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Title: Fires - Book II - The Ovens, and Other Tales
Author: Gibson, Wilfrid Wilson, 1878-1962
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Fires - Book II - The Ovens, and Other Tales" ***

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                                 FIRES

                                BOOK II
                       THE OVENS, AND OTHER TALES


                                   BY

                         WILFRID WILSON GIBSON



                                 LONDON
                       ELKIN MATHEWS, VIGO STREET
                                M CM XII



                          _BY THE SAME WRITER_
                            WOMENKIND (1912)
                           DAILY BREAD (1910)
                         THE STONEFOLDS (1907)
                        ON THE THRESHOLD (1907)



                                CONTENTS

The Crane
The Lighthouse
The Money
The Snow
Red Fox
The Ovens



_Thanks are due to the editors of_ THE ENGLISH REVIEW, RHYTHM _and_ THE
NATION _for leave to reprint some of these tales_.



                                 FIRES



                               THE CRANE

    The biggest crane on earth, it lifts
    Two hundred ton more easily
    Than I can lift my heavy head:
    And when it swings, the whole world shifts,
    Or so, at least, it seems to me,
    As, day and night, adream I lie
    Upon my crippled back in bed,
    And watch it up against the sky.

    My mother, hunching in her chair,
    Day-long, and stitching trousers there--
    At three-and-three the dozen pair...
    She’d sit all night, and stitch for me,
    Her son, if I could only wear...
    She never lifts her eyes to see
    The big crane swinging through the air.

    But, though she has no time to talk,
    She always cleans the window-pane,
    That I may see it, clear and plain:
    And, as I watch it move, I walk
    Who never walked in all my days...
    And, often, as I dream agaze,
    I’m up and out: and it is I
    Who swing the crane across the sky.
    Right up above the wharf I stand,
    And touch a lever with my hand,
    To lift a bunch of girders high,
    A truck of coal, a field of grain
    In sacks, a bundle of big trees,
    Or beasts, too frightened in my grip
    To wonder at their skiey trip:
    And then I let the long arm dip
    Without a hitch, without a slip,
    To set them safely in the ship
    That waits to take them overseas.

    My mother little dreams it’s I,
    Up there, as tiny as a fly,
    Who stand above the biggest crane,
    And swing the ship-loads through the sky;
    While she sits, hunching in her chair,
    Day-long, and stitching trousers there--
    At three-and-three the dozen pair.

    And sometimes when it turns me dizzy,
    I lie and watch her, ever busy;
    And wonder at a lot of things
    I never speak to her about:
    I wonder why she never sings
    Like other people on the stair...
    And why, whenever she goes out
    Upon a windy day, the air
    Makes her sad eyes so strangely bright...
    And if the colour of her hair
    Was brown like mine, or always white...
    And why, when through the noise of feet
    Of people passing in the street,
    She hears a dog yelp or sheep bleat,
    She always starts up in her chair,
    And looks before her with strange stare,
    Yet, seeing nothing anywhere:
    Though, right before her, through the sky,
    The biggest crane goes swinging by.

    But, it’s a lucky day and rare
    When she’s the time to talk with me...
    Though, only yesterday, when night
    Shut out, at last, the crane from sight...
    She, in her bed, and thinking I
    Was sleeping--though I watch the sky,
    At times, till it is morning-light,
    And ships are waiting to unload--
    I heard her murmur drowsily:
    "The pit-pat-pattering of feet,
    All night, along the moonlit road...
    A yelp, a whistle, and a bleat...
    The bracken’s deep and soft and dry...
    And safe and snug, and no one near...
    The little burn sings low and sweet,
    The little burn sings shrill and clear...
    And loud all night the cock-grouse talks...
    There’s naught in heaven or earth to fear...
    The pit-pat-pattering of feet...
    A yelp, a whistle, and a bleat..."
    And then, she started up in bed:
    I felt her staring, as she said:
    "I wonder if he ever hears
    The pit-pat-pattering of sheep,
    Or smells the broken bracken stalks...
    While she is lying sound-asleep
    Beside him ... after all these years--
    Just nineteen years, this very night--
    Remembering? ... and now, his son,
    A man ... and never stood upright!"

    And then, I heard a sound of tears;
    But dared not speak, or let her know
    I’d caught a single whisper, though
    I wondered long what she had done
    That she should fear the pattering feet:
    And when those queer words in the night
    Had fretted me half-dead with fright,
    And set my throbbing head abeat...
    Out of the darkness, suddenly,
    The crane’s long arm swung over me,
    Among the stars, high overhead...
    And then it dipped, and clutched my bed
    And I had not a breath to cry,
    Before it swung me through the sky,
    Above the sleeping city high,
    Where blinding stars went blazing by...

    My mother, hunching in her chair,
    Day-long, and stitching trousers there,
    At three-and-three the dozen pair,
    With quiet eyes and smooth white hair...
    You’d little think a yelp or bleat
    Could start her; or that she was weeping
    So sorely, when she thought me sleeping.
    She never tells me why she fears
    The pit-pat-pattering of feet
    All night along the moonlit road...
    Or what’s the wrong that she has done...
    I wonder if ’twould bring her tears,
    If she could know that I, her son--
    A man, who never stood upright,
    But all the livelong day must lie,
    And watch, beyond the window-pane
    The swaying of the biggest crane--
    That I, within its clutch, last night,
    Went whirling through the starry sky.



