TIMES followed one another. Came a morn
I stood upon the brink of twenty years,
And looked before and after, as I stood
Woman and artist,-either incomplete,
Both credulous of completion. There I held
The whole creation in my little cup,
And smiled with thirsty lips before I drank,
'Good health to you and me, sweet neighbour mine
And all these peoples.'
I was glad, that day;
The June was in me, with its multitudes
Of nightingales all singing in the dark,
And rosebuds reddening where the calyx split.
I felt so young, so strong, so sure of God!
So glad, I could not choose be very wise!
And, old at twenty, was inclined to pull
My childhood backward in a childish jest
To see the face of't once more, and farewell!
In which fantastic mood I bounded forth
At early morning,-would not wait so long
As even to snatch my bonnet by the strings,
But, brushing a green trail across the lawn
With my gown in the dew, took will and way
Among the acacias of the shrubberies,
To fly my fancies in the open air
And keep my birthday, till my aunt awoke
To stop good dreams. Meanwhile I murmured on,
As honeyed bees keep humming to themselves;
'The worthiest poets have remained uncrowned
Till death has bleached their foreheads to the bone,
And so with me it must be, unless I prove
Unworthy of the grand adversity,-
And certainly I would not fail so much.
What, therefore, if I crown myself to-day
In sport, not pride, to learn the feel of it,
Before my brows be numb as Dante's own
To all the tender pricking of such leaves?
Such leaves? what leaves?'
I pulled the branches down,
To choose from.
'Not the bay! I choose no bay;
The fates deny us if we are overbold:
Nor myrtle-which means chiefly love; and love
Is something awful which one dare not touch
So early o' mornings. This verbena strains
The point of passionate fragrance; and hard by,
This guelder rose, at far too slight a beck
Of the wind, will toss about her flower-apples.
Ah-there's my choice,-that ivy on the wall,
That headlong ivy! not a leaf will grow
But thinking of a wreath. Large leaves, smooth leaves,
Serrated like my vines, and half as green.
I like such ivy; bold to leap a height
'Twas strong to climb! as good to grow on graves
As twist about a thyrsus; pretty too,
(And that's not ill) when twisted round a comb.'
Thus speaking to myself, half singing it,
Because some thoughts are fashioned like a bell
To ring with once being touched, I drew a wreath
Drenched, blinding me with dew, across my brow,
And fastening it behind so, . . turning faced
. . My public!-Cousin Romney-with a mouth
Twice graver than his eyes.
I stood there fixed-
My arms up, like the caryatid, sole
Of some abolished temple, helplessly
Persistent in a gesture which derides
A former purpose. Yet my blush was flame,
As if from flax, not stone.
The earliest of Aurora's!'
Hand stretched out
I clasped, as shipwrecked men will clasp a hand,
Indifferent to the sort of palm. The tide
Had caught me at my pastime, writing down
My foolish name too near upon the sea
Which drowned me with a blush as foolish. 'You,
The smile died out in his eyes
And dropped upon his lips, a cold dead weight,
For just a moment . . 'Here's a book, I found!
No name writ on it-poems, by the form;
Some Greek upon the margin,-lady's Greek,
Without the accents. Read it? Not a word.
I saw at once the thing had witchcraft in't,
Whereof the reading calls up dangerous spirits;
I rather bring it to the witch.'
You found it.' . .
'In the hollow by the stream,
That beach leans down into-of which you said,
The Oread in it has a Naiad's heart
And pines for waters.'
My cousin! that I have seen you not too much
A witch, a poet, scholar, and the rest,
To be a woman also.'
With a glance
The smile rose in his eyes again, and touched
The ivy on my forehead, light as air.
I answered gravely, 'Poets needs must be
Or men or women-more's the pity.'
But men, and still less women, happily,
Scarce need be poets. Keep to the green wreath,
Since even dreaming of the stone and bronze
Brings headaches, pretty cousin, and defiles
The clean white morning dresses.'
'So you judge!
Because I love the beautiful, I must
Love pleasure chiefly, and be overcharged
For ease and whiteness! Well-you know the world.
And only miss your cousin; 'tis not much!-
But learn this: I would rather take my part
With God's Dead, who afford to walk in white
Yet spread His glory, than keep quiet here,
And gather up my feet from even a step,
For fear to soil my gown in so much dust.
I choose to walk at all risks.-Here, if heads
That hold a rhythmic thought, must ache perforce,
For my part, I choose headaches,-and to-day's
'Dear Aurora, choose instead
To cure such. You have balsams.'
The headache is too noble for my sex.
You think the heartache would sound decenter,
Since that's the woman's special, proper ache,
And altogether tolerable, except
To a woman.'
Saying which, I loosed my wreath.
