Emily Pfeiffer Poems >>
Quarterman's Grace. Part I

'Twas the hour of four by Quarterman's clock
Of a July day in the afternoon,-
Four of the clock, not yet of the day,
For Quarterman's clock still seemed to say
And prove in face of the sun and moon
That the truth can never be told too soon.

And Quarterman's wife, who ruled the clock
That ruled the day in Quarterman's home,
Sat by the open door as one
Who knows the work of the week well done;
Her toil-worn hands were gently pressed
Each against other and laid to rest,
Whereon, so welcome and complete
Her apron lay like a winding-sheet.

And Quarterman's self with an open book
On his knees, at rest like the mother's hands,
Sat a little aloof from the chimney-nook
Where the fire was asleep in the slumbering brands,
With his children's voices,-the youngest five-
Keeping the drowsy hour alive,
Droning out answers to his demands
Murmuring, wandering in the dark,
Stopping, shooting beside the mark,
As lated bees that have lost the hive.

The sabbath season and sabbath day,
Count them a weariness ye who may;
To the man who labours another man's fields
And reaps but husks for the life he yields,
And the woman whose work beneath the sun
Hath a vanishing goal that may never be won,
A fairer sight is the still, stacked hay
Than the flowering grass where the June winds play;
And the tale of the ten bells silverly
Told from the belfry over the lea,
Is apter to run into Saxon words
Than the wild wood song of the brooding birds.

Dull to the banded pilgrims at play
By the fair wayside, all forgetting the way
The sabbath season and sabbath day:
But the old, the spent and the care-oppressed
Have need to bathe in the sabbath rest,
As the wondering souls of the young to steep
The oe'r-wrought sense in the dew of sleep.

The woman took her quiet breath
And sate there with her sheeted hands
As tasting of the peace of death;
So still, you would have said the sands
Of Tim? had ceased to run for her;
She heard the voice of the catechist
And the answering trebles rise and fall,
But no more of the words she wist
Than her own still shadow on the wall;
No softest note of flageolet
Had soothlier to her ear been set.
And gazing out across the way
Her very eyes kept holiday,
Nor carried inward to the brain
The picture of the leafy lane:-
For dark behind the present peace
There lay the shadow of a grief
That gave the hour its full relief.
For rest from labour, overdue,
For work of healing still to do,
That breathing time of care's surcease,-
The silent sabbath afternoon,-
To Martha never came too soon.

Then through Quarterman's house that was frail and small
A flutter past, as a light foot-fall,
Sudden and swift as the unseen breeze
That sends a thrill through the stagnant trees,-
Free as the flight of a bird o' the air-
From an upper chamber swept over the stair.
And lo in the frame of the door there stood
A girl in the flower of her maidenhood;
A flower that seemed to bloom too high
For the walls so straight and the roof so nigh;
A girl who carried a girl's unrest
In her seeking eyes and silent breast;
Lithe of limb and fair of face,
Whose presence seemed to flood the place.

Wild little Madge had turned her head
From the place where the spider swung her thread,
Lengthened and swung it high and higher
To reach the haven of her desire;
Dull little Reuben dropped unheard
From his open mouth the empty word,
And his lingering senses got away
From the kitten at her lonely play;
Two little whispering maids gave o'er
To watch the shadow on the floor
Of two white doves that sat aloof
And sunned themselves on a neighbour's roof;-
One left the embers' failing sparks
To die as 'Parsons,' or as 'Clerks';
Each by the influence possessed
Its overruling force confessed;
The man turned slowly from his book,
The wife more slowly from her rest,
All bound as by a spell to look
And borrow from the overflow
Of affluent life some vital glow.

The girl who so unwitting came
To stir the slumbering spirits there,
Stood bright within the darkened frame,
And gleamed from off the shadow fair;
With rounded arms uplift she stood
Still pausing on the lowest stair,
All in her budding maidenhood
And bound a blossom in her hair.

