Grace Bernard by Henry Abbey

I know the drift and purpose of the years;
The will, which is the magnet of the soul,
Shall yet attain new powers, and man
Be something more than man. The husks fall off;
Old civilizations pass, the new come on.

I.

There are two farms which, smiling in the sun,
Adjoin each other, as I trust, some day
Two hearts will join, who from their bounty live.
One farm is John Bernard's, and one is mine;
And she, the one pearl woman in my eyes,
Is his sweet daughter, gentle Grace Bernard.
Three years ago, my father followed her
Who gave me birth home to his narrow house.
I was at college when death's summons came,
And all the grief fell on me, crushing me;
And all my heart cried out in bitterness,
Moaning to cease with its wet language,—tears.
Then with my prospects of professional life
Thwarted and void, I came back to the farm—
I came back to the love of Grace Bernard.
She was the dove that on the flood of grief
Brought to my window there love's olive spray.
From college to the farm-house where I dwelt
I took my books, friends who are never cold,
With fragile instruments of chemistry,
And cabinets of mineral and rock
With limestone encrinites; asterias
Old as the mountains, or the sea's white lash
Wherewith he smites the shoulders of the shore;
Tarentula and scarabee I brought,
And, too, I brought my diamond microscope
Which magnifies a pin's head to a man's,
And gives me sights in water and in air
The naturalists have not yet touched upon.
Over my fields I wander frequently,
Breaking the past's upturned face of shelving rocks
For special specimens to fill my home;
But find my footsteps always thither tend,
Toward the farm-house of the other farm,
Where Grace Bernard is noontime and delight.
When first I took the hand of her I love,
And held it only as a stranger might,
Some unseen mentor whispered in my ear,
You twain are strands which Destiny shall braid,
And then a numb misgiving, not explained,
Settled with chilly dampness on my heart.
My Grace Bernard in Grace was not misnamed,
There was a soft Madonna look about her eyes;
The long thick lash, the drooping-petal lid,
Wrought on her face all love and tenderness.
Her lips were of that deep intensest red
The cherry, red rose, and columbine wear.
Her golden hair was sunshine changed to silk,
Which fell below her waist, and was a thing
Perhaps some lover, braver far than I,
Might dare to mesh his hands in, or to kiss.

II.

The Spring has come and brought her affluent days,
But in the air a rumor runs of death—
A pestilence is half across the sea.
The presses blare its probable approach,
And poverty and wealth alike forebode.
The cholera it is whispered, Asia-born,
May leave more vacant chairs about our hearths
Than the red havoc of internal war.
There is no foot it may not overtake;
There is no cheek which may not blanch for it.
It is Filth's daughter, and where the low
Huddle in impure air in narrow rooms,
There it must come. As all forms of life,
Animate and inanimate, originate
In seeds and eggs, so all infection does.
The floating gases in the atmosphere
Acting on particles which from filth arise,
Mingle with foul wedlock—germinate,
And bear their seed like grain, or breed like flies.
This product, scattered on the spotless air,
And hurried on the currents of the wind,
Is breathed by human beings, near and far;
And planted in the system, the disease
Ripens and grows, until the sufferer dies.
Yellow fever is vegetable disease
Because the sharp frost kills it. Cholera
Is animal in origin, and survives
The utmost cold of long, dark winter days.
I pray that if the cholera must come,
It will not touch my Grace who is so dear;
But that we twain may at the altar stand,
And outlive many a trouble in the air,
And gather many a day of happiness and peace.

III.

Down by the brook which separates the farms,
Is a great rock that leans above the stream,
And seems some monster of the Saurian day,
That coming to the water's edge to drink,
Was petrified, and so is leaning still.
Upon its back a week ago I sat,
And dreamed of Grace Bernard, and watched the brook;
And while I dreamed there came within the dream
A premonition of what yet would be.
The future's face, forever turned away,
Now seemed reverted, and its backward look
Was bent on me.
 
