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The Sons of the Soil: a Poem. Ellis, Sarah Stickney, 1812–1872.
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page: 206
page: 207

BOOK X.

  • NOW summer days were swiftly gliding on,
  • And o'er the waving grain bright sunbeams shone,
  • Each morn revealing to the farmer's view
  • Hope's cheering promise, every hour more true.
  • page: 208
  • How could he doubt the God of nature smiled?
  • And Henry too his anxious fears beguiled
  • By gazing on the cloudless skies above,
  • And counting all his heavenly Father's love.
  • Oh, feeblest calculation made by man!
  • When rests his faith on what our eyes may scan
  • Of bright or fair in that stupendous plan
  • Arranged not less in mercy, when the storm
  • Rages around, than when the sunbeams warm;
  • Not less when rolls destruction o'er our fields,
  • Than when its richest store our harvest yields;
  • Not less when turns our earthly bliss to woe,
  • Than when in sweetest streams life's sparkling currents flow.
  • Yet is it good to look abroad, and see
  • The noontide joy of nature's revelry,
  • To gaze admiring on this glorious world—
  • The flag of smiling plenty wide unfurled,
  • page: 209
  • Floating afar from every verdant height,
  • In every valley waving to the sight.
  • What floods of life then swell the tide of hope!
  • The white flocks grazing on the mountain slope,
  • The peaceful herds in the green pastures laid,
  • And sweet songs echoing through the leafy glade.
  • For all this fulness—this extreme of good,
  • What can we render but our gratitude?
  • That how withhold? or, while we feel and live,
  • Our heart's best incense how refuse to give?
  • So felt the farmer ofttimes, when he gazed
  • On nature's face, and then he inly praised
  • That gracious hand, which freely spread the whole
  • Like a perpetual banquet for his soul.
  • 'Twas thus he roamed, with Henry by his side,
  • From field to field, while yet the flowing tide
  • page: 210
  • Of hope and joy had scarce attained its height,
  • And sunny skies still glowed before their sight.
  • But soon dark evenings came, and winds blew loud,
  • And the wide heavens were clothed as with a shroud:
  • No sunshine pierced the gloom, and yet no rain
  • Fell on the earth its ripening bloom to stain.
  • There seemed a darkness in the very air—
  • Something that bade the boding soul prepare—
  • At length it came. Fierce northern gales blew wild,
  • And tore the leafy boughs where beauty smiled;
  • The floods fell heavily, and bowed the grain
  • Beneath the tempest and the sheeted rain.
  • It ceased awhile. The reapers had begun
  • Their task of hope, though still the clouded sun
  • Kept far aloof, and hid his smiling brow;
  • Yet they resumed their joyless labour now
  • Uncheered, and doubtful how the end would prove,
  • So cold the earth, so dark the skies above.
  • page: 211
  • Nor waited long the tempest-laden gales.
  • Again they come—the hissing shower prevails:
  • Low pools arise, and widen into floods;
  • Like rushing waves resound the leafy woods;
  • While cornfields, beaten level as the plain,
  • Lie, lost and hopeless, blackening in the rain.
  • And William Herbert saw the ruin spread,
  • And oft arose at midnight from his bed,
  • To listen if the rushing rains had ceased,
  • Or if the wrath of heaven was yet appeased.
  • But midnight only seemed to darken o'er
  • All that was bleak and desolate before;
  • While louder rushed the foaming torrent then,
  • And heavier fell the rain-drops on the pane.
  • How dreary were those hours of midnight gloom
  • To the lone parent in his cheerless room!
  • And sorely did he need a hand to smooth
  • His restless couch—a gentle voice to soothe.
  • page: 212
  • But she was gone, who would have stayed his soul
  • From sinking, by the silent sweet control
  • Of woman's influence, and of woman's love,
  • Bearing his spirit this rude world above.
