Christmas Eve in the Manse. The room is dark. Garden-door in the background; a window on one side, a door on the other. Agnes, in mourning, stands at the window and gazes out into the darkness.
Still he comes not! Comes not yet!—
Oh, how hard, with gloom beset,—
Still to wait and still to cry,—
Winning never a reply,—
Fast they fall, the softly sifted
Snowflakes; in a shroud-like woof
They have swathed the old church roof——
Hark! the garden-latch is lifted!
Steps! A man’s step, firm and fast!
[Hurries to the door and opens it.]
Is it thou? Come home! At last!
Brand comes in, snowy, in travelling dress, which he removes during what follows.
[Throwing her arms about him.]
Oh, how long thou wast away!
Go not from me, go not from me;
All alone I cannot sway
The black clouds that overcome me;
What a night, what days have been
These two—and the night between!
I am with thee, child, once more.
[He lights a single candle, which throws a pale radiance over the room.]
Thou art pale.
And worn and sad.
I have watch’d and long’d so sore;
And this little leafy bough—
Little, it was all I had,
Saved from summer until now
To bedeck our Christmas-tree,—
I have hung it there, Brand, see!
His the bush was, so we said;
Ah, ’twas his—it crown’d him dead!
[Bursts into tears.]
Look, from the snow it peers
Yonder, his—O God——
O that word!
Have done with tears.
Yes—be patient—I’ll be brave!
But my soul is bleeding still,
And the wound is raw and new—
Sapp’d is all my strength of will.
Oh, but better shall ensue!
Once these days are overworn,
Thou shalt never see me mourn!
Keep’st thou so God’s holy Night?
Ah! Too much thou must not crave!
Think—last year so sweet and bright,
This year carried from my sight;
To the grave.
Name it not!
With lungs that crack,
Named it must be, if thou shrink—
Named, till echo rolls it back,
Like a billow from the brink.
Ah! The word gives thee, too, pain.
How-so passionless thou boast thee!
On thy brow I see the stain
Of the agony it cost thee!
On my brow the drops that lie
Are but sea-spray from the storm.
And that dewdrop in thine eye,
Has it fallen from the sky?
No, ah! no, it is too warm,
’Tis thy heart’s dew!
Let us bravely face the strife;
Stand together, never flinch,
Struggle onward, inch by inch.
Oh, I felt a man out there!
Surges o’er the reef were dashing;
Horror of the storm-lit air
Still’d the sea-gull; hail was thrashing
Down upon the boiling sea.
In my skiff, that mid-fjord quiver’d,
Mast and tackle creak’d and shiver’d,
Tatter’d sails blew far a-lee,
Scarce a shred of them remaining,
Every nail and stanchion straining!
From the beetling summits sunder’d.
Down the avalanches thunder’d;
Stiff and stark, with corpse-like faces
Sat the rowers in their places.
Then the soul in me wax’d high;
From the helm I ruled them all,
Knowing well that One thereby
Had baptized me to His call!
In the tempest to be strong,
Eager in the stress of fight,
That is easy, that is light;
Think of me, who, all day long,
Still must croon without relief
The low swallow-song of grief;
Think of me, who have no charm
For the tedious pain of life;
Me, who, far from war’s alarm,
Lack the fiery joys of strife:
Think, oh think, of me, who share not
Noble work, but brood and wait;
Me, who to remember dare not,
And who never can forget!
Thou no noble life-work! Thou!
Never was it great as now.
Listen, Agnes; thou shalt know
What to me our loss has brought.
Oftentimes my light is low.
Dim my reason, dull my thought,
And there seems a kind of gladness
In immeasurable sadness.
Agnes—in such hours I see
God, as at no other, near;
Oh, so near, it seems to me
I could speak, and He would hear.
Like a lost child then I long
To be folded to his breast,
And be gather’d by His strong
Tender Father-arms to rest!
Brand, oh see Him so alway!
To thy supplication near—
God of love and not of fear!
No; I may not bar his way,
Nor run counter to my Call;
I must see Him vast, sublime
As the heavens,—a pigmy Time
Needs a giant God withal!
Oh, but thou mayst see Him near,
See Him as a Father dear,
Bow Thy head upon His breast,
There, when thou art weary, rest,
Then return, with face aglow
From His presence, fair and free,
Bear His glory down to me
Worn with battle-thrust and throe!
See, my Agnes; so to share
Is the soul of wedded life:
His, the turmoil and the strife,
Hers the healing and the care;
This and this alone, the true
Wedlock, that makes one of two.
Since thou turnedst from the life
Of the world to be my wife,
Boldly cast thy lot with me,
This the work appointed thee
Mine the stir and stress of fight,
Battle in the burning sun,
Watching in the winter night;
But for thee, when all is done,
To my parching lips to hold
Love’s full wine-cup, and to fold
’Neath the breastplate’s iron stress
The soft robe of tenderness.
Surely that work is not light!
Every work that I have sought
Is too hard for my weak skill;
All the fibres of my will
Gather round a single thought.
Like a vision seems it still:
Let me have of tears my fill.
Help me so myself to see,—
What I am, and ought to be!
Brand,—last night, in stillest hush,
Open’d he my chamber door,
On his cheek a rosy flush,
And his little shirt he wore,—
Toddled so with childish tread
To the couch where I lay lonely,
“Mother!” call’d to me, and spread
Both his arms, and smiled, but only
As if praying: “Make me warm.”
