The Second Voice

They walked beside the wave-worn beach;

Her tongue was very apt to teach,

And now and then he did beseech

She would abate her dulcet tone,

Because the talk was all her own,

And he was dull as any drone.

She urged “No cheese is made of chalk”:

And ceaseless flowed her dreary talk,

Tuned to the footfall of a walk.

Her voice was very full and rich,

And, when at length she asked him “Which?”

It mounted to its highest pitch.

He a bewildered answer gave,

Drowned in the sullen moaning wave,

Lost in the echoes of the cave.

He answered her he knew not what:

Like shaft from bow at random shot,

He spoke, but she regarded not.

She waited not for his reply,

But with a downward leaden eye

Went on as if he were not by

Sound argument and grave defence,

Strange questions raised on “Why?” and “Whence?”

And wildly tangled evidence.

When he, with racked and whirling brain,

Feebly implored her to explain,

She simply said it all again.

Wrenched with an agony intense,

He spake, neglecting Sound and Sense,

And careless of all consequence:

“Mind—I believe—is Essence—Ent—

Abstract—that is—an Accident—

Which we—that is to say—I meant—”

When, with quick breath and cheeks all flushed,

At length his speech was somewhat hushed,

She looked at him, and he was crushed.

It needed not her calm reply:

She fixed him with a stony eye,

And he could neither fight nor fly.

While she dissected, word by word,

His speech, half guessed at and half heard,

As might a cat a little bird.

Then, having wholly overthrown

His views, and stripped them to the bone,

Proceeded to unfold her own.

“Shall Man be Man?  And shall he miss

Of other thoughts no thought but this,

Harmonious dews of sober bliss?

“What boots it?  Shall his fevered eye

Through towering nothingness descry

The grisly phantom hurry by?

“And hear dumb shrieks that fill the air;

See mouths that gape, and eyes that stare

And redden in the dusky glare?

“The meadows breathing amber light,

The darkness toppling from the height,

The feathery train of granite Night?

“Shall he, grown gray among his peers,

Through the thick curtain of his tears

Catch glimpses of his earlier years,

“And hear the sounds he knew of yore,

Old shufflings on the sanded floor,

Old knuckles tapping at the door?

“Yet still before him as he flies

One pallid form shall ever rise,

And, bodying forth in glassy eyes

“The vision of a vanished good,

Low peering through the tangled wood,

Shall freeze the current of his blood.”

Still from each fact, with skill uncouth

And savage rapture, like a tooth

She wrenched some slow reluctant truth.

Till, like a silent water-mill,

When summer suns have dried the rill,

She reached a full stop, and was still.

Dead calm succeeded to the fuss,

As when the loaded omnibus

Has reached the railway terminus:

When, for the tumult of the street,

Is heard the engine’s stifled beat,

The velvet tread of porters’ feet.

With glance that ever sought the ground,

She moved her lips without a sound,

And every now and then she frowned.

He gazed upon the sleeping sea,

And joyed in its tranquillity,

And in that silence dead, but she

To muse a little space did seem,

Then, like the echo of a dream,

Harked back upon her threadbare theme.

Still an attentive ear he lent

But could not fathom what she meant:

She was not deep, nor eloquent.

He marked the ripple on the sand:

The even swaying of her hand

Was all that he could understand.

He saw in dreams a drawing-room,

Where thirteen wretches sat in gloom,

Waiting—he thought he knew for whom:

He saw them drooping here and there,

Each feebly huddled on a chair,

In attitudes of blank despair:

Oysters were not more mute than they,

For all their brains were pumped away,

And they had nothing more to say—

Save one, who groaned “Three hours are gone!”

Who shrieked “We’ll wait no longer, John!

Tell them to set the dinner on!”

The vision passed: the ghosts were fled:

He saw once more that woman dread:

He heard once more the words she said.

He left her, and he turned aside:

He sat and watched the coming tide

Across the shores so newly dried.

He wondered at the waters clear,

The breeze that whispered in his ear,

The billows heaving far and near,

And why he had so long preferred

To hang upon her every word:

“In truth,” he said, “it was absurd.”

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