Convict Once - Part Third.

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IT was a fever, they tell me: to me 'twas a sleep and a waking;
Yet not a sleep without dreams: if indeed they were dreams that I saw.
Never, I think, shall I call it a dream: but the truth and the breaking
Up of all dreams, and a glimpse of superlative being and law.
Sweet, passing sweet, is this light of the morning, by green leaves made tender,
Tender and mellowed on lids fever-folded, yet sick of repose;
Even as this leaf-mellowed glow to the flood of meridian splendour,
So is the life that we live to the life that such visions disclose.
Sweet is this dance of the shadows of leaves on my coverlet, ever
Shifting and changing, yet silent, impalpable, fretting no fold;
Even as this shadowy dance to the forest's tumultuous quiver,
So is the life that we live to the life that in vision is told.
As I lie here on the dubious bank betwixt waking and slumber,
Life on earth seems but a window that straitens our view of the skies;
And all our fluttering joys and life's things of desire without number
Are but the lattice-leaves, tempering God's light to our infantile eyes.
I have beheld what hath changed me, I know not in body or spirit,
Far in a region where leagues are no measure, and time is no bound;
Up in the realms imperturbable, which the high spirits inherit;
Out of the reach of all seasons; beyond the last echo of sound.
First there came one like a storm-cloud, and bore me high up on the mountain,
Showed me the kingdoms of earth, and the glory thereof, and the power;
Ope'd me the well-springs of Love, drew the wine of Desire from its fountain:
"Bow down and worship," it said, "and all this will I give for thy dower."
Then came, all star-girt, another, and caught me away, and I know not
Whither he bore me, because of the pure inaccessible ray,
Save that it was in the land where the beams of eternity flow not
From any sun, and no morning or evening divideth the day.
As in a chrysolite sea I beheld the great cycles of story,
Circling and widening afar at each pulse of the will of the King:
But where I stood there was darkness that marred the immaculate glory;
Shadowed therein I beheld me, a guilty and shuddering thing.
And while I stood all estranged, without welcome, or greeting, or token,
There was a voice in my soul, "Thou must weep, if thy spirit would live."
Came a great longing for tears, and the spell of the vision was broken,
And on my bed I lay tremulous, weeping, and crying "Forgive."
Lo, by my side, all in white! it was Hyacinth, fair as the morning;
And on her face were the meekness and peace of an angel of heaven.
Keener than anger is pity, and love than the weapons of scorning!
Lifting her finger, she smote me with — "Hush! All is known, and forgiven."

LITTLE by little the tale of the stroke and the fever I gather,
As I lie bridging oblivion, and weaving her words into form;
How I was found as one dead, on a hill-side, by Hyacinth's father,
Struck by the uppermost boughs of a tree that was wrecked in the storm.
How, after days of the semblance of death, there came fever and raving;
How the brain's anarchy loosened the tongue from its wonted control;
How I spoke wildly and darkly of Raymond and Hyacinth, craving
Death for my body because of them, uttermost death for my soul.
How it was deemed as a duty to one whom no care could recover,
Freely to search for some token of kindred, or trace of a friend;
How in the scrutiny Hyacinth chanced on the words of her lover,
Read and knew all, yet forbore to add woe to my imminent end.
How, too, at length I had rest, and the burden of heavy complaining
Changed to the sighing of rapturous vision, and trancëd repose.
Well: it is over. Where now is the passion that knew no restraining?
But is the evil past? Will the shed petals return to the rose?
Full of crushed fragments my hands are. Ah me, can I e'er re-unite them
Into the sacrament cup of the love I have broken and spilt?
How they two clung as the vine and the elm ere I saw, but to blight them!
Is there a river of tears that can cleanse out the mildew of guilt?
Is there no way? Ah, no way! From my raving her father, astonished,
Gathered a part of poor Hyacinth's story, sufficient for wrath;
Led her away from me, questioned her, threatened, upbraided, admonished,
Tyrant and father by turns; till, unpurposed, their devious path
Ceased at the grave of her mother. Which seeing, the old man, with weeping,
Knelt, and made Hyacinth kneel on the verge of the flowerless sod:
"Now, by my dead, hear me swear; by the heart of thy mother here sleeping" —
And he uncovered his head, and uplifted his hands unto God.
And as he raised them the gleam of the known wedding-ring on his finger,
Catching his eye as it glittered, gave form to the words of his oath:
"See it," he said; "it was hers; and by all the pure memories that linger
Round it, I make it the sign and the seal of a covenant for both.
"When I shall offer this ring as a sacred and covenant token
Unto a convict, the choice of thy father: then love where thou wilt.
Can I more fitly say Never? Enough. When my purpose is broken,
Go thou to Raymond, and make thyself kin to dishonour and guilt."
Could he more fitly say Never? I know him, a puritan cleaving
Unto the letter of covenant, a word-clinging Jephthah in vows.
He will go down to the grave with his vow in his right hand, believing
He hath done well by his children, his honour, his name, and his house.

