Menella Bute Smedley

A Contrast

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Trained tenderly by Heaven and Earth,
Up grew she to her gentle height,—
Grew to the level of the light
That shines by every placid hearth.
Her days so filled with joyful hopes,
If any one should fade and fail,
She hath no leisure to bewail;
As shuts the rose, the lily opes;
As blooms the lily, dies the rose;
And she can hardly see to choose,
Among the glitter of the dews,
'Twixt hope that comes and joy that goes.
For that she had was pure and sweet;
It lies upon her breast, a balm;
And that she seeks is sweet and calm;
It breathes a perfume at her feet.
And all around the world she looks,
And wonders about grief and sin;
She hath no evidence within;
She only knows of them in books.
Sometimes a little evil voice
Speaks, and is silenced by a prayer;
Sometimes she sees the face of Care,
That having wept, she may rejoice.
She touches sorrow with her hand,
Taught softly not to shrink nor frown,
But bring her pity bravely down
To depths she cannot understand.
The love which is her living fence
(No barrier, but an atmosphere)
Makes all surrounding shapes of fear
Servants and shields for innocence.
Her daily food of joy endues
Her aspect with such powers and signs,
That for all sadder hearts she shines
A very angel of good news.
The glorying eyes that watch her growth
Appeal to all the world around,
“Was ever such a maiden found?”
And “Who is worthy of her troth?”
Yet, under all, the feeling lurks,
As ever since the world began,
To make a helpmeet for a man
Is woman's perfectest of works.
So this fair pageant of her life,
This gradual walk through upward ways,
This melody of tuneful days,
Must finish in the name of wife.
But, slow of choice (no fairy now
Brings the fit princess to her prince),
Thought-shadows scarce have deepened since
Childhood lay smooth upon her brow.
And many a boldness fails before
The bright composure of her glance,
And stayed is many a swift advance,
And powerless much of worldly lore.
Checked hopes rebel; the mothers cry,
“See to what end these dreamers come!
She hath no heart except for home,
And man shall never hear her sigh!”
The sons among themselves aver
Their taste is for a shallower strain;
They have not cared to woo in vain;
They pass their blunders on to her.
But here and there a soul receives
Unconscious vision of its queen,
And fragrance as from flowers unseen
That have not yet come through the leaves.
You hear the soothing talk of some,
“They would not,—if they would they might,”
With vexed denials of the light,
And prophecies, “Her day shall come.”
But she through all the tumult sings
Delightsome melodies of dawn,
And sees not any shadow drawn
Upon the whiteness of her wings.
How first her tardy trouble grew
The watchers saw not; keen and wise
To note a difference in her eyes,
Yet it was there before they knew.
A dream with no interpreter,
The weaving of a happy spell
With some mute pathos of farewell,
Not hers, but childhood leaving her.
As if pale opal depths should warm
And kindle till the gem became
A living miracle of flame
Without its first mysterious charm;
So that capacity which lay
In the last petal of the flower
Becomes a fire, a pang, a power,
To sweep the softer life away.
Reluctant and ashamed, she sees
Her simple sovereignty depart;
And loses patience with her heart,
And pleads for strength upon her knees,
And tells herself 'tis false, and shakes
The trifle from her maiden fame;
Yet blushes when she thinks his name,
And knows each movement that he makes;
And finds herself in sudden tears,
Scorns her sweet nature as a crime,
Looks to the coming calm of Time,
And longs to overleap the years.
O little garden in the wood,
So full of safe and tender bloom!
God guide the footsteps that presume
To break thy breezeless solitude.
God bless the deed! for it is done,
The moment is proclaimed at last;
A word divides her from her past;
Her song is sung, her life begun.
He came from unfamiliar ways
To pluck this blossom for his breast,
With this one merit, that he guessed
At treasures hidden from his gaze.
From unfamiliar ways he came;
If you had set them side by side,
His life and her unsullied tide,
You might have thought his love was shame.
So judge not men. His name stood well;
He sneered his tedious modern sneer
At everything above his sphere,
And was contented in his shell.
The cynic scorn, that should have mailed
A finer thought, went through his soul;
A mean ideal held the whole,
And kept his conscience unassailed.
He was not better than he seemed,
Nor worse than he desired; he gazed
With condescension and amazed