  • Sad were the scenes which met the farmer's eye
  • When forth he went, his scattered sheaves to tie;
  • Thick-matted heaps, o'er which the rank weeds threw
  • Their clustering arms, and down the burden drew;
  • While sprouting corn in coarse luxuriance lay
  • Prone on the ground—embedded in the clay.
  • These met his view; and furrows filled with rain
  • Soaking and saturating all his grain.
  • And then his labourers, dripping with the showers,
  • Wasting in idleness their noontide hours,
  • Beneath the hawthorn hedge, behind the sheaves,
  • Or where the sycamore extends her leaves;
  • Yet all expecting payment on the day
  • When their full wages he was wont to pay.
page: 213
  • It was a sight to move the farmer's heart—
  • Almost to make the unmanly tear-drop start
  • In Henry's eye; for he had much at stake,
  • His home to lose—his fortune all to make.
  • And he was young, and life to him was fair,
  • How could he look around, and not despair?
  • How could he look around, and see the waste—
  • The desolation o'er his prospects cast,
  • Nor ask, presumptuous, whence had come the gloom—
  • How had he sinned, to merit such a doom?
  • Or, worse—why Heaven should blast the generous boon
  • So freely given—repented of so soon.
  • Thus Henry questioned, but no peace arose,
  • Or ever will, from reasoning on the laws
  • By which this world is governed, and sustained.
  • Enough for us, that God's own end is gained;
  • That end beyond the range of human mind,
  • Most wise, most just, most merciful and kind.
  • page: 214
  • The farmer, schooled by discipline to bear
  • With brow unchanged, the heaviest weight of care,
  • Was sad but silent, and no murmuring word,
  • Or sound impatient, from his lips was heard.
  • But Henry, restless as a fretful child,
  • With dark anticipations almost wild,
  • Reckoned his loss, and counted o'er his fears;
  • While his fair bride reproached him with her tears,
  • For making her the partner of his home,
  • Ere he had known what sorrows were to come.
  • So passed that gloomy season, and there grew
  • From out the general grief contentions new,
  • Small, but yet frequent—who should most give up,
  • Or most retain—that seems the bitter drop
  • That poisons all; when we have made display
  • Of casting superfluities away,
  • To find that others will not give their share,
  • Or learn from us, their luxuries to spare.
  • page: 215
  • Then shrinks each effort—fails each noble aim,
  • If they withhold, we long to do the same;
  • Or, while the treasured good remains with them,
  • We wish it ours, and envying, still condemn.
  • Thus all the farmer's family believed
  • Their purpose right, but o'er each other grieved.
  • Matilda Herbert, watchful of the rest,
  • Her censure oft implied, more than expressed,
  • If Emma dressed too well, or looked too fine,
  • Or had too weak an appetite to dine.
  • While she, retorting in her quiet way,
  • The retributive taunt could well convey;
  • Or by her servant send an insult down,
  • The maiden aunt's antipathy to crown.
  • Say not that straitened means bring nought to dread
  • Save in the actual want of daily bread.
  • page: 216
  • They bring the very worst of human ills,
  • The bitterest draught our earthly cup that fills.
  • They bring domestic strife—contention—spleen—
  • And envy, mother of the deadliest sin—
  • Injurious thoughts—imbittered words, that burn
  • And goad the writhing spirit to return
  • The pain it suffers on the offender's head.
  • Then say not, poverty brings nought to dread.
  • Yet came not these in their most hideous form—
  • In their full power to ravage and deform.
  • Within the farmer's hospitable home,
  • How could such fearful discord ever come?
  • 'Twas but the shallow waves of life that stirred
  • With the rude breath of some injurious word.
  • The tide flowed on more peacefully below,
  • Where no deep root of bitterness could grow;
  • And love was still the well-spring of the stream,
  • Though somewhat troubled did its waters seem.
page: 217
  • 'Twas near the close of that ill-fated year,
  • When all things looked most desolate and drear,
  • While yet November's scattered foliage lay
  • Untrodden o'er the traveller's gloomy way;
  • The farmer's landlord in his ancient hall
  • Prepared to hold a jocund festival.