Yea, I saw!—Oh, my heart bled——
Ah, his little form
Was a-cold, Brand! Needs it must,
Pillow’d in the chilly dust.
That which lies beneath the sod
Is the corse; the child’s with God.
[Shrinking from him.]
Oh, canst thou without remorse
Thus our bleeding anguish tear?
What thou sternly call’st the corse—
Ah, to me, my child is there!
Where is body, there is soul:
These apart I cannot keep,
Each is unto me the whole;
Alf beneath the snow asleep
Is my very Alf in Heaven!
Many a raw wound must be riven
Ere thy deep disease give way.
Yet have patience with me, pray,
Let me follow, not be driven.
Give me thy strong hand and guide me
Oh, and gently, gently chide me!
Thou whose voice in thunder-tones
Vibrates in the hour of strife,
For the soul that still with groans
Fights a fight for very life,
Hast thou no soft, piteous lay,
To beguile its pangs away?
Ne’er a message to uplift,
Point me to the dawn-fired rift?
God, as thou wouldst have me view Him,
Is a monarch on His throne.
How dare I, then, turn unto Him
With my lowly mother’s moan?
Wouldst thou rather, haply, turn
To the God thou knew’st before?
Never, never, nevermore!
And yet oftentimes I yearn
Towards the daybreak, towards the light,
Towards the sunshine warm and golden.
Oh, the ancient saw is right:
“Lightly lifted, hardly holden”
All too vast this realm of thine,
Too gigantic to be mine.
Thou, thy word, thy work, thy goal,
Will austere, and steadfast soul,
Overhead the beetling height,
And the barrier fjord below,
Grief and memory, toil and night,
All vast,—were the Church but so!
What! the Church? Again that thought?
Is it bred an instinct blind
In the air?
[Shaking her head sadly.]
Oh ask me not
To find reasons for my thought.
Instinct steals upon the sense
Like a perfume,—to and fro,
Blowing whither? Blowing whence?
I perceive it, that is all
And, unknowing, yet I know
That for me it is too small.
Truth may be from dreams divined.
In a hundred hearts I find
Self-begotten this one word;
Even in hers, whose frantic call
From the mountain-side I heard:
“It is ugly, for ’tis small!”
So she said; and like the rest
Left her meaning .
Then of women came a score,
“Yes, it is too small,” they cried;
They would have it spread and soar,
Like a palace in its pride.
Agnes—ah! I see it clear;
Thou the woman art whom God
Gave me for His angel-guide.
Safe alike from doubt and fear
Through the darkness thou hast trod,
Keeping still the even way,
Where I blindly went astray.
Thee no glamour captivated—
Once thy finger show’d the fated
Region where my life-work waited,
Check’d me, as I sought sublime,
To the vault of heaven to climb,
Turn’d my soaring glance within,
And that kingdom bade me win.
Now, a second time, thy word
Penetrates my soul like day,
Guides me where I vainly err’d,
Glorifies my weary way.
Small the Church is? Be it so:
Then a greater Church shall grow.
Never, never did I wot
All God gave me, giving thee;
Now that cry of thine’s for me:
Leave me not! Oh leave me not!
All my sorrow I will quell,
I will dry the tears that well,
Seal in still sepulchral sleep
Memory’s lone castle-keep;
Lay oblivion like a sea
Open between it and me,
I will blot the joyous gleams
From my little world of dreams,
Live, thy wife, alone for thee!
Steep the path is, high the goal.
Lead, nor sternly spur, my soul!
In a greater name I call.
One of whom thou saidst that still
He accepts the steadfast will,
Though the flesh be weak withal!
Home must have its feast array
Thou my lavishness didst chide,
Mindest thou, last Christmastide?
All the chamber flash’d with lights,
From the Christmas-tree there hung
Toys and wreaths and quaint delights;
There was laughter, there was song.
Brand, for us this year also
Shall the Christmas-candles glow,
Here shall all be deck’d and dight
For the great, still Feast to-night!
Here, if haply God should peep,
He of meek and lowly mind
Shall His stricken children find,
Babes, that humbly understand,
To have felt their Father’s hand
Gives them not a right to weep.—
Seest thou now of tears a sign?
[Presses her to him a moment.]
Child, make light: that work is thine.
Thou thy greater Church shalt rear:
Oh—but end ere Spring is here!
Willing in her torments still,
Willing at the martyr’s stake;
Flesh may flag and spirit break,
But unbroken her Will.
Lord, to her poor strength add Thine;—
Be the cruel task not mine
At Thy bidding to unchain
Angry vultures of the Law,
Swift to swoop with ravening maw
And her heart’s warm blood to drain!
I have strength to stand the strain.
Twofold agony let me bear,—
But be merciful to her!
A knock at the outer door. The Mayor enters.
A beaten man, I seek your door.
A beaten man?
As such I stand
Before you. When I open’d war,
And sought to drive you from the land,
The end I augur’d, I confess,
For you, was not just—well—success.
But though my cause I boast
The better, I’ll contend no more.
Because you have the most.
Oh, that you can’t ignore:
Folks flock to you by sea and shore;
And in the whole of my confine
A spirit has of late been rife,
Which, God’s my witness, is not mine;
Whence to conclude is only due,
That it originates with you.
