Oh the rose of keenest thorn! One hidden summer morn Under the rose I was born.
I do not guess his name Who wrought my Mother's shame, And gave me life forlorn, But my Mother, Mother, Mother, I know her from all other. My Mother pale and mild, Fair as ever was seen, She was but scarce sixteen, Little more than a child, When I was born To work her scorn. With secret bitter throes, In a passion of secret woes, She bore me under the rose.
One who my Mother nursed Took me from the first:— 'O nurse, let me look upon This babe that costs so dear; To-morrow she will be gone: Other mothers may keep Their babes awake and asleep, But I must not keep her here.'— Whether I know or guess, I know this not the less.
So I was sent away That none might spy the truth: And my childhood waxed to youth And I left off childish play. I never cared to play With the village boys and girls; And I think they thought me proud, I found so little to say And kept so from the crowd: But I had the longest curls And I had the largest eyes And my teeth were small like pearls; The girls might flout and scout me, But the boys would hang about me In sheepish mooning wise.
Our one-street village stood A long mile from the town, A mile of windy down And bleak one-sided wood, With not a single house. Our town itself was small, With just the common shops, And throve in its small way. Our neighbouring gentry reared The good old-fashioned crops, And made old-fashioned boasts Of what John Bull would do If Frenchman Frog appeared, And drank old-fashioned toasts, And made old-fashioned bows To my Lady at the Hall.
My Lady at the Hall Is grander than they all: Hers is the oldest name In all the neighbourhood; But the race must die with her Though she's a lofty dame, For she's unmarried still. Poor people say she's good And has an open hand As any in the land, And she's the comforter Of many sick and sad; My nurse once said to me That everything she had Came of my Lady's bounty: 'Though she's greatest in the county She's humble to the poor, No beggar seeks her door But finds help presently. I pray both night and day For her, and you must pray: But she'll never feel distress If needy folk can bless.'
I was a little maid When here we came to live From somewhere by the sea. Men spoke a foreign tongue There where we used to be When I was merry and young, Too young to feel afraid; The fisher folk would give A kind strange word to me, There by the foreign sea: I don't know where it was, But I remember still Our cottage on a hill, And fields of flowering grass On that fair foreign shore.
I liked my old home best, But this was pleasant too: So here we made our nest And here I grew. And now and then my Lady In riding past our door Would nod to Nurse and speak, Or stoop and pat my cheek; And I was always ready To hold the field-gate wide For my Lady to go through; My Lady in her veil So seldom put aside, My Lady grave and pale.
I often sat to wonder Who might my parents be, For I knew of something under My simple-seeming state. Nurse never talked to me Of mother or of father, But watched me early and late With kind suspicious cares: Or not suspicious, rather Anxious, as if she knew Some secret I might gather And smart for unawares. Thus I grew.
But Nurse waxed old and grey, Bent and weak with years. There came a certain day That she lay upon her bed Shaking her palsied head, With words she gasped to say Which had to stay unsaid. Then with a jerking hand Held out so piteously She gave a ring to me Of gold wrought curiously, A ring which she had worn Since the day I was born, She once had said to me: I slipped it on my finger; Her eyes were keen to linger On my hand that slipped it on; Then she sighed one rattling sigh And stared on with sightless eye:— The one who loved me was gone.
How long I stayed alone With the corpse I never knew, For I fainted dead as stone: When I came to life once more I was down upon the floor, With neighbours making ado To bring me back to life. I heard the sexton's wife Say: 'Up, my lad, and run To tell it at the Hall; She was my Lady's nurse, And done can't be undone. I'll watch by this poor lamb. I guess my Lady's purse Is always open to such: I'd run up on my crutch A cripple as I am,' (For cramps had vexed her much) 'Rather than this dear heart Lack one to take her part.'
For days day after day On my weary bed I lay Wishing the time would pass; Oh, so wishing that I was Likely to pass away: For the one friend whom I knew Was dead, I knew no other, Neither father nor mother; And I, what should I do?
One day the sexton's wife Said: 'Rouse yourself, my dear: My Lady has driven down From the Hall into the town, And we think she's coming here. Cheer up, for life is life.'
