Among the Millet

by Archibald Lampman





In Nino’s chamber not a sound intrudes
    Upon the midnight’s tingling silentness,
Where Nino sits before his book and broods,
    Thin and brow-burdened with some fine distress,
Some gloom that hangs about his mournful moods                5
    His weary bearing and neglected dress:
So sad he sits, nor ever turns a leaf—
Sorrow’s pale miser o’er his hoard of grief.


Young Nino and Leonora, they had met
    Once at a revel by some lover’s chance,                           10
And they were young with hearts already set
    To tender thoughts, attunèd to romance;
Wherefore it seemed they never could forget
    That winning touch, that one bewildering glance:
But found at last a shelter safe and sweet,                            15
Where trembling hearts and longing hands might meet.


Ah, sweet their dreams, and sweet, the life they led
    With that great love that was their bosoms' all,
Yet ever shadowed by some circling dread
    It gloomed at moments deep and tragical,                        20
And so for many a month they seemed to tread
    With fluttering hearts, whatever might befall,
Half glad, half sad, their sweet and secret way
To the soft tune of some old lover’s lay.


But she is gone, alas he knows not where,                           25
    Or how his life that tender gift should lose:
Indeed his love was ever full of care,
    The hasty joys and griefs of him who woos,
Where sweet success is neighbour to despair,
    With stolen looks and dangerous interviews:                    30
But one long week she came not, nor the next,
And so he wandered here and there perplext;


Nor evermore she came. Full many days
    He sought her at their trysts, devised deep schemes
To lure her back, and fell on subtle ways                               35
    To win some word of her; but all his dreams
Vanished like smoke, and then in sore amaze
    From town to town, as one that crazèd seems,
He wandered, following in unhappy quest
Uncertain clues that ended like the rest.                                40


And now this midnight, as he sits forlorn,
    The printed page for him no meaning bears;
With every word some torturing dream is born;
    And every thought is like a step that scares
Old memories up to make him weep and mourn,                 45
    He cannot turn but from their latchless lairs,
The weary shadows of his lost delight.
Rise up like dusk birds through the lonely night.


And still with questions vain he probes his grief,
    Till thought is wearied out, and dreams grow dim.           50
What bitter chance, what woe beyond belief
    Could keep his lady’s heart so hid from him?
Or was her love indeed but light and brief,
    A passing thought, a moment’s dreamy whim?
Aye there it stings, the woe that never sleeps:                      55
Poor Nino leans upon his book, and weeps.


Until at length the sudden grief that shook
    His piercèd bosom like a gust is past,
And laid full weary on the wide-spread book,
    His eyes grow dim with slumber light and fast;                 60
But scarcely have his dreams had time to look
    On lands of kindlier promise, when aghast
He starts up softly, and in wondering wise
Listens atremble with wide open eyes.


What sound was that? Who knocks like one in dread         65
    With such swift hands upon his outer door?
Perhaps some beggar driven from his bed
    By gnawing hunger he can bear no more,
Or questing traveller with confusèd tread,
    Straying, bewildered in the midnight hoar.                        70
Nino uprises, scared, he knows not how,
The dreams still pale about his burdened brow.


The heavy bolt he draws, and unawares
    A stranger enters with slow steps, unsought,
A long robed monk, and in his hand he bears,                     75
    A jewelled goblet curiously wrought;
But of his face beneath the cowl he wears
    For all his searching Nino seeth nought;
And slowly past him with long stride he hies,
While Nino follows with bewildered eyes.                              80


Straight on he goes with dusky rustling gown
    His steps are soft, his hands are white and fine;
And still he bears the goblet on whose crown
    A hundred jewels in the lamplight shine;
And ever from its edges dripping down                                 85
    Falls with dark stain the rich and lustrous wine,
Wherefrom through all the chamber’s shadowy deeps
A deadly perfume like a vapour creeps.


And now he sets it down with careful hands
    On the slim table’s polished ebony;                                   90
And for a space as if in dreams he stands,
    Close hidden in his sombre drapery.
"Oh lover, by thy lady’s last commands,
    I bid thee hearken, for I bear with me
A gift to give thee and a tale to tell                                          95
From her who loved thee, while she lived too well."