And, swinging it beside me as I walked,
Half petulant, half playful, as we walked,
I sent a sidelong look to find his thought,-
As falcon set on falconer's finger may,
With sidelong head, and startled, braving eye,
Which means, 'You'll see-you'll see! I'll soon take flight-
You shall not hinder.' He, as shaking out
His hand and answering 'Fly then,' did not speak,
Except by such a gesture. Silently
We paced, until, just coming into sight
Of the house-windows, he abruptly caught
At one end of the swinging wreath, and said
'Aurora!' There I stopped short, breath and all.
'Aurora, let's be serious, and throw by
This game of head and heart. Life means, be sure,
Both heart and head,-both active, both complete,
And both in earnest. Men and women make
The world, as head and heart make human life.
Work man, work woman, since there's work to do
In this beleaguered earth, for head and heart,
And thought can never do the work of love!
But work for ends, I mean for uses; not
For such sleek fringes (do you call them ends?
Still less God's glory) as we sew ourselves
Upon the velvet of those baldaquins
Held 'twixt us and the sun. That book of yours,
I have not read a page of; but I toss
A rose up-it falls calyx down, you see! . .
The chances are that, being a woman, young,
And pure, with such a pair of large, calm eyes, . .
You write as well . . and ill . . upon the whole,
As other women. If as well, what then?
If even a little better, . . still what then?
We want the Best in art now, or no art.
The time is done for facile settings up
Of minnow gods, nymphs here, and tritons there;
The polytheists have gone out in God,
That unity of Bests. No best, no God!-
And so with art, we say. Give art's divine,
Direct, indubitable, real as grief,-
Or leave us to the grief we grow ourselves
Divine by overcoming with mere hope
And most prosaic patience. You, you are young
As Eve with nature's daybreak on her face;
But this same world you are come to, dearest coz,
Has done with keeping birthdays, saves her wreaths
To hang upon her ruins,-and forgets
To rhyme the cry with which she still beats back
Those savage, hungry dogs that hunt her down
To the empty grave of Christ. The world's hard pressed;
The sweat of labour in the early curse
Has (turning acrid in six thousand years)
Become the sweat of torture. Who has time,
An hour's time . . think! . . to sit upon a bank
And hear the cymbal tinkle in white hands!
When Egypt's slain, I say, let Miriam sing!-
Before . . where's Moses?'
Where's Moses?-is a Moses to be found?-
You'll sink him vainly in the bulrushes,
While I in vain touch cymbals. Yet, concede,
Such sounding brass has done some actual good,
(The application in a woman's hand,
If that were credible, being scarcely spoilt,)
In colonising beehives.'
'There it is!-
You play beside a death-bed like a child,
Yet measure to yourself a prophet's place
To teach the living. None of all these things,
Can women understand. You generalise,
Oh, nothing!-not even grief! Your quick-breathed hearts,
So sympathetic to the personal pang,
Close on each separate knife-stroke, yielding up
A whole life at each wound; incapable
Of deepening, widening a large lap of life
To hold the world-full woe. The human race
To you means, such a child, or such a man,
You saw one morning waiting in the cold,
Beside that gate, perhaps. You gather up
A few such cases, and, when strong, sometimes
Will write of factories and of slaves, as if
Your father were a negro, and your son
A spinner in the mills. All's yours and you,-
All, coloured with your blood, or otherwise
Just nothing to you. Why, I call you hard
To general suffering. Here's the world half blind
With intellectual light, half brutalised
With civilization, having caught the plague
In silks from Tarsus, shrieking east and west
Along a thousand railroads, mad with pain
And sin too! . . does one woman of you all,
(You who weep easily) grow pale to see
This tiger shake his cage?-does one of you
Stand still from dancing, stop from stringing pearls
And pine and die, because of the great sum
Of universal anguish?-Show me a tear
Wet as Cordelia's, in eyes bright as yours,
Because the world is mad? You cannot count,
That you should weep for this account, not you!
You weep for what you know. A red-haired child
Sick in a fever, if you touch him once,
Though but so little as with a finger-tip,
Will set you weeping! but a million sick . .
You could as soon weep for the rule of three,
Or compound fractions. Therefore, this same world
Uncomprehended by you must remain
Uninfluenced by you. Women as you are,
Mere women, personal and passionate,
You give us doating mothers, and chaste wives.
Sublime Madonnas, and enduring saints!
We get no Christ from you,-and verily
We shall not get a poet, in my mind.'
'With which conclusion you conclude' . .
That you, Aurora, with the large live brow
And steady eyelids, cannot condescend
To play at art, as children play at swords,
To show a pretty spirit, chiefly admired
Because true action is impossible.
