Caroline Bowles Southey



The Broken Bridge

by Caroline Bowles Southey

It was a lovely autumn morn,
So indistinctly bright,
So many-hued, so misty, clear,
So blent the glittering atmosphere,
A web of opal light!

The morning mist, from the hill top,
Sailed off, (a silvery flake,)
But still in the under-vale it lay,
Where the trees peered out like islands gray,
Seen dimly, at the dawn of day,
On a waveless, pearly lake

And again, when we reached the woody rise
That Boldre church doth crown,
The filmy shroud was wafted by,
And, rejoicing in his victory,
The dazzling sun looked down.

We reached the church, a two-mile walk,
Just as the bell begun;
Only the clerk was stationed there,
And one old man with silver hair,
Who warmed him in the sun.

A gravestone for his seat, one hand
On his old staff leaned he;
The other fondly dallied
With the bright curls of a young head
That nestled on his knee

The child looked up in the old man's face,
Looked up and laughed the while.
Methought 'twas a beautiful sight to see
The reflected light of its innocent glee,
(Like a sunbeam on a withered tree,)
In the old man's quiet smile.

That simple group well harmonized
With the surrounding scene;
The old gray church, with its shadows deep,
Where the dead seemed hushed in sounder sleep;
And all beyond, where the sun shone bright,
Touching the tombstones with golden light,
And the graves with emerald green.

And a redbreast from the elms hard by
His joyous matins sung;
That music wild contrasted well
With the measured sound of the old church-bell,
In the low, square tower that swung.

I looked, and listened, and listened still,
But word spake never a one;
And I started like one awakened
From a trance, when my young companion said,
Let's walk till the bell has done.

So we turned away by the shady path
That winds down the pleasant hill;
Leaving the churchyard to the right
High up, it brought us soon in sight
Of the clear spring, so sparkling bright,
That turns old Hayward mill.

A lovely scene! but not therefore
Young Edmund's choice, I doubt;
No; rather that with barbed snare,
For sport, he oft inveigled there
The perch and speckled trout.

Stopped was the busy mill-wheel now,
Snareless the rippling brook;
And up the finny people leaped,
As if they knew that danger slept;
And Edmund! he had well-nigh wept
For lack of line and hook.

Look, what a fish! the same, I'll swear,
That I hooked yesterday:
He's a foot long from head to tail;
The fellow tugged like any whale,
And broke my line: it's very true,
Though you laugh, miss! you always do
At every thing I say.

Nay, gentle coz! I did but smile;
But -- was he a foot long?

Ay, more, a foot and half -- near two
There, there, there's no convincing you;
One might as well to an old shoe
Go whistle an old song.

Gramercy, coz! I only asked,
In admiration strong.

Ay, but you look at one so queer;
O, that I had my tackle here,
You should soon see; well, never fear,
I'll have him yet ere long.

Ay, doubtless; but, dear Edmund! now
Be murderous thoughts far hence.
This is a day of peace and rest,
And should diffuse in every breast
Its holy influence.

Such desultory chat we held,
Still idly sauntering on
Towards the old crazy bridge, that led
Across the stream by the mill-head;
Heyday! said I, 'tis gone!

And gone it was; but planks and piles
Lay there, a fresh-brought load;
And, till a better bridge was made,
Flat stones across the brook were laid,
So one might pass dryshod.

One with firm foot and steady eye,
Dryshod might pass the brook;
But now, upon the farther side,
A woman and a child we spied,
And those slippery stones the woman eyed
With vexed and angry look.

And the child stood there -- a pretty boy;
Some seven years old looked he;
Limber and lithe as a little fawn;
And I marveled much that he sprang not on
With a boy's activity.

But his head hung down like a dew-bent flower,
And he stood there helplessly;
And the woman (an old ill-favored crone)
Scowled at him, and said, in a sharp, cross tone
You're always a plague to me!

What ails you, my little man? said I;
Such a light, free thing as you
Should bound away, like a nimble deer,
From stone to stone, and be over here
Before one could well count two.

The child looked up. To my dying day,
That look will haunt my mind.
The woman looked, too, and she tuned her throat.
As she answered me, to a softer note,
And says she, The poor thing's blind.

His father (who's dead) was my sister's son;
Last week his mother died, too.
He's but a weakly thing, you see;
Yet the parish has put him upon me,
Who am but ill to do.

And his mother made him more helpless still
Than else he might have been;
For she nursed him up like a little lamb
That in winter's time had lost its dam:
Such love was never seen!

To be sure, he was her only one;
A helpless thing, you see;
So she toiled and toiled to get him bread,
And to keep him neat: 'twas her pride, she said.
Well, 'tis a hard thing, now she's dead,
To have him thrown on me.

And now we shall be too late for church,
For he can't get over, not he;
I thought the old bridge did well enough,
But they're always at some altering stuff,
Hindering poor folks, like we.

I looked about, but from my side
Edmund was gone already;
And, with the child clasped carefully,
Across the stream back bounded he,
With firm foot, light and steady.

And the woman, said I,won't you help her too
Look, there she waits the while.

Hang her, old cat! if I do, quoth he,
To souse her into the midst 'twill be!
For my life I could not but smile.

So we left her to cross as best she might,
And I turned to the sightless child
His old white hat was wound about
With a rusty crape, and fair curls waved out
On a brow divinely mild.

And the tears still swam in his large blue eyes,
And hung on his sickly cheek
Those eyes, with their clouded vacancy,
That looked toward, but not at me,
Yet spoke to my heart more touchingly
Than the brightest could ever speak.

I took his little hand in mine,
('Twas a delicate, small hand,)
And the poor thing soon crept close to me,
With a timid familiarity
No heart could e'er withstand.

By this time the woman had hobbled up;
Ah, Goody! what, safe ashore?
Quoth Edmund,I knew without help from me
You'd paddle across.
Askance looked she,
But spake not a word; so in company
We moved on to church all four

But I felt the child's hand, still held in mine,
With a shrinking dread compressed;
Do you Jove to go to church? I said;
Yes, and he hung down his little head,
But I love the churchyard best.

The churchyard, my pretty boy? And why
Come, tell me why, and how.

Because -- because -- and the poor thing
Sobbed out the words, half whispering,
'Cause mammy is there now.

Feelings too deep for utterance
Thrilled me a moment's space
At last, My little friend, said I,
She's gone to live with God on high,
In heaven, his dwelling-place.

And if you're good, and pray to him,
And tell the truth alway,
And bear all hardships patiently,
You'll go there too.
But when? said he
Shall I go there to-day?

Nay, you must wait till God is pleased
To call you to his rest.

When will that be? he asked again.
Perhaps not yet, my child. O, then
I love the churchyard best.

And to the churchyard we were come,
And close to the church door;
And the little hand I held in mine,
Still held, loath was I to resign;
And, from that hour, the face so mild,
And the soft voice of that orphan child,
Have haunted me evermore.


The Floral Wreath Of Autumn Flowers
Copyright 1850
Detroit: Kerr, Doughty and Lapham