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Short poem

Augusta (Davies) Webster (1837-1894)

A Castaway

              1POOR little diary, with its simple thoughts,
              2its good resolves, its "Studied French an hour,"
              3"Read Modern History," "Trimmed up my grey hat,"
              4"Darned stockings," "Tatted," "Practised my new song,"
              5"Went to the daily service," "Took Bess soup,"
              6"Went out to tea." Poor simple diary!
              7and did I write it? Was I this good girl,
              8this budding colourless young rose of home?
              9did I so live content in such a life,
            10seeing no larger scope, nor asking it,
            11than this small constant round -- old clothes to mend,
            12new clothes to make, then go and say my prayers,
            13or carry soup, or take a little walk
            14and pick the ragged-robins in the hedge?
            15Then for ambition, (was there ever life
            16that could forego that?) to improve my mind
            17and know French better and sing harder songs;
            18for gaiety, to go, in my best white
            19well washed and starched and freshened with new bows,
            20and take tea out to meet the clergyman.
            21No wishes and no cares, almost no hopes,
            22only the young girl's hazed and golden dreams
            23that veil the Future from her.

            23                                                   So long since:
            24and now it seems a jest to talk of me
            25as if I could be one with her, of me
            26who am ...... me.

            26                                  And what is that? My looking-glass
            27answers it passably; a woman sure,
            28no fiend, no slimy thing out of the pools,
            29a woman with a ripe and smiling lip
            30that has no venom in its touch I think,
            31with a white brow on which there is no brand;
            32a woman none dare call not beautiful,
            33not womanly in every woman's grace.

            34Aye let me feed upon my beauty thus,
            35be glad in it like painters when they see
            36at last the face they dreamed but could not find
            37look from their canvass on them, triumph in it,
            38the dearest thing I have. Why, 'tis my all,
            39let me make much of it: is it not this,
            40this beauty, my own curse at once and tool
            41to snare men's souls -- (I know what the good say
            42of beauty in such creatures) -- is it not this
            43that makes me feel myself a woman still,
            44some little pride, some little --

            44                                                     Here's a jest!
            45what word will fit the sense but modesty?
            46A wanton I but modest!

            46                                           Modest, true;
            47I'm not drunk in the streets, ply not for hire
            48at infamous corners with my likenesses
            49of the humbler kind; yes, modesty's my word --
            50'twould shape my mouth well too, I think I'll try:
            51"Sir, Mr What-you-will, Lord Who-knows-what,
            52my present lover or my next to come,
            53value me at my worth, fill your purse full,
            54for I am modest; yes, and honour me
            55as though your schoolgirl sister or your wife
            56could let her skirts brush mine or talk of me;
            57for I am modest."

            57                                  Well, I flout myself:
            58but yet, but yet --

            58                                 Fie, poor fantastic fool,
            59why do I play the hypocrite alone,
            60who am no hypocrite with others by?
            61where should be my "But yet"? I am that thing
            62called half a dozen dainty names, and none
            63dainty enough to serve the turn and hide
            64the one coarse English worst that lurks beneath:
            65just that, no worse, no better.

            65                                                    And, for me,
            66I say let no one be above her trade;
            67I own my kindredship with any drab
            68who sells herself as I, although she crouch
            69in fetid garrets and I have a home
            70all velvet and marqueterie and pastilles,
            71although she hide her skeleton in rags
            72and I set fashions and wear cobweb lace:
            73the difference lies but in my choicer ware,
            74that I sell beauty and she ugliness;
            75our traffic's one -- I'm no sweet slaver-tongue
            76to gloze upon it and explain myself
            77a sort of fractious angel misconceived --
            78our traffic's one: I own it. And what then?
            79I know of worse that are called honourable.
            80Our lawyers, who, with noble eloquence
            81and virtuous outbursts, lie to hang a man,
            82or lie to save him, which way goes the fee:
            83our preachers, gloating on your future hell
            84for not believing what they doubt themselves:
            85our doctors, who sort poisons out by chance,
            86and wonder how they'll answer, and grow rich:
            87our journalists, whose business is to fib
            88and juggle truths and falsehoods to and fro:
            89our tradesmen, who must keep unspotted names
            90and cheat the least like stealing that they can:
            91our -- all of them, the virtuous worthy men
            92who feed on the world's follies, vices, wants,
            93and do their businesses of lies and shams
            94honestly, reputably, while the world
            95claps hands and cries "good luck," which of their trades,
            96their honourable trades, barefaced like mine,
            97all secrets brazened out, would shew more white?