You never can be satisfied with praise
Which men give women when they judge a book
Not as mere work, but as mere woman's work,
Expressing the comparative respect
Which means the absolute scorn. 'Oh, excellent!
'What grace! what facile turns! what fluent sweeps!
'What delicate discernment . . almost thought!
'The book does honour to the sex, we hold.
'Among our female authors we make room
'For this fair writer, and congratulate
'The country that produces in these times
'Such women, competent to . . spell.''
I answered-burning through his thread of talk
With a quick flame of emotion,-'You have read
My soul, if not my book, and argue well
I would not condescend . . we will not say
To such a kind of praise, (a worthless end
Is praise of all kinds) but to such a use
Of holy art and golden life. I am young,
And peradventure weak-you tell me so-
Through being a woman. And, for all the rest,
Take thanks for justice. I would rather dance
At fairs on tight-rope, till the babies dropped
Their gingerbread for joy,-than shift the types
For tolerable verse, intolerable
To men who act and suffer. Better far,
Pursue a frivolous trade by serious means,
Than a sublime art frivolously.'
Choose nobler work than either, O moist eyes,
And hurrying lips, and heaving heart! We are young
Aurora, you and I. The world . . look round . .
The world, we're come to late, is swollen hard
With perished generations and their sins:
The civiliser's spade grinds horribly
On dead men's bones, and cannot turn up soil
That's otherwise than fetid. All success
Proves partial failure; all advance implies
What's left behind; all triumph, something crushed
At the chariot-wheels; all government, some wrong:
And rich men make the poor, who curse the rich,
Who agonise together, rich and poor,
Under and over, in the social spasm
And crisis of the ages. Here's an age,
That makes its own vocation! here, we have stepped
Across the bounds of time! here's nought to see,
But just the rich man and just Lazarus,
And both in torments; with a mediate gulph,
Though not a hint of Abraham's bosom. Who,
Being man and human, can stand calmly by
And view these things, and never tease his soul
For some great cure? No physic for this grief,
In all the earth and heavens too?'
In God, for your part?-ay? That He who makes,
Can make good things from ill things, best from worst,
As men plant tulips upon dunghills when
They wish them finest?'
'True. A death-heat is
The same as life-heat, to be accurate;
And in all nature is no death at all,
As men account of death, as long as God
Stands witnessing for life perpetually,'
By being just God. That's abstract truth, I know,
Philosophy, or sympathy with God:
But I, I sympathise with man, not God,
I think I was a man for chiefly this;
And when I stand beside a dying bed,
It's death to me. Observe,-it had not much
Consoled the race of mastodons to know
Before they went to fossil, that anon
Their place should quicken with the elephant
They were not elephants but mastodons:
And I, a man, as men are now, and not
As men may be hereafter, feel with men
In the agonising present.'
'Is it so,'
I said, 'my cousin? is the world so bad,
While I hear nothing of it through the trees?
The world was always evil,-but so bad?'
'So bad, Aurora. Dear, my soul is grey
With poring over the long sum of ill;
So much for vice, so much for discontent,
So much for the necessities of power,
So much for the connivances of fear,-
Coherent in statistical despairs
With such a total of distracted life, . .
To see it down in figures on a page,
Plain, silent, clear . . as God sees through the earth
The sense of all the graves! . . . that's terrible
For one who is not God, and cannot right
The wrong he looks on. May I choose indeed
But vow away my years, my means, my aims,
Among the helpers, if there's any help
In such a social strait? The common blood
That swings along my veins, is strong enough
To draw me to this duty.'
Then I spoke.
'I have not stood long on the strand of life,
And these salt waters have had scarcely time
To creep so high up as to wet my feet.
I cannot judge these tides-I shall, perhaps.
A woman's always younger than a man
At equal years, because she is disallowed
Maturing by the outdoor sun and air,
And kept in long-clothes past the age to walk.
Ah well, I know you men judge otherwise!
You think a woman ripens as a peach,-
In the cheeks, chiefly. Pass it to me now;
I'm young in age, and younger still, I think,
As a woman. But a child may say amen
To a bishop's prayer and see the way it goes;
And I, incapable to loose the knot
Of social questions, can approve, applaud
August compassion, christian thoughts that shoot
Beyond the vulgar white of personal aims.
Accept my reverence.'
There he glowed on me
With all his face and eyes. 'No other help?'
Said he-'no more than so?'
'What help?' I asked.
'You'd scorn my help,-as Nature's self, you say,
Has scorned to put her music in my mouth,
Because a woman's. Do you now turn round
And ask for what a woman cannot give?'
'For what she only can, I turn and ask,'
He answered, catching up my hands in his,
And dropping on me from his high-eaved brow
The full weight of his soul,-'I ask for love,
And that, she can; for life in fellowship
Through bitter duties-that, I know she can;
For wifehood . . will she?'
