Verse > Anthologies > The World’s Best Poetry > Vol. IX. Tragedy: Humor
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Bliss Carman, et al., eds.  The World’s Best Poetry.
Volume IX. Tragedy: Humor.  1904.
 
Poems of Tragedy: XII. England
The Young Gray Head
Caroline Bowles Southey (1786–1854)
 
GRIEF hath been known to turn the young head gray,—
To silver over in a single day
The bright locks of the beautiful, their prime
Scarcely o’erpast; as in the fearful time
Of Gallia’s madness, that discrownèd head        5
Serene, that on the accursèd altar bled
Miscalled of Liberty. O martyred Queen!
What must the sufferings of that night have been—
That one—that sprinkled thy fair tresses o’er
With time’s untimely snow! But now no more,        10
Lovely, august, unhappy one! of thee—
I have to tell a humbler history;
A village tale, whose only charm, in sooth
(If any), will be sad and simple truth.
 
“Mother,” quoth Ambrose to his thrifty dame,—        15
So oft our peasant’s use his wife to name,
“Father” and “Master” to himself applied,
As life’s grave duties matronize the bride,—
“Mother,” quoth Ambrose, as he faced the north
With hard-set teeth, before he issued forth        20
To his day labor, from the cottage door,—
“I ’m thinking that, to-night, if not before,
There ’ll be wild work. Dost hear old Chewton 1 roar?
It ’s brewing up, down westward; and look there,
One of those sea-gulls! ay, there goes a pair;        25
And such a sudden thaw! If rain comes on,
As threats, the waters will be out anon.
That path by the ford ’s a nasty bit of way,—
Best let the young ones bide from school to-day.”
 
“Do, mother, do!” the quick-eared urchins cried;        30
Two little lasses to the father’s side
Close clinging, as they looked from him, to spy
The answering language of the mother’s eye.
There was denial, and she shook her head:
“Nay, nay,—no harm will come to them,” she said,        35
“The mistress lets them off these short dark days
An hour the earlier; and our Liz, she says,
May quite be trusted—and I know ’t is true—
To take care of herself and Jenny too.
And so she ought,—she ’s seven come first of May,—        40
Two years the oldest; and they give away
The Christmas bounty at the school to-day.”
 
The mother’s will was law (alas, for her
That hapless day, poor soul!)—she could not err,
Thought Ambrose; and his little fair-haired Jane        45
(Her namesake) to his heart he hugged again,
When each had had her turn; she clinging so
As if that day she could not let him go.
But Labor’s sons must snatch a hasty bliss
In nature’s tenderest mood. One last fond kiss,        50
“God bless my little maids!” the father said,
And cheerily went his way to win their bread.
Then might be seen, the playmate parent gone,
What looks demure the sister pair put on,—
Not of the mother as afraid, or shy,        55
Or questioning the love that could deny;
But simply, as their simple training taught,
In quiet, plain straightforwardness of thought
(Submissively resigned the hope of play)
Towards the serious business of the day.        60
 
To me there ’s something touching, I confess,
In the grave look of early thoughtfulness,
Seen often in some little childish face
Among the poor. Not that wherein we trace
(Shame to our land, our rulers, and our race!)        65
The unnatural sufferings of the factory child,
But a staid quietness, reflective, mild,
Betokening, in the depths of those young eyes,
Sense of life’s cares, without its miseries.
So to the mother’s charge, with thoughtful brow,        70
The docile Lizzy stood attentive now,
Proud of her years and of the imputed sense,
And prudence justifying confidence,—
And little Jenny, more demurely still,
Beside her waited the maternal will.        75
So standing hand in hand, a lovelier twain
Gainsborough ne’er painted: no—nor he of Spain,
Glorious Murillo!—and by contrast shown
More beautiful. The younger little one,
With large blue eyes and silken ringlets fair,        80
By nut-brown Lizzy, with smooth parted hair,
Sable and glossy as the raven’s wing,
And lustrous eyes as dark.
                    “Now, mind and bring
Jenny safe home,” the mother said,—“don’t stay
To pull a bough or berry by the way:        85
And when you come to cross the ford, hold fast
Your little sister’s hand, till you ’re quite past,—
That plank ’s so crazy, and so slippery
(If not o’erflowed) the stepping-stones will be.
But you ’re good children—steady as old folk—        90
I ’d trust ye anywhere.” Then Lizzy’s cloak,
A good gray duffle, lovingly she tied,
And ample little Jenny’s lack supplied
With her own warmest shawl. “Be sure,” said she,
“To wrap it round and knot it carefully        95
(Like this), when you come home, just leaving free
One hand to hold by. Now, make haste away—
Good will to school, and then good right to play.”
 
