The Owl

The door-bell jangled in evening's peace,
Its clapper dulled with verdigris.
Lit by the hanging lamp's still flame
Into the shop a beggar came,
Glanced gravely around him—counter, stool,
Ticking clock and heaped-up tray
Of baker's dainties, put to cool;
And quietly turned his eyes away.

Stepped out the goodwife from within—
Her blandest smile from brow to chin
Fading at once to blank chagrin
As she paused to peer, with keen blue eyes
Sharpened to find a stranger there,
And one, she knew, no customer.
“We never give …” she said, and stayed;
Mute and intent, as if dismayed
At so profoundly still a face.
“What do you want?” She came a pace
Nearer, and scanned him, head to foot.
He looked at her, but answered not.

The tabby-cat that, fathom deep,
On the scoured counter lay asleep,
Reared up its head to yawn, and then,
Composing itself to sleep again,
With eyes by night made black as jet,
Gazed on the stranger. “A crust,” he said.
“A crust of bread.”
Disquiet in the woman stirred—
No plea, or plaint, or hinted threat—
So low his voice she had scarcely heard.
She shook her head; he turned to go.
“We've nothing here for beggars. And so …
If we gave food to all who come
They'd eat us out of house and home—
Where charity begins, they say;
And ends, as like as not—or may.”

Still listening, he answered not,
His eyes upon the speaker set,
Eyes that she tried in vain to evade
But had not met.
She frowned. “Well, that's my husband's rule;
But stay a moment. There's a stool;
Sit down and wait. Stale bread we've none.
And else …” she shrugged. “Still, rest awhile,”
Her smooth face conjured up a smile,
“And I will see what can be done.”

He did as he was bidden. And she
Went briskly in, and shut the door;
To pause, in brief uncertainty,
Searching for what she failed to find.
Then tiptoed back to peer once more
In through the ribboned muslin blind,
And eyed him secretly, askance,
With a prolonged, keen, searching glance;
As if mere listening might divine
Some centuries-silent countersign.
Scores of lean hungry folk she had turned
Even hungrier from her door, though less
From stint and scorn than heedlessness.
Why then should she a scruple spare
For one who, in a like distress,
Had spoken as if in heart he yearned
Far more for peace than bread? But now
No mark of gloom obscured his brow,
No shadow of darkness or despair.
Still as an image of age-worn stone
That from a pinnacle looks down
Over the seas of time, he sat;
His stooping face illumined by
The burnished scales that hung awry
Beside the crusted loaves of bread.
Never it seemed shone lamp so fair
On one so sore bestead.
“Poor wretch,” she muttered, “he minds me of …”
A footfall sounded from above;
And, hand on mouth, intently still,
She watched and pondered there until,
Stepping alertly down the stair,
Her daughter—young as she was fair—
Came within earshot.
“H'st,” she cried.
“A stranger here! And Lord betide,
He may have been watching till we're alone,
Biding his time, your father gone.
Come, now; come quietly and peep!—
Rags!—he might make a Christian weep!
I've promised nothing; but, good lack!
What shall I say when I go back?”
Her daughter softly stepped to peep.
“Pah! begging,” she whispered; “I know that tale.
Money is all he wants—for ale!”
Through the cold glass there stole a beam
Of lamplight on her standing there,
Stilling her beauty as in a dream.
It smote to gold her wing-soft hair,
It scarleted her bird-bright cheek,
With shadow tinged her childlike neck,
Dreamed on her rounded bosom, and lay—
Like a sapphire pool at break of day,
Where martin and wagtail preen and play—
In the shallow shining of her eye.
“T't, mother,” she scoffed, with a scornful sigh,
And peeped again, and sneered—her lip
Drawn back from her small even teeth,
Showing the bright-red gums beneath.
“Look, now! The wretch has fallen asleep—
Stark at the counter, there; still as death
As I sat alone at my looking-glass,
I heard a footstep—watched him pass,
Turn, and limp thief-like back again.
Out went my candle. I listened; and then
Those two faint dings . Aha! thought I,
Honest he may be, though old and blind,
But that's no customer come to buy.
So down I came—too late! I knew
He'd get less comfort from me than you!
I warrant, a pretty tale he told!
‘Alone’! Lord love us! Leave him to me.
I'll teach him manners. Wait and see.”
She nodded her small snake-like head,
Sleeked with its strands of palest gold,
“Waste not, want not, say I,” she said.
Her mother faltered. Their glances met—
Furtive and questioning; hard and cold—
In mute communion mind with mind,
Though little to share could either find.
“Save us!” she answered, “sharp eyes you have,
If in the dark you can see the blind!
He was as tongueless as the grave.
‘Tale’! Not a sigh. Not one word said.
Except that he asked for bread.”
Uneasy in her thoughts, she yet
Knew, howsoever late the hour,
And none in call, small risk they ran
From any homeless beggar-man.
While as for this—worn, wasted, wan—
A nod, and he'd be gone.