'Now,' I said, 'may God
Be witness 'twixt us two!' and with the word,
Meseemed I floated into a sudden light
Above his stature,-'am I proved too weak
To stand alone, yet strong enough to bear
Such leaners on my shoulder? poor to think,
Yet rich enough to sympathise with thought?
Incompetent to sing, as blackbirds can,
Yet competent to love, like HIM?'
Perhaps I darkened, as the lighthouse will
That turns upon the sea. 'It's always so!
Anything does for a wife.'
And dearly honoured' . . he pressed in at once
With eager utterance,-'you translate me ill.
I do not contradict my thought of you
Which is most reverent, with another thought
Found less so. If your sex is weak for art,
(And I who said so, did but honour you
By using truth in courtship) it is strong
For life and duty. Place your fecund heart
In mine, and let us blossom for the world
That wants love's colour in the grey of time.
With all my talk I can but set you where
You look down coldly on the arena-heaps
Of headless bodies, shapeless, indistinct!
The Judgment-Angel scarce would find his way
Through such a heap of generalised distress,
To the individual man with lips and eyes-
Much less Aurora. Ah, my sweet, come down,
And, hand in hand, we'll go where yours shall touch
These victims, one by one! till one by one,
The formless, nameless trunk of every man
'Farewell, Aurora, you reject me thus?'
'Why, sir, you are married long ago.
You have a wife already whom you love,
Your social theory. Bless you both, I say.
For my part, I am scarcely meek enough
To be the handmaid of a lawful spouse.
Do I look a Hagar, think you?'
'So, you jest!'
'Nay so, I speak in earnest,' I replied.
'You treat of marriage too much like, at least,
A chief apostle; you would bear with you
A wife . . a sister . . shall we speak it out?
With quiet indignation I broke in.
'You misconceive the question like a man,
Who sees a woman as the complement
Of his sex merely. You forget too much
That every creature, female as the male,
Stands single in responsible act and thought
As also in birth and death. Whoever says
To a loyal woman, 'Love and work with me,'
Will get fair answers, if the work and love
Being good themselves, are good for her-the best
She was born for. Women of a softer mood,
Surprised by men when scarcely awake to life,
Will sometimes only hear the first word, love,
And catch up with it any kind of work,
Indifferent, so that dear love go with it:
I do not blame such women, though, for love,
They pick much oakum; earth's fanatics make
And I, who spoke the truth then, stand upright,
Still worthy of having spoken out the truth,
By being content I spoke it, though it set
Him there, me here.-O woman's vile remorse,
To hanker after a mere name, a show,
A supposition, a potential love!
Does every man who names love in our lives,
Become a power for that? is love's true thing
So much best to us, that what personates love
Is next best? A potential love, forsooth!
We are not so vile. No, no-he cleaves, I think,
This man, this image, . . chiefly for the wrong
And shock he gave my life, in finding me
Precisely where the devil of my youth
Had set me, on those mountain-peaks of hope
All glittering with the dawn-dew, all erect
And famished for the morning,-saying, while
I looked for empire and much tribute, 'Come,
I have some worthy work for thee below.
Come, sweep my barns, and keep my hospitals,-
And I will pay thee with a current coin
Which men give women.'
As we spoke, the grass
Was trod in haste beside us, and my aunt,
With smile distorted by the sun,-face, voice,
As much at issue with the summer-day
As if you brought a candle out of doors,-
Broke in with, 'Romney, here!-My child, entreat
Your cousin to the house, and have your talk,
If girls must talk upon their birthdays. Come.'
With that he vanished. I could hear his heel
Ring bluntly in the lane, as down he leapt
The short way, from us.-Then, a measured speech
Withdrew me. 'What means this, Aurora Leigh?
My brother's daughter has dismissed my guests?'
The lion in me felt the keeper's voice,
Through all its quivering dewlaps: I was quelled
Before her,-meekened to the child she knew:
I prayed her pardon, said, 'I had little thought
To give dismissal to a guest of hers,
In letting go a friend of mine, who came
To take me into service as a wife,-
No more than that, indeed.'
'No more, no more?
Pray heaven,' she answered, 'that I was not mad.
I could not mean to tell her to her face
That Romney Leigh had asked me for a wife,
And I refused him?'
'Did he ask?' I said;
'I think he rather stooped to take me up
For certain uses which he found to do
For something called a wife. He never asked.'
'What stuff!' she answered; 'are they queens, these girls?
'But I am born,' I said with firmness, 'I,
To walk another way than his, dear aunt.'
