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The Sons of the Soil: a Poem. Ellis, Sarah Stickney, 1812–1872.
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page: 236
page: 237

BOOK XI.

  • IT had been hoped by many a rural guest
  • Who went to share his landlord's sumptuous feast,
  • That some great benefit would quickly come—
  • Some good soon follow to his humbler home—
  • page: 238
  • Some cheerful tidings that the man of power
  • Had looked with pity on their adverse hour.
  • Knowing the blighted harvest of that year,
  • They thought he brought them round his board, to cheer,
  • And would, with like benevolent intent,
  • Remit some portion of their winter's rent.
  • Schooled in the Arab's hospitable lore,
  • They thought no guest could enter at that door,
  • Or break the bread of plenty at that board,
  • Without some heartfelt kindness from its lord—
  • Some bond of sympathy, with secret power
  • Binding them all more closely, from that hour.
  • Vain childlike confidence! where had they learned
  • This simple trust, by the keen worldling spurned?
  • 'Twas in their peaceful homes—their bowers of rest,
  • Where sordid interests seldom goad the breast;
  • Where man, uniting in his Maker's plan,
  • Knows not his fiercest enemy in man.
page: 239
  • If there still lives simplicity on earth,
  • 'Tis where these sons of nature's soil have birth.
  • If there be those who know no servile fear—
  • Men who can trust their fellow-men, 'tis here;
  • If there be hope that smiles are what they seem,
  • That human kindness is not all a dream;
  • That human fellowship, and human love,
  • Have something vital, their mere names above;
  • If there be justice—if a sense of right;
  • For the oppressed, a fearless arm to fight;
  • If there be truth that nobly spurns a lie,
  • Nor knows the science of that treachery
  • That rules the mart, and stains the courtly robe,
  • And mocks reliance o'er the peopled globe.
  • If these are ever found beneath the skies,
  • 'Tis where our country's peaceful hamlets rise;
  • Where men, untutored in the tricks of trade,
  • Live—but no longer flourish—in the shade.
page: 240
  • Bright were the hopes that wakened many a smile,
  • And cheered the farmers in their wintry toil;
  • And William Herbert smiled amongst the rest,
  • While the same hope enlivened Henry's breast;
  • As forth they rode, one stormy winter's day,
  • To face the tempest on the broad highway.
  • Swift was their speed, and neither brow betrayed
  • Of dark foreboding, or of doubt, a shade.
  • More provident—perchance more proud than some,
  • Their full amount of rent they bore from home;
  • Yet not the less dismissed all thought of fear
  • That half would be returned them, for that year.
  • What troops they passed that morn along the road!
  • Brisk jockeys there their rival steeds bestrode;
  • While sober men, who seemed to ride and sleep,
  • Dodged through the mire with footfall loud and deep.
  • Some, pleased to greet their neighbours as they went,
  • Drew up in ranks, as if with one consent;
  • page: 241
  • And talking loudly of the price of grain,
  • Threw on their horses' necks the loosened rein.
  • The concourse thickened as the town they neared,
  • And soon their landlord's equipage appeared,
  • Hailed by his faithful tenantry around
  • With kindling joy, yet with respect profound.
  • Some thought that none that equipage excelled,
  • Even when a royal festival was held;
  • Some praised the servants, and a few their dress;
  • Some thought the great man easy of access;
  • While more approved his horses, and bestowed
  • Their utmost praise on one he sometimes rode.
  • It had been easy to have bound those men
  • By love and gratitude's enduring chain;
  • They were so simple, and so fain to trust
  • To that great lord for what was kind and just.
  • page: 242
  • Then let us trace them on their homeward way,
  • When darkness fell upon that wintry day.
  • Sharp was the sleet, and fiercely blew the wind,
  • Piercing and pitiless, as if to find
  • Some wound to search—some undefended part
  • By which to rend a passage to the heart.
