She was a light and wanton maid:
Not one whom fickle Love betrayed,
For indolence was her undoer.
Fair, frivolous, and very poor,
She scorned the thought of toil, in youth,
And chose the path that leads from truth.
More women fall from want of gold,
Than love leads wrong, if truth were told;
More women sin for gay attire
Than sin through passion's blinding fire.
Her god was gold: and gold she saw
Prove mightier than the sternest law
With judge and jury, priest and king;
So, made herself an offering
At Mammon's shrine; and lived for power,
And ease, and pleasures of the hour.
Who looks beneath life's outer crust
Is satisfied that God is just;
Who looks not under, but about,
Finds much to make him sad with doubt.
For Virtue walks with feet worn bare,
While Sin rides by with coach and pair:
Men praise the modest heart and chaste,
And yet they let it go to waste,
And follow, fierce to have and hold
Some creature, wanton, selfish, bold.
She saw but this, life's outer side,
No higher faith was hers to guide;
She worshipped gold, and hated toil,
And hence her youth with all its soil,
With all its sins too dark to name,
Of secret crimes and public shame,
With all its trail of broken lives,
Of ruined homes, neglected wives,
And weeping mothers. Proud and gay
She went her devastating way
With untouched brow and fadeless grace.
Not time but feeling marks the face.
Sin on the outer being tells
Not till the startled soul rebels:
And she felt nothing but content.
She was too light and indolent
To worry over days to come.
This little earth held all life's sum
She thought, and to be young and fair,
Well clothed, well fed, was all her care.
With pitying eyes and lifted head
She gazed on those who toiled for bread,
And laughed to scorn the talk she heard
Of punishment for those who erred,
And virtue's certain recompense.
She seemed devoid of moral sense,
An ignorant thing whose appetites
Bound her horizon of delights.
Men were her puppets to control;
Unconscious of a heart or soul
She lived and gloried, in the ease
She purchased, by her power to please
The eye and senses. Life's one woe
Which caused her pitying tears to flow,
Was poverty. Though hearts might break
And homes be ruined for her sake,
She showed no mercy. But when need
Of gold she saw, her heart would bleed.
The lack of clothing, fire and food,
Was earth's one pain, she understood.
The suffering poor oft blest her name,
Nor questioned whence the ducats came,
She gave so freely. Once she found
A fainting woman on the ground,
A wailing child clasped to her breast.
With her own hands she bath'd and dress'd
The weary waifs! gave food and gold
And clothed them warmly from the cold,
Nor guessed that one she lured from home
Had caused that suffering pain to roam
Unhoused, neglected. Then one day,
Unheralded across her way,
The conqueror came. She knew not why,
But with the first glance of his eye,
A feeling, new and unexplained,
Woke in her what she oft had feigned.
And when his arm stole near her waist,
As startled maidens blush with chaste
Sweet fear at love's advances, so
She blushed from brow to breast of snow.
Strange, new emotions, fraught with joy
And pain commingled, made her coy;
But when he would have clasped her neck
With gems that might a queen bedeck
And offered gold, her lips grew white,
With sudden anger at the sight
Of what had been her god for years.
She flung them from her. Then such tears
As only spring from love's despair
Welled from her eyes. "So, lady fair,
My gifts are scorned?" quoth he, and laughed.
"Like Cleopatra, you have quaffed
Such lordly pearls in draughts of wine,
You spurn poor simple gems like mine.
Well, well, fair queen, I'll bring to you
A richer gift next time -- Adieu."
His light words stung like lash of whip;
With gasping breath and ashen lip
She strove to speak, but he was gone.
She kneeled and pressed her mouth upon
The latch his hand had touched, the floor
His foot had trod, and o'er and o'er
She sobbed his name, as children moan
A mother's name when left alone.
Out from the dim and roseate gloom
And subtle odors of her room,
Accusing memories rose. She felt
A loneliness that seemed to belt
The universe in its embrace.
It was as if from some high place
A giant hand had reached and hurled
To nothingness her petty world,
And left her staring, awed, alone,
Up into regions vast, unknown.