'You walk, you walk! A babe at thirteen months
Will walk as well as you,' she cried in haste,
'Without a steadying finger. Why, you child,
God help you, you are groping in the dark,
For all this sunlight. You suppose, perhaps,
That you, sole offspring of an opulent man,
Are rich and free to choose a way to walk?
You think, and it's a reasonable thought,
That I besides, being well to do in life,
Will leave my handful in my niece's hand
When death shall paralyse these fingers? Pray,
Pray, child,-albeit I know you love me not,-
As if you loved me, that I may not die!
For when I die and leave you, out you go,
(Unless I make room for you in my grave)
Unhoused, unfed, my dear, poor brother's lamb,
(Ah heaven,-that pains!)-without a right to crop
A single blade of grass beneath these trees,
Or cast a lamb's small shadow on the lawn,
Unfed, unfolded! Ah, my brother, here's
The fruit you planted in your foreign loves!-
Ay, there's the fruit he planted! never look
Astonished at me with your mother's eyes,
For it was they, who set you where you are,
An undowered orphan. Child, your father's choice
Of that said mother, disinherited
His daughter, his and hers. Men do not think
She seized my hands with both hers, strained them fast
And drew her probing and unscrupulous eyes
Right through me, body and heart. 'Yet, foolish Sweet,
You love this man. I have watched you when he came
And when he went, and when we've talked of him:
I am not old for nothing; I can tell
The weather-signs of love-you love this man.'
Girls blush, sometimes, because they are alive,
Half wishing they were dead to save the shame.
The sudden blush devours them, neck and brow;
They have drawn too near the fire of life, like gnats,
And flare up bodily, wings and all. What then?
Who's sorry for a gnat . . or girl?
I feel the brand upon my forehead now
Strike hot, sear deep, as guiltless men may feel
The felon's iron, say, and scorn the mark
Of what they are not. Most illogical
Farewell, good Romney! if I loved you even,
I could but ill afford to let you be
So generous to me. Farewell, friend, since friend
Betwixt us two, forsooth, must be a word
So heavily overladen. And, since help
Must come to me from those who love me not,
Farewell, all helpers-I must help myself,
And am alone from henceforth.-Then I stooped,
And lifted the soiled garland from the ground,
And set it on my head as bitterly
As when the Spanish king did crown the bones
Of his dead love. So be it. I preserve
That crown still,-in the drawer there! 'twas the first;
The rest are like it;-those Olympian crowns,
We run for, till we lose sight of the sun
In the dust of the racing chariots!
Before the evening fell, I had a note
Which ran,-'Aurora, sweet Chaldean, you read
My meaning backward like your eastern books,
While I am from the west, dear. Read me now
A little plainer. Did you hate me quite
But yesterday? I loved you for my part;
I love you. If I spoke untenderly
This morning, my beloved, pardon it;
And comprehend me that I loved you so,
I set you on the level of my soul,
And overwashed you with the bitter brine
Of some habitual thoughts. Henceforth, my flower,
Be planted out of reach of any such,
I wrote in answer-'We, Chaldeans, discern
Still farther than we read. I know your heart
And shut it like the holy book it is,
Reserved for mild-eyed saints to pore upon
Betwixt their prayers at vespers. Well, you're right,
I did not surely hate you yesterday;
And yet I do not love you enough to-day
To wed you, cousin Romney. Take this word,
And let it stop you as a generous man
From speaking farther. You may tease, indeed,
And blow about my feelings, or my leaves,-
And here's my aunt will help you with east winds,
And break a stalk, perhaps, tormenting me;
But certain flowers grow near as deep as trees,
And, cousin, you'll not move my root, not you,
With all your confluent storms. Then let me grow
Within my wayside hedge, and pass your way!
This flower has never as much to say to you
As the antique tomb which said to travellers, 'Pause,
'Siste, viator.'' Ending thus, I signed.
The next week passed in silence, so the next,
And several after: Romney did not come,
Nor my aunt chide me. I lived on and on,
As if my heart were kept beneath a glass,
And everybody stood, all eyes and ears,
To see and hear it tick. I could not sit,
Nor walk, nor take a book, nor lay it down,
A Roman died so: smeared with honey, teased
By insects, stared to torture by the noon:
And many patient souls 'neath English roofs
Have died like Romans. I, in looking back,
Wish only, now, I had borne the plague of all
With meeker spirits than were rife in Rome.
For, on the sixth week, the dead sea broke up,
Dashed suddenly through beneath the heel of Him
Who stands upon the sea and earth, and swears
Time shall be nevermore. The clock struck nine
That morning, too,-no lark was out of tune;
The hidden farms among the hills, breathed straight
Their smoke toward heaven; the lime-trees scarcely stirred
Beneath the blue weight of the cloudless sky,
Though still the July air came floating through
The woodbine at my window, in and out,
With touches of the out-door country-news
For a bending forehead. There I sate, and wished
That morning-truce of God would last till eve,
Or longer. 'Sleep,' I thought, 'late sleepers,-sleep,
And spare me yet the burden of your eyes.'
