Constance Naden

(1858 - 1889)

A Modern Apostle V - Poem by Constance Naden

SUMMER passed by, and Autumn; Winter came
With grey cold days and black unpitying nights,
And many children gathered round the flame
Of Yule-tide logs, and dreamed of new delights
With the New Year: many, with shivering frame,
Half-naked, famished, crept to see the sights
In gay shop-windows- a celestial treat!
On earth there might be bread, and sometimes meat,

But this was Heaven. They had their make-believe,
For every child can find an open door
Even from Hell, and thoughtlessly achieve
Proserpine's miracle; while she who bore
The starvelings, crouches too benumbed to grieve
In her cold room, and sees but the bare floor
And fireless hearth, and hungers through the day,
Idle, or toiling hard for paltry pay.

Wages were low that winter; work was scant;
And many little groups of men would cluster
Round the street corners; grim they were and gaunt,
With hollow cheeks and sunken eyes lack-lustre;
And oft, attracted by the ready rant
Of some stump orator, a throng would muster
To hear of wrongs and rights, and pass a plan
For straightway equalising man and man.

And Alan went among them; he was pale
And thin as they, but his deep eyes outshone
With self-consuming light, that told a tale
Of Hope and Love irrevocably gone,
But Faith still clinging to her Holy Grail-
That sacred poison-wine, which made him wan
And fiery, giving strength to brave and bear
All ills, all woes; strength even to despair.

But at the people's groan, his heart waxed hot,
And loathed the miserable prayers and pence
He had to give, and private pangs forgot
In the one sorrow of his impotence
To succour; he would say he scarce knew what
In fire-words, winged with fatal eloquence,
And then go home, and in his study brood
Through night, till dawn, careless of sleep and food.

Thus the drear days dragged on; and with the spring
No comfort came, but rather woe more keen,
For Poverty more deeply plunged her sting,
And stalwart frames grew slouching, pinched, and lean,
And there arose that sullen murmuring
Which may mean little, but perchance may mean
The roll of coming thunder, and the flash
Of lightning- or the earthquake's deadlier crash.

One day, as Alan sat intently writing
An earnest tract on Dives and his dogs,
A sudden tumult, as of fire or fighting,
Pierced through the smoky mist which ever clogs
The air of towns; he heard a voice inciting
To deeds of vengeance- 'Are you stones or logs?
Prove yourselves men! Burst on them like a flood-
The rich, who batten on your flesh and blood!'

He started up; that moment, his old friend
George rushed in, crying- 'Quick! the mob! a riot!
The people cried for bread, and we who tend
Their souls political, replied 'Be quiet!
Hope on!' while such as you, the case to mend,
Fed them on too inflammable a diet;
And so, among us all, the mischief's done,
The fire brand lit, the rioting begun.

'But now, make haste! for some of them have taken
The road to Ella's home- don't turn so white!
Perhaps they'll only ask for bread and bacon,
And beer, their one inalienable right;
Cheer up, my friend! I know you are forsaken,
But here's a chance to act the doughty knight,
Boldly to face the many-headed giant,
And hold your Love 'gainst all the world defiant!'

They chose the quiet streets, where the fierce rabble
Came not; all doors were barred, all shops were shut.
No children in the gutters dared to dabble,
No woman chatted with her neighbour; but
From the great thoroughfares they heard the babble
Of many voices; once, the fog was cut
By springing flame, and the friends faster strode,
Winding through bye-ways to that dear abode.

Alan, impatient, fevered, onward urged
His comrade; they came nearer to the noise,
And in a fair broad road at last emerged,
Filled with a ragged rout of men and boys
And women; like a stormy sea it surged,
That blindly, deafly, ruthlessly destroys:
Some carried stones; some, staves; some, iron crows
And rails; some, bludgeons, fit for deadliest blows.

Some faces were pale, wolfish; some on fire
With drink, and hope of spoil or forced largess
From wealthy homes; in tawdry torn attire
The women scarcely hid their nakedness;
And there were jests, foul as the city mire
Whose old stains clung to many a tattered dress:
Such was the tide that towards the suburb rolled
Where Ella dwelt. One moment, speechless, cold,

Stood Alan: then, with sudden leap, he sprang
On a low wall, and beckoned to the crowd
That fought, broke windows, trampled gardens, sang
And swore, around him; but his voice rose loud,
And through the clamour like a trumpet rang;
Its clear bold accents for a minute cowed
The people; or perchance they thought he came
To spur them forward to their desperate game.

'My friends!' he cried, 'all human hopes and lives
Are truly one; no man can harm another
But blindly with his proper Self he strives,
His own soul in the body of his brother:
In you, in all, the spark of Truth survives-
Is there no father here, is there no mother,
No husband, wife or friend, who knows the tie
Which makes two beings one until they die?

