The Letter L

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We sat on grassy slopes that meet
  With sudden dip the level strand;
The trees hung overhead—­our feet
  Were on the sand.

Two silent girls, a thoughtful man,
  We sunned ourselves in open light,
And felt such April airs as fan
  The Isle of Wight;

And smelt the wall-flower in the crag
  Whereon that dainty waft had fed,
Which made the bell-hung cowslip wag
  Her delicate head;

And let alighting jackdaws fleet
  Adown it open-winged, and pass
Till they could touch with outstretched feet
  The warmèd grass.

The happy wave ran up and rang
  Like service bells a long way off,
And down a little freshet sprang
  From mossy trough,

And splashed into a rain of spray,
  And fretted on with daylight’s loss,
Because so many bluebells lay
  Leaning across.

Blue martins gossiped in the sun,
  And pairs of chattering daws flew by,
And sailing brigs rocked softly on
  In company.

Wild cherry-boughs above us spread,
  The whitest shade was ever seen,
And flicker, flicker, came and fled
  Sun spots between.

Bees murmured in the milk-white bloom,
  As babes will sigh for deep content
When their sweet hearts for peace make room,
  As given, not lent.

And we saw on:  we said no word,
  And one was lost in musings rare,
One buoyant as the waft that stirred
  Her shining hair.

His eyes were bent upon the sand,
  Unfathomed deeps within them lay.
A slender rod was in his hand—­
  A hazel spray.

Her eyes were resting on his face,
  As shyly glad, by stealth to glean
Impressions of his manly grace
  And guarded mien;

The mouth with steady sweetness set,
  And eyes conveying unaware
The distant hint of some regret
  That harbored there.

She gazed, and in the tender flush
  That made her face like roses blown,
And in the radiance and the hush,
  Her thought was shown.

It was a happy thing to sit
  So near, nor mar his reverie;
She looked not for a part in it,
  So meek was she.

But it was solace for her eyes,
  And for her heart, that yearned to him,
To watch apart in loving wise
  Those musings dim.

Lost—­lost, and gone!  The Pelham woods
  Were full of doves that cooed at ease;
The orchis filled her purple hoods
  For dainty bees.

He heard not; all the delicate air
  Was fresh with falling water-spray:
It mattered not—­he was not there,
  But far away.

Till with the hazel in his hand,
  Still drowned in thought it thus befell;
He drew a letter on the sand—­
  The letter L.

And looking on it, straight there wrought
  A ruddy flush about his brow;
His letter woke him:  absent thought
  Rushed homeward now.

And half-abashed, his hasty touch
  Effaced it with a tell-tale care,
As if his action had been much,
  And not his air.

And she? she watched his open palm
  Smooth out the letter from the sand,
And rose, with aspect almost calm,
  And filled her hand

With cherry-bloom, and moved away
  To gather wild forget-me-not,
And let her errant footsteps stray
  To one sweet spot,

As if she coveted the fair
  White lining of the silver-weed,
And cuckoo-pint that shaded there
  Empurpled seed.

She had not feared, as I divine,
  Because she had not hoped.  Alas!
The sorrow of it! for that sign
  Came but to pass;

And yet it robbed her of the right
  To give, who looked not to receive,
And made her blush in love’s despite
  That she should grieve.

A shape in white, she turned to gaze;
  Her eyes were shaded with her hand,
And half-way up the winding ways
  We saw her stand.

Green hollows of the fringèd cliff,
  Red rocks that under waters show,
Blue reaches, and a sailing skiff,
  Were spread below.

She stood to gaze, perhaps to sigh,
  Perhaps to think; but who can tell
How heavy on her heart must lie
  The letter L!

She came anon with quiet grace;
  And “What,” she murmured, “silent yet!”
He answered, “’Tis a haunted place,
  And spell-beset.

“O speak to us, and break the spell!”
  “The spell is broken,” she replied.
“I crossed the running brook, it fell,
  It could not bide.

“And I have brought a budding world,
  Of orchis spires and daisies rank,
And ferny plumes but half uncurled,
  From yonder bank;

“And I shall weave of them a crown,
  And at the well-head launch it free,
That so the brook may float it down,
  And out to sea.

“There may it to some English hands
  From fairy meadow seem to come;
The fairyest of fairy lands—­
  The land of home.”

“Weave on,” he said, and as she wove
  We told how currents in the deep,
With branches from a lemon grove,
  Blue bergs will sweep.

And messages from shipwrecked folk
  Will navigate the moon-led main,
And painted boards of splintered oak
  Their port regain.