Then, suddenly, a single ghastly shriek
Tore upwards from the bottom of the house.
Like one who wakens in a grave and shrieks,
The still house seemed to shriek itself alive,
And shudder through its passages and stairs
With slam of doors and clash of bells.-I sprang,
I stood up in the middle of the room,
And there confronted at my chamber-door,
A white face,-shivering, ineffectual lips.
'Come, come,' they tried to utter, and I went;
As if a ghost had drawn me at the point
Of a fiery finger through the uneven dark,
I went with reeling footsteps down the stair.
Nor asked a question.
There she sate, my aunt,-
Bolt upright in the chair beside her bed,
Whose pillow had no dint! she had used no bed
For that night's sleeping . . yet slept well. My God
The dumb derision of that grey, peaked face
Concluded something grave against the sun,
Which filled the chamber with its July burst
When Susan drew the curtains, ignorant
Of who sate open-eyed behind her. There,
She sate . . it sate . . we said 'she' yesterday . .
And held a letter with unbroken seal,
As Susan gave it to her hand last night:
All night she had held it. If its news referred
To duchies or to dunghills, not an inch
She'd budge, 'twas obvious, for such worthless odds:
Nor, though the stars were suns, and overburned
Their spheric limitations, swallowing up
Like wax the azure spaces, could they force
Those open eyes to wink once. What last sight
Had left them blank and flat so,-drawing out
The faculty of vision from the roots,
As nothing more, worth seeing, remained behind?
Were those the eyes that watched me, worried me?
That dogged me up and down the hours and days,
A beaten, breathless, miserable soul?
And did I pray, a half hour back, but so,
To escape the burden of those eyes . . those eyes?
'Sleep late' I said.-
Why now, indeed, they sleep.
God answers sharp and sudden on some prayers,
And thrusts the thing we have prayed for in our face,
A gauntlet with a gift in't. Every wish
Is like a prayer . . With God.
I had my wish,-
To read and meditate the thing I would,
To fashion all my life upon my thought,
And marry, or not marry. Henceforth, none
Could disapprove me, vex me, hamper me.
Full ground-room, in this desert newly made,
For Babylon or Balbec,-when the breath,
Just choked with sand, returns, for building towns!
The heir came over on the funeral day,
And we two cousins met before the dead,
With two pale faces. Was it death or life
That moved us? When the will was read and done,
The official guest and witnesses withdrawn,
We rose up in a silence almost hard,
And looked at one another. Then I said,
'Farewell, my cousin.'
But he touched, just touched
My hatstrings tied for going, (at the door
The carriage stood to take me) and said low,
His voice a little unsteady through his smile,
'Is there time,' I asked,
'In these last days of railroads, to stop short
Like Cæsar's chariot (weighing half a ton)
On the Appian road for morals?'
'There is time,'
He answered grave, 'for necessary words,
Inclusive, trust me, of no epitaph
On man or act, my cousin. We have read
A will, which gives you all the personal goods
And funded monies of your aunt.'
Her memory for it. With three hundred pounds
We buy in England even, clear standing-room
To stand and work in. Only two hours since,
I fancied I was poor.'
'And cousin, still
You're richer than you fancy. The will says, Three hundred pounds, and any other sum
Of which the said testatrix dies possessed.
I say she died possessed of other sums.'
'Dear Romney, need we chronicle the pence?
I'm richer than I thought-that's evident.
'Listen rather. You've to do
With business and a cousin,' he resumed,
'And both, I fear, need patience. Here's the fact.
The other sum (there is another sum,
Unspecified in any will which dates
After possession, yet bequeathed as much
And clearly as those said three hundred pounds)
Is thirty thousand. You will have it paid
When? . . where? My duty troubles you with words.'
He struck the iron when the bar was hot;
No wonder if my eyes sent out some sparks.
'Pause there! I thank you. You are delicate
In glosing gifts;-but I, who share your blood,
Am rather made for giving, like yourself,
Than taking, like your pensioners. Farewell.'
He stopped me with a gesture of calm pride.
'A Leigh,' he said, 'gives largesse and gives love,
But gloses neither: if a Leigh could glose,
He would not do it, moreover, to a Leigh,
With blood trained up along nine centuries
To hound and hate a lie, from eyes like yours.
And now we'll make the rest as clear; your aunt
Possessed these monies.'
'You'll make it clear,
My cousin, as the honour of us both,
Or one of us speaks vainly-that's not I.