Was there no sinking at the mother’s heart
When, all equipt, they turned them to depart?        100
When down the lane she watched them as they went
Till out of sight, was no forefeeling sent
Of coming ill? In truth I cannot tell:
Such warnings have been sent, we know full well
And must believe—believing that they are—        105
In mercy then—to rouse, restrain, prepare.
 
And now I mind me, something of the kind
Did surely haunt that day the mother’s mind,
Making it irksome to bide all alone
By her own quiet hearth. Though never known        110
For idle gossipry was Jenny Gray,
Yet so it was, that morn she could not stay
At home with her own thoughts, but took her way
To her next neighbor’s, half a loaf to borrow,—
Yet might her store have lasted out the morrow,—        115
And with the loan obtained, she lingered still.
Said she, “My master, if he ’d had his will,
Would have kept back our little ones from school
This dreadful morning; and I ’m such a fool,
Since they ’ve been gone, I ’ve wished them back. But then        120
It won’t do in such things to humor men,—
Our Ambrose specially. If let alone
He ’d spoil those wenches. But it ’s coming on,
That storm he said was brewing, sure enough,—
Well! what of that? To think what idle stuff        125
Will come into one’s head! And here with you
I stop, as if I ’d nothing else to do—
And they ’ll come home, drowned rats. I must be gone
To get dry things, and set the kettle on.”
 
His day’s work done, three mortal miles and more,        130
Lay between Ambrose and his cottage-door.
A weary way, God wot, for weary wight!
But yet far off the curling smoke in sight
From his own chimney, and his heart felt light.
How pleasantly the humble homestead stood,        135
Down the green lane, by sheltering Shirley wood!
How sweet the wafting of the evening breeze,
In spring-time, from his two old cherry-trees,
Sheeted with blossom! And in hot July,
From the brown moor-track, shadowless and dry,        140
How grateful the cool covert to regain
Of his own avenue,—that shady lane,
With the white cottage, in the slanting glow
Of sunset glory, gleaming bright below,
And jasmine porch, his rustic portico!        145
 
With what a thankful gladness in his face,
(Silent heart-homage,—plant of special grace!)
At the lane’s entrance, slackening oft his pace,
Would Ambrose send a loving look before,
Conceiting the caged blackbird at the door;        150
The very blackbird strained its little throat,
In welcome, with a more rejoicing note;
And honest Tinker, dog of doubtful breed,
All bristle, back, and tail, but “good at need,”
Pleasant his greeting to the accustomed ear;        155
But of all welcomes pleasantest, most dear,
The ringing voices, like sweet silver bells,
Of his two little ones. How fondly swells
The father’s heart, as, dancing up the lane,
Each clasps a hand in her small hand again,        160
And each must tell her tale and “say her say,”
Impeding as she leads with sweet delay
(Childhood’s blest thoughtlessness!) his onward way.
 
And when the winter day closed in so fast;
Scarce for his task would dreary daylight last;        165
And in all weathers—driving sleet and snow—
Home by that bare, bleak moor-track must he go,
Darkling and lonely. O, the blessèd sight
(His polestar) of that little twinkling light
From one small window, through the leafless trees,—        170
Glimmering so fitfully; no eye but his
Had spied it so far off. And sure was he,
Entering the lane, a steadier beam to see,
Ruddy and broad as peat-fed hearth could pour,
Streaming to meet him from the open door.        175
Then, though the blackbird’s welcome was unheard,—
Silenced by winter,—note of summer bird
Still hailed him from no mortal fowl alive,
But from the cuckoo clock just striking five.
And Tinker’s ear and Tinker’s nose were keen,—        180
Off started he, and then a form was seen
Darkening the doorway; and a smaller sprite,
And then another, peered into the night,
Ready to follow free on Tinker’s track,
But for the mother’s hand that held her back:        185
And yet a moment—a few steps—and there,
Pulled o’er the threshold by that eager pair,
He sits by his own hearth, in his own chair;
Tinker takes post beside with eyes that say,
“Master, we ’ve done our business for the day.”        190
The kettle sings, the cat in chorus purrs,
The busy housewife with her tea-things stirs;
The door ’s made fast, the old stuff curtain drawn;
How the hail clatters! Let it clatter on!
How the wind raves and rattles! What cares he?        195
Safe housed and warm beneath his own roof-tree,
With a wee lassie prattling on each knee.
 
