Lilian

“G OOD sir, 'tis but a poor child's grave,”
The old man to the stranger said,
 And he bow'd down his silver head,
And pluck'd a weed that dared to wave

Amid the flowers that deck'd the mound.
“And dost thou ask me why the ground
 Is trimm'd, and tended so,
When all around is rough and wild?
'Tis but a peasant's simple child
 That lieth here below.

“Few lines are on the rude head-stone,—
Ay, stranger, trace them every one;
The strength of these old eyes is gone,
 But I remember me, there came,
First, rudely carved, a wild-flower wreath,
And then a cross, and then the name
 ‘Sweet Lilian,’ underneath.

“It is a tale of my young day;
 Sir stranger, wilt thou bide a space?
Still hotly falls the sun's bright ray
 On the old dial's face.”

 The old man's glistening eye is full,
His words are words of grief and love,
The stranger hath a pitying heart;
He sitteth down, but not above
That low green grave; a space apart,
 Where some rude hands had dared to pull
  A bulwark from the old church wall,
And the hewn stone in fragments fair
Lay scatter'd round; he sitteth there:
  The old man telleth all.

“It was a glorious morn in May,
 Like this, whereon we two are met,
 The sweet church bells were ringing yet
Chiming our Whitsun holiday.

“I lean'd across my cottage gate,
 (Down by the laneside dwelt we then,)
 There came poor Richard of the glen,
A widow'd man, without a mate,
The child that wrought her mother's loss,
 He bore her gently in his arm,
To sign her with Christ's Holy Cross,
 And bless her in His Name from harm.

“The font within the church was dress'd,
 The solemn Pastor stood thereby,
And the bright gifted water blest,
 In Name of the Great Trinity.

“And Richard said into my ear,
 ‘Come, be thou godsire to the maid,
I have no friend or kinsman near,
 The christening must not be delay'd.’

“We had been comrades in our youth,
 I answer'd ‘Yes,’ for very shame,
And out of kindliness in sooth.
 And too, across my heart it came
'Twere pity the eternal gate
Were shut to one poor desolate
 Upon Christ's ransom'd earth;
Because no brother of His band
Would speak her plighting vows, and stand
 To witness her new birth.

“So, by the font my place I took,
 The solemn Priest in snowy vest,
He open'd wide the Holy Book;
 The child in poor white garments dress'd,
  The woman gave her tenderly.
 Methought that as they gave the child,
 Up in my face she look'd and smiled,
  She look'd and smiled at me.

“And when the solemn words were spoken,
 The words of love, and hope, and grace,
And her brow bore the sprinkled token,
 I look'd again into her face,
As almost thinking it would be
Changed with that wondrous mystery:
 The large bright drops were hanging o'er
Her eyes, she look'd, and smiled at me,
 As she had smiled before.

“Because the earthly vessel wears
 No sign of that which it enfolds,
Even as the root in winter bears
 No semblance to the flower it holds,
And man in faith must labour here,
Till Heaven's light make his vision clear.

“But by that faith I knew full well
What spirit in the child did dwell,
How Christ Himself did fill her heart,
For she of His own Church was part,
An-heir of Heaven's eternal light,
If she but truly held her plight,
And kept her blood-wash'd garment white,
 With faith, and holy deed.
And at my heart lay heavy still,
How I had vow'd God's Holy Will
 To teach her, and the Christian Creed,
Whereby the holy fight is fought;
 I wended homeward with the crowd,
And ponder'd in my inmost thought
 On what my lips had vow'd.

“Good sir, the morn most dark and grey
 May have its sunny hours ere noon,
And buds that have been late in May
 Have borne their blossoms bright in June.
And soft as sunshine seen through tears,
 And slight as spring flowers nursed in dew;
So frail, and fair, through earliest years,
  Our Lilian's childhood grew.
The village dames did prophesy
 She would not live out her first spring,
And when the fifth went lingering by,
 They vow'd it was a marvellous thing,
  The like they never knew.

“She learn'd to love me, my sweet charge;
 Whene'er I sought the lonely glen,
 She knew me from all other men,
Ay, long before she went at large,
 And she would gently kiss my cheek,
 And stroke it with her fingers weak.

“But I did never meet her eyes,
 That were like streams in winter, deep,
And darkly blue, yet full of glee,
Like those same waters, when they leap
 Up in the summer sunshine free,
  But to my soul that vow would rise.

“Her sire grew reckless, rude, and wild,
 He never pray'd our prayers at all,
He was not fit to teach the child.
 And neighbours whispering, let fall
Strange stories of wild comrades met
 In his lone house when suns were set.

