MILLY’S EXPIATION THE PRIEST’S STORY POEM by Adelaide Anne Procter
Poetry from A Chaplet of Verses.
ADELAIDE ANNE PROCTER – MILLY’S EXPIATION THE PRIEST’S STORY POEM
THERE are times when all these terrors
Seem to fade, and fade away,
Like a nightmare’s ghastly presence
In the truthful dawn of day.
There are times, too, when before me
They arise, and seem to hold
In their grasp my very being
With the deadly strength of old,
Till my spirit quails within me,
And my very heart grows cold.
For I watched when Cold and Hunger,
Like wild-beasts that sought for prey,
With a savage glare crept onward
Until men were turned at bay.
You have never seen those hunters,
Who have never known that fear,
When life costs a crust, and costing
Even that is still too dear :
But, you know, I lived in Ireland
In the fatal famine year.
Yes, those days are now forgotten;
God be thanked! men can forget;
Time’s great gift can heal the fevers
Called Remembrance and Regret.
Man despises such forgetting;
But I think the Angels know,
Since each hour brings new burdens,
We must let the old ones go—
Very weak, or very noble,
Are the few who cling to woe.
As a child, I lived in Connaught,
And from dawn till set of sun
Played with all the peasant-children,
So I knew them every one.
There was not a cabin near us
But I had my welcome there;
Though of money-help in those days
We had none ourselves to spare,
Yet the neighbours had no trouble
That I did not know and share.
Oh, that great estate! the Landlord
Was abroad, a good man too;
And the agent was not cruel,
But he had hard things to do.
As a child I saw great suffering,
Which I could not understand,
So I went back as a man there
With redress and helping planned;
But I found, on reaching Connaught,
There was famine in the land.
Well, I worked, I toiled, I laboured;
So, thank God, did many more;
But I had a special pity
For the place I knew before.
It was changed; the old were vanished;
Those who had been workers there
Were grown old now; and the children,
With their sunny eyes and hair,
Were a ragged army, fighting
Hand to hand with black despair.
There were some I sought out, longing
For the old familiar face,
For the hearty Irish welcome
To the well-known corner place;
So I saw them, and I found it.
But of all whom I had known,
I cared most to see the Connors:
Their poor cabin stood alone
In the deep heart of the valley,
By the old grey fairy stone.
They were decent people, holding,
Though no richer than the rest,
Still a place beyond their neighbours,
With a tacit, unconfessed
Pride—it may have been—that held them
From complaint when things went ill:
I might guess when work was slacker,
But no shadow seemed to chill
The warm welcome which they offered;
It was warm and cheerful still.
Yet their home was changed: the father
And the mother were no more;
And the brothers, Phil and Patrick,
Kept starvation from the door.
There were many little faces
Gathered round the old hearthstone;
But the children I had played with
Were the men and women grown;
Phil and Patrick, Kate and Milly,
Were the ones whom I had known.
Kate was grown, but little altered,
Just the sunburnt, rosy face,
With its merry smile, whose shining
Seemed to light the darkest place.
But all, young and old, held Milly
As their dearest and their best,
From the baby orphan-sisters
Whom she hushed upon her breast—
She it was who bore the burdens,
Love and sorrow, for the rest.
Yes, I knew the tall slight figure,
And the face so pale and fair,
Crowned with long, long plaited tresses
Of her shining yellow hair;
She was very calm and tender,
Warm and brave, yet just and wise,
Meeting grief with tender pity,
Sin with sorrowful surprise:
I have fancied Angels watch us
With such sad and loving eyes.
Well, I questioned past and future,
Heard of plans and hopes and fears:
How all prospects grew still darker
With the shade of coming years.
Milly still deferred her marriage;
But the brothers urged of late
She would leave them and old Ireland,
And at least secure her fate;
Michael pleaded too—but vainly;
Milly chose to wait and wait.
Though all liked her cousin Michael—
He was steady, a good son—
Yet we wondered at the treasure
Which his careless heart had won.