Such was the hour—hour sacred and apart—
Warmed in expectancy the poor man’s heart.
Summer and winter, as his toil he plied,        200
To him and his the literal doom applied,
Pronounced on Adam. But the bread was sweet
So earned, for such dear mouths. The weary feet,
Hope-shod, stept lightly on the homeward way;
So specially it fared with Ambrose Gray        205
That time I tell of. He had worked all day
At a great clearing; vigorous stroke on stroke
Striking, till, when he stopt, his back seemed broke,
And the strong arms dropt nerveless. What of that?
There was a treasure hidden in his hat,—        210
A plaything for the young ones. He had found
A dormouse nest; the living ball coiled round
For its long winter sleep; and all his thought,
As he trudged stoutly homeward, was of naught
But the glad wonderment in Jenny’s eyes,        215
And graver Lizzy’s quieter surprise,
When he should yield, by guess and kiss and prayer
Hard won, the frozen captive to their care.
 
’T was a wild evening,—wild and rough. “I knew,”
Thought Ambrose, “those unlucky gulls spoke true,—        220
And Gaffer Chewton never growls for naught,—
I should be mortal ’mazed now if I thought
My little maids were not safe housed before
That blinding hail-storm,—ay, this hour and more,—
Unless by that old crazy bit of board,        225
They ’ve not passed dry-foot over Shallow ford,
That I ’ll be bound for,—swollen as it must be—
Well! if my mistress had been ruled by me—”
But, checking the half-thought as heresy,
He looked out for the Home Star. There it shone,        230
And with a gladdened heart he hastened on.
 
He ’s in the lane again,—and there below,
Streams from the open doorway that red glow,
Which warms him but to look at. For his prize
Cautious he feels,—all safe and snug it lies,—        235
“Down, Tinker! down, old boy!—not quite so free,—
The thing thou sniffest is no game for thee.—
But what ’s the meaning? no lookout to-night!
No living soul astir! Pray God, all ’s right!
Who ’s flittering round the peat-stack in such weather?        240
Mother!” you might have felled him with a feather,
When the short answer to his loud “Hillo!”
And hurried question, “Are they come?” was “No.”
 
To throw his tools down, hastily unhook
The old cracked lantern from its dusty nook,        245
And, while he lit it, speak a cheering word,
That almost choked him, and was scarcely heard,
Was but a moment’s act, and he was gone
To where a fearful foresight led him on.
Passing a neighbor’s cottage in his way,—        250
Mark Fenton’s,—him he took with short delay
To bear him company,—for who could say
What need might be? They struck into the track
The children should have taken coming back
From school that day; and many a call and shout        255
Into the pitchy darkness they sent out,
And, by the lantern light, peered all about,
In every roadside thicket, hole, nook,
Till suddenly—as nearing now the brook—
Something brushed past them. That was Tinker’s bark,—        260
Unheeded, he had followed in the dark,
Close at his master’s heels; but, swift as light,
Darted before them now. “Be sure he ’s right,—
He ’s on the track,” cried Ambrose. “Hold the light
Low down,—he ’s making for the water. Hark!        265
I know that whine,—the old dog ’s found them, Mark.”
So speaking, breathlessly he hurried on
Toward the old crazy foot-bridge. It was gone!
And all his dull contracted light could show
Was the black void and dark swollen stream below.        270
“Yet there ’s life somewhere,—more than Tinker’s whine,—
That ’s sure,” said Mark. “So, let the lantern shine
Down yonder. There ’s the dog,—and, hark!” “O dear!”
And a low sob came faintly on the ear,
Mocked by the sobbing gust. Down, quick as thought,        275
Into the stream leapt Ambrose, where he caught
Fast hold of something,—a dark huddled heap,—
Half in the water, where ’t was scarce knee-deep
For a tall man, and half above it, propped
By some old ragged side-piles, that had stopt        280
Endways the broken plank, when it gave way
With the two little ones that luckless day!
“My babes!—my lambkins!” was the father’s cry.
One little voice made answer, “Here am I!”
’T was Lizzy’s. There she crouched with face as white,        285
More ghastly by the flickering lantern-light
Than sheeted corpse. The pale blue lips drawn tight,
Wide parted, showing all the pearly teeth,
And eyes on some dark object underneath,
Washed by the turbid water, fixed as stone,—        290
One arm and hand stretched out, and rigid grown,
Grasping, as in the death-gripe, Jenny’s frock.
There she lay drowned. Could he sustain that shock,
The doting father? Where ’s the unriven rock
Can bide such blasting in its flintiest part        295
As that soft sentient thing,—the human heart?
 