There is no other loneliness
That can so sadden and oppress
As when beside the burned-out fire
Of sated passion and desire
The wakening spirit, in a glance,
Beholds its lost inheritance.
She rose and turned the dim lights higher,
Brought forth rich gems and grand attire,
And robed herself in feverish haste;
Before the mirror posed and paced,
With jewels on her breast and wrists;
Then sudden clenched her little fists
And beat her face until it bled,
And tore her garments shred from shred,
Gazed in the mirror, spoke her name
And hissed a word that told her shame,
There on her knees fell sobbing there.
There are sweet messengers of prayer,
Who down through space on soft wings steal,
And offer aid to all who kneel.
Her lips, unused to pious phrase,
Recalled some words of bygone days,
And "Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep"
She whispered timidly, and then
"Let me be a child again
And grow up good." The strange prayer said,
Like some o'er weary child, her head
She pillowed on her arm, and wept
Low, shuddering sobs, until she slept
And dreamed; and in that dream she thought
She sat within a vine-wreathed cot;
An infant slumbered on her breast,
She crooned a lullaby, and pressed
Its waxen hand against her cheek,
While one too proud and fond to speak,
The happy father of the child,
Stood near, and gazing on them, smiled.
She woke while still the lullaby
Was on her lips -- then such a cry,
As souls in fabled realms below
Might utter, voiced her awful woe.
The mighty moral labor pain
Of new-born conscience wracked her brain
And tore her soul. She understood
The meaning now of womanhood,
And chastity, and o'er her came
The full, dark sense of all her shame.
As some poor drunken wretch, at night,
Wakes up to know his piteous plight,
And sees, while sinking in the mire,
Afar, his waiting hearth-light's fire;
So now she saw from depths of sin,
The hearth-light of the might-have-been.
How beautiful, how like a star
That lost light shone, but ah, how far!
She reached her longing arms toward space,
And lifted up her tear-wet face.
"Oh, God," she wailed, "I have been bad!
I see it all, and I am sad,
And long to be a good girl now.
Lord, Lord, will some one show me how?
Why, men have trod the burning track
Of sin for years, and then gone back!
And cannot I for sin atone,
Or did Christ die for men alone?
I want to lead an honest life,
I want to be his own true wife
And hold upon my breast his child."
Then suddenly her voice grew wild,
"No, no," she cried, "it could not be,
Those infant eyes would torture me --
Though God condoned my sinful ways
I could not meet my child's pure gaze."
She hid her face upon her knees,
And swayed as reeds sway in a breeze,
"Oh, Christ," she moaned, "could I forget
there might be something for me yet:
But though both God and man forgave,
And I should win the love I crave,
Why, memory would drive me mad."
When woman drifts from good to bad,
To make her final fall complete,
She puts her soul beneath her feet.
Man's dual selves seem separate;
he leaves his soul outside sin's gate
And finds it waiting for him when he tires
Of carnal pleasures and desires.
Depleted, sickened and depressed,
As souls must be with such a test,
Yet strong enough to help him grope
Back into happiness and hope.
But woman, far more complicate,
Can take no chances with her fate;
A subtle creature, finely spun,
Her body and her soul are one.
And now this erring woman wept
The soul she murdered while it slept.
She felt too stunned with pain to think.
She seemed to stand upon a brink;
Behind her loomed the sinful past,
Below her, rocks, beyond her, vast
And awful darkness. Not one ray
Of sun or star to show the way!
She drew a long and shuddering breath;
"There is no other path but death
For me to tread," she sighed, "and so
I will prepare my house and go."
As housewives move with willing feet
And skillful hands to make things neat,
And ready for some welcome one,
She toiled until her tasks were done.
Then, seated at her desk, she wrote
With painful care, a tear-wet note.
The childish penmanship was rude,
Ill spelled the words, the phrasing crude;
Yet thought and feeling both were there
And mighty love and great despair.
"Dear heart," it ran, "you did not know
How, from the first, I loved you so,
That sin grew hateful in my sight.
And so I leave it all to-night.
The kiss I gave, dear heart, to you
Was love's first kiss, as pure and true
As ever lips of maiden gave.