                             THE LIGHTHOUSE

    Just as my watch was done, the fog had lifted;
    And we could see the flashing of our light;
    And see, once more, the reef beyond the Head,
    O’er which, six days and nights, the mist had drifted--
    Six days and nights in thick white mist had drifted,
    Until it seemed all time to mist had drifted,
    And day and night were but one blind white night.

    But on the seventh midnight the wind shifted:
    And I was glad to tumble into bed,
    Thankful to hear no more the blaring horn,
    That ceaselessly had sounded, night and morn,
    With moaning echoes through the mist, to warn
    The blind, bewildered ships at sea:
    Yet, though as tired as any dog,
    I lay awhile, and seemed to feel
    Fog lying on my eyes still heavily;
    And still, the horn unceasingly
    Sang through my head, till gradually
    Through night’s strange stillness, over me
    Sweet sleep began to steal,
    Sleep, blind and thick and fleecy as the fog.

    For all I knew, I might have slept
    A moment, or eternity;
    When, startled by a crash,
    I waked to find I’d leapt
    Upright on the floor:
    And stood there, listening to the smash
    Of falling glass ... and then a thud
    Of something heavy tumbling
    Into the next room...
    A pad of naked feet...
    A moan ... a sound of stumbling ...
    A heavier thud ... and then no more.
    And I stood shivering in the gloom,
    With creeping flesh, and tingling blood,
    Until I gave myself a shake
    To bring my wits more wide awake;
    And lit a lantern, and flung wide the door.
    Half-dazed, and dazzled by the light,
    At first it seemed I’d only find
    A broken pane, a flapping blind:
    But when I raised the lantern o’er my head,
    I saw a naked boy upon the bed,
    Who crouched and shuddered on the folded sheet;
    And, on his face, before my feet,
    A naked man, who lay as if quite dead,
    Though on his broken knuckles blood was red:
    And all my wits awakened at the sight.

    I set the lantern down; and took the child,
    Who looked at me, with piteous eyes and wild;
    And chafed his chill, wet body, till it glowed;
    And forcing spirit ’twixt his chattering teeth,
    I tucked him snugly in beneath
    The blankets, and soon left him warmly stowed:
    And stooped to tend the man, who lay
    Still senseless on the floor.

    I turned him off his face;
    And laid him on the other bed;
    And washed and staunched his wound.
    And yet for all that I could do,
    I could not bring him to,
    Or see a trace
    Of life returning to that heavy head.

    It seemed he’d swooned,
    When through the window he’d made way,
    Just having strength to lay
    The boy in safety.  Still as death,
    He lay, without a breath:
    And seeing I could do no more
    To help him in the fight for life;
    I turned again to tend the lad;
    And, as I looked on him, was glad
    To find him sleeping quietly.

    So, fetching fuel, I lit a fire:
    And quickly had as big a blaze
    As any housewife could desire:
    Then, ’twixt the beds, I set a chair,
    That I might watch until they stirred:
    And as I saw them lying there--
    The sleeping boy, and him who lay
    In that strange stiller sleep, ’twas plain
    That they were son and father, now
    I’d time to look, and wonder how,
    In such a desperate plight,
    Without a stitch or rag,
    They’d taken refuge from the night.
    And, as I wondered drowsily,
    It seemed yet queerer and more queer;
    For round the Head the rocks are sheer,
    With scarce a foothold for a bird;
    And it seemed quite beyond belief
    That any wrecked upon the reef,
    Could swim ashore, and scale the crag,
    By daylight, let alone by night

    But, they who live beside the sea
    Know naught’s too wonderful to be:
    And, as I sat, and heard
    The quiet breathing of the child,
    Great weariness came over me;
    And, in a kind of daze,
    I watched the blaze,
    With nodding head:
    And must have slept, for, presently,
    I found the man was sitting up in bed:
    And talking to himself, with wide, unseeing eyes.
    At first, I hardly made out what he said:
    But soon his voice, so hoarse and wild,
    Grew calm: and, straining, I could hear
    The broken words, that came with many sighs.

    "Yes, lad: she’s going: but, there’s naught to fear:
    For I can swim: and tow you in the belt.
    Come, let’s join hands together; and leap clear...
    Aye, son: it’s dark and cold ... but you have felt
    The cold and dark before...
    And you should scorn...
    And we must be near shore...
    For, hark the horn!
    Think of your mother, and your home, and leap...
    She thinks of us, lad, waking or asleep...
    You would not leave her lonely?
    Nay! ... then ... go! ...
    Well done, lad! ... Nay!  I’m here...
    Aye, son, it’s cold: but you’re too big to fear.
    Now then, you’re snug: I’ve got you safe in tow:
    The worst is over: and we’ve only
    To make for land ... we’ve naught ... to do ... but steer...
    But steer ... but steer..."