Waste not, want not , forsooth! The chit—
To think that she should so dictate!
“Asleep, you say? Well, what of that?
What mortal harm can come of it?
A look he gave me; and his eyes …
Leave him to me, Miss Worldly-wise!
Trouble him not. Stay here, while I
See what broken meat's put by.
God knows the wretch may have his fill.
And you—keep watch upon the till!”

She hastened in, with muffled tread.
Meanwhile her daughter, left alone,
Waited, watching, till she was gone;
Then softly drew open the door, to stare
More nearly through the sombre air
At the still face, dark matted hair,
Scarred hand, shut eyes, and silent mouth,
Parched with the long day's bitter drouth;
Now aureoled in the lustre shed
From the murky lamp above his head.
Her tense young features distorted, she
Gazed on, in sharpening enmity,
Her eager lips tight shut, as if
The very air she breathed might be
Poisoned by this foul company.
That such should be allowed to live!
Yet, as she watched him, needle-clear,
Beneath her contempt stirred fear.
Fear, not of body's harm, or aught
Instinct or cunning may have taught
Wits edged by watchful vanity:
It seemed her inmost soul made cry—
Wild thing, bewildered, the huntsmen nigh—
Of hidden ambush, and a flood
Of vague forebodings chilled her blood.
Kestrel keen, her eyes' bright blue
Narrowed, as she stole softly through.

“H'st, you!” she whispered him. “Waken! Hear!
I come to warn you Danger's near!”
Cat-like she scanned him, drew-to the door,
“She is calling for help. No time to wait!—
Before the neighbours come—before
They hoick their dogs on, and it's too late!”
The stranger listened; turned; and smiled:
“But whither shall I go, my child?
All ways are treacherous to those
Who, seeking friends, find only foes.”

My child! —the words like poison ran
Through her quick mind. “What!” she began,
In fuming rage; then stayed; for, lo,
This visage, for all its starven woe,
That now met calmly her scrutiny,
Of time's corruption was wholly free.
The eyes beneath the level brows,
Though weary for want of sleep, yet shone
With strange directness, gazing on.
In her brief life she had never seen
A face so eager yet serene,
And, in its deathless courage, none
To bear with it comparison.
“I will begone,” at length he said.
“All that I asked was bread.”
Her anger died away; she sighed;
Pouted; then laughed. “So Mother tried
To scare me? Told me I must stop
In there—some wretch was in the shop
Who'd come to rob and … Well, thought I,
Seeing's believing; I could but try
To keep her safe. What else to do—
Till help might come?” She paused, and drew
A straying lock of yellow hair
Back from her cheek—as palely fair—
In heedless indolence; as when
A wood-dove idly spreads her wing
Sunwards, and folds it in again.
Aimless, with fingers slender and cold,
She fondled the tress more stealthily
 Than miser with his gold.
And still her wonder grew: to see
A man of this rare courtesy
So sunken in want and poverty.
What was his actual errand here?
And whereto was he journeying?
A silence had fallen between them. Save
The weight-clock's ticking, slow and grave,
No whisper, in or out, she heard;
The cat slept on; and nothing stirred.
“Is it only hungry?” she cajoled,
In this strange quiet made more bold.
“Far worse than hunger seems to me
The cankering fear of growing old.
That is a kind of hunger too—
Which even I can share with you.
And, heaven help me, always alone!
Mother cares nothing for that. But wait;
See now how dark it is, and late;
Nor any roof for shelter. But soon
Night will be lovely—with the moon.
When all is quiet, and she abed,
Do you come back, and click the latch;
And I'll sit up above, and watch.
A supper then I'll bring,” she said,
“Sweeter by far than mouldy bread!”
Like water chiming in a well
Which uncropped weeds more sombre make,
The low seductive syllables fell
Of every word she spake—
Music lulling the listening ear,
Note as of nightbird, low and clear,
That yet keeps grief awake.
But still he made no sign. And she,
Now, fearing his silence, scoffed mockingly,
“God knows I'm not the one to give
For the mere asking. As I live
I loathe the cringing skulking scum,
Day in, day out, that begging come;
Sots, tramps, who pester, whine, and shirk—
They'd rather starve to death than work.
And lie!”—She aped, “‘God help me, m'm;
'Tisn't myself but them at home!
Crying for food they are. Yes, seven!—
And their poor mother safe in heaven!’”
Glib as a prating parrot she
Mimicked the words with sidling head,
Bright-red tongue and claw-like hands.
“But—I can tell you—when I 'm there
There's little for the seven to share!”
She raised her eyebrows; innocent, mild—
Less parrot now than pensive child;
Her every movement of body and face,
As of a flower in the wind's embrace,
Born of a natural grace.