But I would not look or speak, Would not cheer up at all. My tears were like to fall, So I turned round to the wall And hid my hollow cheek Making as if I slept, As silent as a stone, And no one knew I wept. What was my Lady to me, The grand lady from the Hall? She might come, or stay away, I was sick at heart that day: The whole world seemed to be Nothing, just nothing to me, For aught that I could see.
Yet I listened where I lay: A bustle came below, A clear voice said: 'I know; I will see her first alone, It may be less of a shock If she's so weak to-day:'— A light hand turned the lock, A light step crossed the floor, One sat beside my bed: But never a word she said.
For me, my shyness grew Each moment more and more: So I said never a word And neither looked nor stirred; I think she must have heard My heart go pit-a-pat: Thus I lay, my Lady sat, More than a mortal hour— (I counted one and two By the house-clock while I lay): I seemed to have no power To think of a thing to say, Or do what I ought to do, Or rouse myself to a choice.
At last she said: 'Margaret, Won't you even look at me?' A something in her voice Forced my tears to fall at last, Forced sobs from me thick and fast; Something not of the past, Yet stirring memory; A something new, and yet Not new, too sweet to last, Which I never can forget.
I turned and stared at her: Her cheek showed hollow-pale; Her hair like mine was fair, A wonderful fall of hair That screened her like a veil; But her height was statelier, Her eyes had depth more deep; I think they must have had Always a something sad, Unless they were asleep.
While I stared, my Lady took My hand in her spare hand Jewelled and soft and grand, And looked with a long long look Of hunger in my face; As if she tried to trace Features she ought to know, And half hoped, half feared, to find. Whatever was in her mind She heaved a sigh at last, And began to talk to me.
'Your nurse was my dear nurse, And her nursling's dear,' said she: 'I never knew that she was worse Till her poor life was past' (Here my Lady's tears dropped fast): 'I might have been with her, But she had no comforter. She might have told me much Which now I shall never know, Never never shall know.' She sat by me sobbing so, And seemed so woe-begone, That I laid one hand upon Hers with a timid touch, Scarce thinking what I did, Not knowing what to say: That moment her face was hid In the pillow close by mine, Her arm was flung over me, She hugged me, sobbing so As if her heart would break, And kissed me where I lay.
After this she often came To bring me fruit or wine, Or sometimes hothouse flowers. And at nights I lay awake Often and often thinking What to do for her sake. Wet or dry it was the same: She would come in at all hours, Set me eating and drinking And say I must grow strong; At last the day seemed long And home seemed scarcely home If she did not come.
Well, I grew strong again: In time of primroses, I went to pluck them in the lane; In time of nestling birds, I heard them chirping round the house; And all the herds Were out at grass when I grew strong, And days were waxen long, And there was work for bees Among the May-bush boughs, And I had shot up tall, And life felt after all Pleasant, and not so long When I grew strong.
I was going to the Hall To be my Lady's maid: 'Her little friend,' she said to me, 'Almost her child,' She said and smiled Sighing painfully; Blushing, with a second flush As if she blushed to blush.
Friend, servant, child: just this My standing at the Hall; The other servants call me 'Miss,' My Lady calls me 'Margaret,' With her clear voice musical. She never chides when I forget This or that; she never chides. Except when people come to stay, (And that's not often) at the Hall, I sit with her all day And ride out when she rides. She sings to me and makes me sing; Sometimes I read to her, Sometimes we merely sit and talk. She noticed once my ring And made me tell its history: That evening in our garden walk She said she should infer The ring had been my father's first, Then my mother's, given for me To the nurse who nursed My mother in her misery, That so quite certainly Some one might know me, who... Then she was silent, and I too.
I hate when people come: The women speak and stare And mean to be so civil. This one will stroke my hair, That one will pat my cheek And praise my Lady's kindness, Expecting me to speak; I like the proud ones best Who sit as struck with blindness, As if I wasn't there. But if any gentleman Is staying at the Hall (Though few come prying here), My Lady seems to fear Some downright dreadful evil, And makes me keep my room As closely as she can: So I hate when people come, It is so troublesome. In spite of all her care, Sometimes to keep alive I sometimes do contrive To get out in the grounds For a whiff of wholesome air, Under the rose you know: It's charming to break bounds, Stolen waters are sweet, And what's the good of feet If for days they mustn't go? Give me a longer tether, Or I may break from it.