The stranger’s voice falls slow and solemnly.
    Tis soft, and rich, and wondrous deep of tone;
And Nino’s face grows white as ivory,
    Listening fast-rooted like a shape of stone.                    100
Ah, blessed saints, can such a dark thing be?
    And was it death, and is Leonora gone?
Oh, love is harsh, and life is frail indeed,
That gives men joy, and then so makes them bleed.


"There is the gift I bring"; the stranger’s head                     105
    Turns to the cup that glitters at his side;
"And now my tongue draws back for very dread,
    Unhappy youth, from what it must not hide.
The saddest tale that ever lips have said;
    Yet thou must know how sweet Lenora died,                 110
A broken martyr for love’s weary sake,
And left this gift for thee to leave or take."


Poor Nino listens with that marble face,
    And eyes that move not, strangely wide and set.
The monk continues with his mournful grace:                      115
    "She told me, Nino, how you often met
In secret, and your plighted loves kept pace,
    Together, tangled in the self-same net;
Your dream’s dark and danger and its cread you knew,
And still you met, and still your passion grew.                     120


"And aye with that luxurious fire you fed
    Your dangerous longing daily, crumb by crumb;
Nor ever cared that still above your head
    The shadow grew; for that your lips were dumb.
You knew full keenly you could never wed:                          125
    ’Twas all a dream: the end must surely come;
For not on thee her father’s eyes were turned
To find a son, when mighty lords were spurned.


"Thou knowest that new-sprung prince, that proud up-start,
    Pisa’s new tyrant with his armèd thralls,                          130
Who bends of late to take the people’s part,
    Yet plays the king among his marble halls,
Whose gloomy palace in our city’s heart,
    Frowns like a fortress with its loop-holed walls.
’Twas him he sought for fair Leonora’s hand,                     135
That so his own declining house might stand.


"The end came soon; ’twas never known to thee;
    But, when your love was scarce a six months old,
She sat one day beside her father’s knee,
    And in her ears the dreadful thing was told.                    140
Within one month her bridal hour should be
    With Messer Gianni for his power and gold;
And as she sat with whitened lips the while,
The old man kissed her, with his crafty smile.


"Poor pallid lady, all the woe she felt                                    145
    Thou, wretched Nino, thou alone canst know,
Down at his feet with many a moan she knelt,
    And prayed that he would never wound her so.
Ah, tender saints! it was a sight to melt
    The flintiest heart; but his could never glow.                    150
He sat with clenchèd hands and straightened head,
And frowned, and glared, and turned from white to red.


"And still with cries about his knees she clung,
    Her tender bosom broken with her care.
His words were brief, with bitter fury flung:                          155
    ‘The father’s will the child must meekly bear;
I am thy father, thou a girl and young.’
    Then to her feet she rose in her despair,
And cried with tightened lips and eyes aglow,
One daring word, a straight and simple, ‘No!’                    160


"Her father left her with wild words, and sent
    Rough men, who dragged her to a dungeon deep,
Where many a weary soul in darkness pent
    For many a year had watched the slow days creep,
And there he left her for his dark intent,                               165
    Where madness breeds and sorrows never sleep.
Coarse robes he gave her, and her lips he fed
With bitter water and a crust of bread.


"And day by day still following out his plan,
    He came to her, and with determined spite                    170
Strove with soft words and then with curse and ban
    To bend her heart so wearied to his might,
And aye she bode his bitter pleasure’s span,
    As one that hears, but hath not sense or sight.
Ah, Nino, still her breaking heart held true:                          175
Poor lady sad, she had no thought but you.


"The father tired at last and came no more,
    But in his settled anger bade prepare
The marriage feast with all luxurious store,
    With pomps and shows and splendors rich and rare;    180
And so in toil another fortnight wore,
    Nor knew she aught what things were in the air,
Till came the old lord’s message brief and coarse:
Within three days she should be wed by force.


"And all that noon and weary night she lay,                         185
    Poor child, like death upon her prison stone,
And none that came to her but crept away,
    Sickened at heart to see her lips so moan,
Her eyes so dim within their sockets grey,
    Her tender cheeks so thin and ghastly grown;                 190
But when the next morn’s light began to stir,
She sent and prayed that I might be with her.