A vagrant moth on soundless plume,
Lured by the quiet flame within,
Fanned darkling through the narrow room,
Out of the night's obscurity.
She watched it vacantly.
“If we gave food to all , you see,
We might as well a Workhouse be!
I've not much patience with beggary.
What use is it to whine and wail?—
Most things in this world are made for sale!
But one who really needs …” She sighed.
“I'd hate for him to be denied.”
She smoothed her lips, then smiled, to say:
“Have you yourself come far to-day?”
Like questing call, where shallows are
And sea-birds throng, rang out that far —
Decoy to every wanderer.

The stranger turned, and looked at her.
“Far, my child; and far must fare.
My only home is everywhere;
And that the homeless share;
The vile, the lost, in misery—
Where comfort cannot be.
You are young, your life your own to spend;
May it escape as dark an end.”

Her fickle heart fell cold, her eyes
Stirred not a hair's breadth, serpent-wise.
“You say,” she bridled, “that to me!
Meaning you'd have their company
Rather than mine? Why, when a friend
Gives for the giving, there's an end
To that dull talk! My child! —can't you
See whom you are talking to?
Do you suppose because I stop
Caged up in this dull village shop
With none but clods and numskulls near,
Whose only thought is pig and beer,
And sour old maids that pry and leer,
I am content? Me! Never pine
For what by every right is mine?
Had I a wild-sick bird to keep,
Is this where she should mope and cheep?
Aching, starving, for love and light,
Eating her heart out, dawn to night!
Oh, yes, they say that safety's sweet;
And groundsel—something good to cat!
But, Lord! I'd outsing the morning stars,
A lump of sugar between the bars!
I loathe this life. My child! You see!
Wait till she's dead—and I am free!”
Aghast, she stayed—her young cheeks blenched,
Mouth quivering, and fingers clenched—
“What right have you …?” she challenged, and then,
With a stifled sob, fell silent again.
“And now,” she shuddered, frowned, and said,
“It's closing time. And I'm for bed.”
She listened a moment, crossed the floor,
And, dumbing on tiptoe—thumb on latch—
The clapper-bell against its catch,
Stealthily drew wide the door.

All deathly still, the autumnal night
Hung starry and radiant, height to height,
O'er moon-cold hills and neighboring wood.
Black shadows barred the empty street,
Dew-bright its cobbles at her feet,
And the dead leaves that sprinkled it.
With earthy, sour-sweet smell indued
The keen air coldly touched her skin—
Alone there, at the entering in.
Soon would the early frosts begin,
And the long winter's lassitude,
Mewed up, pent in, companionless.
No light in her mind to soothe and bless;
Only unbridled bitterness
Drummed in her blood against her side.
Her eyelids drooped, and every sense
Languished in secret virulence.
She wheeled and looked. “You thought,” she cried,
Small and dull as a toneless bell,
“A silly, country wench like me,
Goose for the fox, befooled could be
By your fine speeches! ‘Hungry’? Well,
I've been in streets where misery is
Common as wayside blackberries—
Been, and come back; less young than wise.
Go to the parson, knock him up;
He'll dole you texts on which to sup.
Or, if his tombstones strike too cold,
Try the old Squire at Biddingfold:
Ask there! He thinks the village pond's
The drink for rogues and vagabonds!”

