Jane Reed: A Pennsylvania Ballad

“ IF I could forget,” she said, “ forget, and begin again!
We see so dull at the time, and, looking back, so plain:
There’s a quiet that’s worse, I think, than many a spoken strife,
And it ’s wrong that one mistake should change the whole of a life.
“ There’s John, forever the same, so steady, sober, and mild;
He never storms as a man who never cried as a child:
Perhaps my ways are harsh, but if he would seem to care,
There ’d be fewer swallowed words and a lighter load to bear.
“ Here, Cherry! — she’s found me out, the calf I raised in the spring,
And a likely heifer she’s grown, the foolish, soft-eyed thing!
Just the even color I like, without a dapple or speck, —
Oh, Cherry, bend down your head, and let me cry on your neck!
“ The poor dumb beast she is, she never can know nor tell,
And it seems to do me good, the very shame of the spell:
So old a woman and hard, and Joel so old a man, —
But the thoughts of the old go on as the thoughts of the young began!
“ It’s guessing that wastes the heart, far worse than the surest fate:
If I knew he had thought of me, I could quietly work and wait;
And then when either, at last, on a bed of death should lie,
Why, one might speak the truth, and the other hear and die!”
She leaned on the heifer’s neck: the dry leaves fell from the boughs,
And over the sweet late grass of the meadow strayed the cows:
The golden dodder meshed the cardinal-flower by the rill;
There was autumn haze in the air, and sunlight low on the hill.
“ I’ve somehow missed my time,” she said to herself, and sighed:
“ What girls are free to hope, a steady woman must hide,
But the need outstays the chance: it makes me cry and laugh,
To think that the only thing I can talk to now is a calf!”
A step came down from the hill: she did not turn, or rise;
There was something in her heart that saw without the eyes.
She heard the foot delay, as doubting to stay or go:
“ Is the heifer for sale?” he said. She sternly answered, “No!”
She lifted her head as she spake: their eyes a moment met,
And her heart repeated the words, “If I could only forget! ”
He turned a little away, but her lowered eyes could see
His hand, as it picked the bark from the trunk of a hickory-tree.
“ Why can’t we be friendly, Jane?” his words came, strange and slow;
“ You seem to bear me a grudge, so long, and so long ago!
You were gay and free with the rest, but always so shy of me,
That, before my freedom came, I saw that it could n’t be.”
“ Joel!” was all she cried, as their glances met again,
And a sudden rose effaced her pallor of age and pain.
He picked at the hickory bark: “It’s a curious thing to say;
But I’m lonely since Phebe died and the girls are married away.
“ That’s why these thoughts come back: I’m a little too old for pride,
And I never could understand how love should be all one side:
’T would answer itself, I thought, and time would show me how;
But it did n’t come so, then, and it does n’t seem so, now!”
“ Joel, it came so, then! ” — and her voice was thick with tears:
“ A hope for a single day, and a bitter shame for years! ”
He snapped the ribbon of bark; he turned from the hickory-tree:
“ Jane, look me once in the face, and say that you thought of me!”
She looked, and feebly laughed: “ It ’s a comfort to know the truth,
Though the chance was thrown away in the blind mistake of youth.”
“ And a greater comfort, Jane,” he said, with a tender smile,
“ To find the chance you have lost, and keep it a little while.”
She rose as he spake the words: the petted heifer thrust
Her muzzle between the twain, with an animal’s strange mistrust;
But over the creature’s neck he drew her to his breast:
“ A horse is never so old but it pulls with another best! ”
“ It’s enough to know,” she said; “to remember, not forget!”
“ Nay, nay: for the rest of life we’ll pay each other’s debt! ”
She had no will to resist, so kindly was she drawn,
And she sadly said, at last, “ But what will become of John? ”
Bayard Taylor.