They lifted her from out her watery bed,—
Its covering gone, the lovely little head
Hung like a broken snowdrop all aside;
And one small hand,—the mother’s shawl was tied,        300
Leaving that free, about the child’s small form,
As was her last injunction—“fast and warm”—
Too well obeyed,—too fast! A fatal hold
Affording to the scrag by a thick fold
That caught and pinned her in the river’s bed,        305
While through the reckless water overhead
Her life-breath bubbled up.
                    “She might have lived,
Struggling like Lizzy,” was the thought that rived
The wretched mother’s heart, when she knew all,
“But for my foolishness about that shawl!        310
And Master would have kept them back the day;
But I was wilful,—driving them away
In such wild weather!”
                Thus the tortured heart
Unnaturally against itself takes part,
Driving the sharp edge deeper of a woe        315
Too deep already. They had raised her now,
And parting the wet ringlets from her brow,
To that, and the cold cheek, and lips as cold,
The father glued his warm ones, ere they rolled
Once more the fatal shawl—her winding-sheet—        320
About the precious clay. One heart still beat,
Warmed by his heart’s blood. To his only child
He turned him, but her piteous moaning mild
Pierced him afresh,—and now she knew him not.
“Mother!” she murmured, “who says I forgot?        325
Mother! indeed, indeed, I kept fast hold,
And tied the shawl quite close—she can’t be cold—
But she won’t move—we slipt—I don’t know how—
But I held on—and I ’m so weary now—
And it ’s so dark and cold! O dear! O dear!—        330
And she won’t move;—if daddy was but here!”
*        *        *        *        *
Poor lamb! she wandered in her mind, ’t was clear;
But soon the piteous murmur died away,
And quiet in her father’s arms she lay,—
They their dead burden had resigned, to take        335
The living, so near lost. For her dear sake,
And one at home, he armed himself to bear
His misery like a man,—with tender care
Doffing his coat her shivering form to fold
(His neighbor bearing that which felt no cold),        340
He clasped her close, and so, with little said,
Homeward they bore the living and the dead.
 
From Ambrose Gray’s poor cottage all that night
Shone fitfully a little shifting light,
Above, below,—for all were watchers there,        345
Save one sound sleeper. Her, parental care,
Parental watchfulness, availed not now.
But in the young survivor’s throbbing brow,
And wandering eyes, delirious fever burned;
And all night long from side to side she turned,        350
Piteously plaining like a wounded dove,
With now and then the murmur, “She won’t move.”
And lo! when morning, as in mockery, bright
Shone on that pillow, passing strange the sight,—
That young head’s raven hair was streaked with white!        355
No idle fiction this. Such things have been,
We know. And now I tell what I have seen.
 
Life struggled long with death in that small frame,
But it was strong, and conquered. All became
As it had been with the poor family,—        360
All, saving that which nevermore might be:
There was an empty place,—they were but three.
 
Note 1. A fresh-water spring rushing into the sea, called Chewton Bunny. [back]
 
 
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