The Sisters' Tragedy

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The Sisters' Tragedy

by Thomas Bailey Aldrich








    ACT V







     A MOOD
























A. D. 1670

AGLAE, a widow

    MURIEL, her unmarried sister.

    IT happened once, in that brave land that lies For half the twelvemonth wrapt in sombre skies, Two sisters loved one man. He being dead, Grief loosed the lips of her he had not wed, And all the passion that through heavy years Had masked in smiles unmasked itself in tears. No purer love may mortals know than this, The hidden love that guards another's bliss. High in a turret's westward-facing room, Whose painted window held the sunset's bloom, The two together grieving, each to each Unveiled her soul with sobs and broken speech.

    Both still were young, in life's rich summer yet; And one was dark, with tints of violet In hair and eyes, and one was blond as she Who rose--a second daybreak--from the sea, Gold-tressed and azure-eyed. In that lone place, Like dusk and dawn, they sat there face to face.

    She spoke the first whose strangely silvering hair No wreath had worn, nor widow's weed might wear, And told her blameless love, and knew no shame-- Her holy love that, like a vestal flame Beside the sacred body of some queen Within a guarded crypt had burned unseen From weary year to year. And she who heard Smiled proudly through her tears and said no word, But, drawing closer, on the troubled brow Laid one long kiss, and that was words enow!


    Be still, my heart! Grown patient with thine ache, Thou shouldst be dumb, yet needs must speak, or break. The world is empty now that he is gone.


Ay, sweetheart!


     None was like him, no, not one. From other men he stood apart, alone In honor spotless as unfallen snow. Nothing all evil was

    it his to know; His charity still found some germ, some spark Of light in natures that seemed wholly dark. He read men's souls; the lowly and the high Moved on the self-same level in his eye. Gracious to all, to none subservient, Without offence he spake the word he meant-- His word no trick of tact or courtly art, But the white flowering of the noble heart. Careless he was of much the world counts gain, Careless of self, too simple to be vain, Yet strung so finely that for conscience-sake He would have gone like Cranmer to the stake. I saw--how could I help but love? And you--


    At this perfection did I worship too . . . 'Twas this that stabbed me. Heed not what I say! I meant it not, my wits are gone astray, With all that is and has been. No, I lie-- Had he been less perfection, happier I!


    Strange words and wild! 'Tis the distracted mind Breathes them, not you, and I no meaning find.


    Yet 'twere as plain as writing on a scroll Had you but eyes to read within my soul.-- How a grief hidden feeds on its own mood, Poisons the healthful currents of the blood With bitterness, and turns the heart to stone! I think, in truth, 'twere better to make moan, And so be done with it. This many a year, Sweetheart, have I laughed lightly and made cheer, Pierced through with sorrow!

     Then the widowed one With sorrowfullest eyes beneath the sun, Faltered, irresolute, and bending low Her head, half whispered,

     Dear, how could you know? What masks are faces!--yours, unread by me These seven long summers; mine, so placidly Shielding my woe! No tremble of the lip, No cheek's quick pallor let our secret slip! Mere players we, and she that played the queen, Now in her homespun, looks how poor and mean! How shall I say it, how find words to tell What thing it was for me made earth a hell That else had

    been my heaven! 'Twould blanch your cheek Were I to speak it. Nay, but I will speak, Since like two souls at compt we seem to stand, Where nothing may be hidden. Hold my hand, But look not at me! Noble 'twas, and meet, To hide your heart, nor fling it at his feet To lie despised there. Thus saved you our pride And that white honor for which earls have died. You were not all unhappy, loving so! I with a difference wore my weight of woe. My lord was he. It was my cruel lot, My hell, to love him--for he loved me not!

    Then came a silence. Suddenly like death The truth flashed on them, and each held her breath-- A flash of light whereby they both were slain, She that was loved and she that loved in vain!




    Now there was one who came in later days To play at Emperor: in the dead of night Stole crown and sceptre, and stood forth to light In sudden purple. The dawn's straggling rays Showed Paris fettered, murmuring in amaze, With red hands at her throat--a piteous sight. Then the new Caesar, stricken with affright At his own daring, shrunk from public gaze

    In the Elysee, and had lost the day But that around him flocked his birds of prey, Sharp-beaked, voracious, hungry for the deed. 'Twixt hope and fear behold great Caesar hang! Meanwhile, methinks, a ghostly laughter rang Through the rotunda of the Invalides.


    What if the boulevards, at set of sun, Reddened, but not with sunset's kindly glow? What if from quai and square the murmured woe Swept heavenward, pleadingly? The prize was won, A kingling made and Liberty undone. No Emperor, this, like him awhile ago, But his Name's shadow; that one struck the blow Himself, and sighted the street-sweeping gun!

