THREE months had passed since she had knelt before
The grate of the confessional, and he,
--The priest--had wondered why she came no more
To tell her sinless sins--the vanity
Whose valid reason graced her simple dress--
The prayers forgotten, or the untold beads--
The little thoughtless words, the slight misdeeds,
Which made the sum of her unrighteousness.
She was the fairest maiden in his fold,
With her sweet mouth and musical pure voice,
Her deep grey eyes, her hair's tempestuous gold,
Her gracious graceful figure's perfect poise.
Her happy laugh, her wild unconscious grace,
Her gentle ways to old, or sick, or sad,
The comprehending sympathy she had,
Had made of her the idol of the place.
And when she grew so silent and so sad,
So thin and quiet, pale and hollow-eyed,
And cared no more to laugh and to be glad
With other maidens by the waterside--
All wondered, kindly grieved the elders were,
And some few girls went whispering about,
'She loves--who is it? Let us find it out!'
But never dared to speak of it to her.
But the priest's duty bade him seek her out
And say, 'My child, why dost thou sit apart?
Hast thou some grief? Hast thou some secret doubt?
Come and unfold to me thine inmost heart.
God's absolution can assuage all grief
And all remorse and woe beneath the sun.
Whatever thou hast said, or thought, or done,
The Holy Church can give thy soul relief.'
He stood beside her, young and strong, and swayed
With pity for the sorrow in her eyes--
Which, as she raised them to his own, conveyed
Into his soul a sort of sad surprise--
For in those grey eyes had a new light grown,
The light that only bitter love can bring,
And he had fancied her too pure a thing
For even happy love to dare to own.
Yet all the more he urged on her--'Confess,
And do not doubt some comfort will be lent
By Holy Church thy penitence to bless.
Trust her, my child.' With unconvinced consent
She answered, 'I will come;' and so at last
Out of the summer evening's crimson glow,
With heart reluctant and with footsteps slow
Into the cool great empty church she passed.
'By my own fault, my own most grievous fault,
I cannot say, for it is not!' she said,
Kneeling within the grey stone chapel's vault;
And on the ledge her golden hair was spread
Over the clasping hands that still increased
Their nervous pressure, poor white hands and thin,
While with hot lips she poured her tale of sin
Into the cold ear of the patient priest.
'Love broke upon me in a dream; it came
Without beginning, for to me it seemed
That all my life this thing had been the same,
And never otherwise than as I dreamed.
I only knew my heart, entire, complete,
Was given to my other self, my love--
That I through all the world would gladly move
So I might follow his adorèd feet.
'I dreamed my soul saw suddenly appear
Immense abysses, infinite heights unknown;
Possessed new worlds, new earths, sphere after sphere,
New sceptres, kingdoms, crowns, became my own.
When I had all, all earth, all time, all space,
And every blessing, human and divine,
I hated the possessions that were mine,
And only cared for his belovèd face.
'I dreamed that in unmeasured harmony,
Rain of sweet sounds fell on my ravished sense,
And thrilled my soul with swelling ecstasy,
And rose to unimagined excellence.
And while the music bade my heart rejoice,
And on my senses thrust delicious sway,
I wished the perfect melody away,
And in its place longed for his worshipped voice.
'And at the last I felt his arms enfold,
His kisses crown my life--his whispered sighs
Echo my own unrest--his spirit hold
My spirit powerless underneath his eyes,
My face flushed with new joy, and felt more fair:
He clasped me close, and cried, 'My own, my own!'
And then I woke in dawn's chill light, alone,
With empty arms held out to empty air.
'I never knew I loved him till that dream
Drew from my eyes the veil and left me wise.
What I had thought was reverence grew to seem
Only my lifelong love in thin disguise.
And in my dream it looked so sinless too,
So beautiful, harmonious, and right;
The vision faded with the morning light,
The love will last as long as I shall do.
'But in the world where I have wept my tears,
My love is sinful and a bitter shame.
How can I bear the never-ending years,
When every night I hear him call my name?
For though that first dream's dear delight is past,
Yet since that night each night I dream him there
With lips caressing on my brow and hair,
And in my arms I hold my heaven fast!'
'Child, have you prayed against it?' 'Have I prayed?
Have I not clogged my very soul with prayer;
Stopped up my ears with sound of praying, made
My very body faint with kneeling there
Before the sculptured Christ, and all for this,
That when my lips can pray no more, and sleep
Shuts my unwilling eyes, my love will leap
To dreamland's bounds, to meet me with his kiss?
'Strive against this?--what profit is the strife?
If through the day a little strength I gain,
At night he comes and calls me 'love' and 'wife,'
And straightway I am all his own again.
And if from love's besieging force my fight
Some little victory have hardly won,
What do I gain? As soon as day is done,
I yield once more to love's delicious might.'
'Avoid him!' 'Ay, in dewy garden walk
How often have I strayed, avoiding him.
And heard his voice mix with the common talk,
Yet never turned his way. My eyes grow dim
With weeping over what I lose by day
And find by night, yet never have to call
My own. O God! is there no help at all--
No hope, no chance, and no escapeful way?'
'And who is he to whom thy love is given?'
'What? Holy Church demands to know his name?
No rest for me on earth, no hope of heaven
Unless I tell it? Ah, for very shame
I cannot--yet why not?--I will--I can!
I have grown mad with brooding on my curse.
Here! Take the name, no better and no worse
My case will be. Father, thou art the man!'
An icy shock shivered through all his frame--
An overwhelming cold astonishment;
But on the instant the revulsion came,
His blood felt what her revelation meant,
And madly rushed along his veins and cried:
'For you too life is possible, and love
No more a word you miss the meaning of,
But all your life's desire unsatisfied.'
