The Noble Lady's Tale

(circa 1790)

I

" We moved with pensive paces,
I and he,
And bent our faded faces
Wistfully,
For something troubled him, and troubled me.

" The lanthorn feebly lightened
Our grey hall,
Where ancient brands had brightened
Hearth and wall,
And shapes long vanished whither vanish all.

" " O why, Love, nightly, daily, "
I had said,
" Dost sigh, and smile so palely,
As if shed
Were all Life's blossoms, all its dear things dead? "

" " Since silence sets thee grieving, "
He replied,
" And I abhor deceiving
One so tried,
Why, Love, I'll speak, ere time us twain divide. "

" He held me, I remember,
Just as when
Our life was June — (September
It was then);
And we walked on, until he spoke again:

" " Susie, an Irish mummer,
Loud-acclaimed
Through the gay London summer,
Was I, named
A master in my art, who would be famed.

" " But lo, there beamed before me
Lady Su;
God's altar-vow she swore me
When none knew,
And for her sake I bade the sock adieu.

" " My Lord your father's pardon
Thus I won:
He let his heart unharden
Towards his son,
And honourably condoned what we had done;

" " But said — recall you, dearest? —
As for Su ,
I'd see her — ay, though nearest
Me unto —
Sooner entombed than in a stage purlieu!

" " Just so. — And here he housed us,
In this nook,
Where Love like balm has drowsed us:
Robin, rook,
Our chief familiars, next to string and book.

" " Our days here, peace-enshrouded,
Followed strange
The old stage-joyance, crowded,
Rich in range;
But never did my soul desire a change,

" " Till now, when far uncertain
Lips of yore
Call, call me to the curtain,
There once more,
But once , to tread the boards I trod before.

" " A night — the last and single
Ere I die —
To face the lights, to mingle
As did I
Once in the game, and rivet every eye! "

" Such was his wish. He feared it,
Feared it though
Rare memories so endeared it.
I, also,
Feared it still more; its outcome who could know?

" " Alas, my Love, " said I then,
" Since it be
A wish so mastering, why, then,
E'en go ye! —
Despite your pledge to father and to me. . . . "

" 'Twas fixed; no more was spoken
Thereupon;
Our silences were broken
Only on
The petty items of his needs while gone.

" Farewell he bade me, pleading
That it meant
So little, thus conceding
To his bent;
And then, as one constrained to go, he went.

" Thwart thoughts I let deride me,
As, 'twere vain
To hope him back beside me
Ever again:
Could one plunge make a waxing passion wane?

" I thought, " Some wild stage-woman,
Honour-wrecked. . . . "
But no: it was inhuman
To suspect;
Though little cheer could my lone heart affect!

II

" Yet came it, to my gladness,
That, as vowed,
He did return. — But sadness
Swiftly cowed
The joy with which my greeting was endowed.

" Some woe was there. Estrangement
Marked his mind.
Each welcome-warm arrangement
I had designed
Touched him no more than deeds of careless kind.

" " I — failed ! " escaped him glumly.
" — I went on
In my old part. But dumbly —
Memory gone —
Advancing, I sank sick; my vision drawn

" " To something drear, distressing
As the knell
Of all hopes worth possessing! " . . .
— What befell
Seemed linked with me, but how I could not tell.

" Hours passed; till I implored him,
As he knew
How faith and frankness toward him
Ruled me through,
To say what ill I had done, and could undo.

" " Faith — frankness . Ah! Heaven save such! "
Murmured he,
" They are wedded wealth! I gave such
Liberally,
But you, Dear, not. For you suspected me. "

" I was about beseeching
In hurt haste
More meaning, when he, reaching
To my waist,
Led me to pace the hall as once we paced.

" " I never meant to draw you
To own all, "
Declared he, " But — I saw you —
By the wall,
Half-hid. And that was why I failed withal! "

" " Where? when? " said I — " Why, nigh me,
At the play
That night. That you should spy me,
Doubt my fay,
And follow, furtive, took my heart away! "

" That I had never been there,
But had gone
To my locked room — unseen there,
Curtains drawn,
Long days abiding — told I, wonder-wan.

" " Nay, 'twas your form and vesture,
Cloak and gown,
Your hooded features — gesture
Half in frown,
That faced me, pale, " he urged, " that night in town.

" " And when, outside, I handed
To her chair
(As courtesy demanded
Of me there)
The leading lady, you peeped from the stair. "

" Straight pleaded I: " Forsooth, Love,
Had I gone,
I must have been in truth, Love,
Mad to don
Such well-known raiment. " But he still went on

" That he was not mistaken
Nor misled. —
I felt like one forsaken,
Wished me dead,
That he could think thus of the wife he had wed!

" His going seemed to waste him
Like a curse,
To wreck what once had graced him;
And, averse
To my approach, he mused, and moped, and worse.

" Till, what no words effected
Thought achieved:
It was my wraith — projected,
He conceived,
Thither, by my tense brain at home aggrieved.

" Thereon his credence centred
Till he died;
And, no more tempted, entered
Sanctified,
The little vault with room for one beside."
III

Thus far the lady's story. —
Now she, too,
Reclines within that hoary
Last dark mew
In Mellstock Quire with him she loved so true.

A yellowing marble, placed there
Tablet-wise,
And two joined hearts enchased there
Meet the eyes;
And reading their twin names we moralize:

Did she, we wonder, follow
Jealously?
And were those protests hollow? —
Or saw he
Some semblant dame? Or can wraiths really be?

Were it she went, her honour,
All may hold,
Pressed truth at last upon her
Till she told —
(Him only — others as these lines unfold).

Riddle death-sealed for ever,
Let it rest! . . .
One's heart could blame her never
If one guessed
That go she did. She knew her actor best.
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