  • Not for his titled friends; his guests were now
  • Those who had learned to speed the rustic plough—
  • His tenantry—the yeoman of the land—
  • Their wives and daughters—one united hand—
  • Servants, and satellites—all asked to come
  • And grace his old hereditary home.
  • Grace, it might be, or not; for far and wide
  • His grooms, delighted, on their errand ride,
  • Dropping a note of invitation here,
  • Where spreads the man of wealth his courteous cheer:
  • Startling the inmates of the cottage there,
  • Where hands less delicate the meal prepare.
  • From house to house, with clattering hoofs they fly,
  • Their thundering knock proclaims their dignity;
  • page: 218
  • The maid sets down her pail upon the floor,
  • And curious children peep around the door;
  • The dame walks forth, with pleasure-sparkling eye,
  • Proud to be asked, yet fearful to reply;
  • While simpering daughters scarcely deign to come
  • To wait in person on their landlord's groom.
  • Yet some less bashful bring the foaming cup,
  • And to the smiling horseman hold it up;
  • While others send their servants, and remain
  • Behind the scenes, meet distance to maintain.
  • Thus spread the summons, far and wide it flew;
  • While many a matron wondered what to do:
  • Refuse she dared not, and she scarcely would,
  • Even if her prudent spouse had thought she could.
  • Yet how to dress, to curtsy, or to go
  • Into those splendid rooms, she ne'er should know.
  • It seemed as if her foot perforce must slip,
  • Just as the words of greeting passed her lip;
  • page: 219
  • Or that some dire calamity must fall
  • Upon her head-dress, ere she reached the hall.
  • Yet, with this train of suppositions, came
  • A secret pleasure to the rustic dame;
  • And if profusion ne'er was seen before,
  • She would not spare—she must be garnished o'er
  • With lace, and ribbons yellow, green, and blue,
  • And deepest red, that seemed as if it grew
  • From the rich crimson of her glowing face,
  • So much alike their beauty, and their grace.
  • Strange were the different scenes which then arose,
  • Breaking the peaceful hamlet's long repose.
  • Fashions consulted—carriers charged to bear
  • Each precious burden from the town with care,
  • Things brought to light long hidden from the view,
  • Old dresses manufactured into new,
  • Clothes made to fit for that illustrious night
  • That for all others had been deemed too tight.
  • page: 220
  • Some felt themselves arrayed for any court,
  • While others thought their utmost power fell short
  • Of what they wished, 'mid such a scene, to wear,
  • And still, to all, the appointed hour drew near.
  • How fared it then in William Herbert's home?
  • It seemed as if no summons there had come—
  • No preparation—no consulting there—
  • Could they not mean that festival to share?
  • Truth was, they were prepared for such a scene,
  • And only wished their family had been
  • Passed by—forgotten—anything but asked.
  • How should their hatred of the thing be masked?
  • To go, a vassal rather than a guest,
  • And sit with hungry boors at that great feast!—
  • It was too humbling to their secret pride;
  • And yet their landlord's bidding they must bide.
page: 221
  • “And since it must be,” William Herbert said,
  • “Let us all hope some good may yet be made
  • Of this strange meeting. Such there used to be
  • Between the landlords and their tenantry
  • In days of yore; and we may go to hear
  • Of rents being lessened for the coming year.”
  • Matilda Herbert recollected then
  • That other well-bred ladies—nine or ten—
  • Must needs be there; while Emma thought aside
  • Henry would like to show his lovely bride.
  • It had been difficult for Helen's mind
  • To yield a point like this; but there combined
  • Against her pride hope's glimmering of faint joy,
  • Which still she strove by reasoning to destroy.
  • page: 222
  • Yet watchful eyes deceived, or there had been
  • Amongst those grooms Lord William's servant seen,
  • So she resolved, more complaisance to show,
  • Her father's wishes to consult, and go.