  • 'Twas not enough, the smarting eye-balls felt
  • That icy shower in tears of anguish melt;
  • 'Twas not enough, the cheek was scathed and bare,
  • Robbed of all natural shelter from the hair;
  • 'Twas not enough, the hand that held the rein
  • Stiffened with cold, or agonized with pain;
  • But that rude wind drove back the folded coat,
  • With savage purpose sought the guarded throat,
  • Through each small crevice sent a quivering wound,
  • And then, with louder triumph, howled around.
  • And there were some who met the blast that night,
  • And had enough to feel, without the spite
  • page: 243
  • Of sleet, or gale, or winter's withering frost:
  • For now their last—their only hope was lost.
  • Nor lost their hope alone. Strange tidings came
  • To make that day of memorable name.
  • Their landlord, kind and complaisant of mood,
  • Smiled on them all, and hoped they understood
  • What the great pressure of the times required;
  • How able men, in what they most desired
  • As best and wisest for the state, should be
  • Supported by their faithful tenantry.
  • In short, amid the wreck of that sad year,
  • He plainly told them, that they must appear
  • On the next rent-day with an added sum;
  • That he was going abroad; but one would come
  • Well authorized, and able to enforce,
  • In all he wished, to adopt the surest course.
  • “You have your choice,” he said, “to go, or stay;
  • But I must have my money, come what may.”
page: 244
  • How did they bear those tidings? Some went home
  • Early, and sullenly. Like children, some
  • Pleaded, and strove to modify their doom;
  • While others, reckless—maddened with despair,
  • Feasted, and drank, and drove away their care;
  • Till, blustering forth, and battling with the blast,
  • They reeled away, and found their homes at last.
  • Long ere these revellers forsook the board,
  • Had William Herbert left its courteous lord;
  • Henry had silently led forth his steed,
  • And both pursued their homeward way with speed.
  • Nor had one word escaped them, till they drew
  • Near to the lane where their own poplars grew;
  • When slackened both the rein, and slowly trod
  • Their weary horses that familiar road.
  • “I have been thinking,” said the farmer, then,
  • “Whom I can spare amongst my labouring men.
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  • All have been like one family to me,
  • But some must be dismissed, I plainly see.
  • It grieves my heart these cruel truths to say;
  • Yet the old shepherd hardly earns his pay;
  • The poor lame boy, who keeps our garden trim,
  • His distant parish will provide for him;
  • And Phebe's father, so infirm and slow,
  • To the new workhouse we must make him go.”
  • “Or go ourselves,” said Henry; “'twere as well,
  • As thus the pauper catalogue to swell.”
  • “I once had hoped,” his father calmly said,
  • “In life's decline, to rest my weary head
  • Amongst these people; and to find a grave
  • Beneath the elms that in yon churchyard wave;
  • Leaving behind me many a happy home,
  • Followed with blessings to the peaceful tomb,
  • page: 246
  • But I must act this cold ungrateful part,
  • Must drive them from my door, and from my heart;
  • Bid them begone, because their strength has failed,
  • Age has enfeebled, or disease assailed.
  • This is their recompense for years of toil,
  • This the sole tribute of their native soil.”
  • 'Twas even so; and while that wintry gale
  • Swept through the cot, and chilled its inmates pale,
  • While the black clouds burst with their fleecy load,
  • And drifting snow lay thick upon the road,
  • The farmer forced himself, with aching heart,
  • To tell his faithful labourers they must part.
  • And one went home to spend that evening cold
  • Without a fire—he was infirm and old.
  • Another tried to smile, and say good-night,
  • But dashed away the tears that dimmed his sight.
  • A third looked up into his master's face,
  • And would have spoken; but his speech gave place
  • page: 247
  • To sullen pride, for he had served him well,
  • And long—why should he stoop his griefs to tell?
  • So they retired, a silent, joyless train,
  • Ne'er to retrace that well-known path again.
  • They closed the gate, whose echo brought to mind
  • The love long cherished for their master kind;
  • They turned, and saw the glimmering of his fire,
  • How could he wish their comforts to expire?
