WILD FLOWERS (1806)

THE BROKEN CRUTCH. A TALE

I tell you, Peggy,’ said a voice behind
A hawthorn hedge, with wild briars thick entwin’d,
Where unseen trav’llers down a shady way
Journey’d beside the swaths of new-mown hay,
‘I tell you, Peggy, ’tis a time to prove5
Your fortitude, your virtue, and your love.
From honest poverty our lineage sprung,
Your mother was a servant quite as young;—
You weep; perhaps she wept at leaving home;
Courage, my girl, nor fear the days to come.10
Go still to church, my Peggy, plainly drest,
And keep a living conscience in your breast;
Look to yourself, my lass, the maid’s best fame,
Beware, nor bring the Meldrums into shame:
Be modest, to the voice of age [1]  attend,15
Be honest, and you’ll always find a friend:
Your uncle Gilbert, stronger far than I,
Will see you safe; on him you must rely:
I’ve walk’d too far; this lameness, oh! the pain;
Heav’n bless thee, child! I’ll halt me back again;20
But when your first fair holiday may be,
Rise with the lark, [2]  spend your hours with me.’
Young Herbert Brooks, in strength and manhood bold,
Who, round the meads, his own possessions, stroll’d,
O’erheard the charge, and with a heart so gay,25
Whistled his spaniel, and pursu’d his way.
Soon cross’d his path, and short obeisance paid,
Stout Gilbert Meldrum and a country maid;
A box upon his shoulder held full well
Her worldly riches, but the truth to tell30
She bore the chief herself; that nobler part,
That beauteous gem, an uncorrupted heart.
And then that native loveliness! that cheek!
It bore the very tints her betters seek;
At such a sight the libertine would glow35
With all the warmth that he can ever [3]  know;
Would send his thoughts abroad without control,
The glimmering moon-shine of his little soul.
‘Above the reach of justice I shall soar,
Her friends may weep, [4]  not punish; they’re too poor:40
That very thought the rapture will enhance,
Poor, young, and friendless; what a glorious chance!
A few spare guineas may the conquest make,—
I love the treachery for treachery’s sake,—
And when her wounded honour jealous grows,45
I’ll cut away ten thousand oaths and vows,
And tell my comrades, with a manly stride,
How I, a girl out witted and out-lied. [5] 
Such was not Herbert—he had never known
Love’s genuine smiles, nor suffer’d from his frown;50
And as to that most honourable part
Of planting daggers in a parent’s heart,
A novice quite:—he past his hours away,
Free as a bird, and buxom as the day;
Yet, should a lovely girl by chance arise,55
Think not that Herbert Brooks would shut his eyes.
On thy calm joys with what delight I dream,
Thou dear green valley of my native stream!
Fancy o’er thee still waves th’ enchanting wand,
And every nook of thine is fairy land,60
And ever will be, though the axe should smite
In Gain’s rude service, and in Pity’s spite,
Thy clustering alders, and at length invade
The last, last poplars, that compose thy shade:
Thy stream shall then [6]  in native freedom stray,65
And undermine the willows in its way,
These, nearly worthless, may survive this storm,
This scythe of desolation call’d ‘Reform.’
No army past that way! yet are they fled,
The boughs that, when a school-boy, screen’d my head:70
I hate the murderous axe; estranging more
The winding vale from what it was of yore,
Than e’en mortality in all its rage,
And all the change of faces in an age.
‘Warmth,’ will they term it, that I speak so free;75
They strip thy shades,—thy shades so dear to me!
In Herbert’s days woods cloth’d both hill and dale;
But peace, Remembrance! let us tell the tale.
His home was in the valley, elms grew round
His moated mansion, and the pleasant sound80
Of woodland birds that loud at day-break sing,
With the first cuckoos that proclaim the spring,
Flock’d round his dwelling; and his kitchen smoke,
That from the towering rookery upward broke,
Of joyful import to the poor hard by,85
Stream’d a glad sign of hospitality;
So fancy pictures; but its day is o’er;
The moat remains; the dwelling is no more!
Its name denotes its melancholy fall,
For village children call the spot ‘Burnt-Hall.’ [7] 90
But where’s the maid, who in the meadow-way
Met Herbert Brooks amongst the new-mown hay?
Th’ adventure charm’d him, and next morning rose
The Sabbath, with its silence and repose;
