Cordula's Web. ONMT. Cap Malabata, near Tangiers, Morocco.
ONMT. Cap Malabata, near Tangiers. HiRes. Gallery 33

The Message

Mathilde Blind

From side to side the sufferer tossed
With quick impatient sighs;
Her face was bitten as by frost,
The look as of one hunted crossed
The fever of her eyes.

All seared she seemed with life and woe,
Yet scarcely could have told
More than a score of springs or so;
Her hair had girlhood's morning glow,
And yet her mouth looked old.

Not long for her the sun would rise,
Nor that young slip of moon,
Wading through London's smoky skies,
Would dwindling meet those dwindling eyes,
Ere May was merged in June.

May was it somewhere? Who, alas!
Could fancy it was May?
For here, instead of meadow grass,
You saw, through naked panes of glass,
Bare walls of whitish gray.

Instead of songs, where in the quick
Leaves hide the blackbirds' nests,
You heard the moaning of the sick,
And tortured breathings harsh and thick
Drawn from their labouring chests.

She muttered, "What's the odds to me?"
With an old cynic's sneer;
And looking up, cried mockingly,
"I hate you, nurse! Why, can't you see
You'll make no convert here?"

And then she shook her fist at Heaven,
And broke into a laugh!
Yes, though her sins were seven times seven,
Let others pray to be forgiven,
She scorned such canting chaff.

Oh, it was dreadful, sir! Far worse
In one so young and fair;
Sometimes she'd scoff and swear and curse;
Call me bad names, and vow each nurse
A fool for being there.

And then she'd fall back on her bed,
And many a weary hour
Would lie as rigid as one dead;
Her white throat with the golden head
Like some torn lily flower.

We could do nothing, one and all
How much we might beseech;
Her girlish blood had turned to gall:
Far lower than her body's fall
Her soul had sunk from reach.

Her soul had sunk into a slough
Of evil past repair.
The world had been against her; now
Nothing in heaven or earth should bow
Her stubborn knees in prayer.

Yet I felt sorry all the same,
And sometimes, when she slept,
With head and hands as hot as flame,
I watched beside her, half in shame,
Smoothed her bright hair and wept.

To die like this, 'twas awful, sir!
To know I prayed in vain;
And hear her mock me, and aver
That if her life came back to her
She'd live her life again.

Was she a wicked girl? What then?
She didn't care a pin!
She was not worse than all those men
Who looked so shocked in public, when
They made and shared her sin.

"Shut up, nurse, do! Your sermons pall;
Why can't you let me be?
Instead of worrying o'er my fall,
I wish, just wish, you sisters all
Turned to the likes of me."

I shuddered! I could bear no more,
And left her to her fate;
She was too cankered at the core;
Her heart was like a bolted door,
Where Love had knocked too late.

I left her in her savage spleen,
And hoarsely heard her shout,
"What does the cursed sunlight mean
By shining in upon this scene?
Oh, shut the sunlight out!"

Sighing, I went my round once more,
Full heavy for her sin;
Just as Big Ben was striking four,
The sun streamed through the open door,
As a young girl came in.

She held a basket full of flowers
Cowslip and columbine;
A lilac bunch from rustic bowers,
Strong-scented after morning showers,
Smelt like some cordial wine.

There, too, peeped Robin-in-the-hedge,
There daisies pearled with dew,
Wild parsley from the meadow's edge,
Sweet-william and the purple vetch,
And hyacinth's heavenly blue.

But best of all the spring's array,
Green boughs of milk-white thorn;
Their petals on each perfumed spray
Looked like the wedding gift of May
On nature's marriage morn.

And she who bore those gifts of grace
To our poor patients there,
Passed like a sunbeam through the place:
Dull eyes grew brighter for her face,
Angelically fair.

She went the round with elf-like tread,
And with kind words of cheer,
Soothing as balm of Gilead,
Laid wild flowers on each patient's bed,
And made the flowers more dear.

At last she came where Nellie Dean
Still moaned and tossed about,
"What does the cursed sunlight mean
By shining in upon this scene?
Will no one shut it out?"

And then she swore with rage and pain,
And moaning tried to rise;
It seemed her ugly words must stain
The child who stood with heart astrain,
And large blue listening eyes.