            98And whom do I hurt more than they? as much?
            99The wives? Poor fools, what do I take from them
          100worth crying for or keeping? If they knew
          101what their fine husbands look like seen by eyes
          102that may perceive there are more men than one!
          103But, if they can, let them just take the pains
          104to keep them: 'tis not such a mighty task
          105to pin an idiot to your apron-string;
          106and wives have an advantage over us,
          107(the good and blind ones have), the smile or pout
          108leaves them no secret nausea at odd times.
          109Oh they could keep their husbands if they cared,
          110but 'tis an easier life to let them go,
          111and whimper at it for morality.

          112Oh! those shrill carping virtues, safely housed
          113from reach of even a smile that should put red
          114on a decorous cheek, who rail at us
          115with such a spiteful scorn and rancourousness,
          116(which maybe is half envy at the heart),
          117and boast themselves so measurelessly good
          118and us so measurelessly unlike them,
          119what is their wondrous merit that they stay
          120in comfortable homes whence not a soul
          121has ever thought of tempting them, and wear
          122no kisses but a husband's upon lips
          123there is no other man desires to kiss --
          124refrain in fact from sin impossible?
          125How dare they hate us so? what have they done,
          126what borne, to prove them other than we are?
          127What right have they to scorn us -- glass-case saints,
          128Dianas under lock and key -- what right
          129more than the well-fed helpless barn-door fowl
          130to scorn the larcenous wild-birds?

          130                                                           Pshaw, let be!
          131Scorn or no scorn, what matter for their scorn?
          132I have outfaced my own -- that's harder work.
          133Aye let their virtuous malice dribble on --
          134mock snowstorms on the stage -- I'm proof long since:
          135I have looked coolly on my what and why,
          136and I accept myself.

          136                                      Oh I'll endorse
          137the shamefullest revilings mouthed at me,
          138cry "True! Oh perfect picture! Yes, that's I!"
          139and add a telling blackness here and there,
          140and then dare swear you, every nine of ten,
          141my judges and accusers, I'd not change
          142my conscience against yours, you who tread out
          143your devil's pilgrimage along the roads
          144that take in church and chapel, and arrange
          145a roundabout and decent way to hell.

          146Well, mine's a short way and a merry one:
          147so says my pious hash of ohs and ahs,
          148choice texts and choicer threats, appropriate names,
          149(Rahabs and Jezebels), some fierce Tartuffe
          150hurled at me through the post. We had rare fun
          151over that tract digested with champagne.
          152Where is it? where's my rich repertory
          153of insults biblical? 'I prey on souls' --
          154only my men have oftenest none I think:
          155'I snare the simple ones' -- but in these days
          156there seem to be none simple and none snared,
          157and most men have their favourite sinnings planned
          158to do them civilly and sensibly:
          159'I braid my hair' -- but braids are out of date:
          160'I paint my cheeks' -- I always wear them pale:
          161'I -- '

          161              Pshaw! the trash is savourless to-day:
          162one cannot laugh alone. There, let it burn.
          163What, does the windy dullard think one needs
          164his wisdom dove-tailed on to Solomon's,
          165his threats out-threatening God's, to teach the news
          166that those who need not sin have safer souls?
          167We know it, but we've bodies to save too;
          168and so we earn our living.

          168                                               Well lit, tract!
          169at least you've made me a good leaping blaze.
          170Up, up, how the flame shoots! and now 'tis dead.
          171Oh proper finish, preaching to the last --
          172no such bad omen either; sudden end,
          173and no sad withering horrible old age.
          174How one would clutch at youth to hold it tight!
          175and then to know it gone, to see it gone,
          176be taught its absence by harsh, careless looks,
          177to live forgotten, solitary, old --
          178the cruellest word that ever woman learns.
          179Old -- that's to be nothing, or to be at best
          180a blurred memorial that in better days
          181there was a woman once with such a name.
          182No, no, I could not bear it: death itself
          183shews kinder promise ...... even death itself,
          184since it must come one day --

          184                                                   Oh this grey gloom!
          185This rain, rain, rain, what wretched thoughts it brings!
          186Death: I'll not think of it.