They took a faulty cast
Of Shakespeare's features after he was dead.
I, seeing the future's face, make here my cast.
And this the premonition that was mine—
A perfect premonition full and clear—
And as I know the persons it concerns,
I cannot think it all improbable,
So write it down, that when the time has passed,
I may compare the facts with what is here.
And yet I scarcely should have written this,
Had I not seen his haunting face to-day—
That face which I had never seen before,
Except in my one dream upon the rock
That leans, athirst, above the brimming stream.
The soldier, when he goes to meet the foe,
May darkly understand that death is near,
Yet bravely marches on to destiny.
I too behold a shadow in my path;
I too go on, nor waver in my way.

THE PREMONITION.

I.

Far off, across the turbulence of waves,
I seem to see a wife upon her knees,
Her supplicating hands outstretched to one
Who strikes her with coarse blows on cheek and breast.
He is her husband, and he leaves her there,
And takes her jewels and her only purse,
And in a ship embarks for other shores.
His is the face that I have seen to-day—
A handsome face whatever be its sins:
A firm mouth, with large wandering black eyes,
A bearded under-lip, and snowy teeth;
Long, fine black hair, which idly falls about
Shoulders that stoop from labor over books;
Withal a high and intellectual brow,
Not broad enough to hold a generous soul.

II.

I see the farm-house where my Grace abides;
The afternoon is clear, the grass is green;
And Grace comes forth and walks toward the brook.
Beside its bank, which is a slope of moss,
I see the face intent upon the scene.
Now Grace draws near, and starting back to find
A stranger in the dell she loves the most,
Is half attracted by his cultured mien,
And half repelled by inconsistent fears.
He rises, bowing low, and begs to speak:
He has not seen such beauty in his life;
He craves to touch a finger of her hand,
To judge if she be of the earth, or one
Upon some holy mission from that land
Whereto, with fastings and with many prayers,
Through God's good grace he hopes yet to attain.
 
Then John Bernard, who has been working near,
Seeding the furrows for his empty barns,
This stranger and my Grace puts hand in hand.
I see her smile in answer to his smiles.
She makes her ears his cells for honeyed speech;
And yet she seems to fear him for some cause.
Now, as the slow sun tarries on the hills,
I see them parting at the farm-house door—
The wide half-door which now is opened half—
And as he passes down the bordered path,
His kiss still lingering upon her hand,
She leans out from the door, and watches him
Until he vanishes between the trees.
I seem to see her face, a trouble sweet
Dwelling upon it, even though the light
Sets it in glory, with a slender ring
Above the white brow and the golden hair.

III.

I see them riding down the village street:
He on a horse as black and strong as iron,
She on her snowy palfrey, robed in green,
Slack reins in hand; the horses side by side.
Even as I see and write, my heart grows cold—
Cold as a bird that on a winter's day
Breasts the bleak wind, high in the biting air.

 IV.

I see a city with a concourse vast
Of gas-lit streets and buildings, and above,
Its dear face buried in its cloudy hands,
The Night bends over, weeping. In the street
I see the face again I saw to-day.
I see him writing in a narrow room.
I read the words:
To-night I end my life.
The river says "Embrace, I offer rest."
The world and I have grappled in fair fight,
And I am beaten. Having found defeat,
I long to go down to its lowest depths.
I only ask, that those who find these words,
Will send them to my people past the sea;
To-night I cross a wider: so, adieu.
Michael Gianni.
This is his true name,
And afterward he writes his wife's address.
He leaves the paper foldless on a stand,
And then goes forth; but not to end his life.
He dreams that now his life is but begun.
He sees my Grace in all his coming days;
He sees the large old farm-house where she dwells,
And therein hopes to happily pass the years,
Living in peace and plenty till he dies.
 
Most human calculations end in loss,
And every one who has a plan devised,
Is like a foolish walker on a rope,
First balancing on this side, then on that,
Hazarding much to gain a paltry end;
And if the rope of calculation breaks,
Or if the foot slip, added to mishap
Come the world's jeers and gibes; and so 'tis best.
Should half men's schemings find success at last,
I fear God's plans would have but narrow room.
(Michael Gianni, now I know your name,
This premonition gives the hint to me
To trip you in your studied subtleties.
You will not win my Grace, who loves me still;
You will not dare to kiss her hand again.)

V.