  • And he so wealthy, in that spacious home,
  • Where flitting forms were seen, from room to room
  • Gliding about, as if no thought of care
  • Had ever reached the happy inmates there.
  • Sad were the tidings to their village brought,
  • While busy rumour half the story caught,
  • And tinged the other half with darker hue,
  • From vague conclusions, neither kind nor true.
  • page: 248
  • Yet true it was, that, ere a month had gone,
  • These men, and more, were on their parish thrown,
  • Tasting the tender mercies known to those,
  • And those alone, who feel the pauper's woes.
  • And some were placed along the public way,
  • With weary hammer labouring all the day;
  • While others, more ill-fated, worked their rounds
  • From house to house, their ears assailed by sounds
  • That had no soothing for the sons of care,
  • And bade them anything but welcome there.
  • Much has been said of slavery abroad,
  • Much has been done, and nobly, that this load
  • Might be removed, and Britain's glorious name
  • Stand forth unsullied by one taint of shame.
  • And over all this isle has spread the sound,
  • When men have proved, by argument profound,
  • That slavery does not only gall and bind
  • The human body, but degrade the mind.
  • page: 249
  • Yet, have we not, within our favoured realm,
  • Where justice reigns, and wisdom guides the helm,
  • Seen bondage galling as the actual chain
  • That binds the negro to his task of pain?
  • Have we not seen, when hands that oft have held
  • The spade or sickle in the open field;
  • When sinewy arms well skilled to guide the plough,
  • To drive the team, to reap the grain, or sow;
  • When forms herculean, warmed by hearts as bold,
  • With strength that scarcely in old age grew old:
  • Were driven by dire necessity to swell
  • The pauper's ranks, or bid their homes farewell;
  • To ask for help, unwillingly bestowed,
  • Or gain, instead, those bitter taunts that goad
  • The generous bosom in its hour of need;
  • When, but for helpless children wanting bread,
  • The sturdy suppliant would rather die,
  • Than tax the parish for his own supply.
page: 250
  • That winter was a dreary one to all;
  • Dark were the days, and sullen was the fall
  • Of silent snow upon the frozen earth;
  • And hushed was many a voice that spoke of mirth
  • In days gone by, when village hearths burned bright,
  • And youths and maidens hailed the winter's night,
  • With all its frolic, and its social cheer,
  • Its gathering home of friends long-tried and dear.
  • Where are they now? The hamlet seems to sleep
  • 'Mid the white plain, so pathless and so deep,
  • That scarce the shepherd toils his wonted way,
  • To strew the ground with welcome heaps of hay,
  • To guard the fence, or trim the low-roofed shed,
  • Or track the wandering sheep with dubious tread.
  • Nor looked the world less dreary, when there fell
  • A drizzling rain; when streams began to swell,
  • And heave their icy burdens to the brink;
  • And the deep drifts to melt away, and sink;
  • page: 251
  • And here, and there, along the fields, were seen
  • Ridges of earth, and spots of mournful green.
  • It needs some thought to solace or to please
  • The farmer, when he looks on scenes like these;
  • Some hope to lead him forth, when falls the rain,
  • To turn the watercourse, to guard his grain,
  • The sluice to widen, or the trench to cast,
  • By skill ingenious, and by labour vast.
  • Nor thinks the townsman on his couch of rest
  • What anxious fears assail the farmer's breast;
  • What shifting plans must agitate his mind,
  • With every change that rules the restless wind.
  • Yet neither comfort came with cheering smile
  • To William Herbert, nor did hope beguile;
  • And while his brows was shadowed o'er with care,
  • Henry's expression looked more like despair.
  • For he would sit, his daily labour done,
  • Through that long hour, ere evening has begun,
  • page: 252
  • Resting his elbow on the table near,
  • Upon his hand, his brow so pale, and clear;
  • While his thick raven hair, with natural flow,
  • Cast a deep shadow o'er his cheek below;
  • And his dark eyes, that sometimes seemed to see
  • Nothing, on earth, but hopeless misery,
  • Fixed on the fire their melancholy gaze,
  • And watched unmoved the flickering of the blaze:
  • Nor turned away, when others' prattling mood
  • Upon his silent musing would intrude;
  • Nor yet awoke to answering smiles of love,
  • When the fair Emma would his patience prove,
  • By questions idle, and ill framed to please,
  • To soothe his grief, or cure his mind's disease.