          186                                            Will no one come?
          187'Tis dreary work alone.

          187                                          Why did I read
          188that silly diary? Now, sing song, ding dong,
          189come the old vexing echoes back again,
          190church bells and nursery good-books, back again
          191upon my shrinking ears that had forgotten --
          192I hate the useless memories: 'tis fools' work
          193singing the hacknied dirge of 'better days:'
          194best take Now kindly, give the past good-bye,
          195whether it were a better or a worse.

          196Yes, yes, I listened to the echoes once,
          197the echoes and the thoughts from the old days.
          198The worse for me: I lost my richest friend,
          199and that was all the difference. For the world
          200would not have that flight known. How they'd roar:
          201"What! Eulalie, when she refused us all,
          202'ill' and 'away,' was doing Magdalene,
          203tears, ashes, and her Bible, and then off
          204hide her in a Refuge ... for a week!"

          205A wild whim that, to fancy I could change
          206my new self for my old, because I wished!
          207since then, when in my languid days there comes
          208that craving, like homesickness, to go back
          209to the good days, the dear old stupid days,
          210to the quiet and the innocence, I know
          211'tis a sick fancy and try palliatives.

          212What is it? You go back to the old home,
          213and 'tis not your home, has no place for you,
          214and, if it had, you could not fit you in it.
          215And could I fit me to my former self?
          216If I had had the wit, like some of us,
          217to sow my wild-oats into three per cents,
          218could I not find me shelter in the peace
          219of some far nook where none of them would come,
          220nor whisper travel from this scurrilous world,
          221that gloats and moralizes through its leers,
          222to blast me with my fashionable shame?
          223There I might -- oh my castle in the clouds!
          224and where's its rent? -- but there, were there a there,
          225I might again live the grave blameless life
          226among such simple pleasures, simple cares:
          227but could they be my pleasures, be my cares?
          228The blameless life, but never the content --
          229never. How could I henceforth be content
          230in any life but one that sets the brain
          231in a hot merry fever with its stir?
          232what would there be in quiet rustic days,
          233each like the other, full of time to think,
          234to keep one bold enough to live at all?
          235Quiet is hell, I say -- as if a woman
          236could bear to sit alone, quiet all day,
          237and loathe herself, and sicken on her thoughts.

          238They tried it at the Refuge, and I failed:
          239I could not bear it. Dreary hideous room,
          240coarse pittance, prison rules, one might bear these
          241and keep one's purpose; but so much alone,
          242and then made faint and weak and fanciful
          243by change from pampering to half-famishing --
          244good God, what thoughts come! Only one week more
          245and 'twould have ended: but in one day more
          246I must have killed myself. And I loathe death,
          247the dreadful foul corruption, with who knows
          248what future after it.

          248                                    Well, I came back,
          249Back to my slough. Who says I had my choice?
          250Could I stay there to die of some mad death?
          251and if I rambled out into the world,
          252sinless but penniless, what else were that
          253but slower death, slow pining shivering death
          254by misery and hunger? Choice! what choice
          255of living well or ill? could I have that?
          256and who would give it me? I think indeed
          257some kind hand, a woman's -- I hate men --
          258had stretched itself to help me to firm ground,
          259taken a chance and risked my falling back,
          260could have gone my way not falling back:
          261but, let her be all brave, all charitable,
          262how could she do it? Such a trifling boon,
          263little work to live by, 'tis not much,
          264and I might have found will enough to last:
          265but where's the work? More sempstresses than shirts;
          266and defter hands at white work than are mine
          267drop starved at last: dressmakers, milliners,
          268too many too they say; and then their trades
          269need skill, apprenticeship. And who so bold
          270as hire me for their humblest drudgery?
          271not even for scullery slut; not even, I think,
          272for governess, although they'd get me cheap.
          273And after all it would be something hard,
          274with the marts for decent women overfull,
          275if I could elbow in and snatch a chance
          276and oust some good girl so, who then perforce
          277must come and snatch her chance among our crowd.

          278Why, if the worthy men who think all's done
          279if we'll but come where we can hear them preach,
          280could bring us all, or any half of us,
          281into their fold, teach all us wandering sheep,
          282or only half of us, to stand in rows
          283and baa them hymns and moral songs, good lack,
          284what would they do with us? what could they do?
          285Just think! with were't but half of us on hand
          286to find work for ... or husbands. Would they try
          287to ship us to the colonies for wives?