The Hunter's Moon from a cloudless sky
In pallid splendour earthward yearned;
Dazzling in beauty, cheek and eye:
And her head's gold to silver turned.
Her fierce young face in that wild shine
Showed like a god's, morose, malign.
He rose: and face to face they stood
In sudden, timeless solitude.
The fevered frenzy in her blood
Ebbed, left enfeebled body and limb.
Appalled, she gazed at him,
Marvelling in horror of stricken heart,
In this strange scrutiny, at what
She saw but comprehended not.
Out of Astarte's borrowed light
She couched her face, to hide from sight
The tears of anguish and bitter pride
That pricked her eyes. “My God,” she cried,
Pausing in misery on the word,
As if another's voice she had heard,
“Give—if you can—the devil his due—
I'd rather sup with him than you!
So get you gone; no more I want
Of you, and all your cant!”
A hasty footstep neared; she stayed,
Outwardly bold, but sore afraid
“Mother!” she mocked. “Now we shall see
What comes of asking charity.”
Platter in hand, the frugal dame
Back to the counter bustling came.
Something, she saw, had gone amiss.
And one sharp look her daughter's way
Warned her of what she had best not say.
Fearing her tongue and temper, she
Spoke with a smiling asperity.
“Look, now,” she said, “I have brought you this.
That slut of mine's an hour abed;
The oven chilled, the fire half dead,
The bellows vanished. . . . Well, you have seen
The mort of trouble it has been.
Still, there it is; and food at least.
My husband does not hold with waste;
That's been his maxim all life through.
What's more, it's in the Scriptures too.
By rights we are shut; it's growing late;
And as you can't bring back the plate,
Better eat here—if eat you must!
And now—ah, yes, you'll want a crust.
All this bread is for sale. I'll in
And see what leavings are in the bin.”
Their glances met. Hers winced, and fell;
But why it faltered she could not tell. . . .

The slumbering cat awoke, arose—
Roused by the savour beneath his nose,
Arched his spine, with tail erect,
Stooped, gently sniffing, to inspect
The beggar's feast, gazed after her,
And, seeing her gone, began to purr.
Her daughter then, who had watched the while,
Drew near, and stroked him—with a smile
As sly with blandishment as guile.
Daintily, finger and thumb, she took
A morsel of meat from off the plate,
And with a sidling crafty look
Dangled it over him for a bait:
“No, no; say, please!” The obsequious cat
Reared to his haunches, with folded paws,
Round sea-green eyes, and hook-toothed jaws,
Mewed, snapped, and mouthed it down; and then
Up, like a mammet, sat, begging again.
“Fie, now; he's famished! Another bit?
Mousers by rights should hunt their meat!
That's what the Master says: isn't it?”
The creature fawned on her, and purred,
As if he had pondered every word.
Yet, mute the beggar stood, nor made.
A sign he grudged this masquerade.
“I dote on cats,” the wanton said.
“Dogs grovel and cringe at every nod;
Making of man a kind of god!
Beat them or starve them, as you choose,
They crawl to you, whining, and lick your shoes.
Cats know their comfort, drowse and play,
And, when the dark comes, steal away—
Wild to the wild. Make them obey!
As soon make water run uphill.
I'm for the night; I crave the dark;
Would wail the louder to hear them bark;
Pleasure myself till the East turns grey.”
She eyed the low window; “Welladay!
You the greyhound, and I the hare,
I warrant of coursing you'd have your share.”
Scrap after scrap she dangled, until
The dainty beast had gorged his fill,
And, lithe as a panther, sheened like silk,
Minced off to find a drink of milk.
“There! That's cat's thanks! His feasting done,
He's off—and half your supper gone! …
But, wise or foolish, you'll agree
You had done better to sup with me!”