    He paused; and sank down in the bed, quite done:
    And lay a moment silent, while his son
    Still slumbered in the other bed,
    And on his quiet face the firelight shone.
    Then, once again, the father raised his head,
    And rambled on...
    "Say, lad, what cheer?
    I thought you’d dropped asleep: but you’re all right.
    We’ll rest a moment ... I’m quite out of breath...
    It’s further than ... Nay, son! there’s naught to fear...
    The land must be quite near...
    The horn is loud enough!
    Aye, lad, it’s cold:
    But, you’re too old
    To cry for cold.
    Now ... keep ... tight hold:
    And we’ll be off again.
    I’ve got my breath..."

    He sank, once more, as still as death,
    With hands that clutched the counterpane:
    But still the boy was sleeping quietly.
    And then, the father sat up suddenly:
    And cried: "See!  See!
    The land! the land!
    It’s near ... I touch it with my hand."
    And now, "Oh God!" he moaned.
    Small wonder, when he saw what lay before--
    The black, unbroken crags, so grim and high,
    That must have seemed to him to soar
    Sheer from the sea’s edge to the sky.
    But, soon, he plucked up heart, once more:
    "We’re safe, lad--safe ashore!
    A narrow ledge, but land, firm land.
    We’ll soon be high and dry.
    Nay, son: we can’t stay here:
    The waves would have us back;
    Or we should perish of the cold.
    Come, lad: there’s naught to fear...
    You must be brave and bold.
    Perhaps, we’ll strike a track.
    Aye, son: it’s steep, and black,
    And slimy to the hold:
    But we must climb, and see! the mist is gone.
    The stars are shining clear...
    Think, son, your mother’s at the top;
    And you’ll be up in no time.  See, that star,
    The brightest star that ever shone,
    Just think it’s she who watches you;
    And knows that you’ll be brave and true.
    Come, lad: we may not stop...
    Or, else, the cold...
    Give me your hand...
    Your foot there, now ... just room to stand.
    It cannot be so far...
    We’ll soon be up ... this work should make us warm.
    Thank God, it’s not a storm,
    Or we should scarce ... your foot, here, firm...
    Nay, lad! you must not squirm.
    Come, be a man: you shall not fall:
    I’ll hold you tight.
    There: now, you are my own son, after all!
    Your mother, lad,
    Her star burns bright...
    And we’re already half-way up the height...
    Your mother will be glad,
    Aye, she’ll be glad to hear
    Of her brave boy who had no fear.

    Your foot ... your hand ... ’twas but a bird
    You startled out of bed:
    ’Twould think it queer
    To wake up, suddenly, and see your head!
    And, when you stirred...
    Nay! steady, lad!
    Or you will send your dad...
    Your hand ... your foot ... we’ll rest upon this ledge...
    Why, son, we’re at the top!  I feel the edge,
    And grass, soft, dewy grass!
    Let go, one moment; and I’ll draw you up...
    Now, lad! ... Thank God! that’s past...
    And you are safe, at last:
    You’re safe, you’re safe ... and now, my precious lass
    Will see her son, her little son, again.

    I never thought to reach the top, to-night.
    God!  What a height!
    Nay! but you must not look: ’twould turn your head
    And we must not stand shivering here...
    And see ... a flashing light...
    It’s sweeping towards us: and now you stand bright.
    Ah, your poor, bleeding hands and feet!
    My little son, my sweet!
    There’s nothing more to fear.
    A lighthouse, lad!  And we must make for it.
    You’re tired; I’ll carry you a bit.
    Nay, son: ’twill warm me up...
    And there will be a fire and bed;
    And ev’n perhaps a cup
    Of something hot to drink,
    And something good to eat.
    And think, son, only think,
    Your home ... and mother ... once again."

    Once more, the weary head
    Sank back upon the bed:
    And, for a while, he hardly stirred;
    But only muttered, now and then,
    A broken word,
    As though to cheer
    His son, who still slept quietly,
    Upon the other side of me.

    And then, my blood ran cold to hear
    A sudden cry of fear:
    "My son!  My son!
    Ah, God, he’s done!
    I thought I’d laid him on the bed...
    I’ve laid him on white mist, instead:
    He’s fallen sheer..."

    Then, I sprang up; and cried: "Your son is here!"
    And, taking up the sleeping boy,
    I bore him to his father’s arms:
    And, as he nestled to his breast,
    Kind life came back to those wild eyes;
    And filled them with deep joy:
    And, free of all alarms,
    The son and father lay,
    Together, in sweet rest,
    While through the window stole the strange, clear light of day.



                               THE MONEY

    They found her cold upon the bed.
    The cause of death, the doctor said,
    Was nothing save the lack of bread.

    Her clothes were but a sorry rag
    That barely hid the nakedness
    Of her poor body’s piteous wreck:
    Yet, when they stripped her of her dress,
    They found she was not penniless;
    For, in a little silken bag,
    Tied with red ribbon round her neck,
    Was four-pound-seventeen-and-five.

    "It seems a strange and shameful thing
    That she should starve herself to death,
    While she’d the means to keep alive.
    Why, such a sum would keep the breath
    Within her body till she’d found
    A livelihood; and it would bring...
    But, there is very little doubt
    She’d set her heart upon a grand
    And foolish funeral--for the pride
    Of poor folk, who can understand!--
    And so, because she was too proud
    To meet death penniless, she died."

