Miller Michel

WHEN war’s wave, on fair Lorraine,
Broke in blood by hill and plain,
Many a home and hope went down;
But, of all the ruthless wrack,
None more bitter, none more black,
Than the ruin that befell
The old miller, Pèe Michel.
Just beneath the sloping town,
Where the ancient, mossy mill
Seems an outgrowth of the hill,
Nestled in a hollow green
Is the little homestead seen.
Like a river, leap on leap,
Terraced vineyards by it run,
Down the valley, up the steep,
Growing, glowing in the sun:
For the vintage-time was near.
But the hands that pruned this year
Would not be the hands to gather;
He must reap the autumn yield,
He, the old and lonely father,
Whose two stalwart, only sons
House and hold and cherished ones
Left for a strange vintage-field,
Where a blood more hot and red
Than the blood of grapes was shed!
Skies were blue upon that day
When the brothers went away,
Skies were blue and earth was bright.
But the shadow backward thrown
Of the two from out it gone
Lay upon the house like night.
Silent by the silent wheel
Bowed the mother o’er her reel,
Broken by the double blow;
While the pale young wife beside,
Worn with weeping, weary-eyed,
Strove the gleeful talk to check
Of the boy about her neck,
Prattling of the bayonet-line
He had watched, through shade and shine,
Round the winding hill-way go.
Till between his women folk
Rising, thus the miller spoke:
“ Not another tear,” he said,
“In my sight for them be shed
On this day of pride and joy !
Had the good God given ten,
I would give them all again,
Give them up, for life or death,
As their country ordereth!
Come, my little lad, come here!
Lisp me out a prayer and cheer
For thy soldier-father, boy!”
Oh, the restless days of doubt!
Oh, the hope, whose light went out
Suddenly in blackest gloom!
Never from the battle-plain
Came the brothers back again,
But a tale of shame and dread,
Darkly whispered, came instead:
One had met a soldier’s doom,
Found a soldier’s grave below
Heaps of fallen friend and foe;
But the father’s darling one,
He, the best-loved younger son,
False to country and to kin,
Lived—a foeman’s ranks within!
Ah, the poor old Père Michel!
He who loved his land so well,
He who held his head so high
For the sons gone forth to die,
Bowed to dust that stricken head,
For the living, not the dead!
Day grew dusk and dusk grew dark;
Still the flickering ember-spark,
In its wild, uncertain play,
Showed him brooding, bent and gray,
With his eyes upon the ground;
Speechless, moveless, in his chair
’Twixt the weeping women there,
Widowed wife and childless mother.
Till, as some half-uttered word
From the sobbing lips he heard,
Suddenly he turned him round:
“ Never let a traitor’s name
Brand my honest house with shame!
To my country’s need,’’ he said,
“I gave all — my son is dead;
He is dead — I have no other! ”
When the leaf had left the plain,
And the blue had left the sky,
And the stream crept chilly by,
And a year was gone again,
In a night of drear November,
When the smoldering cottage-ember
Was the single glimmer seen
Lowering air and earth between,
In a night of storm and blast
Came the lost one home at last.
On the latch a trembling finger
Seemed uncertainly to linger,
And the slowly opening door
Gave him to their gaze once more.
Ere the mother’s foot could stir
From the shadows wrapping her,
Ere the widow’s half-heard cry
On her quivering lips could die,
One hand the unconscious boy
On his knee that leapt for joy
Closer holding, while the other
Motioned back the faltering mother,
On the son the stern old sire
Bent a brow of scornful ire.
“ What! no friendly sod,” he said,
“ Hideth thy dishonored head?
False to father and fatherland,
Darest thou again to stand
On the soil a brother’s blood
Watered with its sacred flood?
Darest thou to seek once more
Hearth and home were thine of yore?
Never shall a traitor’s head
Loyal roof-tree cover in!
Never traitor break the bread
Loyal hands have toiled to win!
Forth! and let the storm and night
Blot thee from my loathing sight!
Forth! before I curse the hearth,
Curse the day that gave thee birth!”
And the old man rose in wrath,
As to strike from out his path,
With those words of bitter scorn,
Him, the darling youngest born!
There, beside the chimney-stone,
Still the mother cowered alone;
Gave no sign of look or word
If she saw or if she heard:
Nothing but the bowed head, shaking
In the shadow on the wall
From the firelight’s fitful fall,
Told a heart beneath it aching.
But before the fiery oath
Fell to blast the lives of both,
Suddenly between the two,
Breaking bitter word and blow,
Shielding them from one another,
On her knees her son beside,
“ Spare my boy! ” the woman cried,
“Spare my boy — or strike his mother !
Wouldst thou sever thus in scorn
Eldest-born and youngest-born?
Strong the bond that binds together
Children of the self-same breast!
Kindred blood that quickens either
Reckons not of worst or best!
For the sake of him who lies
Our perpetual sacrifice,
Let his loyal blood, to-day,
Wash a brother’s guilt away,
Render back to thee and me,
Solace of our life forlorn;
This, our son, must henceforth be
Eldest-born and youngest-born! ”
And the stern old Père Michel
Back before the mother fell,
Saw the hands his own had spurned
Gathered to her tender breast,
Saw her eager kisses prest
On the lips from which he turned;
And the heart of Père Michel,
The strong heart whose noble pride
Pain and shame had vainly tried,
Yielded to love’s potent spell;
And the stern old eyes that gazed,
By a sudden mist amazed,
As they saw the woeful joy
Of the mother o’er her boy,
Spite of shadowed future years,
Through the cloud of griefs and fears,
Far behind the shame and pain,
Far beneath the traitor stain,
In that child of yearning sore
Found the best-loved son once more!

Kate Putnam Osgood.