'That tie is but an image and a sign
Of universal kinship- to reveal
How men are sharers in the life Divine:
Think not the rich man's woe the poor man's weal!
When the brain languishes the heart must pine;
To hate is atheism, and to steal
Is sacrilege; to murder, suicide:
I too have erred, who should have been your guide;

'Oft I spoke rashly, for my heart was sore
To see you suffer; humbly I avow
My fault, my crime- Ah help me to restore
The peace I troubled; let me lead you now
Back to your homes.' Then rose an angry roar,
And a great stone struck Alan on the brow,
He staggered; and before his friend could bound
To save him, he fell prone with heavy sound.

George raised him in his arms- bleeding, death-white,
Unconscious- then to face the crowd he turned:
'This is the man who laboured day and night
For you and for your children- yes, he burned
His life away, and loved you in despite
Of all ingratitude, and still returned
Good for your evil- his own wants denied
For you- that you might live, he would have died.

'And you have slain him. Help me, some of you,
To stanch his wounds- those whom he visited
When they were ill, and brought them aid- those, too,
Who starved, until he gave them his own bread-
And if by chance there should be here a few
Who were in prison, and he came and said
Kind words of hope- 'tis only these I pray
Now for their help to carry him away

'And bear him to his friends.' The crowd was hushed.
But he who seemed the chief, a strong tall man,
Came forth with halting step, and features flushed,
And look half-shamed, half-sorry, and began-
'The parson nursed me when my foot was crushed,
I would not do him harm. Here, Ned and Dan,
Help us to carry him- and you, John, go
Quick, for a doctor- 'tis an ugly blow,

'But worse have mended.' Now the throng, subdued
Almost to soberness, his words obeyed,
Seeming a funeral pageant motley-hued:
As once through Florence paced a cavalcade
Of skeletons and spectres- all the brood
Of Famine and of Death- such show they made;
And bearing Alan in procession grim
Straightway to Ella's home they carried him.

They passed fair gardened homes that rich men build,
But every man was hidden, as a rat
Hides in his hole; like birds affrighted, stilled
By coming storm, crouched those who 'eat the fat
And drink the sweet,' that Scripture be fulfilled-
On, till George saw the house where Ella sat
Alone, for both her parents were away,
Spending in Rome their Easter holiday.

She all the day had shivered in suspense
For Alan's safety, growing sick with fear,
And making now and then a vain pretence
To read, but straining all the while her ear,
And starting at each murmur, to see whence
The voices came; for as they grew more clear
She felt, she knew, that Alan must be nigh,
To turn the rabble backward, or to die.

There came a roar- she shuddered- then a lull-
She waited at the window, in her dread,
And soon she heard again the murmurs dull,
And saw at last a strange procession, led
By men who bore some burden pitiful-
Was it a comrade, wounded- dying- dead?
But knew she not the figure and the gait
Of Alan's friend? Oh Heaven! Came they too late,

And did they bring him dead, that she might see
His face, and weep with unavailing woe?
Nearer they came and nearer- Yes, 'twas he-
Her cheeks turned white, her heart stood still, as though
She too must fall; but, tottering dizzily,
She left her room in piteous need to know
The truth- with quivering hands unbarred the door,
And ran to meet the crowd, and what it bore.

George saw her coming in her breathless haste,
With wide eyes, feet that terror seemed to spur,
Long hair unknotted, floating to her waist;
Till then, he scarce had spent a thought on her,
But now he groaned; 'twere easier to have faced
A furious mob; he felt a murderer:
Forward he stepped, and lest her strength should fail,
Stayed her, and told, as best he might, the tale.

'He is not dead!' she cried- 'not dead!' and then
Her heart grew stronger; Alan's face she saw
And scarcely trembled; to those rugged men,
Those hungering, thirsting breakers of the law,
She spoke, with accents that seemed alien
To her own voice; they listened half in awe,
And bore him to the house; and then dispersed
With money for their hunger and their thirst.

Alan lay still unconscious; months of toil,
And care, and grief, had done their work by stealth;
The mental and the physical turmoil,
The evil deeds of poverty and wealth,
The city's filth and crime, that could not soil
His spirit, drained away his body's health:
'But he will live!' cried Ella, fain to grope
For light. The surgeon said, 'There still is hope.'

'There still is hope.' Thus sounds the first low note,
The first faint tremor of the passing bell!
'There still is hope.' The dread that loomed remote
Draws near; the poison-pang we sought to quell
Stings sharper for this futile antidote:
So heavy on her ears the comfort fell-
'There still is hope.' She watched his sighing breath,
Feeling herself the very pains of death.

Form: Ottava Rima


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Poem Submitted: Saturday, October 31, 2015



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