A Story (Cary)

For works with similar titles, see A Story.

A STORY.

While silently our vessel glides,
To-night, along the Adrian seas,
And while the lightly-heaving tides
Are scarcely rippled by the breeze—
Thou, who, with cheek of beauty pale,
Seem’st o’er some hidden grief to pine,
If thou wilt listen to a tale
Of sorrow, it may lighten thine.
’Twas told me, sadly choked with tears;
My eyes, it may be, too, were wet;
For, through the shadowy lapse of years,
My memory keeps the record yet.
And he who told it long ago,
Though scarcely passed his manhood’s prime,
He seemed as one whose heart with wo
Was seared and blighted ere its time.
And as he told his story o’er,
Long vanished years came back to me;
For he had crossed my path before,
Upon the land and on the sea.

When first by chance I saw his form,
’Twas on the raging waves at night,
And if at all he saw the storm,
He recked not of its angry might.
For while the dark and troubled skies
Rung with accents of despair,
He never raised his tearful eyes,
Nor lifted up his voice in prayer.
Once, thirsting for the cooling well,
Beneath a fierce and burning sun,
And listening to the camel’s bell,
That music of the desert lone,
We reached a spot whose fountain made
An Eden in that barren land;
And there, beneath the palm-tree’s shade,
We saw the lonely stranger stand.
And once, when twilight closed the flowers,
I marked him on dark Jura’s steep,
And twice amid the sacred bowers,
Gethsemane, I saw him weep.

But when I saw the mourner last,
And heard the story of his woes,
’Twas where the solemn cypress cast
Its shadow o’er man’s last repose.
The sun had faded from the sky,
With all his bright and glowing bars,
And solemn clouds were gliding by,
In spectral silence o’er the stars.
And there, beside a grassy mound,
In agony for words too deep,
And eyes bent sadly on the ground,
I saw him clasp his hands and weep.
Though I had seen him on the sea
Unmoved, when all beside were pale,
And weeping in Gethsemane,
I never asked nor knew his tale.
But now, beside the tomb, at last,
By kindly looks and words, I sought
To learn the story of the past,
And win him from his troubled thought.
With lips all breathlessly apart,
He listened to reach soothing word;
The chord was touched within his heart—
The long untroubled fount was stirred.

“Companioned only by the dead,
So many years I’ve lived alone,
I hardly thought,” he sadly said,
“To hear again a pitying tone.
But, stranger, friend, thy words are kind,
And since thou wouldst learn my grief,
It may be that my heart will find,
In utterance of its woes, relief.
Life’s brightest scenes will I recall,
And those where shade and sunshine blend,
And, if my lips can speak at all,
I’ll tell it even to the end.
My childhood! it were more than vain
To tell thee that was glad as fleet;
While innocence and youth remain,
Thou knowest that life’s cup is sweet.

“But when the soul of manhood beamed,
In after years, upon my brow,—
(I know how darkly it is seamed
With scars of guilt and sorrow now),—
When, with the summer stars above,
And dew-drops shining in the vale,
I told the story of my love
To one who did not scorn the tale;
And when, in happiness and pride,
Such as I never knew before,
I bore her to my home a bride,
The measure of my bliss ran o’er.
Oh, in that bower of Eden blest,
I fain would linger with my song;
It irks me so to tell the rest—
The serpent did not spare long.

“It was the eve of such a day
As on creation dawned of old,
And all along the heavenly way
The stars had set their lamps of gold.
That night I stood amid the throng
Where banquet flowers were sweetly strown,
Where wine was poured with mirth and song,
And while the smile of beauty shone
When lost in pleasure’s maze, and when
My heart to reason’s voice was steeled,
I tasted of the wine-cup, then—
I tasted, and my doom was sealed!
That night the moments passed more fleet
Than with my bride upon the hills;
That night I drank a draught more sweet
Than water from the living rills.
It is a harder task to win
The feet at first, from right astray;
Yet if but once we yield to sin,
How easy is the downward way!
Oh, if the spirit can be won
In evil ways to enter in,
That first false step may lead us on
Through all the labyrinths of sin:
And I resisted not the power
That drew me first towards the bowl,
While firmer every day and hour
The chains were fastened in my soul.
I saw hope’s sunny fountain fail
In her young heart who loved me so,
As day by day, her cheek grew pale
With vigils and with tears of wo.

“Oh, if a kind and pitying word,
If tones so sweet as thine have been,
My erring spirit could have heard,
They might have saved me, even then.
But no; they named with scorn my name,
And viewed me with reproachful eyes;
For all who saw my guilt and shame
But looked upon me to despise.
And so I left my home and hearth,
For haunts of wickedness and sin,
And sought, in wine and stronger mirth,
To hush the voice of God within.
I have no record in my heart
Of how my days and weeks went by,
Save shadowy images that start
Like spectres still before mine eye.
As something indistinct and dim
Of sable hearse and funeral pall,
Of trailing robes and mournful hymn,
My memory keeps—and that is all!
But when, as from a horrid dream,
I woke, disturbed by nameless fears,
I sought beside the mountain stream
My home so dear in earlier years.
’Twas desolate—I called my bride,
And listened, but no answer came;
I made the hills and valleys wide
Re-echo vainly with her name!
And when I heard a step draw near,
And met a stranger’s wondering gaze,
I asked in tones of doubt and fear,
For that sweet friend of earlier days.
And then I followed where he led;
And as he left that singing stream,
I glided near him with a tread
Like guilty spirits in a dream:
He brought me to this quiet ground,
The last repose of wo and care,
And, pointing to that grassy mound,
He told me that my bride was there!

“I’ve been, for hopeless years since then,
A wanderer on the land and sea,
And little loved the homes of men,
Or in their busy haunts to be;
And should not now have turned to tread
This darkest scene of all my woes,
But something in my heart has said
My life is hastening to its close.
And now I have no wish below,
And no request for man to keep,
If thou, who know’st my tale of wo,
Wilt lay me by my bride to sleep.”
He paused, and, blinded by his tears,
Bowed down with sorrow dark and deep,
The hoarded agony of years
Broke forth, and then he ceased to weep:
But when he raised his eyes again,
I saw, what was unseen till now,
That death, in character to plain,
Was written on that pallid brow.

Three little days; and then we laid
That wreck of manhood and of pride
Beneath the gloomy cypress shade,
To slumber with his stricken bride.

This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.