The bells ceas’d chiming, and the broad blue sky95
Smil’d on his peace, and met his tranquil eye
Inverted, from the foot-bridge on his way
To that still house where all his fathers lay;
There in his seat, each neighbour’s face he knew—
The stranger girl was just before his pew!100
He saw her kneel, with meek, but cheerful air,
And whisper the response to every prayer;
And, when the humble roof with praises rung,
He caught the Hallelujah from her tongue,
Rememb’ring with delight the tears that fell105
When the poor father bade his child farewell;
And now, by kindling tenderness beguil’d,
He blest the prompt obedience of that child,
And link’d his fate with hers:—for, from that day,
Whether the weeks past cheerily away,110
Or deep revolving doubts procur’d him pain,
The same bells chim’d—and there she was again!
What could be done? they came not there to woo,
On holy ground,—though love is holy too.
They met upon the foot-bridge one clear morn,115
She in the garb by village lasses worn;
He, with unbutton’d frock that careless flew,
And buskin’d to resist the morning dew;
With downcast look she courtsied to the ground,
Just in his path—no room to sidle round.120
‘Well, pretty girl, this early rising yields
The best enjoyment of the groves and fields.
And makes the heart susceptible and meek,
And keeps alive that rose upon your cheek.
I long’d to meet you, Peggy, though so shy,125
I’ve watch’d your steps, and learn’d your history;
You love your poor lame father, let that be
A happy presage of your love for me.
Come then, I’ll stroll these meadows by your side,
I’ve seen enough to wish you for my bride,130
And plainly [8]  tell you so.—Nay, let me hold
This guiltless hand, I prize it more than gold;
Of that I have my share, but now pursue
Such lasting wealth as I behold in you. [9] 
My lands are fruitful, and my gardens gay 135
My household cheerful as the summer’s day; [10] 
One blessing more will crown my happy life,
Like Adam, pretty girl, I want a wife.’
Need it be told his suit was not denied,
With youth, and wealth, and candour on his side?140
Honour took charge of love so well begun,
And accidental meetings, one by one,
Increas’d so fast midst time’s unheeded flight,
That village rumour married them outright;
Though wiser matrons, doubtful in debate,145
Pitied deluded Peggy’s hapless fate.
Friends took th’ alarm, ‘And will he then disgrace
The name of Brooks with this plebeian race?’
Others, more lax in virtue, not in pride,
Sported the wink of cunning on one side;150
‘He’ll buy, no doubt, what Peggy has to sell,
A little gallantry becomes him well.’
Meanwhile the youth, with self-determin’d aim,
Disdaining fraud, and pride’s unfeeling claim,
Above control, pursued his generous way,155
And talk’d to Peggy of the marriage day.
Poor girl! she heard, with anguish and with doubt,
What her too-knowing neighbours preach’d about,
That Herbert would some nobler match prefer,
And surely never, never marry her;160
Yet, with what trembling and delight she bore
The kiss, and heard the vow, ‘I’ll doubt no more;
Protect me, Herbert, for your honour’s sake
You will,’ she cried, ‘nor leave my heart to break.’
Then wrote to uncle Gilbert, joys, and fears,165
And hope, and trust, and sprinkled all with tears.
Rous’d was the dormant spirit of the brave,
E’en lameness rose to succour and to save;
For, though they both rever’d young Herbert’s name,
And knew his unexceptionable fame;170
And though the girl had honestly declar’d
Love’s first approaches, and their counsel shar’d,
Yet, that he truly meant to take for life
The poor and lowly Peggy for a wife;
Or, that she was not doom’d to be deceiv’d,175
Was out of bounds:—it could not be believ’d.
‘Go, Gilbert, save her; I, you know, am lame;
Go, brother, go, and save my child from shame.
Haste, and I’ll pray for your success the while,
Go, go;’—then bang’d his crutch upon the stile:—180
It snapt.—E’en Gilbert trembled while he smote,
Then whipt the broken end beneath his coat;
‘Ay, ay, I’ll settle them; I’ll let them see
Who’s to be conqu’ror this time, I or he!’
Then off he set, and with enormous strides,185
Rebellious mutterings and oaths besides,
O’er clover-field and fallow, bank and briar,
Pursu’d the nearest cut, and fann’d the fire
That burnt within him.—Soon the Hall he spied,