The stranger gravely raised his head.
“Once was a harvest thick with corn
When I too heard the hunting-horn;
I, too, the baying, and the blood,
And the cries of death none understood.
He that in peace with God would live
Both hunter is and fugitive.
I came to this house to ask for bread,
We give but what we have,” he said;
“Are what grace makes of us, and win
The peace that is our hearts within.”
He ceased, and, yet more gravely, smiled.
“I would that ours were reconciled!”
So sharply intent were sense and ear
On his face and accents, she failed to hear
The meaning his words conveyed
“ Peace! ” she mocked him. “How pretty a jibe!
So jows the death-bell's screnade.
Try a less easy bribe!”

The entry darkly gaped. And through
The cold night air, a low a-hoo ,
A-hoo , a-hoo , from out the wood,
Broke in upon their solitude;
A call, a bleak decoy, a cry,
Half weird lament, half ribaldry.
She listened, shivered; “Pah!” whispered she,
“No peace of yours, my God, for me!
I have gone my ways, have eyes, and wits.
Am I a cat to feed on bits
Of dried-up Bible-meat? I know
What kind of bread has that for dough;
Yes, and how honey-sweet the leaven
That starves, on earth, to glut, in heaven!
Dupe was I? Well, come closer, look,
Is my face withered? Sight fall'n in?
Beak-sharp nose and gibbering chin?
Lips that no longer can sing, kiss, pout?
Body dry sinews, the fire gone out?
So it may be with me Judgment Day;
And, men being men, of hope forsook,
Gold all dross—hair gone grey,
Love burnt to ashes.
Yet, still, I'd say—
Come then, to taunt me, though you may—
I 'd treat hypocrites Pilate's way!
False, all false!—Oh, I can see,
You are not what you pretend to be!”

Weeping, she ceased; as flowerlike a thing
As frost ever chilled in an earthly spring.
Mingling moonlight and lamplight played
On raiment and hair; and her beauty arrayed
In a peace profound, as when in some glade
On the confines of Eden, alone, unafraid,
Cain and his brother as children strayed.
“What am I saying! I hear it. But none—
None is—God help me!—my own.”

Her mother, listening, had heard
That last low passionate broken word.
What was its meaning? Shame or fear—
It knelled its misery on her ear
Like voices in a dream.
And, as she brooded, deep in thought,
Trembling, though not with cold, she sought
In her one twinkling candle's beam
From stubborn memory to restore
Where she had seen this man before;
What, in his marred yet tranquil mien—
Dimmed by the veils of time between—
Had conjured the past so quickly back:
Hours when by hopes, proved false, beguiled,
She too had stubborn been and wild,
As vain; but not as lovely. Alas!
And, far from innocent, a child.
A glass hung near the chimney shelf—
She peered into its shadows, moved
By thoughts of one in youth beloved,
Long tongueless in the grave, whom yet
Rancour could shun, but not forget.
Was this blowsed woman here herself?
No answer made the image there—
Barterèd but stare for stare.
She turned aside. What use to brood
On follies gone beyond recall—
Nothing to do the living good,
Secrets now shared by none; and all
Because this chance-come outcast had
Asked for alms a crust of bread.
Clean contrary to common sense,
She'd given him shelter, fetched him food—
Old scraps, maybe, but fit, at worst,
For her goodman; and warmed them first!
And this for grace and gratitude!
Charity brings scant recompense
This side of Jordan—from such as he!

But then; what meant that frenzied speech,
Cry of one loved, lost—out of reach,
From girlhood up unheard before,
And past all probing to explore?
What was between them—each with each?
What in the past lay hid?
Long since the tongue of envy had
Whispered its worst about her child;
Arrogant, beautiful, and wild;
And beauty tarnished may strive in vain
To win its market back again …
To what cold furies is life betrayed
When the ashes of youth begin to cool,
When things of impulse are done by rule,
When, sickened of faiths, hopes, charities,
The soul pines only to be at ease;
And—moulting vulture in stony den—
Waits for the end, Amen!