Then through his being crept a new strange fear--
Fear of himself, and through himself, for her;
His every fibre felt her presence near,
Disquiet in his breast began to stir.
'Lord Christ,' his soul cried, while his heart beat fast,
'Give strength in this, my hour of utmost need.'
And with the prayer strength came to him indeed,
And with calm voice he answered her at last.
'Child, go in peace! Wrestle, and watch, and pray,
And I will spend this night in prayer for thee,
That God will take thy strange great grief away.
Thou hast confessed thy sin. Absolvo te.'
Silence most absolute a little while,
Then passed the whisper of her trailing gown
Over the knee-worn stones, and soft died down
The dim deserted incense-memoried aisle.
She passed away, and yet, when she was gone,
His heart still echoed her remembered sighs:
What sin unpardonable had he done
That evermore those grey unquiet eyes
Floated between him and the dying day?
How had she grown so desperately dear?
Why did her love-words echo in his ear
Through all the prayers he forced his lips to say?
All night he lay upon the chancel floor,
And coined his heart in tears and prayers, and new
Strange longings he had never known before.
Her very memory so thrilled him through,
That to his being's core a shiver stole
Of utter, boundless, measureless delight,
Even while with unceasing desperate might
His lips prayed for God's armour for his soul!
The moon had bathed the chancel with her light,
But now she crept into a cloud. No ray
Was left to break the funeral black of night
That closely hung around the form that lay
So tempest-tossed within, so still without.
'God! I love her, love her, love her so!
Oh, for one spark of heaven's fire to show
Some way to cast this devil's passion out!
'I cannot choose but love--Thou knowest, Lord--
Yet is my spirit strong to fly from sin,
But oh, my flesh is weak, too weak the word
I have to clothe its utter weakness in!
I am Thy priest, vowed to be Thine alone,
Yet if she came here with those love-dimmed eyes,
How could I turn away from Paradise?
Should I not wreck her soul, and blast my own?
'Christ, by Thy passion, by Thy death for men,
Oh, save me from myself, save her from me!'
And at the word the moon came out again
From her cloud-palace, and threw suddenly
A shadow from the great cross overhead
Upon the priest; and with it came a sense
Of strength renewed, of perfect confidence
In Him who on that cross for men hung dead.
Beneath that shadow safety seemed to lie;
And as he knelt before the altar there,
Beside the King of Heaven's agony
Light seemed all pangs His priest might have to bear--
His grief, his love, his bitter wild regret,
Would they not be a fitting sacrifice,
A well-loved offering, blessed in the eyes
That never scorned a sad heart's offering yet?
But as the ghostly moon began to fade,
And moonlight glimmered into ghostlier dawn,
The shadow that the crucifix had made
With twilight mixed; and with it seemed withdrawn
The peace that with its shadowy shape began,
And as the dim east brightened, slowly ceased
The wild devotion that had filled the priest--
And with full sunlight he sprang up--a man!
'Ten thousand curses on my priestly vow--
The hated vow that held me back from thee!
Down with the cross! no death-dark emblems now!
I have done with death: life wakes for thee and me!'
He tore the cross from out his breast, and trod
The sacred symbol underfoot and cried,
'I am set free, unbound, unsanctified!
I am thy lover--not the priest of God!'
He strode straight down the church and passed along
The grave-set garden's dewy grass-grown slope:
The woods about were musical with song,
The world was bright with youth, and love, and hope;
The flowers were sweet, and sweet his visions were,
The sunlight glittered on the lily's head
And on the royal roses, rich and red,
And never had the earth seemed half so fair.
Soon would he see her--soon would kneel before
Her worshipped feet, and cry, 'I am thine own,
As thou art mine, now, and for evermore!'
And she should kiss the lips that had not known
The kiss of love in any vanished year.
And as he dreamed of his secured delight,
Round the curved road there slowly came in sight
A mourning band, and in their midst a bier.
He hastened to pass on. Why should he heed
A bier--a blot on earth's awakened face?
For to his love-warm heart it seemed indeed
That in sweet summer's bloom death had no place.
Yet still he glanced--a pale concealing fold
Veiled the dead, quiet face--and yet--and yet--
Did he not know that hand, so white and wet?
Did he not know those dripping curls of gold?
'We came to you to know what we should do,
Father: we found her body in the stream,
And how it happed, God knows!' One other knew--
Knew that of him had been her last wild dream--
Knew the full reason of that life-disdain--
Knew how the shame of hopeless love confessed
And unreturned had seemed to stain her breast,
Till only death could make her clean again.
They left her in the church where sunbeams bright
Gilded the wreathèd oak and carven stone
With golden floods of consecrating light;
And here at last, together and alone,
The lovers met, and here upon her hair
He set his lips, and dry-eyed kissed her face,
And in the stillness of the holy place
He spoke in tones of bitter blank despair:
'Oh, lips so quiet, eyes that will not see!
Oh, clinging hands that not again will cling!
This last poor sin may well be pardoned thee,
Since for the right's sake thou hast done this thing.
Oh, poor weak heart, for ever laid to rest,
That could no longer strive against its fate,
For thee high heaven will unbar its gate,
And thou shalt enter in and shalt be blessed.
'The chances were the same for us,' he said,
'Yet thou hast won, and I have lost, the whole;
Thou wouldst not live in sin, and thou art dead--
But I--against thee I have weighed my soul,
And, losing thee, have lost my soul as well.
I have cursed God, and trampled on His cross;
Earth has no measurement for all my loss,
But I shall learn to measure it in hell!'
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Comments about this poem (Absolution by Edith Nesbit )
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