  • Yet was it only at the darkening hour
  • Of winter's twilight, that the secret power
  • Of speechless thought sat brooding o'er his soul,
  • Chaining its energies with stern control.
  • page: 253
  • Brisk morning drove him early to the field,
  • The fence to prop, the sturdy axe to wield;
  • And when the frost had melted from the ground,
  • Amongst the flocks and herds to trace his round;
  • To guide the plough along the fallow plain,
  • Or strew once more, with skilful hand, the grain.
  • And could this toil, unceasingly pursued—
  • Could health, or youth with impulse firm and good—
  • Could manly will, by noble purpose moved,
  • Sufficient for their hour of need have proved;
  • The farmer and his son might ne'er have known
  • Such gloomy shadows o'er their future thrown.
  • But all too late their effort to redeem
  • Errors long past. There was no human scheme,
  • Nor power in industry, or human thought,
  • To meet such evils as the past had wrought.
  • And hard it seems to battle with the rage
  • Of storm and tempest; constant war to wage
  • page: 254
  • With foes so pitiless as sleet and hail,
  • When clouds are dark, and northern winds prevail;
  • Yet feel no cheering promise in the breast,
  • That here, at last, may weary age find rest.
  • 'Twas long ere spring with verdure clothed the plain,
  • That Lucy Herbert traced those paths again
  • Which led her where disease its vigil kept,
  • Where want complained, or hopeless suffering wept.
  • Her sister Martha, generous still, and true
  • To those she loved in childhood, ne'er withdrew
  • Her heart's warm interest from the lowly few
  • Who used to claim her sympathy and care;
  • And now that richer boons her hand could spare,
  • Lucy was made her almoner, and bore
  • Bounty and blessing to the needy poor.
  • Sore was her trial when she talked with those
  • Who to her father traced their wants and woes;
  • page: 255
  • Who thought him pitiless, and hard of heart,
  • With his old friends so willingly to part.
  • Yet had she ever known, from earliest youth,
  • The touching eloquence of simple truth;
  • And her mild speech, and earnest looks, could win
  • Entire belief, when argument had been
  • Fruitless and vain, as breath of idle wind,
  • To check the impulse of a wounded mind.
  • Thus had she felt more earnestly the need
  • Of her mild influence, when the tidings spread
  • Of discontent amongst the village poor,
  • Driven, as they called it, from the farmer's door.
  • And thus she stayed not for the rains to cease,
  • The skies to clear, or winds to hold their peace;
  • But, like some gentle flower, too frail to last,
  • That bares too soon its bosom to the blast,
  • She went, regardless of herself, and strove
  • To waken for her father, thoughts of love;
  • To prove him blameless, and to still the sigh,
  • And hush the murmurings, of despondency.
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  • Nor was her lightest task in Phebe's home,
  • Where oft in childhood she was wont to come;
  • Where the old father, querulous with pain,
  • Of many a lighter grievance would complain.
  • But now such complicated ills prevailed,
  • That scarce her soothing sympathy availed.
  • “Troubles,” he said, “are never sent alone.”
  • And then he told his over, one by one;
  • How, in old age upon the parish cast,
  • His daughter Phebe, at the very last,
  • When all things darkened round him, and her care
  • Alone remained to make him not despair—
  • How she could leave him—yes, could choose to wed,
  • Not to remain at home, and shield his head;
  • But to go forth, where wild Atlantic waves
  • Tempt idle youths to seek untimely graves.
  • Lucy was listening, but her ear had caught
  • Another well-known sound; and quick as thought
  • page: 257
  • Once the warm hectic would have stained her cheek,
  • But now no more its tell-tale blushes speak.