Thus, in the twinkling of an eye,
This heart-sick reverie swept by;
She must dissemble—if need be—lie;
Rid house and soul of this new pest,
Prudence would do the rest.
Muffling her purpose, aggrieved in mind,
In she went, and, knee on stool,
Deigning no glance at either, leant
Over the tarnished rail of brass
That curtained off the window-glass,
And, with a tug, drew down the blind.
“Lord's Day, to-morrow,” she shrugged. “No shop!
Come, child, make haste; it's time to sup;
High time to put the shutters up.”
The shutters up: The shutters up—
Ticked the clock the silence through,
And a yet emptier silence spread.
Shunning the effort, she raised her head;
“And you'll be needing to go,” she said.
She seized a loaf, broke off a crust,
Turned, and, “There's no stale left …” began
Coldly, and paused—her haunted eyes
Fixed on the grease-stains, where the cat,
Mumbling its gobbets, had feasting sat.
All doubting done, pierced to the quick
At hint of this malignant trick,
Like spark in tinder, fire in rick,
A sudden rage consumed her soul,
Beyond all caution to control.
Ignored, disdained, deceived, defied!—
“Have you, my God!” she shrilled, “no pride?
No shame?
Stranger, you say—and now, a friend!
Cheating and lies, from bad to worse—
Fouling your father's honest name—
Make me , you jade, your stalking-horse!
I've watched you, mooning, moping—ay,
And now, in my teeth, know why!”

A dreadful quiet spread, as when
Over Atlantic wastes of sea,
Black, tempest-swept, there falls a lull,
As sudden as it is momentary,
In the maniac tumult of wind and rain,
Boundless, measureless, monstrous: and then
The insensate din begins again.

The damsel stirred.
Jade —she had caught the bitter word;
Shame, cheating, lies . Crouched down, she stood,
Lost in a lightless solitude.
No matter; the words were said; all done.
And yet, how strange this woman should,
Self-blinded, have no heart to see
The secret of her misery;
Should think that she—all refuge gone,
And racked with hatred and shame, could be
The friend of this accursèd one!
The anguished blood had left her cheek
White as a leper's. With shaking head,
And eyes insanely wide and bleak,
Her body motionless as the dead,
At bay against a nameless fear,
She strove awhile in vain to speak.
Then, “Thank you for that!” she whispered. “Who
Betrayed me into a world like this,
Swarming with evil and deviltries?
Gave me these eyes, this mouth, these feet,
Flesh to hunger—and tainted meat?
Pampered me—flattered—yet taunted me when
Body and soul became prey to men,
And dog to its vomit returned again?
Ask me my name! You? Magdalen!
Devils? So be it. What brought me here?—
A stork in the chimney-stack, mother dear!
Oh, this false life! An instant gone
A voice within me said, See! Have done ,
Take to you wings, and, ravening, flee,
Far from this foul hypocrisy!”
Like an old beldame's her fingers shook,
Mouth puckered, and the inning moon
Gleamed, as she cowered, on brow and eye,
Fixed now in torment on one near by.
“ Friend! did you say? You heard that? You!—
Forsaken of God, a wandering Jew!
With milk for blood! Speak! Is it true?”

Beyond the threshold a stealthy breeze,
Faint with night's frost-cold fragrancies,
Stirred in the trees.
Ghostlike, on moon-patterned floor there came
A scamper of leaves. The lamp's dim flame
Reared smoking in the sudden draught.
He gazed, but answered not; the Jew.
Woe, beyond mortal eyes to trace,
Watched through compassion in his face.
And though—as if the spirit within
Were striving through fleshly bonds to win
Out to its chosen—fiery pangs
Burned in her breast like serpent's fangs,
She lifted her stricken face, and laughed:
Hollowly, ribaldly, Heugh, heugh, heugh!
“A Jew! A Jew!”—
Ran, clawed, clutched up the bread and meat,
And flung them at his feet.
And then was gone; had taken her flight
Out through the doorway, into the street,
Into the quiet of the night,
On through the moon-chequered shadowy air;
Away, to where
In woodland of agelong oak and yew,
Echoing its vaulted dingles through,
Faint voices answered her— Hoo! A-hoo!
A-hoo! A-hoo!
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