And the grey willows by the water side;190
Nature cried ‘halt!’ nor could he well refuse;
Stop, Gilbert, breathe awhile, and ask the news.
‘News?’ cried a stooping grandame of the vale,
‘Ay, rare news too; I’ll tell you such a tale;
But let me rest; this bank is dry and warm;195
Do you know Peggy Meldrum at the farm?
Young Herbert’s girl? He’as cloth’d her all in white,
You never saw so beautiful a sight!
Ah! he’s a fine young man, and such a face!
I knew his grandfather and all his race;200
He rode a tall white horse, and look’d so big,
But how shall I describe his hat and wig?’
‘Plague take his wig,’ cried Gilbert, ‘and his hat,
Where’s Peggy Meldrum? can you tell me that?’
‘Ay; but have patience, man! you’ll hear anon,205
For I shall come to her as I go on,
So hark’ye friend; his grandfather I say,’—
‘Poh, poh,’—cried Gilbert, as he turn’d away.
Her eyes were fix’d, her story at a stand,
The snuff-box lay half open’d in her hand;210
‘You great, ill-manner’d clown! but I must bear it;
You oaf; to ask the news, and then won’t hear it!’
But Gilbert had gain’d forty paces clear,
When the reproof came murmuring on his ear.
Again he ask’d the first that pass’d him by;215
A cow-boy stopt his whistle to reply.
‘Why, I’ve a mistress coming home, that’s all,
They’re playing Meg’s diversion at the Hall;
For master’s gone, with Peggy, and his cousin,
And all the lady-folks, about a dozen,220
To church, down there; he’ll marry one no doubt,
For that it seems is what they’re gone about;
I know it by their laughing and their jokes,
Tho’ they wor’nt ask’d at church like other folks.’
Gilbert kept on, and at the Hall-door found225
The winking servants, where the jest went round:
All expectation; aye, and so was he,
But not with heart so merry and so free.
The kitchen table, never clear from beef,
Where hunger found its solace and relief,230
Free to all strangers, had no charms for him,
For agitation worried every limb;
Ale he partook, but appetite had none,
And grey-hounds watch’d in vain to catch the bone.
All sounds alarm’d him, and all thoughts perplex’d,235
With dogs, and beef, himself, and all things vex’d,
Till with one mingled caw above his head,
Their gliding shadows o’er the court-yard spread,
The rooks by thousands rose: the bells struck up;
He guess’d the cause, and down he set the cup,240
And listening, heard, amidst the general hum,
A joyful exclamation, ‘Here they come!’—
Soon Herbert’s cheerful voice was heard above,
Amidst the rustling hand-maids of his love,
And Gilbert follow’d without thought or dread,245
The broad oak stair-case thunder’d with his tread;
Light tript the party, gay as gay could be,
Amidst their bridal dresses—there came he!
And with a look that guilt could ne’er withstand,
Approach’d his niece and caught her by the hand,250
‘Now are you married, Peggy, yes or no?
Tell me at once, before I let you go!’
Abrupt he spoke, and gave her arm a swing,
But the same moment felt the wedding ring,
And stood confus’d.—She wip’d th’empassion’d tear,255
‘I am, I am; but is my father here?’
Herbert stood by, and sharing with his bride,
That perturbation which she strove to hide;
‘Come, honest Gilbert, you’re too rough this time,
Indeed here’s not the shadow of a crime;260
But where’s your brother? When did you arrive?
We waited long, for Nathan went at five!’
All this was Greek to Gilbert, downright Greek;
He knew not what to think, nor how to speak.
The case was this; that Nathan with a cart265
To fetch them both at day-break was to start.
And so he did—but ere he could proceed,
He suck’d a charming portion with a reed, [11] 
Of that same wedding-ale, which was that day
To make the hearts of all the village gay;270
Brim full of glee he trundled from the Hall,
And as for sky-larks, he out-sung them all;
Till growing giddy with his morning cup,
He, stretch’d beneath a hedge, the reins gave up;
The horse graz’d soberly without mishap,275
And Nathan had a most delightful nap
For three good hours—Then, doubting, when he woke,
Whether his conduct would be deem’d a joke,
With double haste perform’d just half his part,
And brought the lame John Meldrum in his cart.280
And at the moment Gilbert’s wrath was high,
And while young Herbert waited his reply,
The sound of rattling wheels was at the door;