My aunt possessed this sum,-inherited
From whom, and when? bring documents, prove dates.'
'Why now indeed you throw your bonnet off.
As if you had time left for a logarithm!
The faith's the want. Dear cousin, give me faith,
And you shall walk this road with silken shoes,
As clean as any lady of our house
Supposed the proudest. Oh, I comprehend
The whole position from your point of sight.
I oust you from your father's halls and lands,
And make you poor by getting rich-that's law;
Considering which, in common circumstance,
You would not scruple to accept from me
Some compensation, some sufficiency
Of income-that were justice; but, alas,
I love you . . that's mere nature!-you reject
My love . . that's nature also;-and at once,
You cannot, from a suitor disallowed,
A hand thrown back as mine is, into yours
Receive a doit, a farthing, . . not for the world!
That's etiquette with women, obviously
Exceeding claim of nature, law, and right,
Unanswerable to all. I grant, you see,
The case as you conceive it,-leave you room
To sweep your ample skirts of womanhood;
While, standing humbly squeezed against the wall,
I own myself excluded from being just,
Restrained from paying indubitable debts,
Because denied from giving you my soul-
That's my fortune!-I submit to it
As if, in some more reasonable age,
'Twould not be less inevitable. Enough.
You'll trust me, cousin, as a gentleman,
To keep your honour, as you count it, pure,-
Your scruples (just as if I thought them wise)
Safe and inviolate from gifts of mine.'
I answered mild but earnest. 'I believe
In no one's honour which another keeps,
Nor man's nor woman's. As I keep, myself,
My truth and my religion, I depute
No father, though I had one this side death,
Nor brother, though I had twenty, much less you,
Though twice my cousin, and once Romney Leigh,
To keep my honour pure. You face, today,
A man who wants instruction, mark me, not
A woman who wants protection. As to a man,
Show manhood, speak out plainly, be precise
With facts and dates. My aunt inherited
This sum, you say-'
'I said she died possessed
Of this, dear cousin.'
'Not by heritage.
Thank you: we're getting to the facts at last.
Perhaps she played at commerce with a ship
Which came in heavy with Australian gold?
Or touched a lottery with her finger-end,
Which tumbled on a sudden into her lap
Some old Rhine tower or principality?
Perhaps she had to do with a marine
Sub-transatlantic railroad, which pre-pays
As well as pre-supposes? or perhaps
Some stale ancestral debt was after-paid
By a hundred years, and took her by surprise?-
You shake your head my cousin; I guess ill.'
'You need not guess, Aurora, nor deride,
The truth is not afraid of hurting you.
You'll find no cause, in all your scruples, why
Your aunt should cavil at a deed of gift
'Twixt her and me.'
'I thought so-ah ! a gift.'
'You naturally thought so,' he resumed.
'A very natural gift.'
'A gift, a gift!
Her individual life being stranded high
Above all want, approaching opulence,
Too haughty was she to accept a gift
Without some ultimate aim: ah, ah, I see,-
A gift intended plainly for her heirs,
And so accepted . . if accepted . . ah,
Indeed that might be; I am snared perhaps,
Just so. But, cousin, shall I pardon you,
If thus you have caught me with a cruel springe?'
He answered gently, 'Need you tremble and pant
Like a netted lioness? is't my fault, mine,
That you're a grand wild creature of the woods,
And hate the stall built for you? Any way,
Though triply netted, need you glare at me?
I do not hold the cords of such a net,
You're free from me, Aurora!'
'Now may God
Deliver me from this strait! This gift of yours
Was tendered . . when ? accepted . . when ?' I asked.
'A month . . a fortnight since ? Six weeks ago
It was not tendered. By a word she dropped,
I know it was not tendered nor received.
When was it ? bring your dates.'
'What matters when?
A half-hour ere she died, or a half-year,
Secured the gift, maintains the heritage
Inviolable with law. As easy pluck
The golden stars from heaven's embroidered stole,
To pin them on the grey side of this earth,
As make you poor again, thank God.'
Nor clean again from henceforth, you thank God?
Well, sir-I ask you . . I insist at need . .
Vouchsafe the special date, the special date.'
'The day before her death-day,' he replied,
'The gift was in her hands. We'll find that deed,
And certify that date to you.'
Who has climbed a mountain-height and carried up
His own heart climbing, panting in his throat
With the toil of the ascent, takes breath at last,
Looks back in triumph-so I stood and looked:
'Dear cousin Romney, we have reached the top
Of this steep question, and may rest, I think.
