The Old Leaven - A Dialogue

A poem by Adam Lindsay Gordon

Mark:
So, Maurice, you sail to-morrow, you say?
And you may or may not return?
Be sociable, man! for once in a way,
Unless you’re too old to learn.
The shadows are cool by the water side
Where the willows grow by the pond,
And the yellow laburnum’s drooping pride
Sheds a golden gleam beyond.
For the blended tints of the summer flowers,
For the scents of the summer air,
For all nature’s charms in this world of ours,
’Tis little or naught you care.
Yet I know for certain you haven’t stirred
Since noon from your chosen spot;
And you’ve hardly spoken a single word,
Are you tired, or cross, or what?
You’re fretting about those shares you bought,
They were to have gone up fast;
But I heard how they fell to nothing, in short,
They were given away at last.

Maurice:
No, Mark, I’m not so easily cross’d;
’Tis true that I’ve had a run
Of bad luck lately; indeed, I’ve lost;
Well! somebody else has won.

Mark:
The glass has fallen, perhaps you fear
A return of your ancient stitch,
That souvenir of the Lady’s Mere,
Park palings and double ditch.

Maurice:
You’re wrong. I’m not in the least afraid
Of that. If the truth be told,
When the stiffness visits my shoulder-blade,
I think on the days of old;
It recalls the rush of the freshening wind,
The strain of the chestnut springing,
And the rolling thunder of hoofs behind,
Like the Rataplan chorus ringing.

Mark:
Are you bound to borrow, or loth to lend?
Have you purchased another screw?
Or backed a bill for another friend?
Or had a bad night at loo?

Maurice:
Not one of those, you’re all in the dark,
If you choose you can guess again;
But you’d better give over guessing, Mark,
It’s only labour in vain.

Mark:
I’ll try once more; does it plague you still,
That trifle of lead you carry?
A guest that lingers against your will,
Unwelcome, yet bound to tarry.

Maurice:
Not so! That burden I’m used to bear,
’Tis seldom it gives me trouble;
And to earn it as I did then and there,
I’d carry a dead weight double.
A shock like that for a splintered rib
Can a thousand-fold repay,
As the swallow skims through the spider’s web,
We rode through their ranks that day!

Mark:
Come, Maurice, you sha’n’t escape me so!
I’ll hazard another guess:
That girl that jilted you long ago,
You’re thinking of her, confess!

Maurice:
Tho’ the blue lake flush’d with a rosy light,
Reflected from yonder sky,
Might conjure a vision of Aphrodite
To a poet’s or painter’s eye;
Tho’ the golden drop, with its drooping curl,
Between the water and wood,
Hangs down like the tress of a wayward girl
In her dreamy maidenhood:
Such boyish fancies seem out of date
To one half inclined to censure
Their folly, and yet, your shaft flew straight,
Though you drew your bow at a venture.
I saw my lady the other night
In the crowded opera hall,
When the boxes sparkled with faces bright,
I knew her amongst them all.
Tho’ little for these things now I reck,
I singled her from the throng
By the queenly curves of her head and neck,
By the droop of her eyelash long.
Oh! passionless, placid, and calm, and cold,
Does the fire still lurk within
That lit her magnificent eyes of old,
And coloured her marble skin?
For a weary look on the proud face hung,
While the music clash’d and swell’d,
And the restless child to the silk skirt clung
Unnoticed tho’ unrepelled.
They’ve paled, those rosebud lips that I kist,
That slim waist has thickened rather,
And the cub has the sprawling mutton fist,
And the great splay foot of the father.
May the blight.

Mark:
Hold hard there, Maurice, my son,
Let her rest, since her spell is broken;
We can neither recall deeds rashly done,
Nor retract words hastily spoken.

Maurice:
Time was when to pleasure her girlish whim,
In my blind infatuation,
I’ve freely endangered life and limb;
Aye, perilled my soul’s salvation.

Mark:
With the best intentions we all must work
But little good and much harm;

Be a Christian for once, not a Pagan Turk,
Nursing wrath and keeping it warm.

Maurice:
If our best intentions pave the way
To a place that is somewhat hot,
Can our worst intentions lead us, say,
To a still more sultry spot?

Mark:
’Tis said that charity makes amends
For a multitude of transgressions.

Maurice:
But our perjured loves and our faithless friends
Are entitled to no concessions.

Mark:
Old man, these many years side by side
Our parallel paths have lain;
Now, in life’s long journey, diverging wide,
They can scarcely unite again;
And tho’, from all that I’ve seen and heard,
You’re prone to chafe and to fret
At the least restraint, not one angry word
Have we two exchanged as yet.
We’ve shared our peril, we’ve shared our sport,
Our sunshine and gloomy weather,
Feasted and flirted, and fenced and fought,
Struggled and toiled together;
In happier moments lighter of heart,
Stouter of heart in sorrow;
We’ve met and we’ve parted, and now we part
For ever, perchance, to-morrow.
She’s a matron now; when you knew her first
She was but a child, and your hate,
Fostered and cherished, nourished and nursed,
Will it never evaporate?
Your grievance is known to yourself alone,
But, Maurice, I say, for shame,
If in ten long years you haven’t outgrown
Ill-will to an ancient flame.

Maurice:
Well, Mark, you’re right; if I spoke in spite,
Let the shame and the blame be mine;
At the risk of a headache we’ll drain this night
Her health in a flask of wine;
For a castle in Spain, tho’ it never was built;
For a dream, tho’ it never came true;
For a cup, just tasted, tho’ rudely spilt,
At least she can hold me due.
Those hours of pleasure she dealt of yore,
As well as those hours of pain,
I ween they would flit as they flitted before,
If I had them over again.
Against her no word from my lips shall pass,
Betraying the grudge I’ve cherished,
Till the sand runs down in my hour-glass,
And the gift of my speech has perished.
Say! why is the spirit of peace so weak,
And the spirit of wrath so strong,
That the right we must steadily search and seek,
Tho’ we readily find the wrong?

Mark:
Our parents of old entailed the curse
Which must to our children cling;
Let us hope, at least, that we’re not much worse
Than the founder from whom we spring.
Fit sire was he of a selfish race,
Who first to temptation yielded,
Then to mend his case tried to heap disgrace
On the woman he should have shielded.
Say! comrade mine, the forbidden fruit
We’d have plucked, that I well believe,
But I trust we’d rather have suffered mute
Than have laid the blame upon Eve.

Maurice (yawning):
Who knows? not I; I can hardly vouch
For the truth of what little I see;
And now, if you’ve any weed in your pouch,
Just hand it over to me.

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