  • Calm, pale, and passionless—almost as cold
  • As marble, she could now behold
  • The moving form, and hear the living voice
  • Of him whose love would once have been her choice
  • Above all treasures, and above all bliss:
  • Of all that earth could yield, her soul had asked but this.
  • She had so loved him: not a thought had been
  • In her pure mind, that he might not have seen;
  • Nor vague desire might ever there intrude,
  • Nor wish, that sought not to promote his good;
  • Nor could imagination wake one hope,
  • But he was still its centre, and its scope.
  • She had so loved him—with such childlike trust,
  • Looking to him for what was great, and just,
  • page: 258
  • Generous, and noble, and approved of heaven;
  • That scarce a more enduring faith was given
  • To her meek prayers, than to her earthly love;
  • Bearing her up, life's troubled waves above.
  • And thus it was, that when this sacred chain
  • Was broken, nothing could unite again
  • Its severed links—that nothing could impart
  • The slightest value to one separate part.
  • It was the entireness of the perfect whole
  • That gave it strength and beauty to her soul.
  • That strength had failed her: haply it was well,
  • For, from that hour, she bade this world farewell.
  • Yet seemed it only fading from her view,
  • To leave the colouring of the next more true;
  • And while she dwelt on earth, 'twas but as one
  • Whose task of earthly toil is nearly done.
  • Thus was her spirit seldom moved to grief,
  • And her eyes wept not. 'Twould have been relief
  • To natural feeling; but that fount was sealed
  • By silent suffering, to no ear revealed.
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  • 'Twas strange that Lucy now could calmly hear
  • The voice that once had been too kind, and dear;
  • And raise her eyes unblushing to that face,
  • Nor linger, lines of beauty there to trace.
  • Yet such things have been; and she was not one
  • To shrink from tasks of duty when begun.
  • She felt like some lone pilgrim, and her day
  • Of weariness was wearing fast away.
  • Then what to her were shadows o'er her path,
  • Clouds in the sky, or in the tempest, wrath?
  • A few brief months—it might be only days,
  • And she no more would tread the thorny ways
  • That o'er this world's vast wilderness extend.
  • Happy for her, that journey soon would end.
  • 'Twas in such confidence, that Lucy heard
  • That well-known voice—yes, every tone and word;
  • But joined not in familiar converse there,
  • Apart she sate; she did not choose to share
  • page: 260
  • Social communion, or exchange of thought,
  • With one whose hand by money might be bought.
  • Yet, had she said good-night, and left that scene,
  • Perchance his patronizing care had been
  • Extended to her solitary walk;
  • So she remained, to hear the poor man talk
  • Of all his sorrows; while the pastor told
  • Of consolation; but with look so cold,
  • And tone so regulated, smooth, and mild,
  • As never yet the sorrowing heart beguiled.
  • At length he rose; and Lucy breathed again
  • When he was gone, with less oppressive pain;
  • And hastened forth to meet the chilly blast,
  • While deepening shadows o'er her path were cast.
  • It was a cold March evening, and there blew
  • A piercing gale; and Lucy, shivering, drew
  • page: 261
  • Her cloak around her frail and slender form,
  • That bent beneath the anger of the storm.
  • Yet had there been some hopeful sign of spring
  • In birds that fluttered on the joyous wing,
  • And firmer felt the ground beneath the tread,
  • And the pale snowdrop reared its drooping head,
  • While lengthening daylight lingered in the west,
  • And earlier woke the labourer from his rest.
  • And Lucy, as she closed her father's gate,
  • Heard the old rook, that in the elm-tree sate,
  • Soothe his companions with a solemn caw,
  • Bidding them fear not—he no danger saw.
  • Such were the omens of returning spring.
  • To health, and youth, sweet promise did they bring.
  • But Lucy, from that cold and cheerless day,
  • Looked not the same: she seemed to fade away;
  • And though bright spring with gladness came at last,
  • She bloomed no more—her spring of life was past.