On good weak men who toiled and dreamed.
That old name-heritage, which grew
In deeper days, is still the plan,
Though our serener “gentleman”
Shrink from the rigorous line it drew.
Not chivalrous, methinks, is he;
Not very truthful, for he needs
To hide at home his daily deeds,
On pretext “women should not see.”
But brave at heart and blithe of cheer,
A generous smile, a courtly glance,
A foot unrivalled in the dance,
The bearing of a cavalier;
Smooth polished by his upper throng,
And charitable as the light;
For they who burn not for the right
Find free excuses for the wrong.
She, in her listening sweetness, tries
The natural music of her part,
And, looking upward, thinks his heart
As much above her as his eyes.
Too wise to share her childish heat,
Too great to kindle when she moves,
Yet lifting her, because he loves,
From her due station at his feet.
He puts each nobler utterance by,
And scorns himself for what he is;
She (how she trusts!) reveres in this
Some choice reserve of modesty.
“I talk, he does; 'tis English rule
To do the deed and leave the talk;
I too, when at his side I walk,
May learn in such a lofty school.”
She goes so gaily to her fate;
They who might rescue stand afar:
“He is a man as others are,
And fit for any woman's mate.”
He loves her;—what do women seek?
Henceforth 'tis well; the two are one,
And that unholy past is done
Of which she must not ask nor speak.
He drops into his purer place
(These stronger beings must begin
With their full privilege of sin).
If there be memories in his face
Which daze her, she need never know
What comes between him and his bliss;
She only asks for leave to kiss
Some sudden aching from his brow.
But how these daily lives can blend
(I set a problem of the time),
Whose thought shall sink and whose may climb,
And whence the light, and what the end,
'Tis hard to guess. The day may break
When that slow painful pile of truth
Is heaped at last, and all her youth
Has but to mount and die awake.
When, film by film, the colours fade,
And she, where she believed, beholds,
And has no further hope, and folds
Her life into a prayer for aid:
Or sometimes, with a weary smile,
Remembers what she dreamed, and sighs,
And shuts her unreproachful eyes,
And whispers, “Yet a little while.”
Or her blind heart may stoop and lean
To where he stands, until she move
Under the burden of a love
Which will not let the sky be seen,
Till daily watch on ways of his
Makes her degrade the type, because
She will not see the broken laws;—
I think she will be saved from this.
Or—Let us lift the veil a space
From the last chance! She takes his hand,
While thoughts he does not understand
Have drawn the colour from her face.
“What is it, love?” He knows his power;
He holds her gently. Then she speaks,
And that pure paleness of her cheeks
Trembles and flushes like a flower.
“You must not frown. I have a shame,
A something which you ought to know;
I should have told it long ago,—
You will forgive, though you must blame:
“Before you wooed me I was sought,—
I know not why. I told you true,
I never cared for man but you,
Yet once I wavered in my thought.
“And I was vain, as girls are vain,
But, O! it was a fault to play
With one true spirit for a day!
I could not do the deed again.”
“So I, most confident of men,
Was not the first!” She shook her head;
For, “O! it was a fault!” she said,
And “I have wept for it since then.”
And “O! it was a fault!” he says,
And puts it from him as a jest;
Yet takes the word into his breast,
To keep it there for many days.
The wonder of that fault! It grows,
It speaks and thrills him in the night,
Till his cleansed eyes perceive the light
Of something purer than he knows.
White soul, with such a fault! He thinks,
Is, then, the darker soul more strong
Because it does the deeper wrong?
Because it fails? because it sinks?
Lo, touch by touch, a hand unseen
Paints a slow picture in his thought,
He cannot choose but see it wrought;
He knows such beauty may have been;
He knows it is! He once was blind,
But by this soft home-light discerns
Things he believed not once, and learns
To think more truly of his kind.
So for a year he holds his peace,
And meditates on noble things,
And listens while a seraph sings,
And all the meaner voices cease.
Till, laughing once, she says with pride,
“See, love, how sage your wife has grown!
You never check her with that tone
Of fond contempt you gave your bride.”
He looks at her with reverent eyes,
He clasps her with a generous shame;
“There was a revelation came
From your angelic fault!” he cries.

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Menella Bute Smedley