But first, I pray you pardon, that the shock
And surge of natural feeling and event
Had made me oblivious of acquainting you
That this, this letter . . unread, mark,-still sealed,
Was found enfolded in the poor dead hand:
That spirit of hers had gone beyond the address,
Which could not find her though you wrote it clear.-
I know your writing, Romney,-recognise
The open-hearted A, the liberal sweep
Of the G. Now listen,-let us understand;
You will not find that famous deed of gift,
Unless you find it in the letter here,
Which, not being mine, I give you back.-Refuse
To take the letter? well then-you and I,
As writer and as heiress, open it
Together, by your leave.-Exactly so:
The words in which the noble offering's made,
Are nobler still, my cousin; and, I own,
The proudest and most delicate heart alive,
Distracted from the measure of the gift
By such a grace in giving, might accept
Your largesse without thinking any more
Of the burthen of it, than King Solomon
Considered, when he wore his holy ring
Charactered over with the ineffable spell,
How many carats of fine gold made up
Its money-value. So, Leigh gives to Leigh-
Or rather, might have given, observe!-for that's
The point we come to. Here's a proof of gift,
But here's no proof, sir, of acceptancy,
But rather, disproof. Death's black dust, being blown,
Infiltrated through every secret fold
Of this sealed letter by a puff of fate,
Dried up for ever the fresh-written ink,
Annulled the gift, disutilised the grace,
And left these fragments.'
As I spoke, I tore
The paper up and down, and down and up
And crosswise, till it fluttered from my hands,
As forest-leaves, stripped suddenly and rapt
By a whirlwind on Valdarno, drop again,
Drop slow, and strew the melancholy ground
Before the amazed hills . . why, so, indeed,
I'm writing like a poet, somewhat large
In the type of the image,-and exaggerate
A small thing with a great thing, topping it!-
But then I'm thinking how his eyes looked . . his
With what despondent and surprised reproach!
I think the tears were in them as he looked-
I think the manly mouth just trembled. Then
He broke the silence.
'I may ask, perhaps,
Although no stranger . . only Romney Leigh,
Which means still less . . than Vincent Carrington . .
Your plans in going hence, and where you go.
This cannot be a secret.'
'All my life
Is open to you, cousin. I go hence
To London, to the gathering-place of souls,
To live mine straight out, vocally, in books;
Harmoniously for others, if indeed
A woman's soul, like man's, be wide enough
To carry the whole octave (that's to prove)
Or, if I fail, still, purely for myself.
Pray God be with me, Romney.'
'Ah, poor child,
Who fight against the mother's 'tiring hand,
And choose the headsman's! May God change his world
For your sake, sweet, and make it mild as heaven,
And juster than I have found you!'
But I paused.
'And you, my cousin?'-
'I,' he said,-'you ask?
You care to ask? Well, girls have curious minds,
And fain would know the end of everything,
Of cousins, therefore, with the rest.
For me, Aurora, I've my work; you know my work;
And having missed this year some personal hope,
I must beware the rather that I miss
No reasonable duty. While you sing
Your happy pastorals of the meads and trees,
Bethink you that I go to impress and prove
On stifled brains and deafened ears, stunned deaf,
Crushed dull with grief, that nature sings itself,
And needs no mediate poet, lute or voice,
To make it vocal. While you ask of men
Your audience, I may get their leave perhaps
For hungry orphans to say audibly
'We're hungry, see,'-for beaten and bullied wives
To hold their unweaned babies up in sight,
Whom orphanage would better; and for all
To speak and claim their portion . . by no means
Of the soil, . . but of the sweat in tilling it,-
Since this is now-a-days turned privilege,
To have only God's curse on us, and not man's
Such work I have for doing, elbow-deep
In social problems,-as you tie your rhymes,
To draw my uses to cohere with needs,
And bring the uneven world back to its round;
Or, failing so much, fill up, bridge at least
To smoother issues, some abysmal cracks
And feuds of earth, intestine heats have made
To keep men separate,-using sorry shifts
Of hospitals, almshouses, infant schools,
And other practical stuff of partial good,
You lovers of the beautiful and whole,
Despise by system.'
'I despise? The scorn
Is yours, my cousin. Poets become such,
Through scorning nothing. You decry them for
The good of beauty, sung and taught by them,
While they respect your practical partial good
As being a part of beauty's self. Adieu!
When God helps all the workers for his world,
The singers shall have help of Him, not last.'
He smiled as men smile when they will not speak
Because of something bitter in the thought;
And still I feel his melancholy eyes
Look judgment on me. It is seven years since:
I know not if 'twas pity or 'twas scorn
Has made them so far-reaching: judge it ye
Who have had to do with pity more than love,
And scorn than hatred. I am used, since then,
To other ways, from equal men. But so,
Even so, we let go hands, my cousin and I,
And, in between us, rushed the torrent-world
To blanch our faces like divided rocks,
And bar for ever mutual sight and touch
Except through swirl of spray and all that roar.