Her fair face did not blush or bleach,
She did not shrink away;
Alas! she was beyond the reach
Of sweet or bitter human speech,
Deaf as the flowers of May.

Only her listening eyes could hear
That hardening in despair,
Which made that other girl, so near
In age to her, a thing to fear
Like fever-tainted air.

She took green boughs of milk-white thorn
And laid them on the sheet,
Whispering appealingly, "Don't scorn
My flowers! I think, when one's forlorn,
They're like a message, Sweet."

How heavenly fresh those blossoms smelt,
Like showers on thirsty ground!
The sick girl frowned as if repelled,
And with hot hands began to pelt
And fling them all around.

But then some influence seemed to stay
Her hands with calm control;
Her stormy passion cleared away,
The perfume of the breath of May
Had passed into her soul.

A nerve of memory had been thrilled,
And, pushing back her hair,
She stretched out hungry arms half filled
With flower and leaf, and panting shrilled,
"Where are you, mother, where?"

And then her eyes shone darkly bright
Through childhood in a mist,
As if she suddenly caught sight
Of some one hidden in the light
And waited to be kissed.

"Oh, mother dear!" we heard her moan,
"Have you not gone away?
I dreamed, dear mother, you had gone,
And left me in the world alone,
In the wild world astray."

"It was a dream; I'm home again!
I hear the ivy-leaves
Tap-tapping on the leaded pane!
Oh, listen! how the laughing rain
Runs from our cottage eaves!"

"How very sweet the things do smell!
How bright our pewter shines!
I am at home; I feel so well:
I think I hear the evening bell
Above our nodding pines."

"The firelight glows upon the brick,
And pales the rising moon;
And when your needles flash and click,
My heart, my heart, that felt so sick,
Throbs like a hive in June."

"If only father would not stay
And gossip o'er his brew;
Then, reeling homewards, lose his way,
Come staggering in at break of day
And beat you black and blue!"

"Yet he can be as good as gold,
When mindful of the farm,
He tills the field and tends the fold:
But never fear; when I'm grown old
I'll keep him out of harm."

"And then we'll be as happy here
As kings upon their throne!
I dreamed you'd left me, mother dear;
That you lay dead this many a year
Beneath the churchyard stone."

"Mother, I sought you far and wide,
And ever in my dream,
Just out of reach you seemed to hide;
I ran along the streets and cried,
'Where are you, mother, where?'"

"Through never-ending streets in fear
I ran and ran forlorn;
And through the twilight yellow-drear
I saw blurred masks of loafers leer,
And point at me in scorn."

"How tired, how deadly tired, I got;
I ached through all my bones!
The lamplight grew one quivering blot,
And like one rooted to the spot,
I dropped upon the stones."

"A hard bed make the stones and cold,
The mist a wet, wet sheet;
And in the mud, like molten gold,
The snaky lamplight blinking rolled
Like guineas at my feet."

"Surely there were no mothers when
A voice hissed in my ear,
'A sovereign! Quick! Come on!' and then
A knowing leer! There were but men,
And not a creature near."

"I went, I could not help it. Oh,
I didn't want to die!
With now a kiss and now a blow,
Strange men would come, strange men would go;
I didn't care, not I."

"Sometimes my life was like a tale
Read in a story-book;
Our blazing nights turned daylight pale,
Champagne would fizz like ginger-ale,
Red wine flow like a brook."

"Then like a vane my dream would veer:
I walked the street again;
And through the twilight yellow-drear
Blurred clouds of faces seemed to peer,
And drift across the rain."

She started with a piercing scream
And wildly rolling eye:
"Ah me! it was no evil dream
To pass with the first market-team,
That thing of shame am I."

"Where were you that you could not come?
Were you so far above,
Far as the moon above a slum?
Yet, mother, you were all the sum
I had of human love."

"Ah yes! you've sent this branch of May.
A fair light from the past.
The town is dark, I went astray.
Forgive me, mother! Lead the way;
I'm going home at last."

In eager haste she tried to rise,
And struggled up in bed,
With luminous, transfigured eyes,
As if they glassed the opening skies,
Fell back, sir, and was dead.

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