‘There’s my dear father now,’—they heard no more,
The bridegroom glided like an arrow down,285
And Gilbert ran, though something of a clown,
With his best step; and cheer’d with smiles and pray’rs,
They bore old John in triumph up the stairs:
Poor Peggy, who her joy no more could check,
Clung like a dewy woodbine round his neck.290
And all stood silent—Gilbert, off his guard,
And marvelling at virtue’s rich reward,
Loos’d the one loop that held his coat before,
Down thumpt the broken crutch upon the floor!
They started, half alarm’d, scarce knowing why,295
But through the glist’ning rapture of his eye
The bridegroom smil’d, then chid their simple fears,
And rous’d the blushing Peggy from her tears;
Around the uncle in a ring they came,
And mark’d his look of mingled pride and shame.300
‘Now honestly, good Gilbert, tell us true,
What meant this cudgel? What was it to do?
I know your heart suspected me of wrong,
And that most true affection urg’d along
Your feelings and your wrath; you were beside305
Till now the rightful guardian of the bride.
But why this cudgel?’—‘Guardian! that’s the case,
Or else to-day you had not seen my face, [12] 
But John about the girl was so perplex’d,
And I, to tell the truth, so mortal vex’d,310
That when he broke this crutch, and stampt and cried,
For John and Peggy, Sir, I could have died,
Aye, that I could; for she was such a child,
So tractable, so sensible, and [13]  mild,
That if between you roguery had grown315
(Begging your pardon,) ’twould have been your own;
She would not hurt a fly.—So off I came,
And had you only sought to blast her fame, [14] 
Been [15]  base enough to act as hundreds would,
And [16]  ruin a poor maid—because you could,320
With this same cudgel, (you may smile or frown)
An’ please you, Sir, I meant to knock you down.’
A burst of laughter rang throughout the Hall,
And Peggy’s tongue, though overborne by all,
Pour’d its warm blessings; for, without control325
The sweet unbridled transport of her soul
Was obviously seen, till Herbert’s kiss
Stole, as it were, the eloquence of bliss.
‘Welcome, my friends; good Gilbert, here’s my hand;
Eat, drink, or rest, they’re all at your command:330
And whatsoever pranks the rest may play,
You still shall be the hero of the day,
Doubts might torment, and blunders may have teaz’d,
Let my ale cure them; let us all be pleas’d.
Thou, venerable man, [17]  let me defend335
The father of my new dear [18]  bosom friend;
You broke your crutch, well, well, worse luck might be,
I’ll be your crutch, John Meldrum, lean on me,
And when your lovely daughter shall complain,
Send Gilbert’s wooden argument again.340
You still may wonder that I take a wife
From the unpolish’d [19]  walks of humble life,
I’ll tell you on what [20]  ground my love began,
And let the wise confute it if they can.
I saw a girl, [21]  with nature’s untaught grace,345
Turn from my gaze a most engaging face;
I saw her drop the tear, I knew full well
She felt for you much more than she could tell.
I found her understanding, bright as day,
Through all impediments still forc’d its way;350
On that foundation shall my soul [22]  rely,
The rock of genuine humility.
Call’d as she is to act a nobler part,
To rule my household, and to share my heart,
I trust her prudence, confident to prove355
Days of delight, and still unfading love;
And, while her inborn tenderness survives,
That heav’nly charm of mothers and of wives,
I’ll look for joy:—Here come [23]  the neighbours all
Broach the old barrel, feast them great and small, [24] 360
For [25]  I’m determin’d, while the sun’s so bright,
That this shall be a wedding-day outright:
How cheerly sound the bells! my charmer, come,
Expand your heart, [26]  and know yourself at home.
Sit down, good John;’—‘I will,’ the old man cried,365
‘And let me drink to you, Sir, and the bride;
My blessing on you: I am lame and old,
I can’t make speeches, and I won’t be bold;
But from my soul I wish and wish with pain, [27] 
That brave good gentlemen would not disdain370
The poor, because they’re poor: for, if they live
Midst crimes that parents never can forgive,
If, like the forest beast, they wander wild,
To rob a father, or to crush a child,
Nature will speak, aye, just as Nature feels,375
And wish—a Gilbert Meldrum at their heels.’