“Thy father must have told thee tales,
Of the wild work in these our dales,
 When the good Charles was king.
Ah! how should flowers of faith take root,
Or holiness bear precious fruit,
 'Mid them who mock'd each holy thing?
Who burst in twain each hallow'd tie,
 Denying what God's Spirit wrought?
She had her home with such, and I
 Was bound to see her taught..

“The flower is but a little thing,
It perfumes all the gales of spring,
 God feeds it with His dewdrops bright,
And never yet the heart has beat
Too mean, too lowly, too unmeet,
 To do its proper part aright;
Nor hand has been too weak, or small,
To work for Him, Who works in all.

“I told the Pastor all my woes,
 And fears for Lilian's sad estate,
And he did tell me words, like those
 I spake to thee of late;
And bade me pray right earnestly
For her soul's final victory.

“The good old Priest, he would not leave
 Her foot to wander where it would.
 To him the evil and the good
Were children all; and he did grieve
 If one poor sinner went astray,
 And pray'd, and sought him night and day;
  As shepherd on some barren track,
 If one small lambkin be not found,
 Seeks all the desert region round,
  Until he bear the lost one back.

“The lamb that his own arm had borne,
 And with the holy water cross'd,
Upon her soul's baptismal morn
 He would not see her lost.

“And many a time when winter's snow
 Along the trackless glen lay white;
And when the summer sun did glow,
 At early dawn, at pale twilight;
Or when the sultry noon was hot,
I saw him seeking the lone spot.

“And many a time I found him there,
In that poor cottage rude and bare,
 Sweet Lilian with uplifted head,
Intent on holy rule or prayer;
While the deaf grandam in her chair
 Sat spinning out her weary thread.

“'Twas marvellous how the good Priest loved
 Those hours of childish communing:
It seem'd the old Saint, tried and proved,
Whose foot th' eternal threshold trod,
 Loved best the pure and gentle things,
Come freshest from the hand of God;
And his dim eye would catch the light
Of her sweet smile so glad and bright,
 As night is beautiful, when day
 Just tints it with its purple ray.

“Thus did he sow the precious seed,
 And fast and fair the blossoms grew.
She could not write, she could not read,
 That gentle child; and yet she knew,
To my poor thought, far more in sooth
Than learned age or letter'd youth.

“The good church bells did never chime,
But Lilian came there every time,
Till the old man would laughing say,
‘Sweet Lilian’ told the hour of day;
(This name they gave her for the grace
And gentleness of her sweet face.)
 And when she knelt with downcast eyes
The village dames a sigh would give,
And say the poor child could not live,
 She was so young and wise.—

“It was the first month of the year,
And good King Charles would hunt the deer
 Within Sir Geoffrey's park;
A gallant sight to see, good sir,
The whole small hamlet was astir,
 While yet the morn was dark.

“The frost, that with his iron hand
Had bound the stream, and held the land,
 For many a bitter day,
Had loosed his hold, and all the earth
As prescient of the spring's new birth,
 In wintry garb look'd gay.

“Three times I saw the chase sweep by:
 How loud and deep the good hounds cried!
Each man of that high company,
 How bravely did he ride!

“The earliest snowdrops just had burst
 With pure white leaf their verdant shell,
They always sprang and blossom'd first
 In Lilian's shelter'd dell.

“At early morn the child would go,
Of those sweet flowers, as white as snow,
 A posy fresh to bring,
And tied it with a silken thread;
And when I ask'd, she smiled, and said,
 That it was for the king.

“The chase was o'er at middle day,
 Short time for food or rest might be,
The monarch's towers were far away,
 And all the hamlet stood to see,
As he came from the hostel room,
 While waiting round in their due course,
Were belted knight, and squire, and groom,
 To see the king to horse:

“When in her Sunday kirtle dress'd,
 Holding her simple offering,
Sweet Lilian through the people press'd,
 And knelt before the king.

“She told him, she had been to cull
 Those flowers for him at morning fair;
  And the good king so beautiful,
 With his dark melancholy eyes,
He did not bid the fair child rise,
But stoop'd down mid his smiling band,
And raised her with his royal hand.

“Then with such sweet and gentle look,
 So fatherly and mild,
Kindly the simple gift he took,
And to his lip, and to his breast,
With grateful action courteous press'd,
 And answer'd to the child,
‘Fair maiden, this good horse of ours,
He will not let us ride with flowers,
Thy fragrant gift I may not take,
But thou shalt wear for Charles's sake,
 What Charles's hand has bound.’
The monarch took his light gold chain,
 He tied the posy round and round,
And gave it to the child again.

