Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Once upon a time
ONCE UPON A TIME.
Only look at Gaffer Grey
Creeping slowly on his way,
With a staff to help him stand,
Leant on with a shaking hand;
With a step that fears to meet
The pebbles of the village street;
With a cheek that falleth in,
And a very peaked chin;
With a forehead made of wrinkles
Carved in crosses, cranks, and crinkles,
And a voice so thin and mumbling
That his glee might pass for grumbling.
See his eyes so blear and dim,
And his beard so grey and grim;
See his legs, all lean and lank,
Dwindled down to skin and shank.
Poor old Gaffer Grey is labelled
With the words that tune my rhyme:
Read him over—you’ll discover
Nought but “Once upon a time.”
I wander’d to a spot of earth,
Where Fame had crowned the ruin-crags,
Where ravens in their shrieking mirth
Flapp’d their black wings like conquerors’ flags
Waving above a battle-field;
Where bat and lizard had allied,
With mole and owlet by their side,
And forced the bulwark foe to yield.
Some phantasy beguiled my sight
With vision of a gorgeous story,—
Of jewell’d roof, of halls of light,
Of purple woof, of walls of might,
Of pillar’d temples, thrones of state,
Of pomp and palace, grand and great,
Of people’s shouts, of feasting kings,
And all the myriad dazzling things
That haunt the place of faded glory.
—I started, for a frighten’d thrush
Flew from a tuft of sedgy rush,
Then, gazing down, I stepp’d aside
To let the toad crawl back and hide;
A squirrel brood ran up the larch
That sway’d within the oriel arch,
And then my tread disturb’d the rest
Of a wild rabbit in its nest.
I trampled through the dank thick grass,
To catch the bindweed’s trailing flowers,
That tied themselves in tangled mass
Across the cracking turret towers.
The topmost battlement was lying
Co-equal with the buttress pile;
And dolefully the wind was sighing
Through festive court and priestly aisle.
Time’s robe of green was flung about
The mammoth skeleton of strength;
And scatter’d bones of granite stones
Told of its giant breadth and length.
I stood upon a scatter’d heap
Of fragments of the watch-tower Keep;
I wander’d on, and stroll’d across
The banquet-hall, laid down with moss;
I climbed some steps shut out from day,
Till dust and nettles choked my way;
I saw a mushroom springing up
Where royal feet had led the dance;
I saw the foxglove’s swinging cup
Where knights had hung their banner’d lance;
And as I gazed I saw a hand—
A wither’d hand—stretch forth and write
A short text fraught with holy thought,
Easy to read by dullest sight.
’Twas plain and terse, but sacred page
Gives nought more simple and sublime,
It soften’d youth, it solaced age,
It mock’d the hero and the sage
In these words—“Once upon a time.”
’Twas but yesterday I found
A score of letters, closely bound:
Some were torn in treasured pieces,
Some were worn in careful creases,
Ink had faded, seals had crumbled,
And my heart felt sad and humbled;
For I knew the thoughts, the hopes,
The earnest wish, the brilliant tropes
Those letters hasten’d to reveal
Were symboll’d by the ink and seal.
I opened one—my pulse grew quicker,
My eyelid fell, my breath came thicker;
I traced its lines, close, firm, and clear,
Telling how deeply, fondly dear,
The being was for whose loved sake
That letter came, with such a cake.
It gave report of Pincher’s health,
It told of Muff’s increase of wealth
In five young rabbits, all milk-white,
That Gyp and Dobbin were “all right,”
That Midsummer would quickly come,
And then for holidays and home.
I gave a gasp, half sob, half sigh,
While Memory’s flood-wave filled my eye,
And folded from my misty gaze
My mother and my schoolgirl days.
I look’d upon another hand,
Bold, free, and dashing in its form;
And then I saw the lee-shore strand,
And heard the passion of the storm
That tore the right arm from its hold,
And flung it nerveless, still and cold,
Upon the rocks, no more to send
Its tidings full of life and joy,
And cheer his childhood’s playmate-friend
With letters from the sailor boy.
Another and another scroll
I opened—one by one I read:
I gazed as they who may unrol
A shroud to look upon the dead.
Love, with its ardent vows, was there,
Friendship, that promised to be true,
Words that like summer light and air
Fill’d my heart’s world with gold and blue.
Where was the lover? Where the friend?
The bond that was to know no end?
Where was the promise and the vow?
Alas, a yawning gulf of gloom,
Bridged only by the dark grey tomb,
Had open’d wide ’twixt then and now.
A muffled sound seem’d breathing round,
A mingled tone of merry chime
And funeral knells, but all the bells
Gave chorus of the theme which tells
Sad tales of “Once upon a time.”
Come, I will write my epitaph
In letters shadowy and dim,
And though the young strong man may laugh,
’Twill shortly serve as well for him.
Just heap the clay where frost and sun
May help the ivy leaf to climb,
And all I’ve said, and all I’ve done,
And all I’ve lost, and all I’ve won,
The struggling race that I have run
Shall find full record on the stone
In these few words of solemn tone,—
“Once upon a time.”