  • page: 262
  • She heard the birds sing gaily o'er her head;
  • But her pale cheek was pillowed on her bed.
  • They brought her flowers—wild flowers, that once she loved,
  • When through the fields her wandering footsteps roved;
  • She thanked her friends, and called them kind, and good;
  • Yet smiled for joy, far less than gratitude
  • For while she prayed to wait more patiently,
  • Her yearning heart was pining to be free.
  • Why should we wish for those we love to stay
  • And meet the conflict of another day?
  • When wings of faith are theirs, to bear their flight
  • Up to the realms of everlasting light?
  • Yet nature mourns, when merciless decay
  • Steals o'er the loved one while the world looks gay;
  • When skies are bright, and western gales blow soft,
  • And odorous breath of opening blossoms waft;
  • page: 263
  • And sparkling streams flow with a silvery sound,
  • Wakening the verdure of the earth around;
  • When all is fair, and life so full of joy,
  • We scarce believe that blight will e'er destroy.
  • Hard is it then to watch the loveliest brow
  • Round which the sunny ringlets used to flow
  • Darkening with death—the feet whose joyous speed
  • Trod the green lawn, and flower-enamelled mead,
  • Tracing their lonely pathway to the grave—
  • No power to stay their course—no help to save.
  • Hard is it then, when beauty paints the sky,
  • And living things that mount the air, and fly
  • On happy wing, are warbling out their bliss—
  • Hard is it then, amid such joy as this,
  • To see our loved one hastening to the tomb,
  • To watch the cherished of our social home
  • From the fresh fields, the garden, and the bower,
  • Passing away like some untimely flower.
  • And not a sunbeam fading from above,
  • Nor scented blossom withering in the grove,
  • page: 264
  • Nor silvery streamlet lingering on its way,
  • Nor sportive idler pausing in its play,
  • Nor soaring bird, in all the sunny sky,
  • Singing the less because that flower must die.
  • Amid such scenes did Lucy Herbert lie
  • So faint, and breathless, that the breeze passed by—
  • The odour-scented breeze—and brought no balm—
  • No power to heal her malady, or calm
  • Her fluttering pulse, which seemed to wear away
  • All hope that life would linger out the day.
  • Her father, seated by her restless bed,
  • Kind words of gentlest soothing sometimes said;
  • And when soft sunset through the casement shone
  • He still was there, and they were left alone.
  • “Father,” she said, “the day is nearly done;
  • I shall not live to see to-morrow's sun.
  • page: 265
  • Let me be laid beside my mother's grave,
  • Where the green elms their evening shadows wave.”
  • Then did she stretch her thin white hand to his,
  • And drew him near to meet her gentle kiss,
  • And held his forehead to her feverish cheek,
  • As if some other words she yet must speak.
  • “Father,” she said, once more, “I would not wake
  • Pain in your bosom; yet I may not take
  • This burden on my conscience to the grave.
  • Love is not only given to bless, but save.
  • And I, if I had truly loved your soul,
  • Had sought to win it from the world's control.
  • Yet hear me now—the last time I shall speak—
  • The last time I shall kiss a parent's cheek.
  • Hear me, and question not—my words are true;
  • And well I know they must be short, and few.
  • This world, dear father, is no place of rest,
  • Lean not, nor hope for safety, on its breast;
  • page: 266
  • Nor yield to hopeless sorrow, or despair,
  • If seeming good should sometimes prove a snare.
  • Think of my mother in her heavenly home,
  • And one, the weakest child of earth. Oh, come
  • And join us there, and let us meet at last
  • Happy and safe, when life's dark waves are passed!”
  • She ceased; and o'er her lip, and cheek, and brow,
  • A burning tide of crimson seemed to flow.
  • It passed away; and the cold dews of death
  • Came in its stead, and sunk her fluttering breath.
  • And so she faded from the joyous earth.
  • A vacant place was at her father's hearth;
  • And where the elms their evening shadows wave,
  • She slept in peace beside her mother's grave.
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