“The king rode from the hostelry,
 The people shouted loud and clear;
There stood in little Lilian's eye
 And on her crimson cheek a tear,
I know not if 'twas joy, or fear,
Or haply a dim shadow drear,
 From sad futurity.

“Poor innocent! that glittering band,
She gave it to her father's hand,
 She carèd not for gold at all,
But ever told me she loved best
The flowers the king's own lip had press'd,
 And still at each high festival
  She wore them in her vest.

“Thus lovelier, better, year by year,
The poor man's child did grow more dear,
 And wise, and gentle in our sight.
For never yet the heart has beat,
Too mean, too lowly, too unmeet,
 To do its proper part aright,
Nor hand hath been too weak, or small,
To work for Him Who works for all.

“I saw thee viewing o'er and o'er,
From eastern cross to western door,
 Yon ancient church right curiously,
The pointed windows moulded rich,
The buttress tall, the fretted niche,
 Where saintly image wont to be.

“O, stranger, hadst thou seen it then!
In its first beauteous form; ere men
Did reverence superstition call,
And pluck'd the stone-work from the wall,
And broke the font, and dared to tear
From tomb, and shrine, the carving fair.

“They rose who said, 'twere shame to kneel
 Those ornamented walls within,
That the loud organ's solemn peal
 Was mockery and sin;
That the Great God Whom Christians sought,
 Loved hastier prayer, and strain less sweet:
And costly gift, and time, and thought,
 Were not for Him an offering meet.

“I am a man of simple wit,
 Unfit to strive, unapt to teach,
 I could not answer to their speech;
 And yet the honey-drop, I ween,
 Is none less sweet in lily sheen,
For the fair cup that holdeth it.

“And sure the temple high and vast,
 That God's Own Hand has made,
The shadowy mountains standing fast,
 The long green aisle of forest shade,
Proud Nature's own eternal shrine,
 Is beautiful as eye may see,
And outward things are for a sign,
 And ever teach us silently.

“And scare I deem'd, they much misused
God's precious gifts of all abused,
 Who brought Him back a part,
The costly things that wealth commands,
The curious work of cunning hands,
 Perfection of fine art,—

“But when they told me the dear prayers,
 That night and day to all my joys
Had comrades been, and soothed my cares,
 Were idle form, and empty noise,
I knew their words were false and vain,
For deep in my own heart there rung
 An echo to each hallow'd word,
As when the harp is featly strung,
 And by the sweetness of the chord,
  We know how true the strain.

“But they had lost that soothing tone,
 And their proud hearts wax'd worse and worse,
Quiet and calm of soul were gone,
 For all our blessings came a curse,
The heavy curse of evil strife,
Upon our peaceful peasant life.

“They laid the tomb and altar low,
 They poison'd many a simple heart;
And Richard to the wars would go,
 And for the Commons' part.

“'Twas said he fell at Marston Moor;
 The grandam in her grave was laid,
The child was desolate and poor,
 She had been welcome to the shade
 Of my poor roof tree; but there stay'd
 That hour, at old Sir Geoffrey's park,
 Stern men of aspect cold and dark;

They shut the poor man's lowly door,
 They said the maiden must be sent
To earn an honest livelihood,
 Her sire had served the Parliament.
Ah me! their judgment was not good,
 She was too young and innocent.

“There pass'd a stranger up the way,
 Where Lilian stood alone with me,
And whisper'd how she might not stay
In her old home; the gaze was grey,
Into my face with strange wild eye
He look'd up, as he pass'd us by,
 ‘The king is slain,’ quoth he.

“Sweet Lilian laid in mine her hand;
The snow whereon we three did stand
 Was dark beside the poor child's cheek;
 Said she, ‘'Tis many a weary week
Since we have been to church and pray'd,
Let us go there and ask for aid
From God in Heaven, for our good king.’
‘Child,’ quoth the old man, wondering,
 ‘The king is with the Saints at rest;
When thou shalt bend the knee again,
Pray for the miserable men
 Who smote that royal breast;
And for the land whereon the stain
 Of his dear blood doth rest.’

“The traveller ask'd me of the time
 And of the place, and of the priest;
I told him it was long a crime,
 At holy tide, at fast, or feast,
 To worship at our Father's shrine,
And for I saw his heart was true,
I told him of the faithful few,
Who with the holy Pastor met,
And still the bread mysterious ate,
 And drank the consecrated wine.

“But even this was o'er, I said,
 Close search for the good Priest had been
 Ten days, and he had not been seen,
And some avow'd that he was dead,
 And some men spake of tyranny
 That might not reach beyond the sea.