    And talking, talking, they trooped out:
    And, as they went, I turned about
    To look upon her in her shroud;
    And saw again the quiet face
    That filled with light that shameful place,
    Touched with the tender, youthful grace
    Death brings the broken and outworn
    To comfort kind hearts left to mourn.

    And as I stood, the sum they’d found
    Rang with a queer, familiar ring
    Of some uncouth, uncanny sound
    Heard in dark ages underground;
    And "four-pound-seventeen-and-five"
    Through all my body seemed to sing,
    Without recalling anything
    To help me, strive as I might strive.

    But, as I stumbled down the stairs
    Into the alley’s gloom and stench--
    A whiff of burning oil
    That took me unawares--
    And I knew all there was to tell.
    And, though the rain in torrents fell,
    I walked on, heedless, through the drench
    And, all the while, I seemed to sit
    Upon a tub in Lansel pit;
    And in the candle-light to see
    John Askerton, a "deputy,"
    Who paused awhile to talk with me,
    His kind face glistening black with toil.

    "’Twas here I found him dead, beside
    His engine.  All the other men
    Were up--for things were slack just then--
    And I’d one foot upon the cage;
    When, all at once, I caught the smell
    Of burning.  Even as I turned
    To see what it could be that burned,
    The seam behind was choked with stife.
    And so I dropped on hands and knees,
    And crawled along the gallery,
    Beneath the smoke, that I might see
    What ailed: and as I crept, half-blind,
    With smarting eyes, and breath awheeze,
    I scarcely knew what I should find.
    At times, I thought I’d never know...
    And ’twas already quite an age
    Since I set out ... I felt as though
    I had been crawling all my life
    Beneath the stifling cloud of smoke
    That clung about me fit to choke:
    And when, at last, I’d struggled here,
    ’Twas long ere I could see things clear...
    That he was lying here ... and he
    Was dead ... and burning like a tree...
    A tree-trunk soaked in oil ... No doubt,
    The engine had caught fire, somehow;
    And when he tried to put it out,
    His greasy clothes had caught ... and now
    As fine a lad as you could see...
    And such a lad for singing ... I
    Had heard him when I worked hard by;
    And often quiet I would sit
    To hear him, singing in the pit,
    As though his heart knew naught of it,
    And life was nothing but a song.

    "He’d not been working with us long:
    And little of his ways I knew:
    But, when I’d got him up, at last;
    And he was lying in the shed,
    The sweet song silent in his breast;
    And there was nothing more to do:
    The notion came into my head
    That he had always been well-dressed;
    And seemed a neat and thrifty lad...
    And lived in lodgings ... so, maybe,
    Would carry on him all he had.
    So, back into the cage I stepped:
    And, when it reached the bottom, crept
    Along the gallery again
    And, in the dust where he had lain,
    I rummaged, until I found all
    That from his burning pockets fell.
    And when it seemed there was no more,
    I thought how, happy and alive,
    And recking naught what might befall,
    He, too, for all that I could tell,
    Just where I stood, had reckoned o’er
    That four-pound-seventeen-and-five.

    "Aye, like enough ... for soon we heard
    That in a week he’d looked to wed.
    He’d meant to give the girl that night
    The money to buy furniture.
    She came, and watched till morning-light
    Beside the body in the shed:
    Then rose: and took, without a word,
    The money he had left for her."

                           *      *      *      *      *

    Then, as I wandered through the rain,
    I seemed to stand in awe again
    Beside that lonely garret-bed.
    And it was good to think the dead
    Had known the wealth she would not spend
    To keep a little while alive--
    His four-pound-seventeen-and-five--
    Would buy her houseroom in the end.



                                THE SNOW

    Just as the school came out,
    The first white flakes were drifting round about:
    And all the children shouted with delight
    To see such flakes, so big, so white,
    Tumbling from a cloud so black,
    And whirling helter-skelter
    Across the windy moor:
    And as they saw the light flakes race,
    Started off in headlong chase,
    Swooping on them with a shout,
    When they seemed to drop for shelter
    Underneath the dry-stone wall.

    And then the master, at the schoolhouse door,
    Called out to them to hurry home, before
    The storm should come on worse: and watched till all
    Had started off by road or moorland track:
    When, turning to his wife, he said:
    It looked like dirty weather overhead:
    He thought ’twould be a heavy fall,
    And threatened for a roughish night;
    But they would all reach home in broad daylight.
    ’Twas early, yet; he’d let the school out soon;
    As it had looked so lowering since forenoon;
    And many had a goodish step to go:
    And it was but ill-travelling in the snow.
    Then by the fire he settled down to read;
    And to the weather paid no further heed.

    And, on their road home, full three miles away,
    John, and his little sister, Janey, started;
    And, at the setting out, were happy-hearted
    To be let loose into a world so gay,
    With jolly winds and frisking flakes at play
    That flicked your cheek, and whistled in your teeth:
    And now hard on each other’s heels they darted
    To catch a flake that floated like a feather,
    Then dropt to nestle in a clump of heather;
    And often tumbled both together
    Into a deep delicious bed
    Of brown and springy heath.
    But, when the sky grew blacker overhead,
    As if it were the coming on of night,
    And every little hill, well-known to sight,
    Looked big and strange in its new fleece of white;
    And as yet faster and more thickly
    The big flakes fell,
    To John the thought came that it might be well
    To hurry home; so, striding on before,
    He set a steady face across the moor;
    And called to Janey she must come more quickly.

