A Conversation at Dawn
He lay awake, with a harassed air,
And she, in her cloud of loose lank hair,
As the dawn drew in on their faces there.
The chamber looked far over the sea
From a white hotel on a white-stoned quay,
And stepping a stride
He parted the window-drapery.
Above the level horizon spread
The sunrise, firing them foot to head
From its smouldering lair,
And painting their pillows with dyes of red.
‘What strange disquiets have stirred you, dear,
This dragging night, with starts in fear
Of me, as it were,
Or of something evil hovering near?’
‘My husband, can I have fear of you?
What should one fear from a man whom few,
Or none, had matched
In that late long spell of delays undue!’
He watched her eyes in the heaving sun:
‘Then what has kept, O reticent one,
Those lids unlatched—
Anything promised I've not yet done?’
‘O it's not a broken promise of yours
(For what quite lightly your lip assures
The due time brings)
That has troubled my sleep, and no waking cures!’ . . .
‘I have shaped my will; 'tis at hand,’ said he;
‘I subscribe it to-day, that no risk there be
In the hap of things
Of my leaving you menaced by poverty.’
‘That a boon provision I'm safe to get,
Signed, sealed by my lord as it were a debt,
I cannot doubt,
Or ever this peering sun be set.’
‘But you flung my arms away from your side,
And faced the wall. No month-old bride
Ere the tour be out
In an air so loth can be justified?
‘Ah—had you a male friend once loved well,
Upon whose suit disaster fell
And frustrance swift?
Honest you are, and may care to tell.’
She lay impassive, and nothing broke
The stillness other than, stroke by stroke,
The lazy lift
Of the tide below them; till she spoke:
‘I once had a friend—a Love, if you will—
Whose wife forsook him, and sank until
She was made a thrall
In a prison-cell for a deed of ill. . . .
‘He remained alone; and we met—to love,
But barring legitimate joy thereof
Stood a doorless wall,
Though we prized each other all else above.
‘And this was why, though I'd touched my prime,
I put off suitors from time to time—
Yourself with the rest—
Till friends, who approved you, called it crime,
‘And when misgivings weighed on me
In my lover's absence, hurriedly,
And much distrest,
I took you. . . . Ah, that such could be! . . .
‘Now, saw you when crossing from yonder shore
At yesternoon, that the packet bore
On a white-wreathed bier
A coffined body towards the fore?
‘Well, while you stood at the other end,
The loungers talked, and I couldn't but lend
A listening ear,
For they named the dead. 'Twas the wife of my friend.
‘He was there, but did not note me, veiled,
Yet I saw that a joy, as of one unjailed,
Now shone in his gaze;
He knew not his hope of me just had failed!
‘They had brought her home: she was born in this isle;
And he will return to his domicile,
And pass his days
Alone, and not as he dreamt erstwhile!’
‘—So you've lost a sprucer spouse than I!’
She held her peace, as if fain deny
She would indeed
For his pleasure's sake, but could lip no lie.
‘One far less formal and plain and slow!’
She let the laconic assertion go
As if of need
She held the conviction that it was so.
‘Regard me as his he always should,
He had said, and wed me he vowed he would
In his prime or sere
Most verily do, if ever he could;
‘And this fulfilment is now his aim,
For a letter, addressed in my maiden name,
Has dogged me here,
Reminding me faithfully of his claim;
‘And it started a hope like a lightning-streak
That I might go to him—say for a week—
And afford you right
To put me away, and your vows unspeak.
‘To be sure you have said, as of dim intent,
That marriage is a plain event
Of black and white,
Without any ghost of sentiment,
‘And my heart has quailed.—But deny it true
That you will never this lock undo!
No God intends
To thwart the yearning He's father to!’
The husband hemmed, then blandly bowed
In the light of the angry morning cloud.
‘So my idyll ends,
And a drama opens!’ he mused aloud;
And his features froze. ‘You may take it as true
That I will never this lock undo
For so depraved
A passion as that which kindles you!’
Said she: ‘I am sorry you see it so;
I had hoped you might have let me go,
And thus been saved
The pain of learning there's more to know.’
‘More? What may that be? Gad, I think
You have told me enough to make me blink!
Yet if more remain
Then own it to me. I will not shrink!’
‘Well, it is this. As we could not see
That a legal marriage would ever be,
To end our pain
We united ourselves informally;
‘And vowed at a chancel-altar nigh,
With book and ring, a lifelong tie;
A contract vain
To the world, but real to Him on High.’
‘And you became as his wife?’—‘I did.’—
He stood as stiff as a caryatid,
And said, ‘Indeed! . . .
No matter. You're mine, whatever you've hid!’
‘But is it right! When I only gave
My hand to you in a sweat to save,
Through desperate need
(As I thought), my fame, for I was not brave!’
‘To save your fame? Your meaning is dim,
For nobody knew of your altar-whim?’
‘I mean—I feared
There might be fruit of my tie with him;
‘And to cloak it by marriage I'm not the first,
Though, maybe, morally most accurst
Through your unpeered
And strict uprightness. That's the worst!
‘While yesterday his worn contours
Convinced me that love like his endures,
And that my troth-plight
Had been his, in fact, and not truly yours.’
‘So, my lady, you raise the veil by degrees. . . .
I own this last is enough to freeze
The warmest wight!
Now hear the other side, if you please:
‘I did say once, though without intent,
That marriage is a plain event
Of black and white,
Whatever may be its sentiment:
‘I'll act accordingly, none the less
That you soiled the contract in time of stress,
By the feared results of your wantonness.
‘But the thing is over, and no one knows,
And it's nought to the future what you disclose.
That you'll be loosed
For such an episode, don't suppose!
‘No: I'll not free you. And if it appear
There was too good ground for your first fear
From your amorous tricks,
I'll father the child. Yes, by God, my dear!
‘Even should you fly to his arms, I'll damn
Opinion, and fetch you; treat as sham
Your mutinous kicks,
And whip you home. That's the sort I am!’
She whitened. ‘Enough. . . . Since you disapprove
I'll yield in silence, and never move
Till my last pulse ticks
A footstep from the domestic groove.’
‘Then swear it,’ he said, ‘and your king uncrown.’
He drew her forth in her long white gown,
And she knelt and swore.
‘Good. Now you may go and again lie down.
‘Since you've played these pranks and given no sign,
You shall crave this man of yours; pine and pine
With sighings sore,
'Till I've starved your love for him; nailed you mine!
‘I'm a practical man, and want no tears;
You've made a fool of me, it appears;
That you don't again
Is a lesson I'll teach you in future years.’
She answered not, lying listlessly
With her dark dry eyes on the coppery sea,
That now and then
Flung its lazy flounce at the neighbouring quay.
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