The Clergyman’s Second Tale

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The Clergyman’s Second Tale
by Arthur Hugh Clough

Edward and Jane a married couple were,
And fonder she of him or he of her
Was hard to say; their wedlock had begun
When in one year they both were twenty-one;
And friends, who would not sanction, left them free.
He gentle-born, nor his inferior she,
And neither rich; to the newly-wedded boy,
A great Insurance Office found employ.
Strong in their loves and hopes, with joy they took
This narrow lot and the world’s altered look;
Beyond their home they nothing sought or craved,
And even from the narrow income saved;
Their busy days for no ennui had place,
Neither grew weary of the other’s face.
Nine happy years had crowned their married state
With children, one a little girl of eight;
With nine industrious years his income grew,
With his employers rose his favour too;
Nine years complete had passed when something ailed,
Friends and the doctors said his health had failed,
He must recruit, or worse would come to pass;
And though to rest was hard for him, alas!
Three months of leave he found he could obtain,
And go, they said, get well and work again.
Just at this juncture of their married life,
Her mother, sickening, begged to have his wife.
Her house among the hills in Surrey stood,
And to be there, said Jane, would do the children good.
They let their house, and with the children she
Went to her mother, he beyond the sea;
Far to the south his orders were to go.
A watering-place, whose name we need not know,
For climate and for change of scene was best:
There he was bid, laborious task, to rest.
A dismal thing in foreign lands to roam
To one accustomed to an English home,
Dismal yet more, in health if feeble grown,
To live a boarder, helpless and alone
In foreign town, and worse yet worse is made,
If ’tis a town of pleasure and parade.
Dispiriting the public walks and seats,
The alien faces that an alien meets;
Drearily every day this old routine repeats.
Yet here this alien prospered, change of air
Or change of scene did more than tenderest care:
Three weeks were scarce completed, to his home,
He wrote to say, he thought he now could come,
His usual work was sure he could resume,
And something said about the place’s gloom,
And how he loathed idling his time away.
O, but they wrote, his wife and all, to say
He must not think of it, ’twas quite too quick;
Let was their house, her mother still was sick,
Three months were given, and three he ought to take;
For his and her’s and for his children’s sake.
He wrote again, ’twas weariness to wait,
This doing nothing was a thing to hate;
He’d cast his nine laborious years away,
And was as fresh as on his wedding-day;
At last he yielded, feared he must obey.
And now, his health repaired, his spirits grown
Less feeble, less he cared to live alone.
’Twas easier now to face the crowded shore,
And table d’hôte less tedious than before;
His ancient silence sometimes he would break,
And the mute Englishman was heard to speak.
His youthful colour soon, his youthful air
Came back; amongst the crowd of idlers there,
With whom good looks entitle to good name,
For his good looks he gained a sort of fame,
People would watch him as he went and came.
Explain the tragic mystery who can,
Something there is, we know not what, in man,
With all established happiness at strife,
And bent on revolution in his life.
Explain the plan of Providence who dare,
And tell us wherefore in this world there are
Beings who seem for this alone to live,
Temptation to another soul to give.
A beauteous woman at the table d’hôte,
To try this English heart, at least to note
This English countenance, conceived the whim.
She sat exactly opposite to him.
Ere long he noticed with a vague surprise
How every day on him she bent her eyes;
Soft and inquiring now they looked, and then
Wholly withdrawn, unnoticed came again;
His shrunk aside: and yet there came a day,
Alas! they did not wholly turn away.
So beautiful her beauty was, so strange,
And to his northern feeling such a change;
Her throat and neck Junonian in their grace;
The blood just mantled in her southern face:
Dark hair, dark eyes; and all the arts she had
With which some dreadful power adorns the bad,
Bad women in their youth, and young was she,
Twenty perhaps, at the utmost twenty-three,
And timid seemed, and innocent of ill,;
Her feelings went and came without her will.
You will not wish minutely to know all
His efforts in the prospect of the fall.
He oscillated to and fro, he took
High courage oft, temptation from him shook,
Compelled himself to virtuous thoughts and just,
And as it were in ashes and in dust
Abhorred his thought. But living thus alone,
Of solitary tedium weary grown;
From sweet society so long debarred,
And fearing in his judgment to be hard
On her that he was sometimes off his guard
What wonder? She relentless still pursued
Unmarked, and tracked him in his solitude.
And not in vain, alas!
The days went by and found him in the snare.
But soon a letter full of tenderest care
Came from his wife, the little daughter too
In a large hand the exercise was new
To her papa her love and kisses sent.
Into his very heart and soul it went.
Forth on the high and dusty road he sought
Some issue for the vortex of his thought,
Returned, packed up his things, and ere the day
Descended, was a hundred miles away.
There are, I know of course, who lightly treat
Such slips; we stumble, we regain our feet;
What can we do, they say, but hasten on
And disregard it as a thing that’s gone?
Many there are who in a case like this
Would calm re-seek their sweet domestic bliss;
Accept unshamed the wifely tender kiss,
And lift their little children on their knees,
And take their kisses too; with hearts at ease
Will read the household prayers, to church will go,
And sacrament, nor care if people know.
Such men so minded do exist, God knows,
And, God be thanked, this was not one of those.
Late in the night, at a provincial town
In France, a passing traveller was put down;
Haggard he looked, his hair was turning grey,
His hair, his clothes, were much in disarray:
In a bedchamber here one day he stayed,
Wrote letters, posted them, his reckoning paid
And went. ’Twas Edward rushing from his fall;
Here to his wife he wrote and told her all.