  • Lucy was held excused: she had no heart
  • To grace a pageant, or to act a part;
  • And thus she lent her willing hand to all,
  • To braid the hair, and fold the graceful shawl.
  • Her aunt she decked, magnificently gay,
  • And proud the latest fashions to display;
  • Emma, adorned in colours pure and chaste,
  • And round her brow a wreath of roses placed,
  • Whose silvery sprays above her temples twined,
  • Pale as her beauty, simple as her mind.
  • But long did Lucy linger o'er that scene
  • Where Helen stood, more like a stately queen,
  • Than form familiar, gifted but with powers
  • To live as we do, in this world of ours.
  • page: 223
  • No gorgeous trappings clothed her graceful form,
  • No mimic flowers outvied her blushes warm;
  • Smooth lay the folds of her deep raven hair,
  • One band of purest pearls alone was there.
  • At length the vision fades from Lucy's sight:
  • The hour arrives; she bids them all good-night
  • With looks of kindness—almost looks of joy,
  • Why should her grief their happiness destroy?
  • Now are they gone, the sheltering curtains drawn,
  • And closed the gate that echoes o'er the lawn.
  • She turns to her lone hearth, and vacant chair:
  • Oh, hour of deepest luxury for despair!
  • When all are gone, no loiterer left to see
  • The gushing tears of pent-up misery;
  • No word to answer, and no smile to meet,
  • The silent embers brightening at our feet;
  • Alone—secure—no intercourse to dread,
  • No step to startle with approaching tread;
  • page: 224
  • Deep night around us, with her sable gloom,
  • Soft beams of mellow light within the room,
  • Hour after hour to nurse our anguish there,
  • And taste the genuine luxury of despair.
  • Meantime the lights within the landlord's hall
  • Were glancing brightly, and the tapestried wall
  • Displayed its curious colouring to the view,
  • And o'er the scene mysterious splendour threw:
  • While smiling servants hasten to and fro,
  • Pleased with the frolic, dazzled with the show.
  • Now to the door strange equipages come,
  • And trembling fair ones seek the tiring room;
  • While wondering farmers stand and stroke their hair,
  • With hat in hand, afraid to venture where
  • They see the richly liveried footmen run,
  • And where they hope the feasting has begun.
  • Alas! what hours had they to wish and wait,
  • Ere by the genial board at last they sate!
  • page: 225
  • Rich fragrant coffee first must touch the lip
  • In gilded cups, from which they taste and sip,
  • And deem it well as prelude to the rest,
  • Though scarcely worth presenting to a guest.
  • Still swells the moving pageant on the sight,
  • Dames from the dairy, milkmaids red and white,
  • These clad in russet, those in silken sheen,
  • Jockeys in boots, and clowns in coats of green,
  • While gliding here and there, amongst the rest,
  • Were statelier matrons fashionably dressed,
  • With silent daughters just returned from school,
  • Beating the air with fans, to keep it cool.
  • There too was seen that noblest form of man,
  • Built upon nature's most majestic plan;
  • Firm, tall, and free, his shoulders broad, and bold,
  • His sturdy hand well used to grasp, and hold:
  • page: 226
  • His mien erect, his foot placed on the ground
  • With purpose fixed, and dignity profound;
  • His temples wreathed with natural waves of hair,
  • His manly forehead smooth, and calm, and fair,
  • Contrasting well with the deep bronze below,
  • And sunny tints upon his cheek that glow.
  • Such were the men that Britain once could boast,
  • Whose homes adorned her land, from coast to coast;
  • Untaught in Attic lore, unskilled, perchance,
  • To tread the mazes of the graceful dance;
  • Yet firm to sanction, and defend her laws;
  • Shepherds at home, but soldiers in her cause;
  • And proud at heart to bear her honoured name,
  • Yet still more proud of her unsullied fame.
  • Where are they now? Go ask the western waves—
  • The southern billows, where they find their graves?
