The Poor

FROM Victor H UGO .

'T IS night — within the close-shut cabin door,
The room is wrapt in shade, save where there fall
Some twilight rays, that creep along the floor,
And show the fisher's nets upon the wall.

In the dim corner, from the oaken chest
A few white dishes glimmer; through the shade
Stands a tall bed with dusky curtains drest,
And a rough mattress at its side is laid.

Five children on the long low mattress lie —
A nest of little souls, it heaves with dreams;
In the high chimney the last embers die,
And redden the dark roof with crimson gleams.

The mother kneels and thinks, and, pale with fear,
She prays alone, hearing the billows shout;
While to wild winds, to rocks, to midnight drear,
The ominous old ocean sobs without.

Poor wives of fishers! Ah, 'tis sad to say,
Our sons, our husbands, all that we love best,
Our hearts, our souls, are on those waves away,
Those ravening wolves that know not ruth nor rest.

Think how they sport with those beloved forms,
And how the clarion-blowing wind unties
Above their heads the tresses of the storms!
Perchance even now the child, the husband dies;

For we can never tell where they may be,
Who, to make head against the tide and gale,
Between them and the starless soundless sea
Have but one bit of plank with one poor sail.

Terrible fear! we seek the pebbly shore,
Cry to the rising billows, " Bring them home. "
Alas! what answer gives that troubled roar
To the dark thought that haunts us as we roam?

Janet is sad: her husband is alone,
Wrapp'd in the black shroud of this bitter night;
His children are so little, there is none
To give him aid: " Were they but old they might. "
Ah, mother, when they too are on the main,
How wilt thou weep, " Would they were young again! "

She takes her lantern — 'tis his hour at last;
She will go forth and see if the day breaks,
And if his signal-fire be at the mast:
Ah no, not yet! no breath of morning wakes;

No line of light o'er the dark water lies:
It rains, it rains, how black is rain at morn!
The day comes trembling, and the young dawn cries,
Cries like a baby fearing to be born.

Sudden her human eyes that peer and watch
Through the deep shade a mouldering dwelling find:
No light within — the thin door shakes — the thatch
O'er the green walls is twisted of the wind,

Yellow and dirty as a swollen rill.
" Ah me! " she saith, " here doth that widow dwell;
Few days ago my goodman left her ill,
I will go in and see if all be well. "

She strikes the door, she listens; none replies,
And Janet shudders. " Husbandless, alone,
And with two children, they have scant supplies.
Good neighbour! — she sleeps heavy as a stone. "

She calls again, she knocks, — 'tis silence still;
No sound, no answer. Suddenly the door,
As if the senseless creature felt some thrill
Of pity, turn'd, and open lay before.

She enter'd, and her lantern lighted all
The house, so still but for the rude wave's din.
Through the thin roof the plashing raindrops fall;
But something terrible is couch'd within.

Half-clothed, dark-featured, motionless lay she,
The once strong mother, now devoid of life;
Dishevell'd picture of dead misery,
All that the poor leaves after his long strife.

The cold and livid arm, already stiff,
Hung o'er the soak'd straw of her wretched bed;
The mouth lay open horribly, as if
The parting soul with a great cry had fled —

That cry of death which startles the dim ear
Of vast eternity. And, all the while,
Two little children in one cradle near
Slept face to face, on each sweet face a smile.

The dying mother o'er them as they lay
Had cast her gown, and wrapp'd her mantle's fold;
Feeling chill death creep up, she will'd that they
Should yet be warm while she was lying cold.

Rock'd by their own weight sweetly sleep the twain,
With even breath, and foreheads calm and clear, —
So sound that the last trump might call in vain,
For, being innocent, they have no fear.

Still howls the wind, and ever a drop slides
Through the old rafters where the thatch is weak.
On the dead woman's face it falls, and glides,
Like living tears, along her hollow cheek.

And the dull wave sounds ever like a bell:
The dead lies still and listens to the strain;
For when the radiant spirit leaves its shell,
The poor corpse seems to call it back again.

It seeks the soul thro' the air's dim expanse,
And the pale lip saith to the sunken eye,
" Where is the beauty of thy kindling glance? "
" And where thy balmy breath? " it makes reply.

Alas! live, love, find primroses in Spring!
Fate hath one end for festival and tear:
Bid your hearts vibrate, make your glasses ring;
But as dark ocean drinks each streamlet clear,

So, for the kisses that delight the flesh,
For mother's worship, and for children's bloom;
For song, for smile, for love so fair and fresh,
For laugh, for dance, there is one goal — the tomb.

And why doth Janet pass so fast away?
What hath she done within that house of dread?
What foldeth she beneath her mantle grey,
And hurries home, and hides it in her bed,
With half-averted face, and nervous tread?
What hath she stolen from the awful dead?

The dawn was whitening over the sea's verge
As she sat pensive, touching broken chords
Of half remorseful thoughts, while the hoarse surge
Howl'd a sad concert to her broken words.

" Ah, my poor husband! we had five before —
Already so much care, so much to find,
For he must work for all. I give him more.
What was that noise, his step? Ah no, the wind.

" That I should be afraid of him I love!
I have done ill. If he should beat me now,
I would not blame him. Did not the door move?
Not yet, poor man. " She sits with careful brow,
Wrapp'd in her inward grief, nor hears the roar
Of winds and waves that dash against his prow,
Nor the black cormorant shrieking on the shore.

Sudden the door flies open wide, and lets
Noisily in the dawn-light, scarcely clear;
And the good fisher, dragging his damp nets,
Stands on the threshold with a joyous cheer.

" 'Tis thou! " she cries, and, eager as a lover,
Leaps up, and holds her husband to her breast;
Her greeting kisses all his vesture cover.
" 'Tis I, good wife; " and his broad face express'd.

How gay his heart, that Janet's love made light.
" What weather was it? " " Hard. " " Your fishing? " " Bad.
The sea was like a nest of thieves to-night;
But I embrace thee, and my heart is glad.

" There was a devil in the wind that blew;
I tore my net, caught nothing, broke my line;
And once I thought the bark was broken too.
What did you all the night long, Janet mine? "

She, trembling in the darkness, answer'd, " I?
Oh, nought — I sew'd, I watch'd, I was afraid,
The waves were loud as thunders from the sky;
But it is over. " Shyly then she said —

" Our neighbour died last night, it must have been
When you were gone. She left two little ones —
So small, so frail — William and Madeline.
The one just lisps, the other scarcely runs. "

The man look'd grave, and in the corner cast
His old fur bonnet, wet with rain and sea,
Mutter'd awhile, and scratch'd his head; at last,
" We have five children — this makes seven, " said he.

" Already in bad weather we must sleep
Sometimes without our supper. Now — Ah well,
'Tis not my fault. These accidents are deep.
It was the good God's will. I cannot tell.

" Why did He take the mother from those scraps
No bigger than my fist? 'Tis hard to read:
A learned man might understand, perhaps.
So little, they can neither work nor need.

" Go fetch them, wife; they will be frighten'd sore
If with the dead alone they waken thus.
That was the mother knocking at our door,
And we must take the children home to us.

" Brother and sister shall they be to ours,
And they will learn to climb my knee at even.
When He shall see these strangers in our bow'rs,
More fish, more food will give the God of Heav'n.

" I will work harder, I will drink no wine,
Go fetch them. Wherefore dost thou tarry, dear?
Not thus were wont to move those feet of thine. "
She drew the curtain, saying — " They are here. "
Author of original: 
Victor Hugo
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