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Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. (1833–1908). A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895. 1895.

Austin Dobson 1840–1921

A Dead Letter


I DREW it from its china tomb;—

It came out feebly scented

With some thin ghost of past perfume

That dust and days had lent it.

An old, letter,—folded still!

To read with due composure,

I sought the sun-lit window-sill,

Above the gray enclosure,

That glimmering in the sultry haze,

Faint flowered, dimly shaded,

Slumbered like Goldsmith’s Madam Blaize,

Bedizened and brocaded.

A queer old place! You ’d surely say

Some tea-board garden-maker

Had planned it in Dutch William’s day

To please some florist Quaker,

So trim it was. The yew-trees still,

With pious care perverted,

Grew in the same grim shapes; and still

The lipless dolphin spurted;

Still in his wonted state abode

The broken-nosed Apollo;

And still the cypress-arbor showed

The same umbrageous hollow.

Only,—as fresh young Beauty gleams

From coffee-colored laces,—

So peeped from its old-fashioned dreams

The fresher modern traces;

For idle mallet, hoop, and ball

Upon the lawn were lying;

A magazine, a tumbled shawl,

Round which the swifts were flying;

And, tossed beside the Guelder rose,

A heap of rainbow knitting,

Where, blinking in her pleased repose,

A Persian cat was sitting.

“A place to love in,—live,—for aye,

If we too, like Tithonus,

Could find some God to stretch the gray

Scant life the Fates have thrown us;

“But now by steam we run our race,

With buttoned heart and pocket;

Our Love’s a gilded, surplus grace,—

Just like an empty locket!

“‘The time is out of joint.’ Who will,

May strive to make it better;

For me, this warm old window-sill,

And this old dusty letter.”

“Dear John (the letter ran), it can’t, can’t be,

For Father’s gone to Chorley Fair with Sam,

And Mother’s storing Apples,—Prue and Me

Up to our Elbows making Damson Jam:

But we shall meet before a Week is gone,—

‘’T is a long Lane that has no turning,’ John!

“Only till Sunday next, and then you ’ll wait

Behind the White-Thorn, by the broken Stile—

We can go round and catch them at the Gate,

All to Ourselves, for nearly one long Mile;

Dear Prue won’t look, and Father he’ll go on,

And Sam’s two Eyes are all for Cissy, John!

“John, she ’s so smart,—with every ribbon new,

Flame-colored Sack, and Crimson Padesoy;

As proud as proud; and has the Vapours too,

Just like My Lady;—calls poor Sam a Boy,

And vows no Sweet-heart’s worth the Thinking-on

Till he ’s past Thirty … I know better, John!

“My Dear, I don’t think that I thought of much

Before we knew each other, I and you;

And now, why, John, your least, least Finger-touch,

Gives me enough to think a Summer through.

See, for I send you Something! There, ’t is gone!

Look in this corner,—mind you find it, John!”

This was the matter of the note,—

A long-forgot deposit,

Dropped in an Indian dragon’s throat,

Deep in a fragrant closet,

Piled with a dapper Dresden world,—

Beaux, beauties, prayers, and poses,—

Bonzes with squat legs undercurled,

And great jars filled with roses.

Ah, heart that wrote! Ah, lips that kissed!

You had no thought or presage

Into what keeping you dismissed

Your simple old-world message!

A reverent one. Though we to-day

Distrust beliefs and powers,

The artless, ageless things you say

Are fresh as May’s own flowers,

Starring some pure primeval spring,

Ere Gold had grown despotic,—

Ere Life was yet a selfish thing,

Or Love a mere exotic!

I need not search too much to find

Whose lot it was to send it,

That feel upon me yet the kind,

Soft hand of her who penned it;

And see, through twoscore years of smoke,

In by-gone, quaint apparel,

Shine from yon time-black Norway oak

The face of Patience Caryl,—

The pale, smooth forehead, silver-tressed;

The gray gown, primly flowered;

The spotless, stately coif whose crest

Like Hector’s horse-plume towered;

And still the sweet half-solemn look

Where some past thought was clinging,

As when one shuts a serious book

To hear the thrushes singing.

I kneel to you! Of those you were,

Whose kind old hearts grow mellow,—

Whose fair old faces grow more fair

As Point and Flanders yellow;

Whom some old store of garnered grief,

Their placid temples shading,

Crowns like a wreath of autumn leaf

With tender tints of fading.

Peace to your soul! You died unwed—

Despite this loving letter.

And what of John? The less that ’s said

Of John, I think, the better.