Then floated out by vagrant thought,
  My soul beheld on torrid sand
The wasteful water set at nought
  Man’s skilful hand,

And suck out gold-dust from the box,
  And wash it down in weedy whirls,
And split the wine-keg on the rocks,
  And lose the pearls.

“Ah! why to that which needs it not,”
  Methought, “should costly things be given?
How much is wasted, wrecked, forgot,
  On this side heaven!”

So musing, did mine ears awake
  To maiden tones of sweet reserve,
And manly speech that seemed to make
  The steady curve

Of lips that uttered it defer
  Their guard, and soften for the thought:
She listened, and his talk with her
  Was fancy fraught.

“There is not much in liberty”—­
  With doubtful pauses he began;
And said to her and said to me,
  “There was a man—­

“There was a man who dreamed one night
  That his dead father came to him;
And said, when fire was low, and light
  Was burning dim—­

“’Why vagrant thus, my sometime pride,
  Unloved, unloving, wilt thou roam?
Sure home is best!’ The son replied,
  ‘I have no home.’

“‘Shall not I speak?’ his father said,
  ’Who early chose a youthful wife,
And worked for her, and with her led
  My happy life.

“’Ay, I will speak, for I was young
  As thou art now, when I did hold
The prattling sweetness of thy tongue
  Dearer than gold;

“’And rosy from thy noonday sleep
  Would bear thee to admiring kin,
And all thy pretty looks would keep
  My heart within.

“’Then after, mid thy young allies—­
  For thee ambition flushed my brow—­
I coveted the school-boy prize
  Far more than thou.

“’I thought for thee, I thought for all
  My gamesome imps that round me grew;
The dews of blessing heaviest fall
  Where care falls too.

“’And I that sent my boys away,
  In youthful strength to earn their bread,
And died before the hair was gray
  Upon my head—­

“’I say to thee, though free from care,
  A lonely lot, an aimless life,
The crowning comfort is not there—­
  Son, take a wife.’

“‘Father beloved,’ the son replied,
  And failed to gather to his breast,
With arms in darkness searching wide,
  The formless guest.

“’I am but free, as sorrow is,
  To dry her tears, to laugh, to talk;
And free, as sick men are, I wis
  To rise and walk.

“’And free, as poor men are, to buy
  If they have nought wherewith to pay;
Nor hope, the debt before they die,
  To wipe away.

“’What ’vails it there are wives to win,
  And faithful hearts for those to yearn,
Who find not aught thereto akin
  To make return?

“’Shall he take much who little gives,
  And dwells in spirit far away,
When she that in his presence lives
  Doth never stray,

“But waking, guideth as beseems
  The happy house in order trim,
And tends her babes; and sleeping, dreams
  Of them and him?

“‘O base, O cold,’”—­while thus he spake
  The dream broke off, the vision fled;
He carried on his speech awake
  And sighing said—­

“’I had—­ah happy man!—­I had
  A precious jewel in my breast,
And while I kept it I was glad
  At work, at rest!

“’Call it a heart, and call it strong
  As upward stroke of eagle’s wing;
Then call it weak, you shall not wrong
  The beating thing.

“’In tangles of the jungle reed,
  Whose heats are lit with tiger eyes,
In shipwreck drifting with the weed
  ’Neath rainy skies,

“’Still youthful manhood, fresh and keen,
  At danger gazed with awed delight
As if sea would not drown, I ween,
  Nor serpent bite.

“’I had—­ah happy! but ’tis gone,
  The priceless jewel; one came by,
And saw and stood awhile to con
  With curious eye,

“’And wished for it, and faintly smiled
  From under lashes black as doom,
With subtle sweetness, tender, mild,
  That did illume

“’The perfect face, and shed on it
  A charm, half feeling, half surprise,
And brim with dreams the exquisite
  Brown blessèd eyes.

“’Was it for this, no more but this,
  I took and laid it in her hand,
By dimples ruled, to hint submiss,
  By frown unmanned?

“’It was for this—­and O farewell
  The fearless foot, the present mind,
And steady will to breast the swell
  And face the wind!

“’I gave the jewel from my breast,
  She played with it a little while
As I sailed down into the west,
  Fed by her smile;

“’Then weary of it—­far from land,
  With sigh as deep as destiny,
She let it drop from her fair hand
  Into the sea,

“’And watched it sink; and I—­and I,—­
  What shall I do, for all is vain?
No wave will bring, no gold will buy,
  No toil attain;

“’Nor any diver reach to raise
  My jewel from the blue abyss;
Or could they, still I should but praise
  Their work amiss.