          288Well, well; I know the wise ones talk and talk:
          289"Here's cause, here's cure:" "No, here it is and here:"
          290and find society to blame, or law,
          291the Church, the men, the women, too few schools,
          292too many schools, too much, too little taught:
          293somewhere or somehow someone is to blame:
          294but I say all the fault's with God himself
          295who puts too many women in the world.
          296We ought to die off reasonably and leave
          297as many as the men want, none to waste.
          298Here's cause; the woman's superfluity:
          299and for the cure, why, if it were the law,
          300say, every year, in due percentages,
          301balancing them with men as the times need,
          302to kill off female infants, 'twould make room;
          303and some of us would not have lost too much,
          304losing life ere we know what it can mean.

          305The other day I saw a woman weep
          306beside her dead child's bed: the little thing
          307lay smiling, and the mother wailed half mad,
          308shrieking to God to give it back again.
          309I could have laughed aloud: the little girl
          310living had but her mother's life to live;
          311there she lay smiling, and her mother wept
          312to know her gone!

          312                                  My mother would have wept.

          313Oh mother, mother, did you ever dream,
          314you good grave simple mother, you pure soul
          315no evil could come nigh, did you once dream
          316in all your dying cares for your lone girl
          317left to fight out her fortune all alone
          318that there would be this danger? -- for your girl,
          319taught by you, lapped in a sweet ignorance,
          320scarcely more wise of what things sin could be
          321than some young child a summer six months old
          322where in the north the summer makes a day,
          323of what is darkness ... darkness that will come
          324to-morrow suddenly. Thank God at least
          325for this much of my life, that when you died,
          326that when you kissed me dying, not a thought
          327of this made sorrow for you, that I too
          328was pure of even fear.

          328                                         Oh yes, I thought,
          329still new in my insipid treadmill life,
          330(my father so late dead), and hopeful still
          331here might be something pleasant somewhere in it,
          332some sudden fairy come, no doubt, to turn
          333any pumpkin to a chariot, I thought then
          334that I might plod, and plod, and drum the sounds
          335of useless facts into unwilling ears,
          336tease children with dull questions half the day,
          337then con dull answers in my room at night
          338ready for next day's questions, mend quill pens
          339and cut my fingers, add up sums done wrong
          340and never get them right; teach, teach, and teach --
          341what I half knew, or not at all -- teach, teach
          342for years, a lifetime -- I!

          342                                            And yet, who knows?
          343it might have been, for I was patient once,
          344and willing, and meant well; it might have been
          345had I but still clung on in my first place --
          346a safe dull place, where mostly there were smiles
          347but never merry-makings; where all days
          348jogged on sedately busy, with no haste;
          349where all seemed measured out, but margins broad:
          350a dull home but a peaceful, where I felt
          351my pupils would be dear young sisters soon,
          352and felt their mother take me to her heart,
          353motherly to all lonely harmless things.
          354But I must have a conscience, must blurt out
          355my great discovery of my ignorance!
          356And who required it of me? And who gained?
          357What did it matter for a more or less
          358the girls learnt in their schoolbooks, to forget
          359in their first season? We did well together:
          360they loved me and I them: but I went off
          361to housemaid's pay, six crossgrained brats to teach,
          362wrangles and jangles, doubts, disgrace ... then this;
          363and they had a perfection found for them,
          364who has all ladies' learning in her head
          365abridged and scheduled, speaks five languages,
          366knows botany and conchology and globes,
          367draws, paints, plays, sings, embroiders, teaches all
          368on a patent method never known to fail:
          369and now they're finished and, I hear, poor things,
          370are the worst dancers and worst dressers out.
          371And where's their profit of those prison years
          372all gone to make them wise in lesson books?
          373who wants his wife to know weeds' Latin names?
          374who ever chose a girl for saying dates?
          375or asked if she had learned to trace a map?

          376Well, well, the silly rules this silly world
          377makes about women! This is one of them.
          378Why must there be pretence of teaching them
          379what no one ever cares that they should know,
          380what, grown out of the schoolroom, they cast off
          381like the schoolroom pinafore, no better fit
          382for any use of real grown-up life,
          383for any use to her who seeks or waits
          384the husband and the home, for any use,
          385for any shallowest pretence of use,
          386to her who has them? Do I not know this,
          387I like my betters, that a woman's life,
          388her natural life, her good life, her one life,
          389is in her husband, God on earth to her,
          390and what she knows and what she can and is
          391is only good as it brings good to him?