I think 'twill warm my lonely grave,
And light the pathway I must tread
Among the hapless, homeless dead."
"When God formed worlds, He failed to make
A path for erring feet to take
Back into the light and peace again,
Unless they were the feet of men.
When woman errs, and then regrets,
Her sun of hope forever sets,
And life is hung with deepest gloom.
In all the world there is no room
For such as she; and so I hold
That death itself is not so cold
As life has seemed, since by love's light
I saw there was a wrong and right,
And that my birthright had been sold,
By my own hands, for tarnished gold.
I hated labor, hence I fell;
But now I love you, dear, so well,
No greater boon my soul could crave
Than just to toil, a galley slave,
Through burdened years and years of life,
If at the last you called me wife
For one supreme and honored hour.
Alas! too late I learn love's power,
Too late I realize my loss,
And have no strength to bear my cross
Of loneliness and dark disgrace.
There cannot be another place
So desolate, so full of fear,
As earth to me, without you dear.
You will not understand, I know,
How one like me can love you so.
It was a strange, strange thing. Love came
So like a swift, devouring flame
And burned my frail, fair-weather boat
And left me on the waves afloat,
With nothing but a broken spar.
The distant shores seem very far;
I cannot reach them, so I sink.
God will forgive my sins, I think,
Because I die for love, like One
The good Book tells about, His son.
For erring woman death can bring
No pain so keen as memory's sting.
Good night, good-by. God bless you, dear,
And give you love, and joy, and cheer.
But sometimes, in the dark night, say
A prayer for one who went astray,
And found no pathway back, and died
For love of you -- a suicide."
When morn his glorious pinions spread
They found the erring woman dead.
She woke as one wakes form a deep
Like half-remembered faces pressed
To memory's window, in her breast,
Gazed at her with reproachful eyes.
She felt a sudden, dazed surprise,
Commingled with a sense of dread,
"I did but sleep -- I am not dead,
The potion and the purpose failed
And I still live," she wildly wailed.
"Nay thou art dead, rash suicide"
A sad voice spake: and at her side
She saw a weird and shadowy crowd
With anguished lips, and shoulders bowed,
And orbs that seemed the wells of woe.
She shrieked and veiled her eyes. "No, no!
I am not dead! I ache with life.
An earthly passion's hopeless strife
Still tortures me." "Yet thou art dead."
The voice with sad insistence said.
"But love and sorrow and regret
All die with death. I feel them yet."
"God bade thee live, and only He
can say when thou shalt cease to be."
"But I was sin-sick, sad alone--
I thought by death I could atone,
And died that Christ might show me how."
"Christ bore His burden, why not thou?"
"Oh, lead me to His holy feet
And let my penance be complete."
"What! thinkest thou to find that path --
Thou who hast tempted heaven's wrath
By thy rash deed? Nay, nay not so,
'Tis but perfected spirits go
To that supreme and final goal.
A self-sought death delays the soul.
With yonder shuddering, woeful throng
Of suicides thy ways belong.
Close to the earth a shadowy band,
Unseen but seeing all, they stand
Until their natural time to die,
As God intended, shall draw nigh.
On earth, repentant, sick of sin,
A ministering angel thou hadst been,
Whose patient toil and deeds divine
Had rescued souls as sad as thine.
Each deed a firm ascending stair
To lead beyond thy great despair.
But now it is thy mournful fate
To linger hear and meditate
On thy dark past -- to stand so near
The earthly plane that thou canst hear
Thy lover's voice, while old desire
Shall burn within thee like a fire,
And grief shall root thee to the spot
To find how soon thou art forgot.
But since thou hast endured the woes
That only fragile woman knows,
And loved as only woman can,
Thou shalt not suffer all that man
Must suffer when he interferes
With God's great law. In death's dim spheres
That justice waits, which men refuse.
Thy sex shall in some part excuse
Thy desperate deed. When God shall send
A second death to be thy friend,
Thou need'st not fear a darker fate --
Go forth with yonder throng and wait."
An erring woman's love. By Ella Wheeler Wilcox.
Chicago: W.B. Conkey, [c1892]
Provided courtesy of Bonnie Char.
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