Notes

[1] Age] truth Poems [Stereotype] BACK

[2] Rise with the lark,] Do, dearest Peggy, Poems [Stereotype] BACK

[3] ever] never Poems [Stereotype] BACK

[4] weep] rail Poems [Stereotype] BACK

[5] And . . . out-lied] And bravely boast, all snarling fools defying, / How I, a girl out-witted,—just by lying. Poems [Stereotype] BACK

[6] then] still Poems [Stereotype] BACK

[7][Near Fakenham, ‘a moated eminence, formerly the site of a mansion supposed to have been destroyed by fire’ (Brayley, Views in Suffolk, Norfolk, and Northamptonshire: Illustrative of the Works of Robert Bloomfield: Accompanied with Descriptions: to Which Is Annexed a Memoir of the Poet’s Life (London, 1806), pp. 43–44).] BACK

[8] plainly] I must Poems [Stereotype] BACK

[9] now . . . you ] fain would prove / The sterling wealth of honourable love Poems [Stereotype] BACK

[10] gardens . . . day] flocks increase, / My house knows plenty, and my servants peace; Poems [Stereotype] BACK

[11] [Used a hollow reed as a drinking straw to siphon off enough wedding-ale (‘a charming portion’) to get drunk.] BACK

[12] you . . . face] I had not seen this place Poems [Stereotype] BACK

[13] and] so Poems [Stereotype] BACK

[14] you . . . fame] I found you injuring her fame Poems [Stereotype] BACK

[15] Been] And Poems [Stereotype] BACK

[16] And] To Poems [Stereotype] BACK

[17] Thou . . . man] And as for honest John, Poems [Stereotype] BACK

[18] dear] , my Poems [Stereotype BACK

[19] unpolish’d] secluded Poems [Stereotype] BACK

[20] I’ll . . . what] On reason’s solid Poems [Stereotype] BACK

[21] I saw a girl] A girl I saw Poems [Stereotype] BACK

[22] soul] hopes Poems [Stereotype] BACK

[23] Here come] But see, Poems [Stereotype] BACK

[24] Broach . . . small] Come posting on to share the festival; Poems [Stereotype] BACK

[25] For] And Poems [Stereotype] BACK

[26] Expand your heart] Partake their joy Poems [Stereotype] BACK

[27] with pain] again Poems [Stereotype] BACK

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