul with that sweet strain is ringing.
If there were added but one drop of bliss,
No more my cup would hold: and so, this eve,
I made a wish that I might feel his kiss
Upon my lips, ere yon pale moon should leave
The stars all lonely, having waned away,
Too old and weak and bowed with care to stay.”
Her voice sighed in silence. While she spoke
My heart writhed in me, praying she would cease –
Each word she uttered falling like a stroke
On my bare soul. And now a hush like death,
Save that ’twas broken by a quick-drawn breath,
Fell ’round me, but brought not the hoped-for peace.
For when the lash no longer leaves its blows,
The flesh still quivers, and the blood still flows.
She nestled on my bosom like a child,
And ‘neath her head my tortured heart throbbed wild
With pain and pity. She had told her tale –
Her self-deceiving story to the end.
How could I look down on her as she lay
So fair, and sweet, and lily-like, and frail –
A tender blossom on my breast, and say,
“Nay, you are wrong–you do mistake, dear friend!
‘Tis I am loved, not you”? Yet that were truth,
And she must know it later.
Should I speak,
And spread a ghastly pallor o’er the cheek
Flushed now with joy? And while I, doubting pondered,
She spoke again. “Maurine! I oft have wondered
Why you and Vivian were not lovers. He
Is all a heart could ask its king to be;
And you have beauty, intellect and youth.
I think it strange you have not loved each other –
Strange how he could pass by you for another
Not half so fair or worthy. Yet I know
A loving Father pre-arranged it so.
I think my heart has known him all these years,
And waited for him. And if when he came
It had been as a lover of my friend,
I should have recognised him, all the same,
As my soul-mate, and loved him to the end,
Hiding my grief, and forcing back my tears
Till on my heart, slow dropping, day by day,
Unseen they fell, and wore it all away.
And so a tender Father kept him free,
With all the largeness of his love, for me –
For me, unworthy such a precious gift!
Yet I will bend each effort of my life
To grow in grace and goodness, and to lift
My soul and spirit to his lofty height,
So to deserve that holy name, his wife.
Sweet friend, it fills my whole heart with delight
To breathe its long hid secret in your ear.
Speak, my Maurine, and say you love to hear!”
The while she spoke, my active brain gave rise
To one great thought of mighty sacrifice
And self-denial. Oh! it blanched my cheek,
And wrung my soul; and from my heart it drove
All life and feeling. Coward-like, I strove
To send it from me; but I felt it cling
And hold fast on my mind like some live thing;
And all the Self within me felt its touch
And cried, “No, no! I cannot do so much –
I am not strong enough–there is no call.”
And then the voice of Helen bade me speak,
And with a calmness born of nerve, I said,
Scarce knowing what I uttered, “Sweetheart, all
Your joys and sorrows are with mine own wed.
I thank you for your confidence, and pray
I may deserve it always. But, dear one,
Something–perhaps our boat-ride in the sun –
Has set my head to aching. I must go
To bed directly; and you will, I know,
Grant me your pardon, and another day
We’ll talk of this together. Now good-night,
And angels guard you with their wings of light.”
I kissed her lips, and held her on my heart,
And viewed her as I ne’er had done before.
I gazed upon her features o’er and o’er;
Marked her white, tender face–her fragile form,
Like some frail plant that withers in the storm;
Saw she was fairer in her new-found joy
Than e’er before; and thought, “Can I destroy
God’s handiwork, or leave it at the best
A broken harp, while I close clasp my bliss?”
I bent my head and gave her one last kiss,
And sought my room, and found there such relief
As sad hearts feel when first alone with grief.
The moon went down, slow sailing from my sight,
And left the stars to watch away the night.
O stars, sweet stars, so changeless and serene!
What depths of woe your pitying eyes have seen!
The proud sun sets, and leaves us with our sorrow,
To grope alone in darkness till the morrow.
The languid moon, e’en if she deigns to rise,
Soon seeks her couch, grown weary of our sighs;
But from the early gloaming till the day
Sends golden-liveried heralds forth to say
He comes in might; the patient stars shine on,
Steadfast and faithful, from twilight to dawn.
And, as they shone upon Gethsemane,
And watched the struggle of a God-like soul,
Now from the same far height they shone on me,
And saw the waves of anguish o’er me roll.
The storm had come upon me all unseen:
No sound of thunder fell upon my ear;
No cloud arose to tell me it was near;
But under skies all sunlit, and serene,
I floated with the current of the stream,
And thought life all one golden-haloed dream.
When lo! a hurricane, with awful force,
Swept swift upon its devastating course,
Wrecked my frail bark, and cast me on the wave
Where all my hopes had found a sudden grave.
Love makes us blind and selfish; otherwise
I had seen Helen’s secret in her eyes;
So used I was to reading every look
In her sweet face, as I would read a book.
But now, made sightless by love’s blinding rays,
I had gone on unseeing, to the end
Where Pain dispelled the mist of golden haze
That walled me in, and lo! I found my friend
Who journeyed with me–at my very side –
Had been sore wounded to the heart, while I,
Both deaf and blind, saw not, nor heard her cry.
And then I sobbed, “O God! I would have died
To save her this.” And as I cried in pain,
There leaped forth from the still, white realm of Thought
Where Conscience dwells, that unimpassioned spot
As widely different from the heart’s domain
As north from south–the impulse felt before,
And put away; but now it rose once more,
In greater strength, and said, “Heart, wouldst thou prove
What lips have uttered? Then go, lay thy love
On Friendship’s altar, as thy offering.”
“Nay!” cried my heart, “ask any other thing –
Ask life itself–’twere easier sacrifice.
But ask not love, for that I cannot give.”
“But,” spoke the voice, “the meanest insect dies,
And is no hero! heroes dare to live
When all that makes life sweet is snatched away.”
So with my heart, in converse, till the day,
In gold and crimson billows, rose and broke,
The voice of Conscience, all unwearied, spoke.
Love warred with Friendship, heart with Conscience fought,
Hours rolled away, and yet the end was not.
And wily Self, tricked out like tenderness,
Sighed, “Think how one, whose life thou wert to bless,
Will be cast down, and grope in doubt and fear!
Wouldst thou wound him, to give thy friend relief?
Can wrong make right?”
“Nay!” Conscience said, “but Pride
And Time can heal the saddest hurts of Love.
While Friendship’s wounds gape wide and yet more wide,
And bitter fountains of the spirit prove.”
At length, exhausted with the wearing strife,
I cast the new-found burden of my life
On God’s broad breast, and sought that deep repose
That only he who watched with sorrow knows.