Forgiveness yes, perhaps she might forgive
For her, and for the children, he must live
At any rate; but their old home to share
As yet was something that he could not bear.
She with her mother still her home should make,
A lodging-near the office he should take
And once a quarter he would bring his pay,
And he would see her on the quarter-day,
But her alone; e’en this would dreadful be,
The children ’twas not possible to see.
Back to the office at this early day
To see him come, old-looking thus and grey,
His comrades wondered, wondered too to see,
How dire a passion for his work had he,
How in a garret too he lived alone;
So cold a husband, cold a father grown.
In a green lane beside her mother’s home,
Where in old days they had been used to roam,
His wife had met him on the appointed day,
Fell on his neck, said all that love could say,
And wept; he put the loving arms away.
At dusk they met, for so was his desire;
She felt his cheeks and forehead all on fire;
The kisses which she gave he could not brook;
Once in her face he gave a sidelong look,
Said, but for them he wished that he were dead,
And put the money in her hand and fled.
Sometimes in easy and familiar tone,
Of sins resembling more or less his own
He heard his comrades in the office speak,
And felt the colour tingling in his cheek;
Lightly they spoke as of a thing of nought;
He of their judgment ne’er so much as thought.
I know not, in his solitary pains,
Whether he seemed to feel as in his veins
The moral mischief circulating still,
Racked with the torture of the double will;
And like some frontier-land where armies wage
The mighty wars, engage and yet engage
All through the summer in the fierce campaign;
March, counter-march, gain, lose, and yet regain;
With battle reeks the desolated plain;
So felt his nature yielded to the strife
Of the contending good and ill of life.
But a whole year this penance he endured,
Nor even then would think that he was cured.
Once in a quarter, in the country lane,
He met his wife and paid his quarter’s gain;
To bring the children she besought in vain.
He has a life small happiness that gives,
Who friendless in a London lodging lives,
Dines in a dingy chop-house, and returns
To a lone room while all within him yearns
For sympathy, and his whole nature burns
With a fierce thirst for some one, is there none?
To expend his human tenderness upon.
So blank, and hard, and stony is the way
To walk, I wonder not men go astray.
Edward, whom still a sense that never slept
On the strict path undeviating kept,
One winter-evening found himself pursued
Amidst the dusky thronging multitude.
Quickly he walked, but strangely swift was she,
And pertinacious, and would make him see.
He saw at last, and recognising slow,
Discovered in this hapless thing of woe
The occasion of his shame twelve wretched months ago.
She gaily laughed, she cried, and sought his hand,
And spoke sweet phrases of her native land;
Exiled, she said, her lovely home had left,
Not to forsake a friend of all but her bereft;
Exiled, she cried, for liberty, for love,
She was; still limpid eyes she turned above.
So beauteous once, and now such misery in,
Pity had all but softened him to sin;
But while she talked, and wildly laughed, and cried,
And plucked the hand which sadly he denied,
A stranger came and swept her from his side.
He watched them in the gas-lit darkness go,
And a voice said within him, Even so,
So midst the gloomy mansions where they dwell
The lost souls walk the flaming streets of hell!
The lamps appeared to fling a baleful glare,
A brazen heat was heavy in the air;
And it was hell, and he some unblest wanderer there.
For a long hour he stayed the streets to roam,
Late gathering sense, he gained his garret home;
There found a telegraph that bade him come
Straight to the country, where his daughter, still
His darling child, lay dangerously ill.
The doctor would he bring? Away he went
And found the doctor; to the office sent
A letter, asking leave, and went again,
And with a wild confusion in his brain,
Joining the doctor caught the latest train.
The train swift whirled them from the city light
Into the shadows of the natural night.
’Twas silent starry midnight on the down,
Silent and chill, when they, straight come from town,
Leaving the station, walked a mile to gain
The lonely house amid the hills where Jane,
Her mother, and her children should be found.
Waked by their entrance, but of sleep unsound,
The child not yet her altered father knew;
Yet talked of her papa in her delirium too.
Danger there was, yet hope there was; and he,
To attend the crisis, and the changes see,
And take the steps, at hand should surely be.
Said Jane the following day, ‘Edward, you know,
Over and over I have told you so,
As in a better world I seek to live,
As I desire forgiveness, I forgive.
Forgiveness does not feel the word to say,
As I believe in One who takes away
Our sin and gives us righteousness instead,
You to this sin, I do believe, are dead.
’Twas I, you know, who let you leave your home
And bade you stay when you so wished to come;
My fault was that: I’ve told you so before,
And vainly told; but now ’tis something more.
Say, is it right, without a single friend,
Without advice, to leave me to attend
Children and mother both? Indeed, I’ve thought
Through want of you the child her fever caught.
Chances of mischief come with every hour.
It is not in a single woman’s power
Alone, and ever haunted more or less
With anxious thoughts of you and your distress,
’Tis not indeed, I’m sure of it, in me,
All things with perfect judgment to foresee.
This weight has grown too heavy to endure;
And you, I tell you now, and I am sure,
Neglect your duty both to God and man
Persisting thus in your unnatural plan.
This feeling you must conquer, for you can.
And after all, you know we are but dust,
What are we, in ourselves that we should trust?’
He scarcely answered her; but he obtained
A longer leave, and quietly remained.
Slowly the child recovered, long was ill,
Long delicate, and he must watch her still
To give up seeing her he could not near,
To leave her less attended, did not dare.
The child recovered slowly, slowly too
Recovered he, and more familiar drew
Home’s happy breath; and apprehension o’er,
Their former life he yielded to restore,
And to his mournful garret went no more.