Here is my hand: we’ll end the strife!
War such as we wage does not cease,
Howe’er the vanquished cry “No more!”
Why, what should be the end of war
But reasonable terms of peace?
To kick at pricks is not my way,
I’m made of common human clay;
When at your breast the lance you feel
It is but reason to give place;—
With but a switch to parry steel,
’Tis just to make a volte-face;
Left of your cause the sole defender,
It is the wisest to surrender.
Two things are noticeable here.
First, that you call me strong. Of men
I have the larger part.
Now, possibly: but when shall rise
The great dread day of sacrifice,
Who will have more supporters then?
Of sacrifice? Why, goodness me,
That’s just the day we never see
At least, the sacrifice no worse is
Than drafts upon good people’s purses;
The age is too humane to bring
Any more costly offering.
And what’s most vexing is, that I
Myself have all along been noted
Of those who the Humane promoted
And hinder’d sacrifice thereby.
So that it may be fairly said,
I’ve put the axe to my own head,
Or, at the least, laid rods in store
To baffle all I’ve struggled for.
You may be right. But, furthermore
I hardly know how you can dare
Surrender your own cause as lost.
Be rods, or be they not, the cost,
Man’s work is what he’s fashion’d for,
And Paradise, for him, lies there.
’Twixt him and it though oceans swell,
And close at hand lie Satan’s quarter,
May he for that cry “Toil, farewell—
The way to hell’s distinctly shorter!”?
To that I answer: Yes and No.
Some final haven man must win;—
If all our toil brings nothing in,
Who on a barren quest will go?
The fact stands thus: we want reward
For every labour, light or hard;
And if in arms we miss the prize,—
We gain our point by compromise.
But black will never turn to white!
Respected friend, the gain is slight
Of saying: “White as yonder brae,”
When the mob’s shouting: “Black as
You join them, possibly?
I rather shout, not black, but gray,
The time’s humane; asks apt compliance,
Not blunt and absolute defiance.
We stand on democratic ground,
Where what the people thinks is right;
Shall one against the mass propound
His special views on black and white?
In short, you, having a majority,
Are best entitled to authority.
So I submit, as they submitted,
With you my humble lot I cast,
And may I by no soul be twitted
For not contending to the last!
Folks now consider, I perceive,
Petty and poor all I achieve;
They say there’s something of more worth
Than richer harvests wrung from earth;
They are not willing as they were,
The necessary mite to spare;
And the best cause, if will’s not in it,—
There’s very little hope to win it.
Believe me, ’tis no easy thing
To drop one’s plans for roads and bridges,
For tapping meres and draining ridges,
And more besides that was in swing.
But, good Lord, what’s a man to say?
If he can’t win, he must give way;
Patiently trust that Time’s his friend,
And to the blast astutely bend.
Now,—the folks’ favour I’ve foregone
In just the way it first was won;
Ay, ay,—and by another track
I’ll get my old possession back.
So all your cunning, all your art,
Aim’d but to win the people’s heart?
God help me, no! The common good
And profit of this neighbourhood
Has been my single, sole desire.
But, I admit, there did conspire
The worker’s hope of worthy hire
For day’s work honestly pursued.
The fact stands thus: a resolute
And able man, with sense to boot,
Demands to see his labour’s fruit,
And not to drudge and sweat and groan
To profit an Idea alone.
With the best will I can’t afford
To throw my interests overboard,
And give my brains without reward.
I’ve a large household to supply,
A wife, and of grown girls a store,
Who must be first provided for;—
Belly that’s empty, throat that’s dry,
The idea scarce will satisfy,
Where mouths so many must be fill’d.
And any man who should demur,
For him I have but one reply,—
He’s an unworthy householder.
And now your object is—?
Why, yes,—the common state
To better, and my own to boot.
First I will build up the repute
I stood in till a recent date:—
The elections soon will be on foot:—
So I must set some scheme afloat,
Some booming enterprise promote;
Thus I regain my lost authority,
And check the wane of my majority.
Now, I’ve reflected, to compete
With wind and tide wins no man’s praises;
The folk want “lifting,” as the phrase is,
A work for which I’m all unmeet;
I can but set them on their feet;
Which can’t be done unless they please,—
And here all are my enemies!
Whence I’ve resolved since such the case is,
After ripe thought, to find a basis
For making war with poverty.
You would uproot it?
No, not I!
It is a necessary ill
In every state: we must endure it;
Yet may we, with a little skill,
In certain forms confine, secure it,
If only we begin in time.
He who would grow a bed of crime,
Let him with poverty manure it:
I’ll set a dam to this manure!
Do you take me? I can cure
A want, of long and bitter proof,
By building, for the Town’s behoof,
A Pest-house for the afflicted Poor.
Pest-house I call a thing projected
To rid us of the crime-infected.
And, I reflected, to the Pest-house
Might well be added an Arrest-house,
The cause with its effect confined
The selfsame bars and bolts behind,
And nothing but a wall between.
And, while my hand is in, I mean
In the same block to build withal
A wing for balls and ballotings,
Social and business gatherings,
With platform and Assembly-Hall;
In short, a half-political,
Half-social, smart and festive Guest-house.
Sorely required; this most of all;
But yet there’s one thing needed more.
You mean a Mad-house? Yes, indeed;
A very peremptory need;
That was my own idea before.