I AM not done with my shame. As a garment it clingeth around me.
Even as a shroud it doth cover me paralysed, swathed in disgrace.
Fast in the folds of obstruction, as one of the dead it hath wound me,
Holding me motionless: and as a face-cloth it covereth my face.
What shall I do with my life, now I live? Could there be restitution,
Then were there something to live for, a guerdon to strive for and win.
Is there no hope, and must life be henceforward a slow dissolution,
Passive and tearful purgation of soul from unspeakable sin?
In the old days there was refuge in orisons, vigils, and fasting,
Cloistered retirement, and matins, and vespers, and garments of grey;
Wherein the broken in spirit caught glimpses of joy everlasting,
Turning their life into night that the night might inherit the day.
Queens, and Kings' daughters, and delicate damsels, their pride and their beauty
Laid on the altar of Jesus. I think of such things and am fain.
Faugh! It was cowardice all, and the sickly evasion of duty!
Shame may be turned to a snare, and repentance made fruitless and vain.
I shall not cease to upbraid me. My burden is fixed. I will bear it.
Yet must this bondage of shame be unwound that my soul may respire.
Hid 'neath the vesture, and next to the flesh, as a chain I will wear it,
As did the monarch of old that was stained with the blood of his sire.
So may I fight as he fought, with the iron memorial cherished
Under all kingly array, until life was laid gloriously down:
Also the world holds him kindly, and tearfully tells how he perished:
His was a crown and a chain; oh, may mine be a chain and a crown!

I HAVE made all my confession; the truth, and the whole, and truth only;
Made it with anguish of spirit, and weeping, and hiding of face.
But I have justified him. So far well. Single-handed and lonely
I must begone with my burden. My guilt over-shadows the place.
Raymond is far from us. Driven from his peace by my fitful demeanour,
Sudden he leaped at a chance of adventure, and passed from his home.
He too must know. Then my spirit may yield to a sorrow serener,
Seeking some token of duty to beckon me whither to roam.
Hyacinth fighteth against my new purpose. His love is for ever
Closed against her, so she reasons. The oath of her father endures.
Also she pleads her worth poor; "If in you he has found what I never
Could have been unto him, let the means pass; not the less is he yours."
Piteous dove! though thy pardon extend unto seventy times seven,
I shall not strain the advantage; thy loving is better than mine:
Clinging like Sterope unto a mortal, like her I lose heaven.
Now through repentance and duty I look to a union divine.
Surely God loves thee, thou sweet one! The Psyche that moves in thy moving,
Looks through thine eyelids, and breathes in thy breath, is some angel of grace!
Kiss me, oh Hyacinth! that the sweet sense of forgiving and loving,
Some little fifth of thy nectar, may pass from thy lips to my face!

