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Clement


  I.


  That time of year, you know, when the summer, beginning to sadden,
  Full-mooned and silver-misted, glides from the heart of September,
  Mourned by disconsolate crickets, and iterant grasshoppers, crying
  All the still nights long, from the ripened abundance of gardens;
  Then, ere the boughs of the maples are mantled with earliest
        autumn,
  But the wind of autumn breathes from the orchards at nightfall,
  Full of winy perfume and mystical yearning and languor;
  And in the noonday woods you hear the foraging squirrels,
  And the long, crashing fall of the half-eaten nut from the
        tree-top;
  When the robins are mute, and the yellow-birds, haunting the
        thistles,
  Cheep, and twitter, and flit through the dusty lanes and the
        loppings,
  When the pheasant booms from your stealthy foot in the cornfield,
  And the wild-pigeons feed, few and shy, in the scoke-berry bushes;
  When the weary land lies hushed, like a seer in a vision,
  And your life seems but the dream of a dream which you cannot
        remember,--
  Broken, bewildering, vague, an echo that answers to nothing!
  That time of year, you know. They stood by the gate in the meadow,
  Fronting the sinking sun, and the level stream of its splendor
  Crimsoned the meadow-slope and woodland with tenderest sunset,
  Made her beautiful face like the luminous face of an angel,
  Smote through the painĂ©d gloom of his heart like a hurt to the
        sense, there.
  Languidly clung about by the half-fallen shawl, and with folded
  Hands, that held a few sad asters: "I sigh for this idyl
  Lived at last to an end; and, looking on to my prose-life,"
  With a smile, she said, and a subtle derision of manner,
  "Better and better I seem, when I recollect all that has happened
  Since I came here in June: the walks we have taken together
  Through these darling meadows, and dear, old, desolate woodlands;
  All our afternoon readings, and all our strolls through the moonlit
  Village,--so sweetly asleep, one scarcely could credit the scandal,
  Heartache, and trouble, and spite, that were hushed for the night,
        in its silence.
  Yes, I am better. I think I could even be civil to _him_ for his
        kindness,
  Letting me come here without him.... But open the gate, Cousin
        Clement;
  Seems to me it grows chill, and I think it is healthier in-doors.
  --No, then I you need not speak, for I know well enough what is
        coming:
  Bitter taunts for the past, and discouraging views of the future?
  Tragedy, Cousin Clement, or comedy,--just as you like it;--
  Only not here alone, but somewhere that people can see you.
  Then I'll take part in the play, and appear the remorseful young
        person
  Full of divine regrets at not having smothered a genius
  Under the feathers and silks of a foolish, extravagant woman.
  O you selfish boy! what was it, just now, about anguish?
  Bills would be your talk, Cousin Clement, if you were my husband."
    Then, with her summer-night glory of eyes low-bending upon him,
  Dark'ning his thoughts as the pondered stars bewilder and darken,
  Tenderly, wistfully drooping toward him, she faltered in whisper,--
  All her mocking face transfigured,--with mournful effusion:
  "Clement, do not think it is you alone that remember,--
  Do not think it is you alone that have suffered. Ambition,
  Fame, and your art,--you have all these things to console you.
  I--what have I in this world? Since my child is dead--a bereavement."
    Sad hung her eyes on his, and he felt all the anger within him
  Broken, and melting in tears. But he shrank from her touch while he
        answered
  (Awkwardly, being a man, and awkwardly, being a lover),
  "Yes, you know how it is done. You have cleverly fooled me
        beforetime,
  With a dainty scorn, and then an imploring forgiveness!
  Yes, you might play it, I think,--that _rĂ´le_ of remorseful young
        person,
  That, or the old man's darling, or anything else you attempted.
  Even your earnest is so much like acting I fear a betrayal,
  Trusting your speech. You say that you have not forgotten. I grant
        you--
  Not, indeed, for your word--that is light--but I wish to believe
        you.
  Well, I say, since you have not forgotten, forget now, forever!
  I--I have lived and loved, and you have lived and have married.
  Only receive this bud to remember me when we have parted,--
  Thorns and splendor, no sweetness, rose of the love that I
        cherished!"
  There he tore from its stalk the imperial flower of the thistle,
  Tore, and gave to her, who took it with mocking obeisance,
  Twined it in her hair, and said, with her subtle derision:
  "You are a wiser man than I thought you could ever be, Clement,--
  Sensible, almost. So! I'll try to forget and remember."
  Lightly she took his arm, but on through the lane to the farm-house,
  Mutely together they moved through the lonesome, odorous twilight.


