The Wages of Sin

by Marietta Holley

Marietta Holley

I am an outcast, sinful and vile I know,
But what are you, my lady, so fair, and proud, and high?
The fringe of your robe just touched me, me so low —
Your feet defiled, I saw the scorn in your eye,
And the jeweled hand, that drew back your garments fine.
What should you say if I told you to your face
Your robes are dyed with as deep a stain as mine,
The only difference is you are better paid for disgrace.

You loved a man, you promised to be his bride,
Strong vows you gave, you were in the sight of Heaven his wife,
And when you sold yourself for another's wealth, he died;
And what is that but murder? To take a life
That is a little beyond my guilt, I ween,
To murder the one you love is a crime of deeper grade
Than mine, yet in purple you walk on the earth a queen;
I think the wages of sin are very unequally paid.

For what did you receive when you sold yourself for his gold,
When with guilty loathing you plighted your white, false hand,
A palace in town and country, his name long centuries old,
A carriage with coachmen and footmen, wealth in broad tracts of land,
Wealth in coffers and vaults, high station, the family gems,
For these you stood at God's altar and swore to a lie;
But smother your conscience to silence if it condemns,
With this you are liberally paid for your life of infamy.

What wages did I receive when I gave myself for his love,
So young, so weak, and loving him, loving him so —
What did I get for my sin, O merciful God above!
But the terrible, terrible wages — pain and want and woe;
The world's scorn, and my own contempt and disdain,
The hideous hue of guilt that stares in every eye.
Like you I cannot " broider with gold my garments" stain,
You see, my lady, you get far better wages than I.

In your constancy to sin you far exceed my power,
Since that day marked with blackness from other days —
The day before your marriage — never since that hour
Have I heard his voice, have I looked upon his face;
For I threw his gold at his feet and stole away
Anywhere — anywhere — only out of his sight,
Longing to hide from the mocking glare of the day,
Longing to cover my eyes forever away from the light.

And long I strove to hate him, for I thought
I was so young, a friendless orphan left to his care,
It was a terrible sin that he had wrought,
And since I had the burden of guilt to bear
It was enough without the wild despair of love,
So I strove to reason my passionate love to hate.
Can we kneel with tears and bid the strong sun move
Away from the sky? It is vain to war with fate.

That a hard life I have lived since then, 'tis true,
My hands are unblackened by sinful wages since that day,
And my baby died, I was not fit, God knew
To guide a sinless soul, so He took my bird away;
And my heart was empty and lone as a robin's winter nest,
With the trusting eyes that never looked scornfully,
The head that nestled fearlessly on my guilty breast,
And the little constant hands that clung to me, even me.

But I knew it were best for God to unclasp her hand
From mine, while yet she clung to it in trust,
Than for her to draw it from me, live to understand,
Blush for her mother — had she lived she must.
And then she had her father's smile, and his soft, dark eyes,
Maybe she would have had his fair, false ways — his heart.
It is well that she passed through the starry gate of the skies
Though it closed and bars us forever and ever apart.

For I am a sinful woman, well I know,
And though by others' sins my own are not excused
Things seem so strange to me in this strange world of woe,
In a maze of doubt and wonder I get confused;
Whether a sin of impulse, born of a fatal love,
Is worse than deliberate bargain, a life of legal shame,
Legal below, I think in the courts above
The heavenly scribes will call a crime by its right name.

But we stand before the wise, wise judgment-seat
Of the world, and it calls you pure,
That in your pearl-gemmed breast all saintly virtues meet,
Holier than other holy women, higher, truer,
So sweet a creature an angel in woman's guise.
They would not wonder much, though much they might admire,
Should you be caught again up to your native skies
From an alien world in a chariot of fire.

So we stand before the tender judgment-seat
Of the world, and it calls me vile,
So low that it is a wonder God will let
His joyous sunshine gild my guilty head with its smiles,
An outcast barred beyond the pale of hope,
Beyond the lamp of their mercy's flickering light,
They would scarcely wonder if the earth should ope
And swallow up the wretch from their vexed sight.

Before another judgment-seat one day we will stand
You and I, my lady, and he by our side,
He who won my heart, who held my life in his hand,
He who bought you with gold to be his bride;
Before an assembled world we shall stand, we three,
To meet from the merciful Judge our doom of weal or woe,
He holds His righteous balance true and evenly,
And which is the vilest sinner we then shall know.

Last updated October 26, 2022