    The wind soon dropped: and fine and dry the snow
    Came whispering down about them, as they trudged
    And, when they’d travelled for a mile or so,
    They found it ankle-deep: for here the storm
    Had started long before it reached the school:
    And, as he felt the dry flakes tingling warm
    Upon his cheek, and set him all aglow,
    John in his manly pride, a little grudged
    That now and then he had to wait awhile
    For Janey, lagging like a little fool:
    But, when they’d covered near another mile
    Through that bewildering white without a sound,
    Save rustling, rustling, rustling all around;
    And all his well-known world, so queer and dim,
    He waited until she caught up to him;
    And felt quite glad that he was not alone.

    And when they reached the low, half-buried stone
    That marked where some old shepherd had been found,
    Lost in the snow in seeking his lost sheep,
    One wild March night, full forty years ago,
    He wished, and wished, that they were safe and sound
    In their own house: and as the snow got deeper,
    And every little bank seemed strangely steeper,
    He thought, and thought of that lost sleeper;
    And saw him lying in the snow,
    Till every fleecy clump of heath
    Seemed to shroud a man beneath;
    And now his blood went hot and cold
    Through very fear of that dread sight;
    And then he felt that, in sheer fright,
    He must take to his heels in flight,
    He cared not whither, so that it might be
    Where there were no more bundles, cold and white,
    Like sheeted bodies, plain to see.
    And, all on edge, he turned to chide
    His sister, dragging at his side:
    But, when he found that she was crying,
    Because her feet and hands were cold,
    He quite forgot to scold:
    And spoke kind words of cheer to her:
    And saw no more dead shepherds lying
    In any snowy clump of heather.
    So, hand in hand, they trudged together,
    Through that strange world of drifting gloam,
    Sharp-set and longing sore for home.

    And John remembered how that morning,
    When they set out the sky was blue--
    Clean, cloudless blue; and gave no warning;
    And how through air as clear as glass,
    The far-off hills he knew
    Looked strangely near; and glittered brightly;
    Each sprig of heath and blade of grass
    In the cold wind blowing lightly,
    Each clump of green and crimson moss
    Sparkling in the wintry sun.

    But now, as they toiled home, across
    These unfamiliar fells, nigh done,
    The wind again began to blow;
    And thicker, thicker fell the snow:
    Till Janey sank, too numb to stir:
    When John stooped down, and lifted her,
    To carry her upon his back.
    And then his head began to tire:
    And soon he seemed to lose the track...
    And now the world was all afire...
    Now dazzling white, now dazzling black...
    And then, through some strange land of light,
    Where clouds of butterflies all white,
    Fluttered and flickered all about,
    Dancing ever in and out,
    He wandered, blinded by white wings,
    That rustled, rustled in his ears
    With cold, uncanny whisperings...
    And then it seemed his bones must crack
    With that dead weight upon his back...
    When, on his cheek, he felt warm tears,
    And a cold tangle of wet hair;
    And knew ’twas Janey weeping there:
    And, taking heart, he stumbled on,
    While in his breast the hearthlight shone:
    And it was all of his desire
    To sit once more before the fire;
    And feel the friendly glowing heat.
    But, as he strove with fumbling feet,
    It seemed that he would never find
    Again that cheery hearth and kind;
    But wander ever, bent and blind,
    Beneath his burden through the night
    Of dreadful, spangly, whispering white.

    The wind rose; and the dry snow drifted
    In little eddies round the track:
    And when, at last, the dark cloud rifted,
    He saw a strange lough, lying cold and black,
    ’Mid unknown, ghostly hills; and knew
    That they were lost: and once again,
    The snow closed in: and swept from view
    The dead black water and strange fells.

    But still he struggled on: and then,
    When he seemed climbing up an endless steep
    And ever slipping, sliding back,
    With ankles aching like to crack,
    And only longed for sleep;
    He heard a tinkling sound of bells,
    That kept on ringing, ringing, ringing,
    Until his dizzy head was singing;
    And he could think of nothing else:
    And then it seemed the weight was lifted
    From off his back; and on the ground
    His sister stood, while, all around
    Were giants clad in coats of wool,
    With big, curled horns, and queer black faces,
    Who bobbed and curtsied in their places,
    With blazing eyes and strange grimaces;
    But never made a sound;
    Then nearly shook themselves to pieces,
    Shedding round a smell of warm, wet fleeces:
    Then one it seemed as if he knew,
    Looking like the old lame ewe,
    Began to bite his coat, and pull
    Till he could hardly stand: its eyes
    Glowing to a monstrous size,
    Till they were like a lantern light
    Burning brightly through the night...
    When someone stooped from out the sky,
    To rescue him; and set him high:
    And he was riding, snug and warm,
    In some king’s chariot through the storm,
    Without a sound of wheel or hoof--
    In some king’s chariot, filled with straw,
    And he would nevermore be cold...

