Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, A WITCH'S WILL, by JANE BARLOW



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A WITCH'S WILL, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: When o'er the purple ridge the moon rist up
Last Line: But where she bode came never shine nor song.
Subject(s): Devil; Evil; Witchcraft & Witches; Satan; Mephistopheles; Lucifer; Beelzebub


WHEN o'er the purple ridge the moon rist up
From founts of ebbing sunset to the brim
Full-filled with amber fire her clear-orbed cup,
Old Mother Deb, a witch-wife gaunt and grim,
Crouched by her cot-hearth watched as lights grew dim
Its dull red eye blink out. One friend with her
Sat glowering, embers twain of rounded rim
Kindled in coal-black of his fleckless fur.

Half to herself, and half to him—so cheat
Old lonesome folk their silence: 'Well, they've caught
Rob Pendrick,' quotha, 'pressed him for the fleet
In Falmouth town. I heard it where I bought
Our meal this morn. Wat Nesbit's good-for-naught
Curst wench soon nudged me out; but nigh the door
I hearkened. Marry, if once on board he's brought,
He'll ne'er again belike set foot on shore.

'For, soothly, small account they make of such
On the high seas; there sink and burn amain
Spaniards, and Frenchmen, and the Devil's own Dutch;
And some pest-poisoned lie, or prisoners ta'en;
Fall as it may, they fare not home again.
This Rob was grown a likely lad beyond
His mates, for all, I'll wager, blithe and fain
He'd bear a hand to hale me through the pond.
'Time was—well, well, we have our day, one day,
At worst and best, and mine is done. So here
'Tis Molly Vance, his sweetheart, sits, they say,
Crying out her eyes for losing of her dear.
Mew, Malkyn, more fool she, who'll lack a tear
Ere ever she'll want for trouble her tears should rue;
That's plentier as I've known this many a year
Dry-eyed. Moll's young enough—she'll learn it too.

'Five guineas' fine they ask to let him go.
Gramercy, Sirs! A pretty price, in troth.
That bargain they'll scarce strike. A deal to show
For five good guineas! Yet I'll take mine oath
The silly maid down yonder, nothing loth,
Would freight their ship with gold, if gold she had—
Wants wit and wealth alike. By luck I've both,
And no concern, God wot, in lass or lad.'

Through fitful gloom she groped with tapping crutch,
Till at her feet it stirred a loose-laid flag
Hiding a hollow, and thence her eager clutch
Drew somewhat linen-lapt: a leathern bag,
Whose puckered mouth, still chuckling low, the hag
Twitched open, and, dropped from forth it, clink and chink,
Caught warily in her kirtle's miser rag
A store of coin that shone with silvern blink.
Coins large and less, from crown-piece broad, where pranced
The steed and writhed the worm, to meagre groat:
From some fire-new our pleasant monarch glanced,
Some, rim-worn, bore Queen Bess beruffed of throat.
But o'er them all the crone did lingering gloat,
Slipping them softly her fingers through and through,
As you shall mark fond grandams where they doat
Toy with a downy curl and praise its hue.

'That were a wedding not amiss to see,
A comely pair', she said, 'but wind and wave
Will part them ere they're joined at such a fee.
Lord, I used year on year to pinch and save
These same. No talk those times of Satan's slave;
I had but skill in simples, as folk had aches.
So one a groat, and one a tester gave
For draughts to drug their pains or cure their quakes.

'Yet if yon bells had rung for her, I doubt
They had ever knolled a bride across the green
Could match with Molly. I might have lurked about
And watched them where the lych-path runs between
The privet hedge and yew: so thick their screen,
A body would peep, and ne'er an urchin spy
To pelt me off with stones, as yester-e'en,
Lest harm betide them from the evil eye.

'But there—he sails,' quoth she, and bit by bit
'Gan purse her pelf up, slowly, as scarce she brooked
To shroud it. And when all the knots were knit,
Long, long upon her folded hoard she looked.
Then where the smouldering log glowed ruddiest nooked
She thrust a twig, and with its charred end black
Traced on the wrappage strokes uncouth and crookt:
For Moly Vance To Buye her Swetehert backe.
Forth to the night she went. By now its moon
Soared high in air, but film-flaked mists did weave
Her rays round, meshed as in a wan cocoon.
Up from the hamlet did the long slope heave
Slant grain-fields; and as skirting paths gave leave,
Down limped the Dame, where from the rustling edge
Ripe corn-ears bobbed at her, and oft her sleeve
Was plucked by briars that trailed about the hedge.

Niched at the hill-foot, Molly's cot deepthatched
Stood very small and lone; yet nought of ill
Durst entrance seek, since by the door unlatched
The floor was strewn with trefoil, vervain, dill,
That grow to hinder witches of their will;
Nailed high, the horseshoe fended overhead,
And straws lay crossed aright athwart the sill:
Wherefore no gramarie's spell might there be spread.

And near the threshold, where first foot must find,
The witch her burden laid, and slunk away.
Even as she went, Moll, fallen asleep tear-blind,
Half wakened from a dream that down the Bay
She saw her lover sail. 'Alas the day,
My heart will break,' mourned she, 'will break outright.
I doubt not yon ill Dame, as neighbours say,
Has wrought me this shrewd turn for grudge and spite.'
But now Dame Deb, her sour face set for home,
Was halting up the hillside. Clocks had tolled
The small hours chill, and toward the western foam
Low dipped the large moon, that with long beams stoled
Those burnished harvest haulms in ghostly gold.
One Farmer Thring, whose sleep betimes did flit,
Looked forth, espied her footing past, and cold
At marrow felt, with dire foreboding smit.

'The old hag abroad among the fields this night—
What harm should that betoken? I'll be bound
There's mischief brewing, murrain or storm or blight;
By noon, mayhap, thick hailstones pelted round,
White as our meal that never shall be ground.
Ay, where clouds wreck that such as she bid sail—
Shame but her sort were ridded, roast or drowned—
Bides little grist for mill, or grain for flail.'

Up climbed the slope and up. Steps halt and weak
Tread ways unmeasured: 'twas in weary wise
Dame Deb toiled on to gain her dwelling bleak,
What time such spectral gleams did haunt the skies
As mock scared night in loitering day's disguise
Ere dawn. But all within her narrow room
Was mirkest shade. E'en Malkyn's glimmering eyes
Sleep sealed beside the cold hearth's blank of gloom.

There should the witch see brooding evermore
Twice-folden shadows, since herself had willed
To quench the joy-spark misery cowers o'er,
Numbed else by frore despair. Even so, heart-chilled,
Her latch she drew. Eftsoon the east fire-silled
Its rosed flame swept the dew-sprent meads along
Fast by her door, and blithe the finches trilled.
But where she bode came never shine nor song.





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