“I told him, too, of mine own fear,
Of the lone doom of Lilian dear,
And how our hearts were sunk and chill,
For we had none, for good or ill,
 To counsel or to cheer.
And he did wring my hand, and say,
‘Take courage, brother, work and pray.

“‘The gales of spring are rude and cold,
Yet patiently the flowers unfold
 Their fragrant breath, their colours bright;
And never yet the heart has beat
Too mean, too lowly, too unmeet,
 To do its proper part aright,
Nor hand has been too weak or small,
To work for Him, Who works for all.’

“There have been weeds in garden bowers,
 By chance winds thither brought,
That have grown up amid the flowers,
And there have stood long summer hours
 Yet nothing of their fragrance caught.
And hearts have been in Christian land,
With names enroll'd in Christ's Own band,
And brows that bore His cleansing mark;
 Yet knew not of His spirit mild.—
She was a woman stern and dark,
 To whom they gave the child.

“The tears were in mine eyes; I pray'd,
 And almost on my bended knee,
Sith I was godsire to the child,
 That she might dwell with me.

“Alas! the dame was harsh and stern,
 She led her weary nights and days,
 She nothing knew of childhood's ways.
And how should she their nature learn?
 She had no children of her own,
 And in her loneness she had grown
E'en like the rock, whereon there fall
 No drops of water day by day,
 To wear its ruggedness away:
  Hers was a cruel thrall.

“I seldom saw my darling then,
 And she did never make complaint,
Only to mine earnest ken
 It seem'd her voice did grow more faint,
And I could count, she grew so thin,
The small bones underneath her skin.

“She never spake of usage hard,
Only after doors were barr'd,
When birds and lambs are gone to rest,
 And children should be long abed;
A little hand my latch has press'd,
 And she has come and ask'd for bread.

“And neighbours told me they had heard
 In the dark night a childish moan,
All day rude blow and angry word,
And hours of toil beyond her years,
And threats that mock'd at childhood's fears:
 Ah me! that woman's heart was stone.

“A woman might perchance have borne,
 A man had power to hold his own:
 But one poor little child alone,
With that hard bondage daily worn,
 Oppress'd, unloved, and over-wrought,
 It was a miserable thought.

“And I could hardly rest at night,
For thought of Lilian's wretched plight;
And when my children slept around,
 The music of their breathing deep
 Would fail to lull my soul to sleep,
  With its deep regular sound.

“Till weary with my long unrest,
 I have risen up by night, and gone
Out, in the trouble of ray breast,
 To wander through the twilight wan.

“One morn, within the old park wall,
 I stood beside the trodden track,
Where erst the happy peasants all
 Had press'd to church, and linger'd back.

“The first faint streak of early dawn
 Just lifted up the night-clouds grey,
And whitening all the silver lawn,
 The pearly dew like hoar-frost lay.

“The lark's first song rose clear and sweet,
 Fresh from his purple clover bed:
I heard the sound of coming feet,
 But 'twas so light a tread,
That I drew back a little space,
As thinking fays might haunt the place.

“Sweet Lilian through the glistening grass
 Came with quick step and frighten'd air,
Straight to the church wall did she pass,
 And somewhat in her hand did bear.

“She look'd so pale and spiritwise,
 I thought at first it was her ghost,
Lingering awhile in fleshly guise,
 Around the spot she lovèd most.

“By the north door she enter'd in,
 I on her footsteps softly crept:
That door scarce closed that once had been
 So carefully and duly kept,
Save when the solemn church bells chimed,
 For evensong or matin prayer,—
Into a window tall I climb'd,
 To see what did she there.

“Dear heart! it was a marvellous sight,
The eastern heavens were all alight,
And through the arch'd east window tall
 Its shiver'd rose of fair design,
The slanting rays now stainless all,
 Broke in in many a silver line.

“And by the tomb of that red knight,
Who wore the cross in eastern fight,
Sweet Lilian sat; and she had spread
Her simple feast of meat and bread,

What I and others ne'er denied
 Unto her earnest prayer.
There sat an old man at her side,
 The Pastor with his thin white hair.

“O! but our hearts were cold and dull,
 That knew not where our Priest to seek;
God's ways are wise and wonderful,
 His tools are small and weak.

“With words of gratitude and praise,
 The Pastor broke the simple food,
 And drank the water clear and good,
And she sat by him, with a gaze
 That almost made her eye grow bright
 With its old innocent delight.
I thought as I did on them look,
 Of the old tales of Israel,
And of the Prophet by the brook,
 And how the Lord, unchangeable,
Was still a Lord of life and love,
And for the raven sent the dove.

