A Story At Dusk - Poem by Ada Cambridge
An evening all aglow with summer light
And autumn colour—fairest of the year.
The wheat-fields, crowned with shocks of tawny gold,
All interspersed with rough sowthistle roots,
And interlaced with white convolvulus,
Lay, flecked with purple shadows, in the sun.
The shouts of little children, gleaning there
The scattered ears and wild blue-bottle flowers—
Mixed with the corn-crake's crying, and the song
Of lone wood birds whose mother-cares were o'er,
And with the whispering rustle of red leaves—
Scarce stirred the stillness. And the gossamer sheen
Was spread on upland meadows, silver bright
In low red sunshine and soft kissing wind—
Showing where angels in the night had trailed
Their garments on the turf. Tall arrow-heads,
With flag and rush and fringing grasses, dropped
Their seeds and blossoms in the sleepy pool.
The water-lily lay on her green leaf,
White, fair, and stately; while an amorous branch
Of silver willow, drooping in the stream,
Sent soft, low-babbling ripples towards her:
And oh, the woods!—erst haunted with the song
Of nightingales and tender coo of doves—
They stood all flushed and kindling 'neath the touch
Of death—kind death!—fair, fond, reluctant death!—
A dappled mass of glory!
With russet wood-fruit thick upon the ground,
'Mid crumpled ferns and delicate blue harebells.
The orchard-apples rolled in seedy grass—
Apples of gold, and violet-velvet plums;
And all the tangled hedgerows bore a crop
Of scarlet hips, blue sloes, and blackberries,
And orange clusters of the mountain ash.
The crimson fungus and soft mosses clung
To old decaying trunks; the summer bine
Drooped, shivering, in the glossy ivy's grasp.
By day the blue air bore upon its wings
Wide-wandering seeds, pale drifts of thistle-down;
By night the fog crept low upon the earth,
All white and cool, and calmed its feverishness,
And veiled it over with a veil of tears.
The curlew and the plover were come back
To still, bleak shores; the little summer birds
Were gone—to Persian gardens, and the groves
Of Greece and Italy, and the palmy lands.
A Norman tower, with moss and lichen clothed,
Wherein old bells, on old worm-eaten frames
And rusty wheels, had swung for centuries,
Chiming the same soft chime—the lullaby
Of cradled rooks and blinking bats and owls;
Setting the same sweet tune, from year to year,
For generations of true hearts to sing.
A wide churchyard, with grassy slopes and nooks,
And shady corners and meandering paths;
With glimpses of dim windows and grey walls
Just caught at here and there amongst the green
Of flowering shrubs and sweet lime-avenues.
An old house standing near—a parsonage-house—
With broad thatched roof and overhanging eaves,
O'errun with banksia roses,—a low house,
With ivied windows and a latticed porch,
Shut in a tiny Paradise, all sweet
With hum of bees and scent of mignonette.
We lay our lazy length upon the grass
In that same Paradise, my friend and I.
And, as we lay, we talked of college days—
Wild, racing, hunting, steeple-chasing days;
Of river reaches, fishing-grounds, and weirs,
Bats, gloves, debates, and in-humanities:
And then of boon-companions of those days,
How lost and scattered, married, changed, and dead;
Until he flung his arm across his face,
And feigned to slumber.
He was changed, my friend;
Not like the man—the leader of his set—
The favourite of the college—that I knew.
And more than time had changed him. He had been
“A little wild,” the Lady Alice said;
“A little gay, as all young men will be
At first, before they settle down to life—
While they have money, health, and no restraint,
Nor any work to do,” Ah, yes! But this
Was mystery unexplained—that he was sad
And still and thoughtful, like an aged man;
And scarcely thirty. With a winsome flash,
The old bright heart would shine out here and there;
But aye to be o'ershadowed and hushed down,
As he had hushed it now.
His dog lay near,
With long, sharp muzzle resting on his paws,
And wistful eyes, half shut,—but watching him;
A deerhound of illustrious race, all grey
And grizzled, with soft, wrinkled, velvet ears;
A gaunt, gigantic, wolfish-looking brute,
And worth his weight in gold.