    This was a man of tortuous heart and brain, So warped he knew not his own point of view-- The master of a dark, mysterious smile.

    And there he plotted, by the storied Seine And in the fairy gardens of St. Cloud, The Sphinx that puzzled Europe, for awhile.


    I see him as men saw him once--a face Of true Napoleon pallor; round the eyes The wrinkled care; mustache spread pinion-wise, Pointing his smile with odd sardonic grace As wearily he turns him in his place, And bends before the hoarse Parisian cries-- Then vanishes, with glitter of gold-lace And trumpets blaring to the patient skies.

    Not thus he vanished later! On his path The Furies waited for the hour and man, Foreknowing that they waited not in vain.

    Then fell the day, O day of dreadful wrath! Bow down in shame, O crimson-girt Sedan! Weep, fair Alsace! weep, loveliest Lorraine!

    So mused I, sitting underneath the trees In that old garden of the Tuileries, Watching the dust of twilight sifting down Through chestnut boughs just toucht with autumn's brown-- Not twilight yet, but that illusive bloom Which holds before the deep-etched shadows come; For still the garden stood in golden mist, Still, like a river of molten amethyst, The Seine slipt through its spans of fretted stone, And, near the grille that once fenced in a throne, The fountains still unbraided to the day The unsubstantial silver of their spray.

    A spot to dream in, love in, waste one's hours! Temples and palaces, and gilded towers, And fairy terraces!--and yet, and yet Here in her woe came Marie Antoinette, Came sweet Corday, Du Barry with shrill cry, Not learning from her betters how to die! Here, while the Nations watched with bated breath, Was held the saturnalia of Red Death! For where that slim Egyptian shaft uplifts Its point to catch the dawn's and sunset's drifts Of various gold, the busy Headsman stood. . . . Place de la Concorde--no, the Place of Blood!

    And all so peaceful now! One cannot bring Imagination to accept the thing. Lies, all of it! some dreamer's wild romance-- High-hearted, witty, laughter-loving France! In whose brain was it that the legend grew Of Maenads shrieking in this avenue, Of watch-fires burning, Famine standing guard, Of long-speared Uhlans in that palace-yard! What ruder sound this soft air ever smote Than a bird's twitter or a bugle's note?

    What darker crimson ever splashed these walks Than that of rose-leaves dropping from the stalks? And yet--what means that charred and broken wall, That sculptured marble, splintered, like to fall, Looming among the trees there? . . . And you say This happened, as it were, but yesterday? And here the Commune stretched a barricade, And there the final desperate stand was made? Such things have been? How all things change and fade! How little lasts in this brave world below! Love dies; hate cools; the Caesars come and go; Gaunt Hunter fattens, and the weak grow strong. Even Republics are not here for long!

    Ah, who can tell what hour may bring the doom, The lighted torch, the tocsin's heavy boom!


    "The Southern Transept, hardly known by any other name but Poet's Corner."


    TREAD softly here; the sacredest of tombs Are those that hold your Poets. Kings and queens Are facile accidents of Time and Chance. Chance sets them on the heights, they climb not there! But he who from the darkling mass of men Is on the wing of heavenly thought upborne To finer ether, and becomes a voice For all the voiceless, God anointed him: His name shall be a star, his grave a shrine.

    Tread softly here, in silent reverence tread. Beneath those marble cenotaphs and urns Lies richer dust than ever nature hid Packed in the mountain's adamantine heart, Or slyly wrapt in unsuspected sand-- The dross men toil for, and oft stain the soul. How vain and all ignoble seems that greed To him who stands in this dim claustral air With these most sacred ashes at his feet! This dust was Chaucer, Spenser, Dryden this-- The spark that once illumed it lingers still. O ever-hallowed spot of English earth! If the unleashed and happy spirit of man Have option to revisit our dull globe, What august Shades at midnight here convene In the miraculous sessions of the moon, When the great pulse of London faintly throbs, And one by one the stars in heaven pale!



    The wind it wailed, the wind it moaned, And the white caps flecked the sea; "An' I would to God," the skipper groaned, "I had not my boy with me!"

    Snug in the stern-sheets, little John Laughed as the scud swept by; But the skipper's sunburnt cheek grew wan As he watched the wicked sky.

    "Would he were at his mother's side!" And the skipper's eyes were dim. "Good Lord in heaven, if ill betide, What would become of him!

    "For me--my muscles are as steel, For me let hap what may; I might make shift upon the keel Until the break o' day.

