The Russian Student's Tale

The midnight sun with phantom glare
Shone on the soundless thoroughfare
Whose shuttered houses, closed and still,
Seemed bodies without heart or will;
Yea, all the stony city lay
Impassive in that phantom day,
As amid livid wastes of sand
The sphinxes of the desert stand.

And we, we two, turned night to day,
As, whistling many a student's lay.
We sped along each ghostly street,
With girls whose lightly tripping feet
Well matched our longer, stronger stride.
In hurrying to the water-side.
We took a boat; each seized an oar.
And put his will into each stroke,
Until on either hand the shore
Slipped backwards, as our voices woke
Far echoes, mingling like a dream
With swirl and tumult of the stream.
On — on — away, beneath the ray
Of midnight in the mask of day;
By great wharves where the masts at peace
Look like the ocean's barren trees;
Past palaces and glimmering towers,
And gardens fairy-like with flowers.
And parks of twilight green and closes,
The very Paradise of roses.
The waters flow; on, on we row,
Now laughing loud, now whispering low;
And through the splendour of the white
Electrically glowing night,
Wind-wafted from some perfumed dell,
Tumultuously there loudly rose
Above the Neva's surge and swell,
With amorous ecstasies and throes,
And lyric spasms of wildest wail,
The love song of a nightingale.

I see her still beside me. Yea,
As if it were but yesterday,
I see her — see her as she smiled;
Her face that of a little child
For innocent sweetness undefiled;
And that pathetic flower-like blue
Of eyes which, as they looked at you.
Seemed yet to stab your bosom through.
I rowed, she steered; oars dipped and flashed,
The broadening river roared and splashed,
So that we hardly seemed to hear
Our comrades' voices, though so near;
Their faces seeming far away.
As still beneath that phantom day
I looked at her, she smiled at me!
And then we landed — I and she.

There's an old Cafe in the wood;
A student's haunt on summer eves,
Round which responsive poplar leaves
Quiver to each aeolian mood
Like some wild harp a poet smites
On visionary summer nights.
I ordered supper, took a room
Green-curtained by the tremulous gloom
Of those fraternal poplar trees
Shaking together in the breeze;
My pulse, too, like a poplar tree,
Shook wildly as she smiled at me.
Eye in eye, and hand in hand.
Awake amid the slumberous land.
I told her all my love that night —
How I had loved her at first sight;
How I was hers, and seemed to be
Her own to all eternity.
And through the splendour of the white
Electrically glowing night,
Wind-wafted from some perfumed dell.
Tumultuously there loudly rose
Above the Neva's surge and swell,
With amorous ecstasies and throes,
And lyric spasms of wildest wail,
The love-song of a nightingale.

I see her still beside me. Yea.
As if it were but yesterday.
I hear her tell with cheek aflame
Her ineradicable shame —
So sweet a flower in such vile hands!
Oh, loved and lost beyond recall!
Like one who hardly understands,
I heard the story of her fall,
The odious barter of her youth,
Of beauty, innocence, and truth,
Of all that honest women hold
Most sacred — for the sake of gold.
A weary seamstress, half a child,
Left unprotected in the street,
Where, when so hungry, you would meet
All sorts of tempters that beguiled.
Oh, infamous and senseless clods.
Basely to taint so pure a heart,
And make a maid fit for the gods
A creature of the common mart!
She spoke quite simply of things vile
Of devils with an angel's face;
It seemed the sunshine of her smile
Must purify the foulest place.
She told me all — she would be true —
Told me of things too sad, too bad;
And, looking in her eyes' clear blue
My passion nearly drove me mad!
I tried to speak, but tried in vain;
A sob rose to my throat as dry
As ashes — for between us twain
A murdered virgin seemed to lie.
And through the splendour of the white
Electrically glowing night,
Wind wafted from some perfumed dell,
Tumultuously there loudly rose,
Above the Neva's surge and swell,
With amorous ecstasies and throes,
And lyric spasms of wildest wail,
The love-song of a nightingale.

Poor craven creature! What was I,
To sit in judgment on her life,
Who dared not make this child my wife,
And lift her up to love's own sky?
This poor lost child we all — yes, all —
Had helped to hurry to her fall,
Making a social leper of
God's creature consecrate to love.
I looked at her — she smiled no more;
She understood it all before
A syllable had passed my lips;
And like a horrible eclipse,
Which blots the sunlight from the skies.
A blankness overspread her eyes —
The blankness as of one who dies.
I knew how much she loved me — knew
How pure and passionately true
Her love for me, which made her tell
What scorched her like the flames of hell.
And I, I loved her too, so much,
So dearly, that I dared not touch
Her lips that had been kissed in sin;
But with a reverential thrill
I took her work-worn hand and thin,
And kissed her fingers, showing still
Where needle-pricks had marred the skin.
And, ere I knew, a hot tear fell,
Scalding the place which I had kissed,
As between clenching teeth I hissed
Our irretrievable farewell.
And through the smouldering glow of night,
Mixed with the shining morning light
Wind-wafted from some perfumed dell,
Above the Neva's surge and swell,
With lyric spasms, as from a throat
Which dying breathes a faltering note,
There faded o'er the silent vale
The last sob of a nightingale.
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