"This boon he gave: perchance he deemed that I,
    The chaplain of his house, her childhood's friend,
With patient tones and holy words, might try                       195
    To soothe her purpose to his gainful end.
I bowed full low before his crafty eye,
    But knew my heart had no base help to lend.
That night with many a silent prayer I came
To poor Leonora in her grief and shame.                            200


"But she was strange to me: I could not speak
    For glad amazement, mixed with some dark fear;
I saw her stand no longer pale and weak,                          
    But a proud maiden, queenly and most clear,
With flashing eyes and vermeil in her cheek:                      205
    And on the little table, set anear,
I marked two goblets of rare workmanship
With some strange liquor crownèd to the lip.                     


"And then she ran to me and caught my hand,
    Tightly imprisoned in her meagre twain,                          210
And like the ghost of sorrow she did stand,
    And eyed me softly with a liquid pain:
‘Oh father, grant, I pray thee, I command,                           
    One boon to me, I’ll never ask again,
One boon to me and to my love, to both;                             215
Dear father, grant, and bind it with an oath."


"This granted I, and then with many a wail
    She told me all the story of your woe,                            
And when she finished, lightly but most pale,
    To those two brimming goblets she did go,                    220
And one she took within her fingers frail,
    And looked down smiling in its crimson glow:
‘And now thine oath I’ll tell; God grant to thee                    
No rest in grave, if thou be false to me.


" ‘Alas, poor me! whom cruel hearts would wed                 225
    On the sad morrow to that wicked lord;
But I’ll not go; nay, rather I’ll be dead,
    Safe from their frown and from their bitter word.           
Without my Nino life indeed were sped;
    And sith we two can never more accord                         230
In this drear world, so weary and perplext,
We’ll die, and win sweet pleasure in the next.


"‘Oh father, God will never give thee rest,                          
    If thou be false to what thy lips have sworn,
And false to love, and false to me distressed,                    235
    A helpless maid, so broken and outworn.
This cup—she put it softly to her breast—
    I pray thee carry, ere the morrow morn,                          
To Nino’s hand, and tell him all my pain;
This other with mine own lips I will drain.’                            240


"Slowly she raised it to her lips, the while
    I darted forward, madly fain to seize
Her dreadful hands, but with a sudden wile                        
    She twisted and sprang from me with bent knees,
And rising turned upon me with a smile,                            245
    And drained her goblet to the very lees.
‘Oh priest, remember, keep thine oath,’ she cried,
And the spent goblet fell against her side.                         


"And then she moaned and murmured like a bell:
    ‘My Nino, my sweet Nino!’ and no more                        250
She said, but fluttered like a bird and fell
    Lifeless as marble to the footworn floor;
And there she lies even now in lonely cell,                         
    Poor lady, pale with all the grief she bore,
She could not live, and still be true to thee,                       255
And so she’s gone where no rude hands can be."


The monk’s voice pauses like some mournful flute,
    Whose pondered closes for sheer sorrow fail,              
And then with hand that seems as it would suit
    A soft girl best, it is so light and frail,                             260
He turns half round, and for a moment mute
    Points to the goblet, and so ends his tale:
"Mine oath is kept, thy lady’s last command;                     
’Tis but a short hour since it left her hand."


So ends the stranger: surely no man’s tongue                  265
    Was e’er so soft, or half so sweet, as his.
Oft as he listened, Nino’s heart had sprung
    With sudden start as from a spectre’s kiss;                   
For deep in many a word he deemed had rung
    The liquid fall of some loved emphasis;                         270
And so it pierced his sorrow to the core,
The ghost of tones that he should hear no more.


But now the tale is ended, and still keeps                          
    The stranger hidden in dusky weed;
And Nino stands, wide-eyed, as one that sleeps,             275
    And dimly wonders how his heart doth bleed.
Anon he bends, yet neither moans nor weeps,
    But hangs atremble, like a broken reed;                        
"Ah! bitter fate, that lured and sold us so,
Poor lady mine; alas for all our woe!"                                 280


But even as he moans in such dark mood,
    His wandering eyes upon the goblet fall.
Oh, dreaming heart! Oh, strange ingratitude!                    
    So to forget his lady’s lingering call,
Her parting gift, so rich, so crimson-hued,                          285
    The lover’s draught, that shall be cure for all.
He lifts the goblet lightly from its place,
And smiles, and rears it with his courtly grace.                 