Ah, he was not worth her! Milly
Must have guessed our thought in part,
For she feigned such special deference
For his judgement and his heart:
The defiance and the answer
Of instinctive woman’s art.
But my duties would not let me
Stay in one place; I must go
Where the want and need were greatest;
So I travelled to and fro.
And I could not give the bounty
Which was meant for all to share,
Save in scanty portions, counting
What each hamlet had to bear;
So my old home and old comrades
Had to struggle with despair.
I could note at every visit
How all suffered more and more;
How the rich were growing poorer,
The poor, poorer than before.
And each time that I returned there,
I could see the famine spread;
Till I heard of each fresh horror,
Each new tale of fear and dread,
With more pity for the living,
More rejoicing for the dead.
Yet through all the bitter trials
Of that long and fearful time,
Still the suffering came untended
By its hideous sister, Crime.
Earthly things seemed grown less potent,
Fellow-sufferers grown more dear,
Murmurs even hushed in silence,
Just as if, in listening fear,
While God spoke so loud in sorrow,
They all felt He must be near.
But one day—I well remember
How the warm soft autumn breeze,
And the gladness of the sunshine,
And the calmness of the seas,
Seemed in strange unnatural contrast
To the tale of woe and dread
Which I heard with painful wonder—
That the agent—I have said
That he was not harsh or cruel—
Had been shot at, and was dead.
For I felt in that small hamlet
More or less I knew them all,
And on some I cared for, surely,
Must this bitter vengeance fall;
But I little dreamed how bitter,
And the grief how great and wide,
Till I heard that Michael Connor
Was accused, and would be tried
For this base and bloody murder;
Then I cried out that they lied!
He, who might be weak and reckless,
Yet was gentle and humane;
He who scarcely had the courage
To inflict a needful pain—
Why, it could not be!
And Milly, With her honest, noble pride,
And her faith and love, God help her!
It were better she had died.
So I thought, and thought, and pondered,
Till I knew they must have lied.
There was want and death and hunger
Near me then; but this great crime
Seemed to haunt me with its terror,
And grow worse and worse with time,
Till I could not bear it longer,
And I turned my steps once more
To the hamlet; did not slacken
Till I reached the cabin-door:
Then I paused; I never dreaded
The kind welcome there before.
So I entered. Kate was sitting
By the empty hearth; around
Were the children, ragged, hungry,
Crouching silent on the ground.
But a wail of grief and sorrow
Rose, and Katie hid her face,
Sobbing out she had no welcome,
For a curse was on the place,
And their honest name was covered
With another’s black disgrace.
Then I soothed her; asked for Milly;
And was told she was away;
Gone as witness to the trial,
And the trial was that day.
But all knew, so Katie told me,
Hope or comfort there was none;
They were sure to find him guilty,
And before to-morrow’s sun
He must die. I dared not loiter,
For the trial had begun.
Yet I asked how Milly bore it;
And Kate told me some strange gleam
Of wild hope seemed living in her,
But all knew it was a dream.
Then I mounted; rode on faster,
Faster still; the way was long;
Hope and anger, fear and pity,
Each by turns were loud and strong,
And above all, infinite pity
For the sorrow and the wrong.
So I rode and rode, and entered
On the crowded market-place.
There was wonder, too, and pity
Upon many a hungry face;
But I pushed on quicker, quicker,
Every moment held a fate.
As the great town-clock struck mid-day,
I alighted at the gate:
No, the trial was not over;
I was not, thank God, too late.
For I hoped—the chance was meagre—
That my true and earnest word
Might avail him, if the question
Of his former life was stirred;
So the crowd believed: they parted;
Let me take a foremost place,
Till I saw a shaking figure
And a terror-stricken face:
Was it guilt, or only terror?
Fear of death, or of disgrace?
But a sudden breathless silence
Hushed the lowest whisper there,
And I saw a slight young figure,
Crowned with yellow plaited hair,
Rise, and answer as they called her:
Rise before them all, and stand
With no quiver in her accent,
And no trembling in her hand,
Just a flush upon her forehead
Like a burning crimson brand.