          392Oh God, do I not know it? I the thing
          393of shame and rottenness, the animal
          394that feed men's lusts and prey on them, I, I,
          395who should not dare to take the name of wife
          396on my polluted lips, who in the word
          397hear but my own reviling, I know that.
          398I could have lived by that rule, how content:
          399my pleasure to make him some pleasure, pride
          400to be as he would have me, duty, care,
          401to fit all to his taste, rule my small sphere
          402to his intention; then to lean on him,
          403be guided, tutored, loved -- no not that word,
          404that loved which between men and women means
          405all selfishness, all putrid talk, all lust,
          406all vanity, all idiocy -- not loved
          407but cared for. I've been loved myself, I think,
          408some once or twice since my poor mother died,
          409but cared for, never: -- that a word for homes,
          410kind homes, good homes, where simple children come
          411and ask their mother is this right or wrong,
          412because they know she's perfect, cannot err;
          413their father told them so, and he knows all,
          414being so wise and good and wonderful,
          415even enough to scold even her at times
          416and tell her everything she does not know.
          417Ah the sweet nursery logic!

          417                                                  Fool! thrice fool!
          418do I hanker after that too? Fancy me
          419infallible nursery saint, live code of law!
          420me preaching! teaching innocence to be good!
          421a mother!

          421                     Yet the baby thing that woke
          422and wailed an hour or two, and then was dead,
          423was mine, and had he lived ...... why then my name
          424would have been mother. But 'twas well he died:
          425I could have been no mother, I, lost then
          426beyond his saving. Had he come before
          427and lived, come to me in the doubtful days
          428when shame and boldness had not grown one sense,
          429for his sake, with the courage come of him,
          430I might have struggled back.

          430                                                   But how? But how?
          431His father would not then have let me go:
          432his time had not yet come to make an end
          433of my 'for ever' with a hireling's fee
          434and civil light dismissal. None but him
          435to claim a bit of bread of if I went,
          436child or no child: would he have given it me?
          437He! no; he had not done with me. No help,
          438no help, no help. Some ways can be trodden back,
          439but never our way, we who one wild day
          440have given goodbye to what in our deep hearts
          441the lowest woman still holds best in life,
          442good name -- good name though given by the world
          443that mouths and garbles with its decent prate,
          444and wraps it in respectable grave shams,
          445and patches conscience partly by the rule
          446of what one's neighbour thinks but something more
          447by what his eyes are sharp enough to see.
          448How I could scorn it with its Pharisees,
          449if it could not scorn me: but yet, but yet --
          450oh God, if I could look it in the face!

          451Oh I am wild, am ill, I think, to night:
          452will no one come and laugh with me? No feast,
          453no merriment to-night. So long alone!
          454Will no one come?

          454                                  At least there's a new dress
          455to try, and grumble at -- they never fit
          456to one's ideal. Yes, a new rich dress,
          457with lace like this too, that's a soothing balm
          458for any fretting woman, cannot fail,
          459I've heard men say it ... and they know so well
          460what's in all women's hearts, especially
          461women like me.

          461                               No help! no help! no help!
          462How could it be? It was too late long since --
          463even at the first too late. Whose blame is that?
          464there are some kindly people in the world,
          465but what can they do? If one hurls oneself
          466into a quicksand, what can be the end,
          467but that one sinks and sinks? Cry out for help?
          468Ah yes, and, if it came, who is so strong
          469to strain from the firm ground and lift one out?
          470And how, so firmly clutching the stretched hand,
          471as death's pursuing terror bids, even so,
          472how can one reach firm land, having to foot
          473the treacherous crumbling soil that slides and gives
          474and sucks one in again? Impossible path!
          475No, why waste struggles, I or any one?
          476what is must be. What then? I, where I am,
          477sinking and sinking; let the wise pass by
          478and keep their wisdom for an apter use,
          479let me sink merrily as I best may.

          480Only, I think, my brother -- I forgot
          481he stopped his brotherhood some years ago --
          482but if he had been just so much less good
          483as to remember mercy. Did he think
          484how once I was his sister, prizing him
          485as sisters do, content to learn for him
          486the lesson girls with brothers all must learn,
          487to do without?