    And then with wondering eyes he saw
    Deep caverns of pure burning gold;
    And knew himself in fairyland:
    But when he stretched an eager hand
    To touch the glowing walls, he felt
    A queer warm puff, as though of fire...
    And suddenly he smelt
    The reek of peat; and looking higher,
    He saw the old, black porridge-kettle,
    Hanging from the cavern roof,
    Hanging on its own black crook:
    And he was lying on the settle,
    While by his side,
    With tender look,
    His mother knelt;
    And he had only one desire
    In all the world; and ’twas to fling
    His arms about her neck, and hide
    His happy tears upon her breast.
    And as to her he closely pressed,
    He heard his merry father sing:
    "There was a silly sleepyhead,
    Who thought he’d like to go to bed:
    So in a stell he went to sleep,
    And snored among the other sheep."

    And then his mother gently said:
    "Nay, father: do not tease him now:
    He’s quite worn out: and needs a deal
    Of quiet sleep: and, after all,
    He brought his sister safe from school."
    And now he felt her warm tears fall
    Upon his cheek: and thrilled to feel
    His father’s hand on his hot brow,
    And hear him say: "The lad’s no fool."



                                RED FOX

    I hated him ... his beard was red...
    Red fox, red thief! ... Ah, God, that she--
    She with the proud and lifted head
    That never stooped to glance at me--
    So fair and fancy-free, should wed
    A slinking dog-fox such as he!

    Was it last night I hated him?
    Last night?  It seems an age ago...
    At whiles, my mind comes over dim
    As if God’s breath ... yet, ever slow
    And dull, too dull she ... limb from limb
    Last night I could have torn him, so!

    My lonely bed was fire and ice.
    I could not sleep.  I could not lie.
    I shut my hot eyes once or twice...
    And saw a red fox slinking by...
    A red dog-fox that turned back thrice
    To mock me with a merry eye.

    And so I rose to pace the floor...
    And, ere I knew, my clothes were on...
    And as I stood outside the door,
    Cold in the Summer moonlight shone
    The gleaming barrel ... and no more
    I feared the fox, for fear was one.

    "The best of friends," I said, "must part..."
    "The best of friends must part," I said:
    And like the creaking of a cart
    The words went wheeling through my head.
    "The best of friends..." and, in my heart,
    Red fox, already lying dead!

    I took the trackway through the wood.
    Red fox had sought a woodland den,
    When she ... when she ... but, ’twas not good
    To think too much on her just then...
    The woman must beware, who stood
    Between two stark and fearless men.

    The pathway took a sudden turn...
    And in a trice my steps were stayed.
    Before me, in the moonlit fern,
    A young dog-fox and vixen played
    With their red cubs beside the burn...
    And I stood trembling and afraid.

    They frolicked in the warm moonlight--
    A scuffling heap of heads and heels...
    A rascal rush ... a playful bite...
    A scuttling brush, and frightened squeals...
    A flash of teeth ... a show of fight...
    Then lively as a bunch of eels

    Once more they gambolled in the brake,
    And tumbled headlong in the stream,
    Then scrambled gasping out to shake
    Their sleek, wet, furry coats agleam.
    I watched them, fearful and awake...
    I watched them, hateless and adream.

    The dog-fox gave a bark, and then
    All ran to him: and, full of pride,
    He took the trackway up the glen,
    His family trotting by his side:
    The young cubs nosing for the den,
    With trailing brushes, sleepy-eyed.

    And then it seems I must have slept--
    Dropt dead asleep ... dropt dead outworn.
    I wakened, as the first gleam crept
    Among the fern, and it was morn...
    God’s eye about their home had kept
    Good watch, the night her son was born.