Slowly, steadily, and calmly,
Then the awful words were said,
Calling God in Heaven to witness
To the truth of what she said.
As the oath in solemn order
On the reverent silence broke,
Some strange terror and misgiving
With a sudden start awoke:
What fear was it seized upon me
As I heard the words she spoke?
As she stood there, looking onward,
Onward, neither left nor right,
Did she see some deadly purpose
Buried, hidden out of sight?
Did she see a blighting shadow
From the cloudy future cast?
Or reluctant fading from her
Right and honour,—fading fast
All her youth’s remembered lessons,
All the honest, noble past?
But her accents never faltered,
As she swore the day and time,
At the hour of the murder,
At the moment of the crime,
She had spoken with the prisoner. . . ,
Then a gasping joyful sigh
Ran though all the court; they knew it—
Now the prisoner would not die. . . .
And I knew that God in Heaven
Had been witness to a lie!
Then I turned and looked at Michael;
Saw a rush of wonder stir
Through his soul; perplexed, bewildered,
He looked strangely up at her.
Would he speak? could he have courage?
Where she fell, could he be strong?
Where she sinned„ and sinned to save him,
Could he thrust away the wrong?
That one moment’s strange revulsion
Seemed to me an hour long.
And I saw the sudden shrinking
In her brothers; wondering scorn
In the glance they cast upon her
Showed they knew she was forsworn.
They were stern, by want made sterner;
But the spot where Milly came
In their hearts was soft and tender
For her dear and honoured name:
Now the very love was hardened,
And the honour turned to shame.
So I left the place, nor lingered
To see Michael, or to feign
Joy where joy was mixed so strangely
Both with pity and with pain.
Many weeks I toiled and laboured
Far from there, but night and day
One sad memory dwelt beside me,
On my heart one shadow lay;
Light was faded, glory tarnished,
And a soul was cast away.
It was evening; and the sunset
Glowed and glittered on the seas,
When a great ship heaved its anchor,
Loosed its sails to meet the breeze,
Sailing, sailing to the westward.
Eyes were wet and hearts were sore;
Many a heart that left its country,
Many a heart upon the shore,
Knew that parting was for ever,
Said farewell for evermore.
In that sad and silent evening,
On the sunny quiet beach,
Lingered little groups of watchers,
But with hearts too full for speech.
As I passed, I knew so many,
That my heart ached too that night,
For the yearning love, that gazing,
Strained to see the last faint sight
Of the great ship, sailing westward,
Down the track of evening light.
None were lonely though, one sorrow
Drew that evening heart to heart;
Only far from all the others
One lone woman stood apart.
There was something in the figure,
Tall and slender, standing there,
That I knew—yet no, I doubted—
That forlorn and helpless air;
When a gleam of sunset glory
Showed her yellow braided hair.
It was Milly: ere I sought her,
One who knew her, standing by,
Said, ‘Her people sailed from Ireland,
And she stayed, but none knew why.
They were strong; in that far country
Work such men were sure to find;
They had offered to take Milly,
Pressed her often, and been kind;
They had taken the young children,
Only she was left behind.
‘Michael, too, was with them: doubly
Had his fame been cleared by time;
For the murderer, lately dying,
Had confessed and owned the crime:
And yet Milly, none knew wherefore,
Broke her plighted troth to him;
Parted, too, with all her loved ones
For some strange and selfish whim.’ . . .
Oh, my heart was sore for Milly,
And I felt my eyes grow dim.
She is still in Ireland; dwelling
Near the old place, and alone;
Just the same kind loving spirit,
But the old light heart is flown.
When the humble toil is over
For her scanty daily bread,
Then she turns to nurse the suffering,
Or to pray beside the dead:
Many, many thankful blessings
Fall each day upon her head.
There is no distress or sorrow
Milly does not try to cheer;
There is never fever raging
But you always find her near:
And she knows—at least I think so,
That I guess her secret pain,
Why her Love and why her Sorrow
Need be purified from stain,
Need in special consecration
Be restored to God again.