    "But he, he is so weak and small, So young, scarce learned to stand-- O pitying Father of us all, I trust him in Thy hand!

    "For Thou, who markest from on high A sparrow's fall--each one!-- Surely, O Lord, thou'lt have an eye On Alec Yeaton's son!"

    Then, helm hard-port; right straight he sailed Towards the headland light: The wind it moaned, the wind it wailed, And black, black fell the night.

    Then burst a storm to make one quail Though housed from winds and waves-- They who could tell about that gale Must rise from watery graves!

    Sudden it came, as sudden went; Ere half the night was sped, The winds were hushed, the waves were spent, And the stars shone overhead.

    Now, as the morning mist grew thin, The folk on Gloucester shore Saw a little figure floating in Secure, on a broken oar!

    Up rose the cry, "A wreck! a wreck! Pull, mates, and waste no breath!"-- They knew it, though 'twas but a speck Upon the edge of death!

    Long did they marvel in the town At God his strange decree, That let

    the stalwart skipper drown And the little child go free!


[One of the Bearers soliloquizes:]

    . . . Room in your heart for him, O Mother Earth, Who loved each flower and leaf that made you fair, And sang your praise in verses manifold And delicate, with here and there a line From end to end in blossom like a bough The May breathes on, so rich it was. Some thought The workmanship more costly than the thing Moulded or carved, as in those ornaments Found at Mycaene. And yet Nature's self Works in this wise; upon a blade of grass, Or what small note she lends the woodland thrush, Lavishing endless patience. He was born Artist, not artisan, which some few saw And many dreamed not. As he wrote no odes When Croesus wedded or Maecenas died, And gave no breath to civic feasts and shows, He missed the glare that gilds more facile men-- A twilight poet, groping quite alone, Belated, in a sphere where every nest Is emptied of its music and its wings. Not great his gift; yet we can poorly spare Even his slight perfection in an age Of limping triolets and tame rondeaux. He had at least ideals, though unreached, And heard, far off, immortal harmonies, Such as fall coldly on our ear to-day. The mighty Zolaistic Movement now Engrosses us--a miasmatic breath Blown from the slums. We paint life as it is, The hideous side of it, with careful pains, Making a god of the dull Commonplace. For have we not the old gods overthrown And set up strangest idols? We could clip Imagination's wing and kill delight, Our sole art being to leave nothing out That renders art offensive. Not for us Madonnas leaning from their starry thrones Ineffable, nor any heaven-wrought dream Of sculptor or of poet; we prefer Such nightmare visions as in morbid brains Take shape and substance, thoughts that taint the air And make all life unlovely. Will it last? Beauty alone endures from age to age, From age to age endures, handmaid of God. Poets who walk with her on earth go hence Bearing a talisman. You bury one, With his hushed music, in some Potter's Field; The snows and rains blot out his very name, As he from life seems blotted: through Time's glass Slip the invisible and magic sands That mark the century, then falls a day The world is suddenly conscious of a flower, Imperishable, ever to be prized, Sprung from the mould of a forgotten grave. 'Tis said the seeds wrapt up among the balms And hieroglyphics of Egyptian kings Hold strange vitality, and, planted, grow After the lapse of thrice a thousand years. Some day, perchance, some unregarded

    note Of our poor friend here--some sweet minor chord That failed to lure our more accustomed ear-- May witch the fancy of an unborn age. Who knows, since seeds have such tenacity? Meanwhile he's dead, with scantiest laurel won And little of our Nineteenth Century gold. So, take him, Earth, and this his mortal part, With that shrewd alchemy thou hast, transmute To flower and leaf in thine unending Springs!


    From yonder gilded minaret Beside the steel-blue Neva set, I faintly catch, from time to time, The sweet, aerial midnight chime-- "God save the Tsar!"

    Above the ravelins and the moats Of the white citadel it floats; And men in dungeons far beneath Listen, and pray, and gnash their teeth-- "God save the Tsar!"

    The soft reiterations sweep Across the horror of their sleep,

     <1> "Little Father," or "Dear Little Father," a term of endearment applied to the Tsar in Russian folk-song. As if some daemon in his glee Were mocking at their misery-- "God save the Tsar!"

    In his Red Palace over there, Wakeful, he needs must hear the prayer. How can it drown the broken cries Wrung from his children's agonies?-- "God save the Tsar!"

    Father they called him from of old-- Batuschka! . . . How his heart is cold! Wait till a million scourged men Rise in their awful might, and then-- God save the Tsar!



    First, two white arms that held him very close, And ever closer as he drew him back Reluctantly, the loose gold-colored hair A thousand delicate fibres reaching out Still to detain him; then some twenty steps

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