                               THE OVENS

    He trailed along the cinder-track
    Beside the sleek canal, whose black
    Cold, slinking waters shivered back
    Each frosty spark of starry light;
    And each star pricked, an icy pin,
    Through his old jacket worn and thin:
    The raw wind rasped his shrinking skin
    As if stark naked to its bite;
    Yet, cutting through him like a knife,
    It would not cut the thread of life;
    But only turned his feet to stones
    With red-hot soles, that weighed like lead
    In his old broken boots.  His head,
    Sunk low upon his sunken chest,
    Was but a burning, icy ache
    That strained a skull which would not break
    To let him tumble down to rest.
    He felt the cold stars in his bones:
    And only wished that he were dead,
    With no curst searching wind to shred
    The very flesh from off his bones--
    No wind to whistle through his bones,
    His naked, icy, burning bones:
    When, looking up, he saw, ahead,
    The far coke-ovens’ glowing light
    That burnt a red hole in the night.
    And but to snooze beside that fire
    Was all the heaven of his desire...
    To tread no more this cursed track
    Of crunching cinders, through a black
    And blasted world of cinder-heaps,
    Beside a sleek canal that creeps
    Like crawling ice through every bone,
    Beneath the cruel stars, alone
    With this hell-raking wind that sets
    The cold teeth rattling castanets...
    Yea, heaven, indeed, that core of red
    In night’s black heart that seemed quite dead.
    Though still far off, the crimson glow
    Through his chilled veins began to flow,
    And fill his shrivelled heart with heat;
    And, as he dragged his senseless feet,
    That lagged as though to hold him back
    In cold, eternal hell of black,
    With heaven before him, blazing red,
    The set eyes staring in his head
    Were held by spell of fire quite blind
    To that black world that fell behind,
    A cindery wilderness of death;
    As he drew slowly near and nearer,
    And saw the ovens glowing clearer--
    Low-domed and humming hives of heat--
    And felt the blast of burning breath
    That quivered from each white-hot brick:
    Till, blinded by the blaze, and sick
    He dropped into a welcome seat
    Of warm white ashes, sinking low
    To soak his body in the glow
    That shot him through with prickling pain,
    An eager agony of fire,
    Delicious after the cold ache,
    And scorched his tingling, frosted skin.
    Then gradually the anguish passed;
    And blissfully he lay, at last,
    Without an unfulfilled desire,
    His grateful body drinking in
    Warm, blessed, snug forgetfulness.
    And yet, with staring eyes awake,
    As though no drench of heat could slake
    His thirst for fire, he watched a red
    Hot eye that burned within a chink
    Between the bricks: while overhead
    The quivering stream of hot, gold air
    Surged up to quench the cold starlight.
    His brain, too numbed and dull to think
    Throughout the day, in that fierce glare
    Awoke, at last, with startled stare
    Of pitiless, insistent sight
    That stript the stark, mean, bitter strife
    Of his poor, broken, wasted life,
    Crippled from birth, and struggling on,
    The last, least shred of hope long gone,
    To some unknown, black, bitter end.
    But, even as he looked, his brain
    Sank back to sightless sloth again;
    Then, all at once, he seemed to choke;
    And knew it was the stealthy stife
    And deadly fume of burning coke
    That filled his lungs, and seemed to soak
    Through every pore, until the blood
    Grew thick and heavy in his veins,
    And he could scarcely draw a breath.
    He lay, and murmured drowsily,
    With closing eyes: "If this be death,
    It’s snug and easy ... let it come...
    For life is cold and hard ... the flood
    Is rising with the heavy rains
    That pour and pour ... that damned old drum,
    Why ever can’t they let it be...
    Beat-beating, beating, beating, beat..."
    Then, suddenly, he sat upright,
    For, close behind him in the night,
    He heard a breathing loud and deep,
    And caught a whiff of burning leather.
    He shook himself alive, and turned;
    And on a heap of ashes white,
    O’ercome by the full blast of heat,
    Where fieriest the dread blaze burned,
    He saw a young girl stretched in sleep.
    He sat awhile with heavy gaze
    Fixed on her in a dull amaze,
    Until he saw her scorched boots smoking:
    Then, whispering huskily: "She’s dying,
    While I look on and watch her choking!"
    He roused: and pulled himself together:
    And rose, and went where she was lying:
    And, bending o’er the senseless lass,
    In his weak arms he lifted her;
    And bore her out beyond the glare,
    Beyond the stealthy, stifling gas,
    Into the fresh and eager air:
    And laid her gently on the ground
    Beneath the cold and starry sky:
    And did his best to bring her round;
    Though still, for all that he could try,
    She seemed, with each deep-labouring breath
    Just brought up on the brink of death.
    He sought, and found an icy pool,
    Though he had but a cap to fill,
    And bathed her hands and face, until
    The troubled breath was quieter,
    And her flushed forehead felt quite cool:
    And then he saw an eyelid stir;
    And shivering she sat up at last,
    And looked about her sullenly.
    "I’m cold ... I’m mortal cold," she said:
    "What call had you to waken me?
    I was so warm and happy, dead...
    And still those staring stars!"  Her head
    Dropt in her hands: and thick and fast
    The tears came with a heavy sobbing.
    He stood quite helpless while she cried;
    And watched her shaken bosom throbbing
    With passionate, wild, weak distress,
    Till it was spent.  And then she dried
    Her eyes upon her singed black dress;
    Looked up, and saw him standing there,
    Wondering, and more than half-afraid.
    But now, the nipping, hungry air
    Took hold of her, and struck fear dead.
    She only felt the starving sting
    That must, at any price, be stayed;
    And cried out: "I am famishing!"
    Then from his pocket he took bread
    That he had been too weak and sick
    To eat o’ernight: and eager-eyed,
    She took it timidly; and said:
    "I have not tasted food two days."
    And, as he waited by her side,
    He watched her with a quiet gaze;
    And saw her munch the broken crust
    So gladly, seated in the dust
    Of that black desert’s bitter night,
    Beneath the freezing stars, so white
    And hunger-pinched: and at the sight
    Keen pity touched him to the quick;
    Although he never said a word,
    Till she had finished every crumb.
    And then he led her to a seat
    A little closer to the heat,
    But well beyond the deadly stife.
    And in the ashes, side by side,
    They sat together, dazed and dumb,
    With eyes upon the ovens’ glare,
    Each looking nakedly on life.
    And then, at length, she sighed, and stirred,
    Still staring deep and dreamy-eyed
    Into the whitening, steady glow.
    With jerky, broken words and slow,
    And biting at her finger-ends,
    She talked at last: and spoke out all
    Quite open-heartedly, as though
    There were not any stranger there--
    The fire and he, both bosom-friends.
    She’d left her home three months ago--
    She, country-born and country-bred,
    Had got the notion in her head
    That she’d like city-service best...
    And so no country place could please...
    And she had worried without rest
    Until, at last, she got her ends;
    And, wiser than her folk and friends,
    She left her home among the trees...
    The trees grew thick for miles about
    Her father’s house ... the forest spread
    As far as ever you could see...
    And it was green, in Summer, green...
    Since she had left her home, she’d seen
    No greenness could compare with it...
    And everything was fresh and clean,
    And not all smutched and smirched with smoke
    They burned no sooty coal and coke,
    But only wood-logs, ash and oak...
    And by the fire at night they’d sit...
    Ah! wouldn’t it be rare and good
    To smell the sappy, sizzling wood,
    Once more; and listen to the stream
    That runs just by the garden-gate...
    And often, in a Winter spate,
    She’d wakened from a troubled dream,
    And lain in bed, and heard it roar;
    And quaked to hear it, as a child...
    It seemed so angry, and so wild--
    Just mad to sweep the house away!
    And now, it was three months or more
    Since she had heard it, on the day...
    The day she left ... and Michael stood...
    He was a woodman, too, and he
    Worked with her father in the wood...
    And wanted her, she knew ... but she
    Was proud, and thought herself too good
    To marry any country lad...
    ’Twas queer to think she’d once been proud--
    And such a little while ago--
    A beggar, wolfing crusts! ... The pride
    That made her quit her countryside
    Soon left her stranded in the crowd...
    And precious little pride she had
    To keep her warm these freezing days
    Since she had fled the city-ways
    To walk back home ... aye! home again:
    For, in the town, she’d tried in vain,
    For honest work to earn her bread...
    At one place, they’d nigh slaved her dead,
    And starved her, too; and, when she left,
    Had cheated her of half her wage:
    But she’d no means to stop the theft...
    And she’d had no more work to do...
    Two months since, now ... it seemed an age!
    How she had lived, she scarcely knew...
    And still, poor fool, too proud to write
    To home for help, until, at length,
    She’d not a penny for a bite,
    Or pride enough to clothe her back...
    So, she was tramping home, too poor
    To pay the train-fare ... she’d the strength,
    If she’d the food ... but that hard track,
    And that cold, cruel, bitter night
    Had taken all the heart from her...
    If Michael knew, she felt quite sure...
    For she would rather drop stone-dead
    Than live as some ... if she had cared
    To feed upon the devil’s bread,
    She could have earned it easily...
    She’d pride enough to starve instead,
    Aye, starve, than fare as some girls fared...
    But, that was all behind ... and she
    Was going home ... and yet, maybe,
    If they’d a home like hers, they, too,
    Would be too proud ... she only knew
    The thought of home had kept her straight,
    And saved her ere it was too late.
    She’d soon be home again...
      And now
    She sat with hand upon her brow;
    And did not speak again nor stir.