  • Search the wild prairie, trace them o'er the plain
  • Where the log-cabin shields them from the rain;
  • Or track the wide Australian wastes, and say,
  • How fare the sons that England sends away?
page: 227
  • But to our story. Such had Henry been,
  • A perfect model of the man we mean;
  • Save that his hand was fairer, and his eye
  • Had more of beauty, less of energy.
  • And he looked on, amid the glittering scene
  • Unmoved, as if his daily path had been
  • With flitting forms and brilliant lights adorned;
  • All rude amazement his proud spirit scorned.
  • Enough for him, one form so slight and fair
  • Leaned on his arm, and looked the loveliest there;
  • His honoured father too, well pleased, he saw
  • Close to his side the graceful Helen draw,
  • Lest vulgar freedom should provoke her frown,
  • Or hands familiar dare to touch her own.
  • Now changed the scene, wide doors were thrown aside,
  • And forth there issued such a sparkling tide
  • page: 228
  • Of flowers, and gems, and beauty decked for show,
  • That scarce the wondering farmers seemed to know
  • Whether from earth or heaven the vision came;
  • Yet silent every social group became:
  • And those who most had deemed themselves adorned
  • Their own poor vestments now beheld, and scorned.
  • It was the landlord, and his noble friends,
  • And o'er the widening space his train extends,
  • Breathing around, where'er they turn their eyes,
  • That tone of welcome that in utterance dies.
  • What form is that clad in a soldier's dress,
  • Whose smiles the glow of happiness express?
  • A radiant beauty leans upon his arm,
  • He sees no other; not a single form,
  • Nor eye, nor look, in all that moving mass
  • Before his faithless memory seems to pass.
  • At length the farmer meets him, face to face;
  • His brow assumes the very faintest trace
  • page: 229
  • Of recognition, and he slightly bends
  • As if in greeting; while his ear attends
  • Still undiverted, to the foreign tongue
  • Of her who looks so beautiful and young,
  • Of noble birth, though distant lands must claim
  • The honour of her lineage, and her name.
  • They passed, and mingled with the dancing throng,
  • And William Herbert led his child along,
  • Both silent, though he thought her gentle hand
  • Shook on his arm; and he could understand,
  • Though not for worlds could he have then explained
  • His mingled feelings, or the pang that pained.
  • One thought alone distinctly touched his heart,
  • And almost made the burning tear-drop start.
  • His daughter Helen ne'er had been so dear,
  • Nor to his kindly sympathies so near,
  • As in this hour of her insulted pride;
  • And thus he pressed her closer to his side.
  • page: 230
  • She felt the pressure. Woman quickly feels
  • The touch that secret sympathy reveals.
  • 'Tis her mute witness that she is not left
  • Alone on earth, of every friend bereft;
  • And thus she hoards the memory in her soul,
  • When o'er her head life's troubled waters roll.
  • Why linger we amid this festal throng;
  • To graver scenes our sympathies belong.
  • Enough to know the feast and frolic grew
  • Not to their height, till morn her veil withdrew,
  • And o'er the world her purple radiance threw.
  • Afraid to meet even pity's tenderest touch,
  • Long ere that hour had Helen sought her couch,
  • Put out her light, and laid her head to rest,
  • Hoping to shroud the anguish of her breast
  • Even from herself; but darkness only brought
  • More perfect torture with each burning thought.
  • No tear had yet bedewed her feverish cheek,
  • No word of sorrow had she deigned to speak;
  • page: 231
  • But through the silent night, when none are near,
  • A wounded spirit is too hard to bear
  • Without some natural overflow of grief—
  • And tears were surely given to bring relief.
  • Lucy was sleeping, or appeared to sleep,
  • So Helen fearlessly began to weep.
  • With such excess the tide of sorrow grew,
  • She heard not the soft step that near her drew,
  • Nor saw the gentle form beside her bed,
  • That bent with deepest feeling o'er her head.