“’Thrown, thrown away!  But I love yet
  The fair, fair hand which did the deed:
That wayward sweetness to forget
  Were bitter meed.

“’No, let it lie, and let the wave
  Roll over it for evermore;
Whelmed where the sailor hath his grave—­
  The sea her store.

“’My heart, my sometime happy heart!
  And O for once let me complain,
I must forego life’s better part—­
  Man’s dearer gain.

“’I worked afar that I might rear
  A peaceful home on English soil;
I labored for the gold and gear—­
  I loved my toil.

“’Forever in my spirit spake
  The natural whisper, “Well ’twill be
When loving wife and children break
  Their bread with thee!”

“’The gathered gold is turned to dross,
  The wife hath faded into air,
My heart is thrown away, my loss
  I cannot spare.

“’Not spare unsated thought her food—­
  No, not one rustle of the fold,
Nor scent of eastern sandal-wood,
  Nor gleam of gold;

“’Nor quaint devices of the shawl,
  Far less the drooping lashes meek;
The gracious figure, lithe and tall,
  The dimpled cheek;

“’And all the wonders of her eyes,
  And sweet caprices of her air,
Albeit, indignant reason cries,
  Fool! have a care.

“’Fool! join not madness to mistake;
  Thou knowest she loved thee not a whit;
Only that she thy heart might break—­
  She wanted it,

“’Only the conquered thing to chain
  So fast that none might set it free,
Nor other woman there might reign
  And comfort thee.

“’Robbed, robbed of life’s illusions sweet;
  Love dead outside her closèd door,
And passion fainting at her feet
  To wake no more;

“’What canst thou give that unknown bride
  Whom thou didst work for in the waste,
Ere fated love was born, and cried—­
  Was dead, ungraced?

“’No more but this, the partial care,
  The natural kindness for its own,
The trust that waxeth unaware,
  As worth is known:

“’Observance, and complacent thought
  Indulgent, and the honor due
That many another man has brought
  Who brought love too.

“‘Nay, then, forbid it Heaven!’ he said,
  ’The saintly vision fades from me;
O bands and chains!  I cannot wed—­
  I am not free.’”

With that he raised his face to view;
  “What think you,” asking, “of my tale?
And was he right to let the dew
  Of morn exhale,

“And burdened in the noontide sun,
  The grateful shade of home forego—­
Could he be right—­I ask as one
  Who fain would know?”

He spoke to her and spoke to me;
  The rebel rose-hue dyed her cheek;
The woven crown lay on her knee;
  She would not speak.

And I with doubtful pause—­averse
  To let occasion drift away—­
I answered—­“If his case were worse
  Than word can say,

“Time is a healer of sick hearts,
  And women have been known to choose,
With purpose to allay their smarts,
  And tend their bruise,

“These for themselves.  Content to give,
  In their own lavish love complete,
Taking for sole prerogative
  Their tendance sweet.

“Such meeting in their diadem
  Of crowning love’s ethereal fire,
Himself he robs who robbeth them
  Of their desire.

“Therefore the man who, dreaming, cried
  Against his lot that even-song,
I judge him honest, and decide
  That he was wrong.”

“When I am judged, ah may my fate,”
  He whispered, “in thy code be read!
Be thou both judge and advocate.”
  Then turned, he said—­

“Fair weaver!” touching, while he spoke,
  The woven crown, the weaving hand,
“And do you this decree revoke,
  Or may it stand?

“This friend, you ever think her right—­
  She is not wrong, then?” Soft and low
The little trembling word took flight:
  She answered, “No.”

A meadow where the grass was deep,
  Rich, square, and golden to the view,
A belt of elms with level sweep
  About it grew.

The sun beat down on it, the line
  Of shade was clear beneath the trees;
There, by a clustering eglantine,
  We sat at ease.

And O the buttercups! that field
  O’ the cloth of gold, where pennons swam—­
Where France set up his lilied shield,
  His oriflamb,

And Henry’s lion-standard rolled:
  What was it to their matchless sheen,
Their million million drops of gold
  Among the green!

We sat at ease in peaceful trust,
  For he had written, “Let us meet;
My wife grew tired of smoke and dust,
  And London heat,

“And I have found a quiet grange,
  Set back in meadows sloping west,
And there our little ones can range
  And she can rest.

“Come down, that we may show the view,
  And she may hear your voice again,
And talk her woman’s talk with you
  Along the lane.”

Since he had drawn with listless hand
  The letter, six long years had fled,
And winds had blown about the sand,
  And they were wed.