But now, by friendly counsel wrought,
I’ve utterly renounced the thought;
For who’s to furnish the supplies
For such a giant enterprise?
To put a Mad-house up would come,
Believe me, to a pretty sum,
If all whom need and merit fitted,
Should be within its walls admitted.
We must not build for our caprice,
But note Time’s current as it glides;—
The world moves on with giant strides,
Last year abundance, famine this;
You see to what a monstrous girth
The folks’ necessities have swell’d,
Talents for everything on earth,
Headlong by seven-league boots propell’d,
Are swarming madly to the birth.
Thus it would be too dear a jest
To build posterity a nest
And let self, wife, and children go;
This tooth, I say, we can’t afford:
Out with it therefore, by the Lord!
And then, there’s the great Hall, you know,
For any madder than the rest.
Yes, it would mostly be to spare!
Why, Brand, you’ve hit the nail-head there!
If fortunate our project’s fate is,
We get to boot—a Mad-house gratis;
Here, shelter’d by the selfsame roof,
And by the selfsame flag defended,
All the essential strands are blended
That tinge and tone our social woof.
Here in one haven disembogues
The flood of Paupers and of Rogues;
With Lunatics who roam’d at large,
Subject to no man’s check or charge;
Here too our Freedom’s highest reach,
The election-strife, the storm of speech;
And here our Council-Hall, for framing
Measures to meet each public pest;
And here our Feast-Hall, for proclaiming
How well we’ll guard the Past’s bequest.
You see, then, if our Project stand,
The Cragsman has at his command
All he in reason can demand,—
The right to live as he thinks best.
God knows, how slender our resources,
But once our enterprise in force is,
I trust we may be with impunity
Styled a well-organised community.
But then the means—?
Ay, there’s the knot,
As in all other things, in this.
Hardly to contributions wrought
Is Will, and if your help I miss,
I furl my flag without a thought:
But with your eloquent alliance
I’ll bid all obstacles defiance,
And when all’s done, your kind compliance,
Believe me, shall not be forgot.
In short, you’d buy me.
For my aim
I should prefer another name:
I seek, with general good in view,
That gulf of difference to cross
Which you from me and me from you
Has sever’d, to our common loss.
In an ill-omen’d hour you came——
Unfortunately yes, I own it:
Your recent loss,—I might have known it,
But your brave bearing re-assured me,
And need of public credit lured me.
In grievous or in gladsome season
I render help where need is plain;
But, for another weighty reason,
This time your mission is in vain.
And which, pray—?
I am building too.
You building? You adopt my view?
[Pointing out of the window.]
Do you see?
That great ugly stall?—
Why, that’s the Parsonage granary.
No, not that;—but the ugly, small——
I mean to build it great.
That, by the devil! you shall not!
No man shall alter it one jot!
My plan ’twould utterly frustrate.
Mine’s urgent, only waits the word,
By yours I’m absolutely floor’d;
Two weapons can’t at once be wielded,
I have never yielded.
You must, man, here. Build my Arrest-house,
My Pest-house and my festive Guest-house,
Build all, the Mad-house comprehending,
And who’ll ask, where the Church wants mending?
And why condemn it now to fall?
’Twas well enough a while ago.
Possibly; now it is too small.
I never saw it full, I know.
Even a single soul is scanted,
And has not room therein to
[Shaking his head in amazement.]
(Which single soul but proves the more
How sorely my Asylum’s wanted.)
[Changing his tone.]
Let the Church be, is my advice.
One may regard it, in some wise,
As a rich heirloom of our age;
In fact, a noble heritage,
Which we not lightly may remove.
Nay, if my building project crashes,
I, like a Phoenix from the ashes,
Will live again in public love,
As one chivalrously intent
To save our ancient monument!
Here stood a heathen fane of old,—
’Twas in King Belë’s reign, no doubt;
Then, later heroes more devout
Founded the Church with looted gold.
All-sacred in its antique dress,
Grand in its simple stateliness,
Till our own days it tower’d sublime——
But all these glories of old time
Lie long since buried deep in mould,
Of all surviving sign bereft.
Just so! They are so very old
That not a trace of them is left.
But in my late grandfather’s day
A wall-hole still defied decay!
Fit to hold a tun!
But the wall’s self?
Oh, that was gone.
In plain terms then, I am compell’d
To say, your scheme is out of court:—
A barbarous and unparallel’d
Horrible sacrilege, in short.
And then the money,—do you dream
These folks are so profuse in spending,
That they’ll contrive new cost by lending
Existence to a half-hatch’d scheme?
When with a little deftness they
May so far patch the crumbling wall
That in our time it will not fall?
But just go out!—the field survey,—
You’ll find, I’m winner after all.
From no man will I wring a jot
To give my God house-harbourage:
With my own goods it shall be wrought;
In that one work my heritage
To the last penny shall be spent.—
Now, Mayor, are you still confident
That you can shake me from my thought?
[With folded hands.]
I stand—as from the clouds dropp’d down
Such things are even in a Town
Scarce heard of,—and yet here, for us,
Who long to the necessitous
Have closed our purses and our doors,
You loose this flood of gifts unbounded
That ripples, flashes, foams and pours—.
—No, Brand, I’m utterly
In thought I long ago resign’d
Yes, whisper’d hints have flown
Pointing to something of the kind.
But I regarded them as wind.
How many men give all they own
Without a tangible return?