Beneath a rustic arbor, near her house,
Linked with sweet converse, sit two shadowed forms.
The new sword moon against the violet sky
Is held aloft, by one white arm of cloud
Raised from the sombre shoulder of a hill.
My Grace and I are sitting in the bower,
And down upon my breast and girdling arm
Is strewn pure gold—no alloy mixes it—
The pure ore of her lovable gold hair.
The cunning weavers of Arabia,
Who seek to shuttle sunshine in their silk,
Would give its weight in diamonds for this hair,
Whereof to make a fabric for their king.
I see the trees that skirt the yonder vale,
And where the road dents down between their arms,
I see a figure passing to and fro.
Now he comes near, and striding up the path
Enters the arbor, and discovers us.
It is Gianni; to his flashing eyes
A fierce deep hatred leaps up from his heart,
As lightning, which forebodes the nearing storm,
Leaps luridly above the midnight hills.
With some excuse Gianni passes on,
While Grace, with sweetly growing confidence,
Whispers with lips which slightly touch my ear,
"I never loved him, I was always yours."

VI.

I see the parlor that my Grace adorns
With flowers and with her presence, which is far
Above the fragrant presence of all flowers.
Grace sits at her piano; on her lips
A song of twilight and the evening star.
There as the shadows slowly gather round,
Gianni comes, and stops a moody hour;
She, ice to his approaches; he, despair;
But ere he goes, he places in her hand
A large ripe orange, fresh from Sicily,
And begs her to accept it for his sake.
She bows him from the room, and puts the fruit
Before her on her music, once again
Dreaming of me, and singing some wild song
Of Pan, who, by the river straying down,
Cut reeds, and blew upon them with such power,
He charmed the lilies and the dragon-flies.
Now while the song is swaying to its close,
I seem to come myself into the room,
And clasp true arms about my darling Grace;
She lays Gianni's orange in my hand,
And says that I must eat it; she would not
Have taken it, but that she did not wish
To cross him with refusal. So I say,
"Surely this stranger has peculiar taste
To bring an orange to you—only one.
Perhaps there is more in it than we know."

VII.

I seem to have this orange in my room,
And in the light of morning turn it round.
I find no flaw in it on any side.
A goodly orange, ripe, with tender coat
Of that deep reddish yellow, like fine gold.
Perhaps the tree had wrapped its roots about
A chest of treasure, and had drawn the wealth
Into its heart to spend it on its fruit.
But while I slowly turn the orange round,
And look more closely, lo, the slightest cut!—
A deep incision made by some sharp steel.
I carefully cut the rind, and without once
Breaking the fine apartments of the fruit,
Or spilling thence a drop of golden juice,
Find that one room through which the steel has passed.
This I dissect, and, testing as I can,
Fail to discover aught that's poisonous.

VIII.

I bring my microscope, and on a seed
Clinging with abject fear, I see a Shape
Whose wings are reeking with foul slime, whose eyes
Glare with a demon lustre born of Pain.
Its face has somewhat of the human shape,
The under-jaw too large, and bearded long;
The forehead full of putrefying sores.
Such front the Genius, Danhasch, may have worn.
It may be that the hideous face is like
The idol Krishna's, from whose feasts depart,
Smitten with cholera, the Hindoo devotees.
The body oozes with a loathsome dew.
Its head is red as if sucked full of blood;
But all the rest, its hundred legs, and tail,
The mailed back, and the wide-webbed prickly wings,
Are green, like those base eyes of jealousy
Which hope to see a covert murder done.
I find the finest needle in the house,
And press the point down on the slimy hide.
The blunt edge crushes, does not pierce the shape,
And brings the straggle that I gloat to see.
The legs stretch out, and work to get away;
A barbed tongue and twin fangs drool from the mouth.
The eyes protrude, and glare with deadly hate,
Until they fix at last in stony calm.
I ponder long on what this shape can be.
There is no doubt Gianni placed it here;
If so, where has he caught and caged a thing
The naked eye has not the power to see?
Its uses must be deadly. In revenge,
He hopes to take the life of her I love.
While poisons of another character
Might be detected, this remains unknown.
The Thing I have discovered—this vile Shape,
Must be an atom of some foul disease!
And now I have the secret. For some days
Gianni waits upon a stricken man,
Who dies, a victim of the cholera.
In some strange manner he has found this germ,
And placed it in the orange, hoping thus
To bring the dread disease to Grace Bernard.

IX.

