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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