However, that’s your own concern.—
Go on! I’ll follow. You’re in feather,
You can act freely, work and sway.—
Brand, we will build the Church together.
What, you are willing to give way?
Dear God’s my witness, that I am!
And shall be while my wits are sound!
When one would fatten, pamper, cram,—
Another milk and shear and flay,—
Where, think you, will the flock be found?
Death and destruction, I’m your man!
I’m fire and fury for the plan!
Thrill’d, agitated, nay, affected!
Providence prompted the design
That led me to your door to-night,
For sure, without the hint of mine,
Your plan had scarcely been projected,
Or, at the least, scarce seen the light!
And thus the Church, conceived aright,
Will by my means have been erected!
But, don’t forget, we must lay low
That towering relic of the past!
Seen in the twofold glimmer cast
By the new moon and the fresh snow,
It seems a sort of—rubbish-heap.
It is too old to keep!
I fail entirely to explain it,
Till now it never struck my eye,—
The weathercock stands all awry;
It would be monstrous to retain it.
And where are architecture, style,
Rightly regarded, in the pile?
What terms can give that arch its due?
An architect would call it vile;—
And really I must share his view.
And then that roof with moss-tufts blowing,—
Bless me, they’re none of Belë’s growing.
No, we may overmuch assert
The reverence for ancient glories!
One fact, at least, there’s no o’erthrowing,
That this old rotten hut no more is
But just a very heap of dirt!
But if the people’s voice should storm
At those who seek to lay it low—?
I will it though they all cry No.
This Christmas with the least delay
I’ll put the thing in proper form,
And launch it smoothly on its way.
I’ll write, I’ll agitate, I’ll sway!
Ay, ay—you know the stuff I’m made of!
And if I cannot hire or hound
The foolish flock to help to end it,
With my own hands I’ll rive and rend it,
Timber by timber, to the ground.
Nay, though I had to call the aid of
My wife and all my girls as well,
Down it should come, by death and
This language has another sound
Than that which earlier from you fell.
To be humane is to repress
All manner of One-sidedness.
And sure, if truth the poet utters,
Precisely what is to be sought
In thinking is “the winged thought,”—
That is to say—the thought that flutters.
[Taking his hat.]
I have to see the band.
Just think, within our land
This morning two of us laid hand
On a foul-favour’d gipsy-horde,
So I got help with rope and cord,
And now they’re in your neighbour’s ward
Next to the North, but—devil clip me!—
If just a couple didn’t slip me——
The bells are ringing: Peace to Men.
Why came this hell-brood hither, then?
Yet in a sense, they are, ’tis true,
Kin to this parish,—
Nay to you.
Hark to a riddle; read it right,
If you have power and appetite.
There be, who in effect derive
From her, by whom you are alive,
But owe their actual origin
To coming of another kin.
[Shaking his head.]
O God, so many riddles rise
Before our baffled, helpless eyes!
But this one’s very lightly guess’d.
You must have often, heretofore,
Heard tell one story or another
Of that poor fellow here by West
Whose head four parsons’ learning bore;
He went a-wooing to your Mother.
Conceive,—a girl of gold
She sent him to the right-about
Promptly, as might have been foretold.
And how d’ye think he took the flout?
Half mad with grief he wander’d out,
Mated at last another bride,
A gipsy,—and, before he died,
Enrich’d with issue this foul band
That sins and starves about the land.
Nay, on this parish he conferr’d
One bastard imp—as souvenir
Of his illustrious career.
The gipsy-urchin Gerd.
[In muffled tones.]
Confess, the riddle’s good!
His issue in effect derive
From her by whom you are alive;
For the first cause of all the brood
Was, that he loved and she withstood.
Advise me, Mayor; can you tell
Some means of giving them relief?
Tut, clap them in a Bridewell cell.
They’re overhead in debt to hell;
To save them were to play the thief
With Satan, who will lose his trade
If earth restore not what he made.
You plann’d to build a house, to better
This naked misery and dearth——
That plan was, by its own begetter,
Slain in the moment of its birth.
If after all though—it were well——
This language has another sound
Than that which earlier from you fell.
[Clapping him on the shoulder.]
What’s buried, leave it in the ground
Man must not dash his deed with doubt.
Farewell, farewell, I can’t remain,
I must be off and scour the fell,
To seek this nest of truants out.
A merry Yule! We’ll meet again!
My greetings to your wife. Farewell!
[After a meditative silence.]
O expiation without end!—
So wildly mingle, strangely blend
The threads that human fortune spin,—
Sin tangled with the fruit of sin,
Pouring its own pollution in,—
That he who eyes their mazy flight
Sees foulest Wrong grow one with Right.
[Goes to the window, and after a long look out.]
My little child, lamb without stain,
Thou for my mother’s deed wast slain;
A shatter’d spirit bore His voice
Whose throne the crested heavens sustain,
And bade me cast the die of choice.
And this distracted soul had birth
Because my mother’s clave to earth.
Thus the Lord, sowing fruit of crime,
Reaps retribution in His time,
And, reaching down from His high dome,
Strikes the third generation home.
[Starts back in horror from the window.]
Yes, God is above all things just,
And retribution is His goal;
Only by sacrifice the soul
Achieves redemption from the dust;
Hard truth, our age appall’d descries,
And, therefore, stubbornly denies.