Two rosy urchins near him played,
  Or watched, entranced, the shapely ships
That with his knife for them he made
  Of elder slips.

And where the flowers were thickest shed,
  Each blossom like a burnished gem,
A creeping baby reared its head,
  And cooed at them.

And calm was on the father’s face,
  And love was in the mother’s eyes;
She looked and listened from her place,
  In tender wise.

She did not need to raise her voice
  That they might hear, she sat so nigh;
Yet we could speak when ’twas our choice,
  And soft reply.

Holding our quiet talk apart
  Of household things; till, all unsealed,
The guarded outworks of the heart
  Began to yield;

And much that prudence will not dip
  The pen to fix and send away,
Passed safely over from the lip
  That summer day.

“I should be happy,” with a look
  Towards her husband where he lay,
Lost in the pages of his book,
  Soft did she say.

“I am, and yet no lot below
  For one whole day eludeth care;
To marriage all the stories flow,
  And finish there:

“As if with marriage came the end,
  The entrance into settled rest,
The calm to which love’s tossings tend,
  The quiet breast.

“For me love played the low preludes,
  Yet life began but with the ring,
Such infinite solicitudes
  Around it cling.

“I did not for my heart divine
  Her destiny so meek to grow;
The higher nature matched with mine
  Will have it so.

“Still I consider it, and still
  Acknowledge it my master made,
Above me by the steadier will
  Of nought afraid.

“Above me by the candid speech;
  The temperate judgment of its own;
The keener thoughts that grasp and reach
  At things unknown.

“But I look up and he looks down,
  And thus our married eyes can meet;
Unclouded his, and clear of frown,
  And gravely sweet.

“And yet, O good, O wise and true!
  I would for all my fealty,
That I could be as much to you
  As you to me;

“And knew the deep secure content
  Of wives who have been hardly won,
And, long petitioned, gave assent,
  Jealous of none.

“But proudly sure in all the earth
  No other in that homage shares,
Nor other woman’s face or worth
  Is prized as theirs.”

I said:  “And yet no lot below
  For one whole day eludeth care.
Your thought.”  She answered, “Even so.
  I would beware

“Regretful questionings; be sure
  That very seldom do they rise,
Nor for myself do I endure—­
  I sympathize.

“For once”—­she turned away her head,
  Across the grass she swept her hand—­
“There was a letter once,” she said,
  “Upon the sand.”

“There was, in truth, a letter writ
  On sand,” I said, “and swept from view;
But that same hand which fashioned it
  Is given to you.

“Efface the letter; wherefore keep
  An image which the sands forego?”
“Albeit that fear had seemed to sleep,”
  She answered low,

“I could not choose but wake it now;
  For do but turn aside your face,
A house on yonder hilly brow
  Your eyes may trace.

“The chestnut shelters it; ah me,
  That I should have so faint a heart!
But yester-eve, as by the sea
  I sat apart,

“I heard a name, I saw a hand
  Of passing stranger point that way—­
And will he meet her on the strand,
  When late we stray?

“For she is come, for she is there,
  I heard it in the dusk, and heard
Admiring words, that named her fair,
  But little stirred

“By beauty of the wood and wave,
  And weary of an old man’s sway;
For it was sweeter to enslave
  Than to obey.”

—­The voice of one that near us stood,
  The rustle of a silken fold,
A scent of eastern sandal wood,
  A gleam of gold!

A lady!  In the narrow space
  Between the husband and the wife,
But nearest him—­she showed a face
  With dangers rife;

A subtle smile that dimpling fled,
  As night-black lashes rose and fell:
I looked, and to myself I said,
  “The letter L.”

He, too, looked up, and with arrest
  Of breath and motion held his gaze,
Nor cared to hide within his breast
  His deep amaze;

Nor spoke till on her near advance
  His dark cheek flushed a ruddier hue;
And with his change of countenance
  Hers altered too.

“Lenore!” his voice was like the cry
  Of one entreating; and he said
But that—­then paused with such a sigh
  As mourns the dead.

And seated near, with no demur
  Of bashful doubt she silence broke,
Though I alone could answer her
  When first she spoke.

She looked:  her eyes were beauty’s own;
  She shed their sweetness into his;
Nor spared the married wife one moan
  That bitterest is.

She spoke, and lo, her loveliness
  Methought she damaged with her tongue;
And every sentence made it less,
  All falsely rung.

The rallying voice, the light demand,
  Half flippant, half unsatisfied;
The vanity sincere and bland—­
  The answers wide.

