Poems (Coates 1916)/Volume II/After the Play
AFTER THE PLAY
YOU say I'm dying! It is so, I think:
All pain has left me, and I seem to sink—
A child, content, back to the Mother's breast.
Life grew full sweet of late,—but death is best.
I wanted just this one last quiet hour
To tell you how hope grew fruition's flower,—
Giving me, in a moment, bliss to know,
Beyond what tranquil ages might bestow.
You must not weep, my friend! Consider still
How many lives go frustrate of their will;
How many spend in vain, and fruitless tire!—
I near the goal of my supreme desire.
Your tears reproach the happiness I feel,
And from this dear contentment something steal.
Smile, if you can, beloved! nor delay
What I would tell you ere I go my way.
Love gives but as Love will: this have I proved,
Who through long wistful years have vainly loved,
Yet find my life at last on death's sheer brink—
From lethal fountains purest rapture drink.
You know 't was not my right to dream of her,
Though I had served her long—love's pensioner—
Grateful for modest favor at her hands,
For mere acceptance, or for mild commands;
But on that night, across the theatre
I saw her come, and felt the restless stir
Of mad desires held in leash till then:
A longing to stand equal with the men
Who, for no merit, dared to keep her side,
Suspecting not the barriers that divide
Natures like hers from those of meaner birth.
I knew her throned above me, felt the worth
Of things they recked not of—her richest dower—
Yet longed that life should yield me for one hour
The right to stand before her—even as these?
Nay; but the right to fall before her knees,
To touch in worship her white garment's hem,
To win the smile so lightly given them
Because her heart with happiness o'erflowed,
Unconscious of the largess it bestowed.
Ah, me!—to think, what barren pain I felt!
Hopeless as one who in a desert dwelt,
Exiled from all that made his soul's delight,
I gazed upon her,—was it, friend, last night?
The Play—what matter? It drew near the end,
Scarce marked by me. You know the rest, my friend:
Waiting I sat there full of sad desire,
When, suddenly, it came—that cry of "Fire!"
How suddenly! I started to my feet:
But—as when two on-rushing torrents meet
And break the one the other—mad with fear,
The panic-stricken people, deaf to hear
Counsel or warning, in that burning tomb
Hurtled each other, battling to their doom.
Kind God, blot out the scene—soon past!
I to a column near me clinging fast,
Resisted the fell tide that onward bore
Its helpless prey with hideous uproar.
Twice had I lost my footing; yet I clave,
As one who struggles more than life to save,—
My every thought of her; but when at last,
Sore bruised and breathless, as one shoreward cast
After rude shipwreck, I dared raise my eyes,
Seeking in that vast Hell my Paradise,—
There, like some virgin image carved in stone,
She stood in her white radiance—alone.
Where were the men that loved her, as they said?
Ah, bitter "where"! They, all, too rashly fled,
Had entered that ignoble human strife,
Paying a shameful price for paltry life.
She read my soul, I think; and then—she smiled.
Nay, friend,—imagine not my speech grown wild!
I tell you true: in that appalling place
She smiled—the calm of Heaven in her face:
Her service had been long my soul's emprise;
Yet a new, wistful wonder lit her eyes,
And pale—ay, pale as Hades' death-crowned queen,
Across the fatal barriers between,
Her glad look seemed to say:—"At last, I know!
You, who alone have loved me, could not go!
"All help were vain. Stay!—let me see your face!"
So plead the look; then, with a poignant grace,
Her form bent toward me, her white arms apart,
She gave me the veiled secret of her heart.
Think you we marked the fiery sepulchre
In which we stood,—thence nevermore to stir?
A glory strange enwrapt us. Then, my friend,
I woke, and saw your face, and knew the end,—
Not that which you suppose—the end of strife,
Not dissolution—and not loss—but life!
I think she felt no anguish, knew no fear,
So mercifully swift the flames drew near;
For, even as she smiled, narcotic death
Enveloped her and stifled her sweet breath;
And the fire passed her by and left her there,
Like to a sleeping child, untouched and fair.
All—all that life withheld—is mine at last!
With love, with God,—believe me,—there's no past.
The future waits; it calls—I must not stay!
The night is over,—look! the dawn of Day!