Midnight was dim and hazy overhead.
When the tale ended and we turned to bed.
On the companion-way, descending slow,
The artillery captain, as we went below,
Said to the lawyer, life could not be meant
To be so altogether innocent.
What did the atonement show? he, for the rest,
Could not, he thought, have written and confessed.
Weakness it was, and adding crime to crime
To leave his family that length of time,
The lawyer said; the American was sure
Each nature knows instinctively its cure.

Midnight was in the cabin still and dead,
Our fellow-passengers were all in bed,
We followed them, and nothing further spoke.
Out of the sweetest of my sleep I woke
At two, and felt we stopped; amid a dream
Of England knew the letting-off of steam
And rose. ’Twas fog, and were we off Cape Race?
The captain would be certain of his place.
Wild in white vapour flew away the force,
And self-arrested was the eager course
That had not ceased before. But shortly now
Cape Race was made to starboard on the bow.
The paddles plied. I slept. The following night
In the mid seas we saw a quay and light,
And peered through mist into an unseen town,
And on scarce-seeming land set one companion down,
And went. With morning and a shining sun,
Under the bright New Brunswick coast we run,
And visible discern to every eye
Rocks, pines, and little ports, and passing by
The boats and coasting craft. When sunk the night,
Early now sunk, the northern streamers bright
Floated and flashed, the cliffs and clouds behind,
With phosphorus the billows all were lined.

That evening, while the arctic streamers bright
Rolled from the clouds in waves of airy light,
The lawyer said, ‘I laid by for to night
A story that I would not tell before;
For the last time, a confidential four,
We meet. Receive in your elected ears
A tale of human suffering and tears.’

This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.