I seem to be with him I hate, once more,
And now accuse him of the fiendish deed
That I through chance averted. Now I too
Command him to return to his true wife,
And no more cross my path; should he remain,
He shall but wait to meet her, for my words
Already have been sent that he is here.

X.

I know that I shall fall sick dangerously,
And in some way by dark Gianni's hand.
I seem to lie asleep upon my bed,
And Grace is near, and watching my calm face.
The village doctor makes his morning call,
And takes my listless hand to feel the pulse.
There is no pulse! His hand goes to the heart.
My heart has ceased to beat, and all is still.
The hand the doctor held drops down like lead.
A looking-glass receives no fading mist,
Laid on the icy and immovable lips.
My eyes are fixed; I glare upon them all.
Grace twines her widowed arms about my neck,
Kissing my sallow cheeks, with hopeless tears,
Calling my name, and begging me come back;
So, thinking me dead, they close my staring eyes,
And put the face-cloth over my white face,
And go with silent tread about the room.
They do not know that I am in a trance.
I hear each whisper uttered, and the sighs
That heave the desolate bosom of my Grace.

 XI.

All is so dark since they have shut my eyes;
I think it cruel in them to do that—
Shut out the light of day and every chance
That I could ever have of seeing Grace.
I cannot move a muscle, and I try,
And strive to part my lips to say some word;
But all in vain; the mind has lost control
Over the body's null machinery.
I wonder if they yet will bury me,
Thinking me dead? To wake up in the grave,
And hear a wagon rumbling overhead,
Or a chance footstep passing near the spot,
And then cry out and never get reply;
But hear the footstep vanish far away,
And know the cold mould smothers up all cries,
And is above, beneath, and round me,
Is bitter thought. To lie back then and die,
Suffocating slowly while I tear my hair,
Makes me most wild to think of.

XII.

Hark! 'tis night.
The hour is borne distinctly by the wind.
My Grace sits near me; now comes to my side,
And unto Him, whose ear is everywhere,
She, kneeling down, puts up her hands, and prays.
 
"O Father of all mercies, still be merciful,
And raise me from the gulf of this despair.
I cannot think nor feel my love is dead.
If he yet lives, and lingers in a trance,
Give me some sign that I may know the truth."
I slowly raise my hand, and let it fall.
Grace springs up all delight, and draws the cloth,
Kissing my lips, and begging me to wake.
I try, but fail to raise my hand again.
The trance still lasts. My eyes will not unclose;
My lips refuse the functions of their place.

XIII.

On the next day will be the funeral;
But Grace has this delayed for one week more;
Yet all in vain, I neither wake nor move.
I hear the people coming in the house,
And straight within my coffin long to rise.
I hear the pastor's prayer, and then his words,
Simple and good, and full of tender praise.
They come at last to take a parting look,
A file of faces that pass out the door.
I hear them quickly screwing down the lid;
And now the bearers take me from the house,
And push me, feet first, in the black plumed hearse.
Gianni is a bearer of my pall,
And Grace is choked with sobs, and follows on.
We reach the grave. They slowly lower me down.
Some gravel on the side is loose, and falls
Battling upon the narrow coffin lid.
Horror on horror! Let me see no more!

AFTER BURIAL.

So stands the premonition; and to-day
I look back on the words here written down,
Comparing them with what has happened since,
And find there is no flaw in any scene.
Always intending to tell Grace my fear
That some day I might be entombed alive,
I always failed, until it was too late.
But as the sod fell on the coffin-lid,
My trance was broken, and I called and screamed,
Until they drew me up from out the grave,
And breaking in my prison, set me free.
Gianni fled, fearing my face at last.
To-day I have his letter from his home,
Beneath the far-off skies of Italy,
Craving forgiveness for his wrongs to me;
Saying that he repents for all his past,
And with Christ's help, will lead a better life.
He found his wife and children overjoyed
To have him back again to their embrace.
 
To-morrow Grace Bernard and I shall wed.
The bell that tolled my bitter funeral knell,
Will ring, glad of my wedding and my bride—
Ring merrily round and round a jubilant peal.
There comes no premonition now to show to me
What the long future has in store for us;
But from my door I watch the sunset skies,
And see blue mountains tower o'er golden plains,
Clothed with pure beauty stretching far away.
So seems the future. I await the morn.