[Walks up and down the room.]
To pray? Ah, pray—a word that slips
Easily over all men’s lips;
A coin by all men lightly paid.
What’s prayer? In storm and stress to shout
Unto the vague Unknown for aid.
Upon Christ’s shoulders beg a place,
And stretch both hands to Heaven for grace—
While knee-deep in the slough of doubt.
Ha! if there needed nothing more
I might like others dare to raise
My hand and batter at His door
Who still is “terrible in praise.”—
[Pauses and reflects.]
And yet in uttermost despair,
In shuddering sorrow’s deepest deep,
When Alf at last had sunk to sleep,
And all his mother’s kisses vain
Won not the lost smile back again—
What felt I—if it was not prayer?
Whence came that trance, that ecstasy,
That rushing music, like a blast,
That sang afar and hurried past,
Bore me aloft and set me free?
Was it the ecstasy of prayer?
Did I with God hold converse there?
My anguish—did it reach his ears?
Did he look down and see my tears?
I know not. Barr’d is now the door,
The darkness deeper than before,
And nowhere, nowhere any light!
Yes, She—who, darkling, yet hath sight—
[Calls in anguish.]
Light, Agnes—light, if light thou hast!
Agnes opens the door and enters with the lighted Christmas candles; a bright glow falls over the room.
See, the Yule light, Brand, at last!
The Yule light! Ha!
[Putting them on the table.]
Have I been slow?
Thou must be cold, Brand!
[Smiling, fills the stove.]
How stern! It is thy pride of will,
That scorns the darkness and the chill.
[Walking up and down.]
[To herself as she decks the room.]
Here must the candles stand.
Last year he stretch’d his tiny hand
After the glancing, dancing light:
He was so joyous and so bright;
He started from his little chair,
And ask’d me if a sun it were.
[Moves the candles a little.]
See! now the candle’s glow falls—there!
Now from his bed my boy can see
The window gleaming cheerily;
Now can he peer out of the gloom
Silently into our lit room—
But, ah! the glass is dim; stay, stay—
I’ll wipe the dew of tears away
And make it smile——
[Dries the pane.
[Softly as he watches her.]
When in this breast
Will the wild waters sink to rest?
To rest they must!
How bright the glow
It seems as though the sundering wall
Had sunk; the low room grown a hall,
The murky world of ice and snow
Sudden become a shelter’d nest,
Where cosily my child may rest.
What dost thou, Agnes?
Peace, I pray!
Why didst thou ope the curtain?
I dreamt, and knew not what I did!
Snares in that dream of thine lie hid;
Close it again.
Close, I say!
Oh, be not harsh, it is not right.
Now all is close and tight;
Yet in my heart I scarce can deem
God injured if, at sorest need,
In the brief respite of a dream
I tasted comfort.
He is a feeling Judge and kind,
And will indulgently forbear,
If in thy service He should find
Some idol-worship here and there.
[Bursts into tears.]
Oh, say, when will He cease to crave?
My wings are weak—I faint and fall——
He gives to the devouring wave
Who in his giving gives not all.
I have given all; I have no more.
[Shakes his head.]
Yet other gifts remain behind.
Ask: I’ve the courage of the poor!
Take! Ah, Brand, thou’lt nothing
Thy memories and thy moans thou hast,
Thy longings and thy sinful sighs——
I have my heart of agonies!
Tear, tear it from me!
Thou hast cast
Thy offerings in the yawning deep
For nothing, if thou count them losses.
Narrow is thy Lord’s way, and steep.
That way Will cannot choose but keep.
And Mercy’s is——
Beset with crosses.
[Gazes before her; then, trembling.]
Now manifest and open lies,
Abysmal as the depths of space,
That mystic Word.
Who sees Jehovah face to face.
[Throws his arms about her and clasps her close.]
O look not on Him! Close thine eyes!
Hide thee, O hide thee!
[Lets her go.]
Thou sufferest, Brand.
Thou art so dear.
Thou lov’st me, but thy love I fear.
Ask not; whereso
Thou goest, I will also go!
Think’st thou without design I won thee
Out of thy gladsome gay content,
Or, half in earnest, laid upon thee
The call to self-abandonment?
Woe to us both; too dear we paid,
Too vast a sacrifice we made;
Thou art my wife: I crave thee all
To live according to our call.
Crave; only leave me not.
I must; for rest and peace I need.
Soon shall the great new Church arise!
My little Church a ruin lies.
It was a blessed wind that blew
And thy heart’s idol overthrew!
[Clasps her as if in dread.]
Peace be upon thee—and, through thee,
Peace also upon mine and me!
[Goes towards the side-door.
Brand, may I softly set ajar
One hateful window-barrier,—so?
Only a little? May I?
[In the doorway.]
[Goes into his room.
Closed, all closed with bolt and bar!
Seals on every passion set!
Seal’d to sorrow and to sigh,
Seal’d the grave and seal’d the sky,
Seal’d to feel—and to forget!
I will out! I gasp for breath
In this lonely house of death.
Out? Oh, whither? Angry eyes
Glare upon me from the skies!
Can I, flying, high or low,
Bear my treasure where I go?
Can I from my breast unsphere
The mute vacancy of fear?—
[Listens at Brand’s door.]
Loud he reads, he cannot hear.