“There, there,” said he,
And raised him on his elbow, “you have looked
Enough at me; now look at some one else.”
“You could not see him, surely, with your arm
Across your face?”
“No, but I felt his eyes;
They are such sharp, wise eyes—persistent eyes—
Perpetually reproachful. Look at them;
Had ever dog such eyes?”
“Oh yes,” I thought;
But, wondering, turned my talk upon his breed.
And was he of the famed Glengarry stock?
And in what season was he entered? Where,
Pray, did he pick him up?
He moved himself
At that last question, with a little writhe
Of sudden pain or restlessness; and sighed.
And then he slowly rose, pushed back the hair
From his broad brows; and, whistling softly, said,
“Come here, old dog, and we will tell him. Come.”
“On such a day, and such a time, as this,
Old Tom and I were stalking on the hills,
Near seven years ago. Bad luck was ours;
For we had searched up corrie, glen, and burn,
From earliest daybreak—wading to the waist
Peat-rift and purple heather—all in vain!
We struck a track nigh every hour, to lose
A noble quarry by ignoble chance—
The crowing of a grouse-cock, or the flight
Of startled mallards from a reedy pool,
Or subtle, hair's breadth veering of the wind.
And now 'twas waning sunset—rosy soft
On far grey peaks, and the green valley spread
Beneath us. We had climbed a ridge, and lay
Debating in low whispers of our plans
For night and morning. Golden eagles sailed
Above our heads; the wild ducks swam about
Amid the reeds and rushes of the pools;
A lonely heron stood on one long leg
In shallow water, watching for a meal;
And there, to windward, couching in the grass
That fringed the blue edge of a sleeping loch—
Waiting for dusk to feed and drink—there lay
A herd of deer.
“And as we looked and planned,
A mountain storm of sweeping mist and rain
Came down upon us. It passed by, and left
The burnies swollen that we had to cross;
And left us barely light enough to see
The broad, black, branching antlers, clustering still
Amid the long grass in the valley.
Said Tom, ‘there is a shealing down below,
To leeward. We might bivouac there to-night,
And come again at dawn.’
“And so we crept
Adown the glen, and stumbled in the dark
Against the doorway of the keeper's home,
And over two big deerhounds—ancestors
Of this our old companion. There was light
And warmth, a welcome and a heather bed,
At Colin's cottage; with a meal of eggs
And fresh trout, broiled by dainty little hands,
And sweetest milk and oatcake. There were songs
And Gaelic legends, and long talk of deer—
Mixt with a sweet, low laughter, and the whir
“The dogs lay at her feet—
The feet of Colin's daughter—with their soft
Dark velvet ears pricked up for every sound
And movement that she made. Right royal brutes,
Whereon I gazed with envy.
“ ‘What,’ I asked,
‘Would Colin take for these?’
“ ‘Eh, sir,’ said he,
And shook his head, ‘I cannot sell the dogs.
They're priceless, they, and—Jeanie's favourites.
But there's a litter in the shed—five pups,
As like as peas to this one. You may choose
Amongst them, sir—take any that you like.
Get us the lantern, Jeanie. You shall show
“Ah, she was fair, that girl!
Not like the other lassies—cottage folk;
For there was subtle trace of gentle blood
Through all her beauty and in all her ways.
(The mother's race was ‘poor and proud,’ they said).
Ay, she was fair, my darling! with her shy,
Brown, innocent face and delicate-shapen limbs.
She had the tenderest mouth you ever saw,
And grey, dark eyes, and broad, straight-pencill'd brows;
Dark hair, sun-dappled with a sheeny gold;
Dark chestnut braids that knotted up the light,
As soft as satin. You could scarcely hear
Her step, or hear the rustling of her gown,
Or the soft hovering motion of her hands
At household work. She seemed to bring a spell
Of tender calm and silence where she came.