  II.


    High on the farm-house hearth, the first autumn fire was kindled;
  Scintillant hickory bark and dryest limbs of the beech-tree
  Burned, where all summer long the boughs of asparagus flourished.
  Wild were the children with mirth, and grouping and clinging
        together,
  Danced with the dancing flame, and lithely swayed with its humor;
  Ran to the window-panes, and peering forth into the darkness,
  Saw there another room, flame-lit, and with frolicking children.
  (Ah! by such phantom hearths, I think that we sit with our
        first-loves!)
  Sometimes they tossed on the floor, and sometimes they hid in the
        corners,
  Shouting and laughing aloud, and never resting a moment,
  In the rude delight, the boisterous gladness of childhood,--
  Cruel as summer sun and singing-birds to the heartsick.
    Clement sat in his chair unmoved in the midst of the hubbub,
  Rapt, with unseeing eyes; and unafraid in their gambols,
  By his tawny beard the children caught him, and clambered
  Over his knees, and waged a mimic warfare across them,
  Made him their battle-ground, and won and lost kingdoms upon him.
  Airily to and fro, and out of one room to another
  Passed his cousin, and busied herself with things of the household,
  Nonchalant, debonair, blithe, with bewitching housewifely
        importance,
  Laying the cloth for the supper, and bringing the meal from the
        kitchen;
  Fairer than ever she seemed, and more than ever she mocked him,
  Coming behind his chair, and clasping her fingers together
  Over his eyes in a girlish caprice, and crying, "Who is it?"
  Vexed his despair with a vision of wife and of home and of
        children,
  Calling his sister's children around her, and stilling their
        clamor,
  Making believe they were hers. And Clement sat moody and silent,
  Blank to the wistful gaze of his mother bent on his visage
  With the tender pain, the pitiful, helpless devotion
  Of the mother that looks on the face of her son in his trouble,
  Grown beyond her consoling, and knows that she cannot befriend him.
  Then his cousin laughed, and in idleness talked with the children;
  Sometimes she turned to him, and then when the thistle was falling,
  Caught it and twined it again in her hair, and called it her
        keepsake,
  Smiled, and made him ashamed of his petulant gift there, before
        them.
    But, when the night was grown old and the two by the hearthstone
        together
  Sat alone in the flickering red of the flame, and the cricket
  Carked to the stillness, and ever, with sullen throbs of the
        pendule
  Sighed the time-worn clock for the death of the days that were
        perished,--
  It was her whim to be sad, and she brought him the book they were
        reading.
  "Read it to-night," she said, "that I may not seem to be going."
  Said, and mutely reproached him with all the pain she had wrought
        him.
  From her hand he took the volume and read, and she listened,--
  All his voice molten in secret tears, and ebbing and flowing,
  Now with a faltering breath, and now with impassioned abandon,--
  Read from the book of a poet the rhyme of the fatally sundered,
  Fatally met too late, and their love was their guilt and their
        anguish,
  But in the night they rose, and fled away into the darkness,
  Glad of all dangers and shames, and even of death, for their love's
        sake.
    Then, when his voice brake hollowly, falling and fading to
        silence,
  Thrilled in the silence they sat, and durst not behold one another,
  Feeling that wild temptation, that tender, ineffable yearning,
  Drawing them heart to heart. One blind, mad moment of passion
  With their fate they strove; but out of the pang of the conflict,
  Through such costly triumph as wins a waste and a famine,
  Victors they came, and Love retrieved the error of loving.
    So, foreknowing the years, and sharply discerning the future,
  Guessing the riddle of life, and accepting the cruel solution,--
  Side by side they sat, as far as the stars are asunder.
  Carked the cricket no more, but while the audible silence
  Shrilled in their ears, she, suddenly rising and dragging the
        thistle
  Out of her clinging hair, laughed mockingly, casting it from her:
  "Perish the thorns and splendor,--the bloom and the sweetness are
        perished.
  Dreary, respectable calm, polite despair, and one's Duty,--
  These and the world, for dead Love!--The end of these modern
        romances!
  Better than yonder rhyme?... Pleasant dreams and good night, Cousin
        Clement."


 

William Dean Howells