          487                             I have heard girls lament
          488that doing so without all things one would,
          489but I saw never aught to murmur at,
          490for men must be made ready for their work,
          491and women all have more or less their chance
          492of husbands to work for them, keep them safe
          493like summer roses in soft greenhouse air
          494that never guess 'tis winter out of doors:
          495no, I saw never aught to murmur at,
          496content with stinted fare and shabby clothes
          497and cloistered silent life to save expense,
          498teaching myself out of my borrowed books,
          499while he for some one pastime, (needful true
          500to keep him of his rank, 'twas not his fault),
          501spent in a month what could have given me
          502my teachers for a year.

          502                                          'Twas no one's fault:
          503for could he be launched forth on the rude sea
          504of this contentious world and left to find
          505oars and the boatman's skill by some good chance?
          506'Twas no one's fault: yet still he might have thought
          507of our so different youths, and owned at least
          508'tis pitiful when a mere nerveless girl,
          509untutored, must put forth upon that sea,
          510not in the woman's true place, the wife's place,
          511to trust a husband and be borne along,
          512but impotent blind pilot to herself.

          513Merciless, merciless -- like the prudent world
          514that will not have the flawed soul prank itself
          515with a hoped second virtue, will not have
          516the woman fallen once lift up herself ......
          517lest she should fall again. Oh how his taunts,
          518his loathing fierce reproaches, scarred and seared,
          519like branding iron hissing in a wound!
          520And it was true -- that killed me: and I felt
          521a hideous hopeless shame kill out my heart,
          522and knew myself for ever that he said,
          523that which I was -- Oh it was true, true, true.

          524No, not true then. I was not all that then.
          525Oh, I have drifted on before mad winds
          526and made ignoble shipwreck, not to-day
          527could any breeze of heaven prosper me
          528into the track again, nor any hand
          529snatch me out of the whirlpool I have reached;
          530but then?

          530                    Nay he judged very well: he knew
          531repentance was too dear a luxury
          532for a beggar's buying, knew it earns no bread --
          533and knew me a too base and nerveless thing
          534to bear my first fault's sequel and just die.
          535And how could he have helped me? Held my hand,
          536owned me for his, fronted the angry world
          537clothed with my ignominy? Or maybe
          538taken me to his home to damn him worse?
          539What did I look for? for what less would serve
          540that he could do, a man without a purse?
          541He meant me well, he sent me that five pounds,
          542much to him then; and, if he bade me work
          543and never vex him more with news of me,
          544we both knew him too poor for pensioners.
          545I see he did his best; I could wish now
          546sending it back I had professed some thanks.

          547But there! I was too wretched to be meek:
          548it seemed to me as if he, every one,
          549the whole great world, were guilty of my guilt,
          550abettors and avengers: in my heart
          551I gibed them back their gibings; I was wild.

          552I see clear now and know one has one's life
          553in hand at first to spend or spare or give
          554like any other coin; spend it or give
          555or drop it in the mire, can the world see
          556you get your value for it, or bar back
          557the hurrying of its marts to grope it up
          558and give it back to you for better use?
          559And if you spend or give that is your choice;
          560and if you let it slip that's your choice too,
          561you should have held it firmer. Yours the blame,
          562and not another's, not the indifferent world's
          563which goes on steadily, statistically,
          564and count by censuses not separate souls --
          565and if it somehow needs to its worst use
          566so many lives of women, useless else,
          567it buys us of ourselves, we could hold back,
          568free all of us to starve, and some of us,
          569(those who have done no ill and are in luck),
          570to slave their lives out and have food and clothes
          571until they grow unserviceably old.

          572Oh I blame no one -- scarcely even myself.
          573It was to be: the very good in me
          574has always turned to hurt; all I thought right
          575at the hot moment, judged of afterwards,
          576shows reckless.

          576                                  Why, look at it, had I taken
          577the pay my dead child's father offered me
          578for having been its mother, I could then
          579have kept life in me, (many have to do it,
          580that swarm in the back alleys, on no more,
          581cold sometimes, mostly hungry, but they live);
          582I could have gained a respite trying it,
          583and maybe found at last some humble work
          584to eke the pittance out. Not I, forsooth,
          585I must have spirit, must have womanly pride,
          586must dash back his contemptuous wages, I,
          587who had not scorned to earn them, dash them back
          588the fiercer that he dared to count our boy
          589in my appraising: and yet now I think
          590I might have taken it for my dead boy's sake;
          591it would have been his gift.

          591                                                    But I went forth
          592with my fine scorn, and whither did it lead?
          593Money's the root of evil do they say?
          594money is virtue, strength: money to me
          595would then have been repentance: could I live
          596upon my idiot's pride?