ONCE again out in the breeze and the sun-light, heaven o'er me, earth under!
Grown unfamiliar by reason of sickness, all beautiful things
Meet me with hundred-fold welcome, each green leaf a jubilant wonder,
And the old throb of delight in the music of fluttering wings.
Now I can smile with the flowers; for to-day I have learned what hath brought me
Nearer akin to them. Ere this same summer hath numbered its hours,
I shall be mixed with their roots. There came one here to-day who hath taught me
How there is that in my heart which shall lay me ere long with the flowers.
Science hath uttered its sentence. I own to a transient terror;
Only a little at first, then a sense of unspeakable rest.
Taken away from the evil to come! The long bondage of error
Soon shall be over! I carry my ransom about in my breast.
Ah, it is well. For I know my own heart: had I lived, I had striven
With a too violent haste and much stumbling to seize on the prize.
Now I am cast back on mercy, content to be simply forgiven,
Beggared of righteousness, pleading but needfulness, Magdalen-wise.
Yet it is strange I should smile with the flowers. I was wont to dissever
Nature and Grace. Behold Grace lends to Nature a kindlier charm.
All things are bright with a glorious light of redemption, and never
Seemed all the verdurous umbrage so gracious, the rose-blush so warm!
Once on a time, to me beauty seemed only a beautiful dying,
Like to the moribund glow of the doomed one, illusive as sweet.
Death! I had deemed it the end of all beauty, the hid underlying
Worm at the root of all loveliness, making each grace a deceit.
This from afar. But now, nearer, I hail it the needful condition
Of the superlative life; not a pause, but a step, and a birth;
As but a yew-shadowed avenue leading to splendid fruition,
And the fulfilment of that which is writ on the flowers of the earth.
It is but closing the eye for repose, ere we wake to the wonder
Waiting our vision through slumber made strong to behold the Divine.
It is but turning the web we have seen as yet only from under,
That we may look on the tissues of life in completed design.
'Tis but the fall of the seed when the season of blossom is over,
Dying to spring up anew from the womb of its burial clod.
'Tis but the clasp of the die on the coin, which the mould must once
Ere it shine forth with the bright superscription and image of God.
Once in mine agony, once in my darkness of purpose I sought it,
Wilfully blind to its issues, and caring for respite alone;
Trampling the jewel of life under foot that was His who hath bought it;
Lord, re-unite the poor fragments, and set them at last with Thine own!
Not with Thine amethysts, not with the emerald, sapphire, and ligure,
Lest I be shamed into nought, as a star when the sun is on high;
Not with the Urim and Thummim, of Light and Perfection the figure,
For I am dark and imperfect; no gem of Thine worthless as I.
Oh, if it be that a pearl is a tear, as a pearl do thou set me
Where infant-angels shall point to me, asking the meaning of pain.
So in the day when Thou gatherest Thy jewels Thou wilt not forget me,
Though I be dim with remembrance, and shades of old sorrow remain.

STRANGELY I wake to high thoughts, and beneath them a quiet gratulation,
Like a hid brook whisper-quiring the lordly old music of pines;
And, around all, as a glory, an incense of sweet consecration
Wraps me in mists of devotion that soars beyond visible signs.
Through the thin wall that divides us I hear the low breath of the sleeper,
All whose blest dreaming is worship, whose veriest breathing is prayer.
Oh to be like her! so meet for the Master, so ripe for the Reaper,
Clothed on with gentleness, full of sweet amnesties, stainlessly fair.
Let me but look on her. 'Twill be a sacred and privileged portal
Unto new day, but to mark how the stages of crimsoning morn
Quicken the life in her cheek — how the mortal that shrines the immortal
Grows out of darkness from grace unto grace, reillumined, re-born.
Peace to this chamber. Now kneeling I gather the breath of her purity.
See how the delicate pinions of dawning seem fondly to sweep
Over faint outlines and twilight suggestions of shapely obscurity,
Brushing the tokens of night from the maiden-white marvel of sleep.
Seems as Aurora were groping for beauty, and, lo! having found it,
Flushes with roseate rapture, and, bounteous, hastes to unfold
All the rare gifts she hath gathered from orient, and lavish around it
Various profusion of homage in amber, and crimson, and gold.
Not on the mountain-tops only the glad things of dawning are treasured,
Not in the vaporous magic with bright dreams bewitching the air,
Not by proud eminence only the scope of her bounty is measured;
Sweetest it lies on my sweet, on her face, and her aureoled hair.
Soft sits the light on her beautiful brow; no such radiance is given,
In the morn's kiss, unto uppermost leafage or eastern-most peak:
There is no hue on the rainbow-winged messengers floating in heaven,
Like the ethereal pigments that blend in the bloom of her cheek.
What are thy visions, fair slumbering sister? What alchemy hidden
Orbeth the tremulous dream-drop that pearls the dark fringe of thine eye?
Oh, if thou sorrowest even in sleep, by thy sleep am I chidden:
There was no tear in the peace of thy dawn ere my shadow passed by.
I should go from thee; from all that is thine; and yet fondly I linger,
Thinking some providence yet may redeem the foul wrong that I weep.
May not some juncture of good, like an angel with beckoning finger,
Wave me the way of redress, and establish thy joy ere I sleep?
Oft where the clouds gather darkest, the star of our comfort is shining.
Black though the night of our sorrow, who knows but the dawn may be nigh?
I will not speak of my secret of death, till the signs of declining
Warn me to flee to the city: to choose me a home where to die.

© James Brunton Stephens