When Quarterman a breathing while
Looked the fair vision up and down
With on his lips a father's smile,
If on his brow a prophet's frown,
The mother's wakened gaze betrayed
No lurking pride, no latent joy;
She looked upon the blooming maid,
But thought upon a blighted boy
Without a name, without a place,
Who, fair of promise as of face,
Now wandered wide in secret dread,
A price upon his golden head.

Fair words from Martha's lips came forth
As breathings from the frozen north;
The feelings of her mother's breast
Were all unmotherly expressed,
And should her tenderest cares but pierce
Her deep enough, her cry was fierce.
And now the girl upon the stair
Who bound the blossom in her hair
Had waked in her some mother-pang,
Whereon the sudden answer rang:
'Take down the rose, and down the pride
That set it flaunting there,' she said:
'A rose may grace a lassie's side-
It no but can disgrace her head.'

The girl takes down the blushing rose
But sets it nor in breast or side,
Her slim, lace-making fingers close
Firm on the stalk, and one is died
With crimson drops that if she knows
She nothing recks of, as in scorn,
All wildly as the young blood flows,
She shuts her hand upon the thorn.

Then as the sting had power to raise
Within her thoughts some keen reminder,
She turned her brown, translucent gaze
Full on a curtained shelf behind her,
Where lace and bobbins stowed away
In darkness kept sad holiday.
And then her idle fingers fair
Grown cruel as in sheer despair
She pulled the rose's leaves apart
And sat there eating her own heart.

O' week-a-days it was a sight
To gladden eyes made sore by weeping
To see those hands of touch so light,
Those feat and fluent fingers, leaping
Amongst the dancing bobbins, till-
The slender threads each turned and twisted,
She set them down at her sweet will,
And fresh ones for the dance enlisted.

I said it was a week-day sight
Well made for heart and eyes' delight
To see that maiden o'er the pillow
Bend downward like a weeping willow;
But yet I know not; she was lithe,-
As she was supple, she was blithe-
A restless and a changeful thing
And tuneful as a bird in spring;
That fling of bobinets was lonely;
May be it is not well when only
A maiden's fingers get the chance
To toss her life up in the dance.

But now it was a holy day
Too good alike for work or play,
So she must cross her hands at ease
And hear the busy hum of bees;
The voices from the barn-yard near,
The robin redbreast piping clear,
Or bleatings from the distant fold,
Or summer thunder where it rolled,
And told her as it faintly died
O'er far-off fields, the world was wide.
Then sudden from the bough that swung
In cadence where the robin sung,
She turned away, and o'er her eyes
Let fall the fring?d lids dream-wise;
Then tossed up idle hands and fair
And crowned with them her nut-brown hair:
A summer day seemed all too long
For hearkening to another's song.

Soon the big drops of summer rain
Sonorous beat the window-pane,
And widening circles of pure sound
Lost each in each, and round on round,
In rings of harmony intense
Enchained the maiden's watchful sense,
Till idle dreams, grown clear to sight,
Took form and colour of delight.
Some faint half hope of glad surprise
Drew back the curtains of her eyes;-
But when a shadow in the lane
Showed through the sun-smit window-pane,
Whereon the glittering drops were streaming,-
A shadow that she knew was not
The shadow of her dream, but only
One of the shadows of her lot,-
She sighed that summer days were lonely;
And long for waking as for dreaming.

But hist, that rising breath of sound,
As fresh as is the morning breeze,-
Of singing children, clustered round
Or leaning on the father's knees;
A wholesome breath that seems to sweep
The day of shadows, and to banish
Dreams to the unknown realm of sleep,
To cheer its twilight ways, and vanish.

The maiden stood upon her feet
And answered to the children's call;
Her answer rang so shrill and sweet
It drowned their wavering pipes and small,
Her answer rose so bright and clear
It swelled through window, door and wall,
And set the house as in a sphere
Of music, roof and floor and all.