“He by the altar knelt and pray'd,
 And she without the rail did bow.
I could not hear the words he said,
 But the strong murmur deep and low,
Fill'd all the lonely church; and then
 As echo answers from the hills,
When some wild strain of music thrills,
 There came her soft ‘Amen.’

“Then both his hands on her bent head
 He laid, and bless'd her; and she came
 Forth from the church; and to the dame
Went back while yet the sky was red.

“I kneeling lonely, in the hush
Of mine own chamber, ere the blush
Of that bright morning in the skies
Had broken on my children's eyes,
 Did ponder in my prayer,
How much that little hand had wrought,
How slow to hers, how cold my thought,
 How full of selfish care.

“Due portion from that hour I laid
 Each day aside for Lilian's store,
With smiles and kisses she repaid,
 But spake not, nor I question'd more.

“This was not long: the summer time
Had pass'd her glorious middle prime,
And long ere yellow autumn brown'd
 With sober touch, her foliage fair,
 The good old Priest no more was there.
I know not if the foemen found
 At last, their hotly hunted prey,
 Or if the good man went away
To labour some more grateful ground:
 One knew, but she would only say,
 He bade us watch, and work, and pray:
 And never came she as of yore,
 At twilight, to my cottage door.

“The autumn days grew shorter still,
And Lilian wax'd more faint and ill,
She did not moan, she did not weep,
 But ever walk'd with us like one
Who longeth to lie down and sleep,
 Yet linger'd still, her work all done;
Like birds that hang with their white wings
 Just on the verge of the blue sea;
 Till autumn faded utterly,
All beautiful and fragrant things
 Die then; and so died she.

“That woman of ungentle mood
One morn beside my threshold stood,
And told, half angry, half in fear,
 Ere dawn the child had been away,
And sure she must have wander'd here.
 I had not seen her all the day:
And the stern woman's cheek grew pale,
And neighbours gather'd at the tale,
And all with anxious face; for we
Did love the child exceedingly.

“Women, and youths, and bearded men,
 We sought her in each hamlet home,
And through the park, and up the glen.
 At length I whisper'd, ‘Let us come
To the old church; by word or dell,
No spot loves Lilian half so well.’

“Good sir, it is a piteous tale:
 We found her by the chancel stair,
 Where last with him she knelt in prayer,
  E'en at the altar rail;
 Thereon reclined her little head,
In her closed hand the king's gift lay.
We tried to take those flowers away,
 And found that she was dead.

 “Without a pang, without a sob,
It seem'd the child's sweet soul had fled
 From its poor dwelling quietly,
Up to His presence, Who has said,
 ‘Let little children come to Me.’
  We felt for but one little throb
Of pulse or heart, in vain; 'tis strange
How man will tremble at that change!
 How we did watch most earnestly
Those eyes, for but one gleam of life,
 Though the next moment they might be
Wet with the anguish of its strife.

“I knew she would not find unrest
 Again, or weariness, or loss;
 I knew that for the dewy cross,
I saw on her pale brow impress'd,
 Henceforth would be a golden crown;
 And yet the tears dropp'd slowly down.
It was a natural grief, good sir,
None other breathed on earth like her.

“We laid her underneath this sod,
 And each one in his heart did trust
 Our sister's body to the dust,
Her soul unto the living God;
 For none was there to speak aloud
 The holy words above her shroud.

“But I do never seek the place,
 But over my whole soul will creep
Thoughts of her gentleness, and grace,
 And patient goodness, like the deep
Sweet murmur of some river's flow,
That we have dwelt by long ago,
 And seem to hear again in sleep.

“She was a token unto me
Of truth veil'd up in mystery,
 A sign that prayer is answerèd,
So strongly, e'en to outward sense,
Had the Great Spirit's influence
 On her young soul been shed.

“Alas! our hearts are slow to faith,
 That Spirit worketh every day;
Can we not trust Him when He saith,
 He heareth all we say?
“And thus I learnt, how poor low things
Do service to the King of kings,
 Led on by His own might.
For never yet the heart has beat
Too mean, too lowly, too unmeet,
 To do its proper part aright,
Nor hand hath been too weak or small,
To work for Him, Who works in all.”

 The stranger riseth to depart,
With moisten'd eye, and soften'd heart,
Like one who in the desert ground
Perchance a little spot has found,
 A fountain clear as morning dew,
With green grass planted all around,
 And sweet flowers springing through.
He had but come in idleness,
To scan those arches old and grey,—
A thought of love and holiness,
A dream of peace and blessedness,
 That stranger bore away.
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