Now I have eyes and ears And just some little wit: 'Almost my Lady's child;' I recollect she smiled, Sighed and blushed together; Then her story of the ring Sounds not improbable, She told it me so well It seemed the actual thing:-- Oh, keep your counsel close, But I guess under the rose, In long past summer weather When the world was blossoming, And the rose upon its thorn: I guess not who he was Flawed honour like a glass, And made my life forlorn, But my Mother, Mother, Mother, Oh, I know her from all other.
My Lady, you might trust Your daughter with your fame. Trust me, I would not shame Our honourable name, For I have noble blood Though I was bred in dust And brought up in the mud. I will not press my claim, Just leave me where you will: But you might trust your daughter, For blood is thicker than water And you're my mother still.
So my Lady holds her own With condescending grace, and fills her lofty place With an untroubled face As a queen may fill a throne. While I could hint a tale— (But then I am her child)— Would make her quail; Would set her in the dust, Lorn with no comforter, Her glorious hair defiled And ashes on her cheek: The decent world would thrust Its finger out at her, Not much displeased I think To make a nine days' stir; The decent world would sink Its voice to speak of her.
Now this is what I mean To do, no more, no less: Never to speak, or show Bare sign of what I know. Let the blot pass unseen; Yea, let her never guess I hold the tangled clue She huddles out of view. Friend, servant, almost child, So be it and nothing more On this side of the grave. Mother, in Paradise, You'll see with clearer eyes; Perhaps in this world even When you are like to die And face to face with Heaven You'll drop for once the lie: But you must drop the mask, not I.
My Lady promises Two hundred pounds with me Whenever I may wed A man she can approve: And since besides her bounty I'm fairest in the county (For so I've heard it said, Though I don't vouch for this), Her promised pounds may move Some honest man to see My virtues and my beauties; Perhaps the rising grazier, Or temperance publican, May claim my wifely duties. Meanwhile I wait their leisure And grace-bestowing pleasure, I wait the happy man; But if I hold my head And pitch my expectations Just higher than their level, They must fall back on patience: I may not mean to wed, Yet I'll be civil.
Now sometimes in a dream My heart goes out of me To build and scheme, Till I sob after things that seem So pleasant in a dream: A home such as I see My blessed neighbours live in With father and with mother, All proud of one another, Named by one common name From baby in the bud To full-blown workman father; It's little short of Heaven. I'd give my gentle blood To wash my special shame And drown my private grudge; I'd toil and moil much rather The dingiest cottage drudge Whose mother need not blush, Than live here like a lady And see my Mother flush And hear her voice unsteady Sometimes, yet never dare Ask to share her care.
Of course the servants sneer Behind my back at me; Of course the village girls, Who envy me my curls And gowns and idleness, Take comfort in a jeer; Of course the ladies guess Just so much of my history As points the emphatic stress With which they laud my Lady; The gentlemen who catch A casual glimpse of me And turn again to see, Their valets on the watch To speak a word with me, All know and sting me wild; Till I am almost ready To wish that I were dead, No faces more to see, No more words to be said, My Mother safe at last Disburdened of her child, And the past past.
'All equal before God'— Our Rector has it so, And sundry sleepers nod: It may be so; I know All are not equal here, And when the sleepers wake They make a difference. 'All equal in the grave'— That shows an obvious sense: Yet something which I crave Not death itself brings near; Now should death half atone For all my past; or make The name I bear my own?
I love my dear old Nurse Who loved me without gains; I love my mistress even, Friend, Mother, what you will: But I could almost curse My Father for his pains; And sometimes at my prayer Kneeling in sight of Heaven I almost curse him still: Why did he set his snare To catch at unaware My Mother's foolish youth; Load me with shame that's hers, And her with something worse, A lifelong lie for truth?
I think my mind is fixed On one point and made up: To accept my lot unmixed; Never to drug the cup But drink it by myself. I'll not be wooed for pelf; I'll not blot out my shame With any man's good name; But nameless as I stand, My hand is my own hand, And nameless as I came I go to the dark land.
'All equal in the grave'— I bide my time till then: 'All equal before God'— To-day I feel His rod, To-morrow He may save: Amen.