You felt her presence—and not by its stir,
But by its restfulness. She was a sight
To be remembered—standing in the straw;
A sleepy pup soft-cradled in her arms
Like any Christian baby; standing still,
The while I handled his ungainly limbs.
And Colin blustered of the sport—of hounds,
Roe, ptarmigan, and trout, and ducal deer—
Ne'er lifting up that sweet, unconscious face,
To see why I was silent. Oh, I would
You could have seen her then. She was so fair,
And oh, so young!—scarce seventeen at most—
So ignorant and so young!
“Tell them, my friend—
Your flock—the restless-hearted—they who scorn
The ordered fashion fitted to our race,
And scoff at laws they may not understand—
Tell them that they are fools. They cannot mate
With other than their kind, but woe will come
In some shape—mostly shame, but always grief
And disappointment. Ah, my love! my love!
But she was different from the common sort;
A peasant, ignorant, simple, undefiled;
The child of rugged peasant-parents, taught
In all their thoughts and ways; yet with that touch
Of tender grace about her, softening all
The rougher evidence of her lowly state—
That undefined, unconscious dignity—
That delicate instinct for the reading right
The riddles of less simple minds than hers—
That sharper, finer, subtler sense of life—
That something which does not possess a name,
Which made her beauty beautiful to me—
The long-lost legacy of forgotten knights.
“I chose amongst the five fat creeping things
This rare old dog. And Jeanie promised kind
And gentle nurture for its infant days;
And promised she would keep it till I came
Another year. And so we went to rest.
And in the morning, ere the sun was up,
We left our rifles, and went out to run
The browsing red-deer with old Colin's hounds.
Through glen and bog, through brawling mountain streams,
Grey, lichened boulders, furze, and juniper,
And purple wilderness of moor, we toiled,
Ere yet the distant snow-peak was alight.
We chased a hart to water; saw him stand
At bay, with sweeping antlers, in the burn.
His large, wild, wistful eyes despairingly
Turned to the deeper eddies; and we saw
The choking struggle and the bitter end,
And cut his gallant throat upon the grass,
And left him. Then we followed a fresh track—
A dozen tracks—and hunted till the noon;
Shot cormorants and wild cats in the cliffs,
And snipe and blackcock on the ferny hills;
And set our floating night-lines at the loch;—
And then came back to Jeanie.
“Well, you know
What follows such commencement:—how I found
The woods and corries round about her home
Fruitful of roe and red-deer; how I found
The grouse lay thickest on adjacent moors;
Discovered ptarmigan on rocky peaks,
And rare small game on birch-besprinkled hills,
O'ershadowing that rude shealing; how the pools
Were full of wild-fowl, and the loch of trout;
How vermin harboured in the underwood,
And rocks, and reedy marshes; how I found
The sport aye best in this charmed neighbourhood.
And then I e'en must wander to the door,
To leave a bird for Colin, or to ask
A lodging for some stormy night, or see
How fared my infant deerhound.
“And I saw
The creeping dawn unfolding; saw the doubt,
And faith, and longing swaying her sweet heart;
And every flow just distancing the ebb.
I saw her try to bar the golden gates
Whence love demanded egress,—calm her eyes,
And still the tender, sensitive, tell-tale lips,
And steal away to corners; saw her face
Grow graver and more wistful, day by day;
And felt the gradual strengthening of my hold.
I did not stay to think of it—to ask
What I was doing!
“In the early time,
She used to slip away to household work
When I was there, and would not talk to me;
But when I came not, she would climb the glen
In secret, and look out, with shaded brow,
Across the valley. Ay, I caught her once—
Like some young helpless doe, amongst the fern—
I caught her, and I kissed her mouth and eyes;
And with those kisses signed and sealed our fate
For evermore. Then came our happy days—
The bright, brief, shining days without a cloud!
In ferny hollows and deep, rustling woods,
That shut us in and shut out all the world—
The far, forgotten world—we met, and kissed,
And parted, silent, in the balmy dusk.