And now her talk was of the East,
  And next her talk was of the sea;
“And has the love for it increased
  You shared with me?”

He answered not, but grave and still
  With earnest eyes her face perused,
And locked his lips with steady will,
  As one that mused—­

That mused and wondered.  Why his gaze
  Should dwell on her, methought, was plain;
But reason that should wonder raise
  I sought in vain.

And near and near the children drew,
  Attracted by her rich array,
And gems that trembling into view
  Like raindrops lay.

He spoke:  the wife her baby took
  And pressed the little face to hers;
What pain soe’er her bosom shook,
  What jealous stirs

Might stab her heart, she hid them so,
  The cooing babe a veil supplied;
And if she listened none might know,
  Or if she sighed;

Or if forecasting grief and care
  Unconscious solace thence she drew,
And lulled her babe, and unaware
  Lulled sorrow too.

The lady, she interpreter
  For looks or language wanted none,
If yet dominion stayed with her—­
  So lightly won;

If yet the heart she wounded sore
  Could yearn to her, and let her see
The homage that was evermore

If sign would yield that it had bled,
  Or rallied from the faithless blow,
Or sick or sullen stooped to wed,
  She craved to know.

Now dreamy deep, now sweetly keen,
  Her asking eyes would round him shine;
But guarded lips and settled mien
  Refused the sign.

And unbeguiled and unbetrayed,
  The wonder yet within his breast,
It seemed a watchful part he played
  Against her quest.

Until with accent of regret
  She touched upon the past once more,
As if she dared him to forget
  His dream of yore.

And words of little weight let fall
  The fancy of the lower mind;
How waxing life must needs leave all
  Its best behind;

How he had said that “he would fain
  (One morning on the halcyon sea)
That life would at a stand remain

“And sails be mirrored in the deep,
  As then they were, for evermore,
And happy spirits wake and sleep
  Afar from shore:

“The well-contented heart be fed
  Ever as then, and all the world
(It were not small) unshadowèd
  When sails were furled.

“Your words”—­a pause, and quietly
  With touch of calm self-ridicule:
“It may be so—­for then,” said he,
  “I was a fool.”

With that he took his book, and left
  An awkward silence to my care,
That soon I filled with questions deft
  And debonair;

And slid into an easy vein,
  The favorite picture of the year;
The grouse upon her lord’s domain—­
  The salmon weir;

Till she could fain a sudden thought
  Upon neglected guests, and rise,
And make us her adieux, with nought
  In her dark eyes

Acknowledging or shame or pain;
  But just unveiling for our view
A little smile of still disdain
  As she withdrew.

Then nearer did the sunshine creep,
  And warmer came the wafting breeze;
The little babe was fast asleep
  On mother’s knees.

Fair was the face that o’er it leant,
  The cheeks with beauteous blushes dyed;
The downcast lashes, shyly bent,
  That failed to hide

Some tender shame.  She did not see;
  She felt his eyes that would not stir,
She looked upon her babe, and he
  So looked at her.

So grave, so wondering, so content,
  As one new waked to conscious life,
Whose sudden joy with fear is blent,
  He said, “My wife.”

“My wife, how beautiful you are!”
  Then closer at her side reclined,
“The bold brown woman from afar
  Comes, to me blind.

“And by comparison, I see
  The majesty of matron grace,
And learn how pure, how fair can be
  My own wife’s face:

“Pure with all faithful passion, fair
  With tender smiles that come and go,
And comforting as April air
  After the snow.

“Fool that I was! my spirit frets
  And marvels at the humbling truth,
That I have deigned to spend regrets
  On my bruised youth.

“Its idol mocked thee, seated nigh,
  And shamed me for the mad mistake;
I thank my God he could deny,
  And she forsake.

“Ah, who am I, that God hath saved
  Me from the doom I did desire,
And crossed the lot myself had craved,
  To set me higher?

“What have I done that He should bow
  From heaven to choose a wife for me?
And what deserved, He should endow
  My home with THEE?

“My wife!” With that she turned her face
  To kiss the hand about her neck;
And I went down and sought the place
  Where leaped the beck—­

The busy beck, that still would run
  And fall, and falter its refrain;
And pause and shimmer in the sun,
  And fall again.

It led me to the sandy shore,
  We sang together, it and I—­
“The daylight comes, the dark is o’er,
  The shadows fly.”

I lost it on the sandy shore,
  “O wife!” its latest murmurs fell,
“O wife, be glad, and fear no more
  The letter L.”

© Jean Ingelow