by: Horace Holley (1887-1960?)

      ER ardent spirit ran beyond her years
      As light before a flame.
      At fifteen, the tennis medal; at sixteen, the golf cup;
      Then--the coveted!--bluest of blue ribbons
      For faultless horsemanship.
      No man in all that country,
      Whatever his sport,
      But had to own the girl a better man.
      At that she merely laughed--saying that triumph
      Is all a matter of thrill: who tingles most,
      He wins inevitably.
      Half bewilderment, half jest,
      They called her Sprite, those ordinary folk
      Who thought such urge, such instinct of life to joy
      Was somehow mythical.
      And having named her, they no longer thought of her,
      To their relief, as young or old, one sex or other--
      Just herself, apart, a goddess out-of-doors.
      School boys never dreamed of her tenderly
      As one to send a perfumed valentine;
      But when she strode among the horses in the field
      They pawed the ground.
      No leash could hold a dog when she passed by.
      Then, despite her ardent race with time--
      Ardent as though each moment was a dare
      To some adventure of freed muscle and thrilled nerve--
      A fleeter runner overtook her flight
      And bound her tightly in a golden net--
      Hands, feet and bosom; lips and hair and eyes--
      Beauty, beauty of women.
      Or was it she, unconscious what she raced,
      Ran suddenly, breathless, glad and yet dismayed,
      Into the arms of her own womanhood?
      Which, no one knew, herself the least of all.
      But no more did she fly beyond herself,
      As eager to leave the very flesh behind,
      But stayed with it in deep and rapturous content;
      Her ardor turned
      Henceforth within upon a secret goal.
      Spirit and beauty seemed to flow together,
      Each rapt in each
      Like a hushed lily in a hidden pool.
      Only at dances did the sprite peep out,
      Ardent and yet controlled,
      Alive to every turn and slope of the rhythm
      As if the music spread a path for her
      To what she truly sought.
      'Twas at a dance she found it--found the man--
      And no one had to question what she found:
      Her eyes, her very finger-tips, proclaimed
      The marvel it was to be a part of her,
      A part of love.
      The man--he had no medals and ribbons of triumph;
      If she had fled on horse or even on foot
      He never could have caught her.
      It must have been his mind's humility
      That made her stay,
      So thoughtless of itself, so thoughtful of
      Forgotten wisdoms, old greatness, world riddles;
      A patient, slow, but never yielding search
      (Passionate too, with wings' flight of its own)
      For what--compared with other minds she knew--
      Might well have seemed the blessed western isles.
      They lived beyond the village on a hill
      Beneath a row of pines; a house without pretense
      Yet fully conscious of uncommon worth--
      A house all books inside.
      Their only neighbor was a garrulous man,
      Who smoked a never finished pipe
      Upon a never finished woodpile
      Strategically placed beside the road
      So none could pass without his toll of gossip.
      He started it.
      One day, pointing his thumb across the pines, he said:
      "There's something wrong up yonder;
      Their honeymoon had set behind a storm.
      I heard 'em fight last night . . .
      Well, what'd he expect? They're all alike--women."
      Of course it got about,
      And while no one quite believed,
      Still, to make sure, some friendly women called.
      They said that he was studying, quite as usual,
      Not changed at all, just quiet and indrawn--
      The last man in the world to make a quarrel;
      And she, well, of course she wasn't so easy to read,
      Always strange and different from a child;
      But even in her the sharpest eye saw nothing
      That seemed the loose end of the littlest quarrel.
      No couple could have acted more at ease;
      And anyhow, a woman like that, they said,
      Would never have stayed so quiet in the pines
      With unhappiness, but tossed it from her broadcast
      Like brands from a bonfire.
      She said the house was damp--and that was all.
      At last even the old garrulous woodpile
      Knocked out the ashes of it from his pipe.
      But then, a few months later, a frightened servant girl
      Ran at early morning from the pines,
      Crying the judge in town.
      She said her mistress suddenly, without cause,
      Standing by her in the kitchen, turned on her
      Blackly with words no decent girl deserved,
      Then struck her full in the face, spat on her, pulled her hair.
      She wanted compensation, the servant did,
      And a clean character before the world,
      Yes, and punishment for the beast who hurt her--
      That is, if the woman wasn't mad.
      Mad--oh ho! the shock of it
      Rolled seething over the place like a tidal wave,
      And in the wake of the wave, like weed and wreckage,
      Many a hint and sense of something wrong at the pines,
      Sprawled in the daylight.
      A stable boy remembered
      How not a week before she'd called for a horse,
      The spiritedest saddle they had,
      And when she brought him back 'twas late at night,
      The horse and woman both done up,
      Slashed, splashed and dripping;
      But all she said was, "Send the bill;
      The beast's no good--I'll never ride again."
