From the Book of Valentines

by Bliss Carman


 

ACROSS THE COURTYARD


 

That is the window over there 
With the closed shutters and the air 
Of a deserted place, like those 
Abandoned homesteads whose repose 
Haunts us with mystery. Inside 
5

Who knows what tragedy may hide?

This window has been sealed up so 
A fortnight now. A month ago 
Just about dusk you should have seen 
The vision I saw smile and lean 

10

From that same window. Spring's return, 
When daffodils and jonquils burn 
Under the azure April day, 
Is not more lovely nor more gay.

The world—at least, our artist world 

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Where tubes are pinched and brushes twirled 
In the long task to reproduce 
God's masterpieces for man's use— 
Knows Jacynth for the loveliest 
Of all its models and the best. 
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Why, half the portraits in the town, 
From Mrs. Bigwig, Jr.'s down, 
Have that same perfect taper hand. 
(If you have wit to understand 
A woman's vanity, you know
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Why they should wish to have it so), 
Those same long fingers smooth and round, 
Faultless as petals, and not found 
Twice in a generation. Well, 
They're Jacynth's. But you need not tell 
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The trick. In this world art must live 
On what the world's caprice will give.
Delightful folly! But far more

Delightful beauty we adore 
And follow humbly day by day, 

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Her difficult, enchanted way. 
(Dear beauty, still beyond the reach 
Of paint, or music, or of speech!) 
We toil and triumph and despair, 
Then on a morn look up, and there 
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Some girl goes by, or there's a dash 
Of colour on the clouds—a flash
Of inspiration caught between 
Chinks in the workshop's grey routine. 
One hint of glory through the murk, 
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And God has criticized our work.

So we plod on, and so one day
It happened toward the end of May,
When the long twilight comes, and when
Our northern orchards bloom again—

50
Even our poor old courtyard tree,
Knowing the time that bids him be 
One of the hosts that leaf and sing 
In the revival of the spring, 
Dons his green robe of joy. You know 
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How idle, then, a man will grow. 
I had been sitting lost in thought 
Of how our best dreams come to naught, 
And we are left mere daubers still 
For want of knowledge, lack of skill—
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So many of us are, I mean!  
The door was open, and the screen 
And curtains turned back everywhere 
For the first breath of summer air, 
That came in like a wanderer 
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From far untroubled lands, to stir
The prints along the wall, and bring 
Our dreams of greatness back with spring.

Suddenly, I looked up, aware
Before I looked, of some one there—

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You know how. In the doorway stood
A tall girl dressed in black. How good
A scrap of actual beauty is,
After our unrealities!
The copper-coloured hair; the glint
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Of tea-rose in her throat's warm tint;
The magic and surprise that go
With level blue-grey eyes; the slow
Luxurious charm of poise and line,
Half-Oriental, half-divine,
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And altogether human. Oh,
One must have known her then, to know
How faultless beauty still transcends
The bound where faultless painting ends.
But you may gather here and there
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Faint glimpses and reports of her
In the best work of all the men
Who painted her as she was then,
Splendid and wonderful. To me,
For colour and for symmetry,
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In her young glory there she seemed 
The flame-like one of whom they dreamed
Who worshipped beauty in old days 
With singleness of joy and praise; 
Some great Astarte come to bless 
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This old world with new loveliness; 
My own ideal come to life, 
After the failure and the strife, 
To prove I dreamed not all in vain 
In poverty beside the Seine.
100

There came a sudden leap at heart
That made my pulses stop and start,
The surge and flood of sense that sweep
Over our nature's hidden deep,
When we look up and recognize
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Our vision in an earthly guise.
Then reason must resign control
To the indubitable soul,
Put off despair, arise and dance
To the joy-music of romance.
110

For one great year she posed for me;
Came in and out familiarly,
And made the studio her home
Almost—not quite; for always some—
What shall I say?—reserve or pride,
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Mysterious and aloof, belied
By the soft loving languorous mien,
Invested her, enthroned serene
Above importunings. Who knows,
If she had chosen as I chose—
120
Flung heart and head and hand away
On the great venture of a day;
Poured love and passion and romance
In the frail mould of circumstance—
Had she but dared be one of two,
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We might have made the world anew!
However much it might have cost,
Who knows what good may have been lost,
What passing great reward?

                                                  One day

130
When work was done she turned to say
Her soft good night, and tripped down-stair
With rustling skirts and her fine air 
Of breeziness, humming a catch 
From some street-song. I heard the latch 
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Click after her, and she was gone. 
Next day I waited. It wore on 
To afternoon, and still no sign 
Of peril near this dream of mine. 
A year went by, and not a word 
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Of the lost Jacynth could be heard.

May came again; the wind once more
Was blowing by the open door, 
And I saw something over there 
Across the yard that made me stare.

145
Strangers had recently arrived 
On that third floor, and Fate contrived 
One of her small dramatic scenes 
Which make us wonder what life means, 
And whether it is all a play 
150
For our diversion by the way. 
There at the window I caught sight 
Of a girl's figure. The crisp white 
Of the fresh gown passed and repassed,
Strangely familiar, till at last, 
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"Jacynth, of course! Who else?" I cried.  
And on the instant she espied 
Me watching her; quick as a flash 
And smiling, ran, threw up the sash 
To lean far out. "How do you do, 
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My friend?" "Why, Jacynth, how are you, 
After this long, long time?" I said. 
"Thank you, quite well." Her pretty head 
Was tilted up, in every line
An old medallion rare and fine.
165

"Yes, it's a long time, isn't it, 
Since that first day I came to sit 
For your great Lilith?  Tell me how 
They hung it at the Fair. And now 
That we are neighbours once again, 
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Do come to see me." It was plain 
From the unwonted vanity 
Of tone, as she ran on to me, 
Some strange ambition, plan, or hope 
Had come to give her pride new scope. 
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Somehow she had acquired the chill 
Of worldliness; I missed the thrill 
Of eager radiance she had 
When we were comrades free and glad. 
Some volatile and subtle trace 
180
Of soul had vanished from her face, 
Leaving the brilliancy that springs 
From polished and enamelled things. 
The beauty of the lamp still shone 
With lustre, but the flame was gone.
185
There was so evident in her 
The smug complacent character 
Of prosperous security, 
That when, with just a flick at me, 
She added, gaily as before, 
190
"It isn't Jacynth any more, 
It's Mrs."—some one—here was I, 
Too much astonished to reply, 
Before she vanished. From that day 
The rest is blank, think what you may. 
195

There is her window, as you see, 
Closed on a teasing mystery.

I think, as I recall her here,
How much life means beyond the mere
Safety, convenience, and the pose

200
Respectability bestows;
The beauty of the questing soul
In every face, beyond control
Is dimmed by wearing any mask
That dull conformity may ask.
205
How almost no one understands
The unworldliness that art demands!
How few have courage to retain
Through years of doubtful stress and strain
The resolute and lonely will
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To follow beauty, to fulfil
The dreams of their prophetic youth
And pay the utmost price of truth!
How few have nerve enough to keep
The trail, and thread the dark and steep
215
By the lone lightning-flash that falls
Through sullen murky intervals!
How many faint of heart must choose
The steady lantern for their use,
And never, without fear of Fate,
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Be daring, generous and great!

Where is she now? What sudden change
Clouded our day-dream? Love is strange!