There’s no comfort! There’s no way
God is busy; lists to-day
But to song and praise and blessing
Of the happy, child-possessing,
Richly-gifted of the earth.
Christmas is the feast of mirth.
Me He sees not, nor takes heed
Of a lonely mother’s need.—
[Goes cautiously to the window.]
Shall I draw the curtain back,
Till the clear and kindly ray
Chase the horror of night away
From his chamber bare and black?
Nay, he is not there at all.
Yule’s the children’s festival,
He hath got him leave to rise,
Haply now he stands, and cries,
Stretches little arms in vain
To his mother’s darken’d pane.
Was not that a baby’s voice?
Alf, I’ve neither will nor choice!
All is barr’d and bolted here.
’Tis thy father’s bidding, dear!
Alf, I may not open now!
An obedient child art thou!
We ne’er grieved him, thou and I.
Oh, fly home then to the sky,
There is gladness, there is light,
There thy merry comrades stay
Till thou come to join their play.
Oh, but weep not in their sight,
Nor to any soul betray
That thy father bade me lock,
When thy little hand did knock.
Years bring sterner, sadder stress
Than a little child may guess.
Say, he sorrow’d, say, he sigh’d;
Say, he wove the garden’s pride
All into a wreath for thee.
’Tis his doing! Canst thou see?
[Listens, starts, and shakes her head.]
Oh, I dream! Not bar and wall
Only from my love divide me.
When the purging fire hath tried me
In its anguish, then alone
Shall the parting barriers fall
And the mighty bolts be batter’d,
And the vaulted dungeons shatter’d,
And the prison hinges groan!
Much, oh, much is to be done
Ere we parted twain be one.
I with silent, toiling hands
Still will labour on, to fill
The abyss of his commands;
I shall nerve me, I shall will.
But it is the Feast this eve—
Last year’s how unlike! And wait
We will honour it in state.
I will fetch my treasures forth,
Whereof the uncounted worth
Best a mother can conceive,
To whose spirit they express
All her life-lost happiness.
[She kneels down by the cupboard, and takes various things out of a drawer. At the same moment, Brand opens the door, and is about to speak, when he observes her occupation, checks himself and remains standing. Agnes does not see him.
Haunting still the mortal mound,
Playing in Death’s garden-ground.
Lo, the robe, the veil that clad
At the font my little lad.
Under it his cloak I’ve laid—
[Holds it up, gazes at it, and laughs.]
Lord, how brave it looks and bright!
Ah, he was a bonny sight
In his festal robes array’d!
Here’s the scarf, the cape he wore
When the keen wind first he bore;
Longer was it than was meet
Then, but quickly grew too spare—
I will lay it with them there.
Gloves and stockings—(Oh, what feet!)
And his hood of silken fold
That had fenced him from the cold,
All unused and clean and sweet.
Oh, and there the wrappings warm
That should shield his little form
For the journey, from the storm
When again I laid them by,
Weary unto death was I!
[Clasps his hands in anguish.]
Mercy, God! I strive in vain!
Shatter her last idol-shrine
By some other hand than mine!
Did I weep? Behold, a stain!
Oh, my treasure! Jewell’d prize,
Bath’d in floods from aching eyes,
Lit with fires of tortured Will,
Holy Crowning-vesture, worn
By a child to Death’s font borne,
Oh, what riches have I still!
A sharp knock at the outer door; Agnes turns with a cry, and at the same moment sees Brand. The door is burst open, and a Woman, raggedly dressed, enters hastily, with a child in her arms.
[Looking at the child’s clothes, calls to Agnes.]
Thou rich mother, share with me!
Thou art richer far!
Thou art of the common breed,
Cramm’d with words, and void of deed.
Tell me what thou seekest.
Troth, I do not seek, at least!
Rather to the wind and rain
Will I hurry out again,
Than be sermon’d by a priest;
Rather to the wild sea fly,
Drown and rot beneath the sky,
Than I’ll hear the black man tell
How I’m on my way to hell;
Can I help—the devil take me—
Being what God chose to make me?
Voice and feature pierce me still
With a dim and icy dread.
Thou shalt warm thee, if thou’rt chill;
And thy hungry child be fed.
Where there’s warmth and where there’s light
Brats of gipsies may not stay;
We must haunt the lone highway,
Hill and forest, heath and height;
We must wander, we must roam,
Leave to others house and home.
I must swiftly from this place.
Dogs of justice are behind me,
Mayor, bailiff, all in chase,
Hungering to catch and bind me!
Here thou shalt have shelter.
Roof’d above and wall’d about?
No! The winter night is clear,
And the breezes blithe without.
But a rag to wrap the child!
That were something! Sooth, its wild
Rascal brother fled, and bore
With him all the clouts it wore.
Look, it lies half naked—blue,
Stiff and stark and frozen through,
By the storm-wind’s icy breath.
Woman, on the road to death,
Free thy infant from thy doom;
Free him from thy grief and gloom
Of his birth I’ll blot the brand.
Much, sooth, thou dost understand!
Such a wonder none on earth
Can, nor shall do, though he can!
War on you that set the ban,—
Wot ye where it was, that birth?
In a ditch-side, on the ground,
Gamblers drank and shouted round—
Christen’d in the sleety slime,
Cross’d with charcoal-ashes’ grime,
Suckled with a spirit-flask;—
When his mother bore him first
There were some stood by and cursed,
Who could they be, do you ask?