          596                                              Well, it fell soon.
          597I had prayed Edward might believe me dead,
          598and yet I begged of him -- That's like me too,
          599beg of him and then send him back his alms!
          600What if he gave as to a whining wretch
          601that holds her hand and lies? I am less to him
          602than such a one; her rags do him no wrong,
          603but I, I, wrong him merely that I live,
          604being his sister. Could I not at least
          605have still let him forget me? But 'tis past:
          606and naturally he may hope I am long dead.

          607Good God! to think that we were what we were
          608one to the other ... and now!

          608                                                     He has done well;
          609married a sort of heiress, I have heard,
          610a dapper little madam, dimple cheeked
          611and dimple brained, who makes him a good wife --
          612No doubt she'd never own but just to him,
          613and in a whisper, she can even suspect
          614that we exist, we other women things:
          615what would she say if she could learn one day
          616she has a sister-in-law! So he and I
          617must stand apart till doomsday.

          617                                                             But the jest,
          618to think how she would look! -- Her fright, poor thing!
          619The notion! -- I could laugh outright ...... or else,
          620for I feel near it, roll on the ground and sob.

          621Well, after all, there's not much difference
          622between the two sometimes.

          622                                                        Was that the bell?
          623Some one at last, thank goodness. There's a voice,
          624and that's a pleasure. Whose though? Ah I know.
          625Why did she come alone, the cackling goose?
          626why not have brought her sister? -- she tells more
          627and titters less. No matter; half a loaf
          628is better than no bread.

          628                                               Oh, is it you?
          629Most welcome, dear: one gets so moped alone.


4] Tatted: made knotted lacery.

14] ragged-robins: robin-flowers, spiderworts.

44] The 1893 edition adds a line here:

Some little pride, some little -- Stop!
Some little pride, some little -- Here's a jest!

67] drab: poor, common prostitute.

70] marqueterie: inlaid mosaic, as in woodwork.
pastilles: candies, or aromatic paste used for incense.

76] gloze: interpret deceitfully.

128] Dianas: Diana was the Roman goddess of virginity.

149] Rahabs: Joshua saved the harlot Rahab and her family from the destruction of Jericho because she hid messengers that he had sent into the city (Joshua 6: 17).
Jezebels: Jezebel was the wife of Ahab, king of Israel, a worshipper of the idol gods Baal and Asherah, and an enemy of Yahweh's prophets (see 1 Judges 16 and 18).
Tartuffe: a hypocrite pretending to virtue from Molière's play of the same name.

159] Cf. 1 Timothy 2.9-10: "... women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire but by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion."

164] Solomon's: son of David and Bathsheba, and a great king of Israel, noted for his wisdom and love of women (cf. the Biblical "Song of Solomon").

202] doing Magdalene: playing the part of a converted prostitute, an allusion to Mary Magdalene in the New Testament, one of Jesus' disciplines, out of whom he cast seven devils (Luke 8.2), and a woman associated with the sinner unnamed in Luke 7.37. The so-called Magdalen houses of Victorian England served as places to which prostitutes could come to redeem their ways.

204] Refuge: a house of refuge, a shelter.

217] three per cents: British government securities that since 1751 yielded three percent interest annually.

266] white work: white-thread embroidery on a white cloth base.

271] scullery: dishwashing room or area in the kitchen.

283] good lack: a proper exclamation.

287] Christine Sutphin refers here to Sir Sidney Herbert's plan, in 1849, to emigrate half a million women to the colonies as wives (202, n. 2).

332-33] An allusion to the 18th-century French tale of Cinderella by Charles Perrault about a mistreated servant girl whose fairy godmother clothed her in a splendid dress and transformed a pumpkin into a coach so as to take her to a ball where she would meet a prince who would later search for and identify her by a lost slipper and so wed her.

359] first season: the first May, June, and July that a young woman "comes out" socially so as to find a husband.

366] conchology: science of sea-shells.

381] pinafore: apron.

448] Pharisees: strict and sometimes hypocritical Jewish religious sect, condemned in the Christian New Testament.

514] prank: dress up for show.

Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: Augusta Webster, Portraits, 2nd edn. (London: Macmillan and Co., 1870): 35-62.
First publication date: 1870
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: RPO 2001
Recent editing: 2:2002/3/1

Rhyme: unrhyming

Other poems by Augusta (Davies) Webster