      So this and other stories quite as strange
      Stretched everybody's nerves for the trial to come
      And made them furious when it didn't come--
      He settling with the girl outside of court.
      The judge's wife knew all there was to know:
      Not jealousy at all, just nerves--
      Every woman, you know, at certain times . . .
      Of course, agreed the village, so that's it? still
      (Not to be cheated outright?), still
      Even so, she'd best take care of that temper;
      A husband's one thing, an unborn child's another--
      She'd always been a stormy, uncontrollable soul.
      Some blamed the husband he had never reined her in,
      Most pitied him a task impossible.
      All waited the event on tiptoe--
      It wasn't like other women, somehow, for her to have a child.
      The months passed, no child was born.
      Then other women sneered openly:
      She wanted one and couldn't--served her right.
      This lapse from the common law of wives
      Was all the fissure the sea required
      To force the dike with. Little by little then,
      The pressure of year on year,
      The pines and the two lives they hid
      Grew dubious, then disagreeable, then at last sinister.
      At this point the new generation took up
      Its inheritance, the habit of myth,
      And quite as a matter of course it found her hateful,
      Ugly, a symbol of sudden fear by darkened paths--
      Cross Patch!
      And one by one the people who were young
      Beside her youth, moved off or died or changed,
      Forgetting her youth as they forgot their own;
      Until if ever she herself
      Had felt a sudden overwhelming pang
      To stop some old acquaintance on the road
      And stammer out, "You know--don't you--the girl I was--
      I was not always this, was I?" she might have found
      A dozen at most the know the Sprite her youth,
      But none to clear the overtangled path
      That led from Sprite to Cross Patch; not one, not one,
      But looking back would damn
      The very urge of joy in Sprite, and all its ardent spirit
      For having mothered Cross Patch; not one, not one,
      To see the baffled womanhood she was,
      Orphan of hopes too bright, not mother of evil.
      And thus besieged on all sides by the present
      She fought against all sides, as if by fury
      To force one way to yield.
      For both it was a nightmare, not a life, and neither
      Could well have told how it had ever begun;
      But once begun it seemed inevitable,
      A storm that settled darkly round their souls,
      Unwilled as winter,
      With moan of wind through sere and barren boughs
      And skies forever masked.
      The first blow of the quarrel had been hers,
      A blow unguessed by either, for she struck
      Like nature, not to hurt but to survive.
      But wrath accrued
      So soon thereafter that the blow seemed angry,
      And she struck out again with eyes and tongue
      Pursuing him, the angrier at his grief,
      Until in sheer defense he hit
      Not at herself, but at her blows, to ward them;
      Keeping the while
      His thought above the dark upon a star or so
      Fixed in the past. But she defended her wrath
      As part of her dignity and right: they stormed
      Up, up the hill and down,
      Increasing darkness to the end of life.
      Of him friends said
      He seemed like a lonely sentinel
      Posted against the very edge of doom,
      Whom no watch came relieving.
      "She'll kill him yet, the fool!" the woodpile's verdict
      Before the pipe went out for the last time,
      Leaving the pines unneighbored.
      But he was wrong, the urn outlasted the flame.
      One night, hands at her throat, she came
      And knelt before him, timidly reaching out
      And trying to speak, to speak--struggling as if words
      Were something still to learn.
      At last speech broke from her, so agonized
      He hardly knew if it were supreme wrath or supreme supplication:
      "You did not love me . . ."
      And as he bent to her he felt
      Her girlhood cry, a murdered thing returned.
      He hoped that it was wrath, as easier to endure,
      Feeling it burn from mind to heart, from heart to soul,
      Gathering more awe, more terror, at each advance.
      Like a priest with sacrifice it passed
      The colonnades of his thought, entering without pause
      An unknown altar of his being
      Behind a curtain never moved before.
      "You did not love me. . . ."
      Both gazed upon the sacrifice held up
      As though it were the bleeding heart of their own lives
      Somehow no longer their own.
      And then the priest returned, slowly, pace by pace,
      Out of the hush of feeling into the hush of thought.
      It was the priest and not himself, the man believed,
      Who like an echo, not less agonized,
      Whispered across the waste of many lives,
      Whispering "No . . ."
      Whose heart, the man's or woman's, lowest stooped
      To raise the other prostrate heart aloft
      With supplication and consolement, urging it
      To live--oh, live!--dying itself the while,
      God knew before the beginning of the world.
      We only know that stooping so, dust turned to dust,
      All hearts meet at last.

"Cross Patch" is reprinted from Anthology of Magazine Verse for 1916. Ed. William Stanley Braithwaite. New York: Laurence J. Gomme, 1916.



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