by Alfred Austin
I leaned upon the rustic bridge,
And watched the streamlet make
Its chattering way past zigzag ridge
Down to the silent lake.
The sunlight flickered on the wave,
Lay quiet on the hill;
Italian sunshine, bright and brave,
Though 'twas but April still.
I heard the distant shepherd's shout,
I heard the fisher's call;
The lizards glistened in and out,
Along the crannied wall.
Hard-by, in rudely frescoed niche,
Hung Christ upon the tree;
Round Him the Maries knelt, and each
Was weeping bitterly.
A nightingale from out the trees
Rippled, and then was dumb;
But in the golden bays the bees
Kept up a constant hum.
Two peasant women of the land,
Barefoot, with tresses black,
Came slowly toward me from the strand,
With their burdens on their back:
Two wicker crates with linen piled,
Just newly washed and wrung;
And, close behind, a little child
That made the morning young.
Reaching the bridge, each doffed her load,
Resting before they clomb,
Along the stony twisting road,
Up to their mountain home.
Shortly the child, just half its height,
Stooped 'neath her mother's pack,
And strove and strove with all her might
To lift it on her back.
Thereat my heart began to smile:
Haply I speak their tongue:
``Can you,'' I said, ``not wait awhile?
You won't be always young.
``Why long to share the toil you see,
Why hurry on the years,
When life will one long season be
Of labour and of tears?
``Be patient with your childhood. Work
Will come full soon enough.
From year to year, from morn till murk,
Life will be hard and rough.
``And yours will grow, and haply I,
Revisiting this shore,
In years to come will see and sigh
You are a child no more.
``Yours then will be the moil, the heat,
Yours be the strain and stress.
Pray Heaven Love then attend your feet
To make life's burden less.''
Thus as I spoke, with steadfast stare
She clung between the two,
Scarce understanding, yet aware
That the sad words were true.
Down from the mother's face a tear
Fell to her naked feet.
``But now unto the Signor, dear,
Your poesy repeat.''
Without demur the little maid
Spread out her palms, and lo!
From lips that lisped, yet unafraid,
Sweet verse began to flow.
She told the story that we all
Learn at our mother's knee,
Of Eve's transgression, Adam's fall,
And Heaven's great clemency:
How Jesus was by Mary's hands
In the rough manger laid,
And by rich Kings from far-off lands
Was pious homage paid:
Then how, though cruel Herod slew
The suckling babes, and thought
To baffle God, Christ lived and grew,
And in the temple taught.
She raised her hands to suit the rhyme,
She clasped them on her heart;
There never lived the city mime
So well had played the part.
When she broke off, I was too choked
With tenderness to speak.
And so her little form I stroked,
And kissed her on the cheek;
And took a sweetmeat that I had,
And put it in her mouth.
O then she danced like a stream that's glad
When it hurries to the south.
She danced, she skipped, she kissed ``good-bye,''
She frolicked round and round:
The pair resumed their packs, and I
Sate rooted to the ground.
``A rivederla!'' Then the three
Went winding up the hill.
Ah! they have long forgotten me;
But I remember still.
Last updated January 14, 2019