We haunted still roe-coverts, hand in hand,
And murmured, under our breath, of love and faith,
And swore great oaths for one of us to keep.
We sat for hours, with sealèd lips, and heard
The crossbill chattering in the larches—heard
The sweet wind whispering as it passed us by—
And heard our own hearts' music in the hush.
Ah, blessed days! ah, happy, innocent days!—
I would I had them back.
“Then came the Duke,
And Lady Alice, with her worldly grace
And artificial beauty—with the gleam
Of jewels, and the dainty shine of silk,
And perfumed softness of white lace and lawn;
With all the glamour of her courtly ways,
Her talk of art and fashion, and the world
We both belonged to. Ah, she hardened me!
I lost the sweetness of the heathery moors
And hills and quiet woodlands, in that scent
Of London clubs and royal drawing-rooms;
I lost the tender chivalry of my love,
The keen sense of its sacredness, the clear
Perception of mine honour, by degrees,
Brought face to face with customs of my kind.
I was no more a “man;” nor she, my love,
A delicate lily of womanhood—ah, no!
I was the heir of an illustrious house,
And she a simple, homespun cottage-girl.
“And now I stole at rarer intervals
To those dim trysting woods; and when I came
I brought my cunning worldly wisdom—talked
Of empty forms and marriages in heaven—
To stain that simple soul, God pardon me!
And she would shiver in the stillness, scared
And shocked, with her pathetic eyes—aye proof
Against the fatal, false philosophy.
But my will was the strongest, and my love
The weakest; and she knew it.
“Well, well, well,
I need not talk of that. There came the day
Of our last parting in the ferny glen—
A bitter parting, parting from my life,
Its light and peace for ever! And I turned
To balls and billiards, politics and wine;
Was wooed by Lady Alice, and half won;
And passed a feverous winter in the world.
Ah, do not frown! You do not understand.
You never knew that hopeless thirst for peace—
That gnawing hunger, gnawing at your life;
The passion, born too late! I tell you, friend,
The ruth, and love, and longing for my child,
It broke my heart at last.
“In the hot days
Of August, I went back; I went alone.
And on old garrulous Margery—relict she
Of some departed seneschal—I rained
My eager questions. ‘Had the poaching been
As ruinous and as audacious as of old?
Were the dogs well? and had she felt the heat?
And—I supposed the keeper, Colin, still
Was somewhere on the place?’
“ ‘Nay, sir,’; said she,
‘But he has left the neighbourhood. He ne'er
Has held his head up since he lost his child,
Poor soul, a month ago.’
“I heard—I heard!
His child—he had but one—my little one,
Whom I had meant to marry in a week!
“ ‘Ah, sir, she turned out badly after all,
The girl we thought a pattern for all girls.
We know not how it happened, for she named
No names. And, sir, it preyed upon her mind,
And weakened it; and she forgot us all,
And seemed as one aye walking in her sleep
She noticed no one—no one but the dog,
A young deerhound that followed her about;
Though him she hugged and kissed in a strange way
When none was by. And Colin, he was hard
Upon the girl; and when she sat so still,
And pale and passive, while he raved and stormed,
Looking beyond him, as it were, he grew
The harder and more harsh. He did not know
That she was not herself. Men are so blind!
But when he saw her floating in the loch,
The moonlight on her face, and her long hair
All tangled in the rushes; saw the hound
Whining and crying, tugging at her plaid—
Ah, sir, it was a death-stroke!’
“This was all.
This was the end of her sweet life—the end
Of all worth having of mine own! At night
I crept across the moors to find her grave,
And kiss the wet earth covering it—and found
The deerhound lying there asleep. Ay me!
It was the bitterest darkness,—nevermore
To break out into dawn and day again!
“And Lady Alice shakes her dainty head,
Lifts her arch eyebrows, smiles, and whispers, “Once
He was a little wild!’ ”
With that he laughed;
Then suddenly flung his face upon the grass,
Crying, “Leave me for a little—let me be!”
And in the dusky stillness hugged his woe,
And wept away his passion by himself.
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