    And, as he heard her words, his gaze
    Still set upon the steady glare,
    His thoughts turned back to city-ways:
    And he remembered common sights
    That he had seen in city nights:
    And, once again, in early June,
    He wandered through the midnight street;
    And heard those ever-pacing feet
    Of young girls, children yet in years,
    With gaudy ribbons in their hair,
    And shameless fevered eyes astare,
    And slack lips set in brazen leers,
    Who walked the pavements of despair,
    Beneath the fair full Summer moon...
    Shadowed by worn-out, wizened hags,
    With claw-hands clutching filthy rags
    About old bosoms, shrunk and thin,
    And mouths aleer without a tooth,
    Who dogged them, cursing their sleek youth
    That filched their custom and their bread...
    Then, in a reek of hot gas light,
    He stood where, through the Summer night,
    Half-dozing in the stifling air,
    The greasy landlord, fat with sin,
    Sat, lolling in his easy chair,
    Just half-way up the brothel stair,
    To tax the earnings they brought in,
    And hearken for the policeman’s tread...

    Then, shuddering back from that foul place
    And turning from the ovens’ glare,
    He looked into her dreaming face;
    And saw green, sunlit woodlands there,
    And waters flashing in between
    Low-drooping boughs of Summer green.

    And as he looked, still in a dream
    She murmured: "Michael would, she knew...
    Though she’d been foolish ... he was true,
    As true as steel, and fond of her...
    And then she sat with eyes agleam
    In dreaming silence, till the stir
    Of cold dawn shivered through the air:
    When, twisting up her tumbled hair,
    She rose; and said, she must be gone.
    Though she’d still far to go, the day
    Would see her well upon her way...
    And she had best be jogging on,
    While she’d the strength ... and so, "Good-bye."

    And as, beneath the paling sky,
    He trudged again the cinder-track
    That stretched before him, dead and black,
    He muttered: "It’s a chance the light
    Has found me living still ... and she--
    She, too ... and Michael ... and through me
    God knows whom I may wake to-night."

    1910-1911.



          LONDON: PRINTED BY WILLIAM CLOWES AND SONS, LIMITED.





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