"Oh, lady sweet, I shall not long delay:
    This gift of thine shall bring me to thine eyes.                  290
Sure God will send on no unpardoned way
    The faithful soul, that at such bidding dies.
When thou art gone, I cannot longer stay                           
    To brave this world with all its wrath and lies,
Where hands of stone and tongues of dragon’s breath      295
Have bruised mine angel to her piteous death."


And now the gleaming goblet hath scarce dyed
    His lips’ thin pallor with its deathly red,                           
When Nino starts in wonder, fearful-eyed,
    For, lo! the stranger with outstretchèd head                     300
Springs at his face one soft and sudden stride,
    And from his hand the deadly cup hath sped,
Dashed to the ground, and all its seeded store                 
Runs out like blood upon the marble floor.


"Oh, Nino, my sweet Nino! speak to me,                            305
    Nor stand so strange, nor look so deathly pale.
’Twas all to prove thy heart’s dear constancy
    I brought that cup and told that piteous tale.                   
Ah! chains and cells and cruel treachery
    Are weak indeed when women’s hearts assail.            310
Art angry, Nino?" ’Tis no monk that cries,
But sweet Leonora with her love-lit eyes.


She dashes from her brow the pented hood;                     
    The dusky robe falls rustling to her feet;
And there she stands, as aye in dreams she stood.        315
    Ah, Nino, see! Sure man did never meet
So warm a flower from such a sombre bud,
    So trembling fair, so wan, so pallid sweet.                    
Aye, Nino, down like saint upon thy knee,
And soothe her hands with kisses warm and free.           320


And now with broken laughter on her lips,
    And now with moans remembering of her care,
She weeps, and smiles, and like a child she slips            
    Her lily fingers through his curly hair,
The while her head with all its sweet she dips,                  325
    Close to his ear, to soothe and murmur there;
"Oh, Nino, I was hid so long from thee,
That much I doubted what thy love might be.                     


"And though ’twas cruel hard of me to try
    Thy faithful heart with such a fearful test,                        330
Yet now thou canst be happy, sweet, as I
    Am wondrous happy in thy truth confessed.
To haggard death indeed thou needst not fly                    
    To find the softness of thy lady’s breast;
For such a gift was never death’s to give,                        335
But thou shalt have me for thy love, and live.


"Dost see these cheeks, my Nino? they’re so thin,
    Not round and soft, as when thou touched them last:   
So long with bitter rage they pent me in,
    Like some poor thief in lonely dungeons cast;            340
Only this night through every bolt and gin
    By cunning stealth I wrought my way at last.
Straight to thine heart I fled, unfaltering,                             
Like homeward pigeon with uncagèd wing.


"Nay, Nino, kneel not; let me hear thee speak.              345
    We must not tarry long; the dawn is nigh."
So rises he, for very gladness weak;
    But half in fear that yet the dream may fly,                      
He touches mutely mouth and brow and cheek;
    Till in his ear she ’gins to plead and sigh:                  350
"Dear love, forgive me for that cruel tale,
That stung thine heart and made thy lips so pale."


And so he folds her softly with quick sighs,                        
    And both with murmurs warm and musical
Talk and retalk, with dim or smiling eyes,                      355
    Of old delights and sweeter days to fall:
And yet not long, for, ere the starlit skies,
    Grow pale above the city’s eastern wall,                        
They rise, with lips and happy hands withdrawn,
And pass out softly into the dawn.                                 360


For Nino knows the captain of a ship,
    The friend of many journeys, who may be
This very morn will let his cables slip                                
    For the warm coast of Sicily.
There in Palermo, at the harbour’s lip,                          365
    A brother lives, of tried fidelity:
So to the quays by hidden ways they wend
In the pale morn, nor do they miss their friend.                  


And ere the shadow off another night
    Hath darkened Pisa, many a foe shall stray              370
Through Nino’s home, with eyes malignly bright
    In wolfish quest, but shall not find his prey:
The while those lovers in their white-winged flight             
    Shall see far out upon the twilight grey,
Behind, the glimmer of the sea, before,                        375
The dusky outlines of a kindlier shore.