Bless you! Why, the baby’s father,
Or,—the baby’s fathers rather!
Thy duty’s clear.
Never! never! Brand, to her!
Give me, give me! Give me all!
Silk and broider’d jacket small!
Nought’s too good, and nought too bad,
If ’twill warm my starving lad.
He’ll be going by-and-by.
Thaw his body ere he die!
Choice is calling! Hear’st thou now?
Store enough of clothes hast thou
For thy dead child: hast thou none
For my death-doom’d living one?
Is not this a warning cry
’Tis sacrilege blood-red
Desecration of the dead!
Vainly given to death he was
If thou at the threshold pause.
I obey. My heart’s quick root
I will trample under foot.
Woman, come thou and receive,
I will share it with thee.
Share it, say’st thou?—Agnes; share it?
I will rather die than spare it
All! See, inch by inch I’ve bent
To thy will; my force is spent!
Half’s enough; she needs no more!
Was the whole too much before,
When for thy child it was meant?
Woman, take; in this was clad
At the font my little lad.
Here the scarf, cloak, mantle, good
For the night-air, here the hood
Warm for winter; take this last——
Is this all thou hast?
Take the crowning vesture worn,
By the child to Death’s
So! I see there’s nothing more.
I’ll clear out without delay,
Dress my baby at the door—
Then with all my pack away!
[In violent inner conflict; at length asks.]
Is it reason, Brand, to lay
Further bidding on me?
Didst thou with a glad heart go
To thy task of giving?
Then thy gift is vainly will’d
And His bidding unfulfill’d.
[Remains silent until he is near the door, then calls.]
What wilt thou?
I have lied—
See, I’m humbled, I am grieved.
Never knew’st thou nor believed,
Anything was left beside.
[Takes a folded child’s cap from her bosom.]
See, one I thought to hide—
Clammy with his mortal sweat,
There in my beating bosom set!
In thy idol-bonds abide.
What wilt thou?
Thou dost know.
[Holds out the cap to him.
[Approaches and asks, without taking it.]
At the door she lingers yet.
Shiver’d, shatter’d—pluck’d away—
All that bound me to the clay.
[Stands a while motionless; by degrees her face assumes an expression of radiant gladness. Brand returns; she flies joyously towards him, flings herself about his neck, and cries.]
I am free, Brand, I am free!
Night is fled from me!
All the terrors that oppress’d
Like an incubus my breast,
In the gulf are sunk to rest!
Will hath conquer’d in the fray,
Cloud and mist are swept away;
Through the night, athwart the Dead,
Streaks of morning glimmer red.
Graveyard! Graveyard! By the word
Now no more a tear is stirr’d;
By the name no wound is riven,
Risen is the child to heaven!
Agnes! Thou hast conquered
I indeed have conquer’d. Yes;
Conquer’d death and bitterness!
Oh, look up, look heavenward, thou
See, before the throne he stands—
As in old days—radiant, glad,
To us stretching down his hands!
Though a thousand mouths I had,
Leave to ask, and to obtain,
Never one of them should pray
For his coming back again.
O how wond’rous is God’s way!
By that sacrifice, so grievous,
Won from bondage is my soul;
He was given us but to leave us,
Died to lure me to the goal.
Thanks be to thee that thy hand
Stoutly strove and firmly led—
Ah, I saw thine own heart bled.
Now it is for thee, instead,
In the vale of choice to stand,
Now for thee to hear the call
Of the awful Nought or All.
Agnes, this is darkly said;—
Vanquish’d, lo, our sorrow lies!
Thou forget’st the word of dread:
Whoso sees Jehovah dies!
Woe upon me! What a light
Thou has kindled! Never! No!
I have stalwart hands for fight,
And I will not let thee go!
Tear all earthly ties from me,
All possessions I will lose,
Only never, never thee!
At the cross-way stand’st thou:
Quench the kindled light I brought,
Fence the fountain of my thought,
Give me back my idol treasures
(Still she lingers by the door),
Give me back the earthly pleasures
Of the bright, blind days of yore;
Thrust me back into the pit
Where till now I lulled my sin,
Deeper, deeper thrust me in—
Thou canst lightly compass it;
Clip my wings and check my flight,
Load my feet, and drag me bound
Down, down from thy dizzy height
To my lowly native ground;
Let me lead the life I led
When the darkness yet was dread:
If thou darest thus to lose,
Then, as ever, I am thine;
At the cross-way stand’st thou: choose!
Woe, if such a choice were mine.
Ah, but in some place afar,
Where no bitter memories are,
Death and darkness thou shalt brave!
Hast thou here thy work forgotten,
Holy work—and holy grave?
And the thousands sin-besotten,
It is here thy task to save—
Those thou guidest for God’s sake
To the Fountain that renews?
At the cross-way stand’st thou:
Then I have no choice to make.
[Throws herself on his neck.]
Thanks for that, and thanks for all!
Thou the weary one hast led;
Over me the dank mists fall,
Thou wilt watch beside my bed.
Sleep! thy day’s work now is done.
Done, and now the lamp alight.
I have fought out all my might,
I am weary of the sun.
Oh, but praising God is best!
Thanks for all. Now I will rest.
[Clenches his hands against his breast.]
Soul, be patient in thy pain!
Triumph in its bitter cost.
All to lose was all to gain;
Nought abideth but the Lost!