English Eclogues II - The Grandmother's Tale
Harry! I'm tired of playing. We'll draw round
The fire, and Grandmamma perhaps will tell us
One of her stories.
A pretty story! something dismal now;
A bloody murder.
Or about a ghost.
Nay, nay, I should but frighten you. You know
The other night when I was telling you
About the light in the church-yard, how you trembled
Because the screech-owl hooted at the window,
And would not go to bed.
You said yourself you did not like to hear him.
Pray now! we wo'nt be frightened.
Well, well, children!
But you've heard all my stories. Let me see,--
Did I never tell you how the smuggler murdered
The woman down at Pill?
Not how he cut her head off in the stable?
Oh--now! do tell us that!
You must have heard
Your Mother, children! often tell of her.
She used to weed in the garden here, and worm
Your uncle's dogs, and serve the house with coal;
And glad enough she was in winter time
To drive her asses here! it was cold work
To follow the slow beasts thro' sleet and snow,
And here she found a comfortable meal
And a brave fire to thaw her, for poor Moll
Was always welcome.
Oh--'twas blear-eyed Moll
The collier woman,--a great ugly woman,
I've heard of her.
Ugly enough poor soul!
At ten yards distance you could hardly tell
If it were man or woman, for her voice
Was rough as our old mastiff's, and she wore
A man's old coat and hat,--and then her face!
There was a merry story told of her,
How when the press-gang came to take her husband
As they were both in bed, she heard them coming,
Drest John up in her night-cap, and herself
Put on his clothes and went before the Captain.
And so they prest a woman!
'Twas a trick
She dearly loved to tell, and all the country
Soon knew the jest, for she was used to travel
For miles around. All weathers and all hours
She crossed the hill, as hardy as her beasts,
Bearing the wind and rain and winter frosts,
And if she did not reach her home at night
She laid her down in the stable with her asses
And slept as sound as they did.
With her asses!
Yes, and she loved her beasts. For tho' poor wretch
She was a terrible reprobate and swore
Like any trooper, she was always good
To the dumb creatures, never loaded them
Beyond their strength, and rather I believe
Would stint herself than let the poor beasts want,
Because, she said, they could not ask for food.
I never saw her stick fall heavier on them
Than just with its own weight. She little thought
This tender-heartedness would be her death!
There was a fellow who had oftentimes,
As if he took delight in cruelty.
Ill-used her Asses. He was one who lived
By smuggling, and, for she had often met him
Crossing the down at night, she threatened him,
If he tormented them again, to inform
Of his unlawful ways. Well--so it was--
'Twas what they both were born to, he provoked her,
She laid an information, and one morn
They found her in the stable, her throat cut
From ear to ear,'till the head only hung
Just by a bit of skin.
Oh dear! oh dear!
I hope they hung the man!
They took him up;
There was no proof, no one had seen the deed,
And he was set at liberty. But God
Whoss eye beholdeth all things, he had seen
The murder, and the murderer knew that God
Was witness to his crime. He fled the place,
But nowhere could he fly the avenging hand
Of heaven, but nowhere could the murderer rest,
A guilty conscience haunted him, by day,
By night, in company, in solitude,
Restless and wretched, did he bear upon him
The weight of blood; her cries were in his ears,
Her stifled groans as when he knelt upon her
Always he heard; always he saw her stand
Before his eyes; even in the dead of night
Distinctly seen as tho' in the broad sun,
She stood beside the murderer's bed and yawn'd
Her ghastly wound; till life itself became
A punishment at last he could not bear,
And he confess'd it all, and gave himself
To death, so terrible, he said, it was
To have a guilty conscience!
Was he hung then?
Hung and anatomized. Poor wretched man,
Your uncles went to see him on his trial,
He was so pale, so thin, so hollow-eyed,
And such a horror in his meagre face,
They said he look'd like one who never slept.
He begg'd the prayers of all who saw his end
And met his death with fears that well might warn
From guilt, tho' not without a hope in Christ.
Robert Southey's Other Poems
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