  • “Helen, dear Helen.”
  • It was Lucy's voice,
  • Sweet as an angels, and she had no choice
  • But to disclose the secret of her woes,
  • While darkness hid her blushes as they rose.
  • For there was shame—deep-burning shame, with all
  • That else had pained; but this was mingling gall
  • page: 232
  • With bitterest wormwood. Yet she told the whole,
  • And meekly asked for comfort to her soul.
  • She told how Douglas had appeared that night
  • Like some bright vision, dazzling to her sight;
  • How he no sign of memory betrayed,
  • How, with another pleased, he scorned the rustic maid.
  • Yet this was nothing. “Can I tell the rest?
  • Yes; and for ever tear him from my breast.
  • The titled guests had joined the merry dance,
  • Ladies, and lords, and waiting-maids from France;
  • All blending in one many-coloured maze,
  • While those who could not dance stood round to gaze.
  • At length the ladies of the hall retired,
  • When louder grew the glee, and more inspired
  • Each booted jockey, and each turbaned dame,
  • That forth from out their hiding-places came.
  • page: 233
  • I would have left, but heard my father say
  • We must not be the first to turn away.
  • Thus came my punishment. Oh, Lucy, hide
  • Thy searching eyes, and spare thy sister's pride!
  • Douglas returned, and now he came alone,
  • All the proud revellers but him were gone.
  • He came with smiles upon his altered brow,
  • And the poor farmer's daughter he could know;
  • Could touch her hand familiarly, and say
  • How well she looked, how happy was that day.
  • I fear there was a blush upon my cheek
  • As he drew near; and when I tried to speak,
  • I could not quite my trembling voice control;
  • For something came like gladness to my soul,
  • After long grief. But, oh! it passed away,
  • And left such blackness! Lucy, never say
  • One word of this to any human ear.
  • Keep it, dear Lucy, and be more than dear.
  • I thought his words were somewhat strange, and free,
  • And when I looked into his face to see
  • page: 234
  • His real meaning, there I read the whole!
  • His brow was flushed—his eye-balls seemed to roll—
  • Wine was the secret of his gallantry,
  • And I, amid those dancing grooms, might be
  • His village belle—his plaything for an hour,
  • Till pride, or prudence, should resume its power.
  • “Oh, Lucy! and he once did seem so kind,
  • And pure, and noble, that I gave my mind
  • To his smooth flatteries, which deceived me so.
  • Spurn me not, dearest Lucy, if I show
  • To thee the weakness of a woman's heart.
  • Thine is, I know, a more exalted part,
  • A calmer course along life's path to trace,
  • With less disquietude, and less disgrace.”
  • “Helen,” said Lucy, “sorrow sometimes lies
  • Hid in the heart, and veiled from human eyes;
  • page: 235
  • While deepest shame may burn beneath a cheek
  • Whose tell-tale blushes never more shall speak.
  • But let that pass. Come to thy sister's breast,
  • Meet place for sorrow and for shame to rest.
  • Cheer thee, beloved one. 'Twas but a dream,
  • 'Twill pass away, and life will fairer seem,
  • And thou wilt live to love and hope again,
  • With less of confidence, yet less of pain.
  • Lean on this breast; my heart is beating sore—
  • Its burning throb will surely soon be o'er;
  • Yet let us take sweet counsel while we may.
  • I feel, dear Helen, that I shall not stay
  • Long to be near thee; and I fain would say
  • Something to strengthen thee, as well as soothe—
  • Would stretch my hand thy thorny path to smooth.
  • 'Tis an old story, that this world is fair
  • In seeming only—all its joys a snare;
  • And we will leave this melancholy strain
  • For themes more cheering, and for truths more plain,
  • page: 236
  • Will ask our heavenly Father, in his love,
  • To send us light and healing from above,
  • And guide our footsteps through the days of youth,
  • By his own Spirit, in the paths of truth.”
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