And as she sang she seemed to grow,
To rise up joyous, spread out strong,
And all her life to overflow
Enlarging on the waves of song;
The summer day was no more long,
The birds were not more glad or free,
No haunting shade could do her wrong,
Still 'Omnia, benedicite!'

She sang: 'O all ye works of God,
His angels of the day and night,
The starry heaven, and fragrant sod,
Praise Him for darkness and for light.

'Ye living things that creep or fly,
Ye beasts and cattle, great and small,
Sing forth the praises, low and high,
Of Him who made and mindeth all.

'Ye blessed dews and cooling showers,
Ye winds of God that work His ways,
His secret ministers and powers,
Stand forth and magnify His praise!

'O winter snows and summer heat,
Earth's fiery heart and frozen breath,
O thunder, lightning, storm and sleet,
Praise Him for life, praise Him for death!

'Ye holy and ye humble men
Who know the God of your desire;
Ye Daniels of the lion's den
And scathless children of the fire;

'Ye souls and spirits of the pure
Who in the dark have learnt to see
And in the mist to feel secure,
Sing "Omnia, benedicite!"'

A white-haired man, a spent and old,
Whose knees in the summer's sun were cold,
Sat basking in that radiant sphere
Of sound, and the accents ringing clear
Pierced the dull cavern of his ear.
He chafed his palsied hands and slow,
And the knees that would no more creep or go,
And laughed to himself: 'It were making free
To say that the church comes now to me;
But 'tis more than a sermon to sit in your place
And list to the singing of Quarterman's Grace.'

In an outer ring of the music, where
It came and went on the sabbath air,-
Swept as a wave round the green hill-side,
Or refluent turned, fell back and died,-
A mother watched the failing breath
Of an infant fighting hard with death;

And when-the cruel conflict done-
The babe had lost what death had won,
When with the hands which could not save,
His mother dressed him for the grave,
Smoothed from the wreck of her delight
The tokens of death's last despite,
Unclosed his tender little knuckles
And spread his tortured limbs out fair,
Then gently through the sabbath air
And flutings of the honeysuckles
The woman at her work was 'ware
Of a pure sound beyond compare,-
And evermore when from the ground
He seems to cry to her, that sound
Of angels' voices singing soft,
Will bear her sinking heart aloft.

O God of love, if God there be
To heed our woe, to know or care,
Still let us feel, or hear, or see
Some sign of angels or of Thee
To tide us over our despair
Until of love the world be bare!

The wave of music circled round,
And in a dearer bondage wound
A youth and maiden who had strayed
From out the sunshine to the shade
A flowering lime shed broad and sweet
And cool upon the earing wheat.
And suddenly the jesting word
Died on their lips, their meeting eyes
Grew tender, and their hearts were stirred,
Struck by the passionate surprise
Of souls, the poorest in account,
Who meet one moment on the mount.

As Grace's voice went north and south
And bore a message east and west,
With meanings foreign to her mouth
And dormant in her maiden breast;
As Grace's silver notes rung clear
And welled through window, door and wall,
And set the house as in a sphere
Of music, roof, and floor and all;
What time she seemed to grow, to rise
And kindle with her kindling song,
The shadow that had vexed her eyes-
As shaken by a breath too strong-
Slunk wavering down the leafy lane
No more to cross her path again.

When Grace had sent her last high note
Abroad upon the winds to float,
Straight to the slumbering hearth she came
And blew the embers into flame;
Then turned about, and from the shelf
Reached down the cups and plates of delf;
Silent she set them in their places,
Then, pressed upon by eager faces,
She cut the bread and made the tea,
And closed her household ministry
By sending children twain to bring
The man and wife to join the ring.
The housewife's eyes were soft with tears,
The ploughman reaped in other spheres;
The echoes of their psalmody
About the precincts seemed to cling
And put in every empty thing
A heart of praise, a voice of glee,-
Still 'Omnia, benedicite!'