Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Baucis and Philemon

BAUCIS AND PHILEMON.
(A LEGEND OF AN ENGLISH WORKHOUSE.)

I.

What does it matter whether Giles or Styles
(The name is not material to the story),
Some years ago there was an old, old pair,
With time, not trouble, bent and bowed and hoary.
In a trim cottage overrun with flowers,
They’d lived for forty years of sun and showers.

II.

Outside the door, the well-thatched hives were set,
And bees with busy angry eagerness
Ransacked the honeyed hollyhocks for toll,
Still dreading winter’s pinching meagreness.
The vine to the old walls did fondly cling,
To no croft oftener came the birds to sing.

III.

On the white threshold loved the cat to doze
(A humble type of calm and quiet content),
Within were peace and holy happiness,
As e’er of yore beneath the patriarch’s tent,
The poplars wavered by the roadside there,
As if to warn away all woe and care.

IV.

But hard times came, the wolf was at the door
With gnashing jaws—that gaunt wolf Poverty,
And Sickness halted in with livid face,
And hope fled bleeding from armed misery.
There are but two retreats that beggars crave,
The parish workhouse and the pauper’s grave.

V.

They left that cottage (as the first pair left
Their withering Eden), silent, full of tears,
And slowly took their solitary way,
Mocked by a gibing mob of cruel fears,
And at the workhouse gate with clasped hands,
Parted for ever “by the law’s commands.”

VI.

No, not for ever! duly once a week,
When the sad pauper prisoners came to pray
In the dull chapel-room, barred like a gaol,
And scarcely lit by the dull sun’s dim ray,
They saw each other for one little space.
What though they gazed upon each other’s face,

VII.

It was a weekly death to part again,
Yet while the droning voices mumbled on,
They sat and joined their hands across the aisle,
As in the happy days for ever gone.
The angels looking from their homes above,
Smiled on that pure, imperishable love.

VIII.

How could it last? those long and dreary hours
The prison clock doled out were hours of pain,
That sordid crowd could never yield a friend;
Their hearts grew chill—a weight was on each brain:
The quiet home, so peaceful and so neat,
Brute poverty had trod beneath its feet.

IX.

Almost together—but a week apart,
The old folks died, unpitied and unwept;
Eternal calm upon each dead face came,
A calm—majestic as on kings that slept.
Strange that the jargon of the doctor’s art,
Disdains to classify “the broken heart.”

X.

But e’en the grave did not unite the two,
Apart they lay beneath the rank green grass,
In the damp churchyard’s coldest, dreariest place,
The same black yew-tree shadowed them. Alas!
The poor have but few mourners, yet the dew
Hung in big tears on flowers that o’er them grew.

XI.

When last I saw their quiet, humble graves,
A shower was sprinkling on the turfen mounds,
And there rose from the blossoming orchard trees
A pleasant harmony of mingling sounds,
And then a rainbow coloured the white sky,
As ’twere the gate of Heaven opening silently.

W. T.