The Stranger’s Lair

Steeped in sunshine the village lay,
The red-roofed houses looked more than warm;
The waves ran into the tiny bay,
Down on whose shore the children swarm,
Whom daily miracles keep from harms,
At play with the great sea running to meet,
And kissing and lapping their little bare feet,
Tempting them into his treacherous arms.

Brighter than elsewhere the sunshine streamed,
On the gilded vane, on the clock in the tower
Of the grey old church of the village, and gleamed
On the hands just met at the noon-tide hour.
Ah! when shall the cycles of change complete
Their rounds, and the perfect day fulfil,
When time and eternity, good and ill,
In shadowless light at one gaol shall meet?

Up to the humble house of God,
A straight path leads, now dazzling bright;
’Tis the pastor’s fancy to keep that road
With glistening shells, and with pebbles white;
And on either side of that milky way,
Sunning themselves the still graves lie.
Whence the daisy looks up with her open eye,
Fearless as faith, to the lord of day.

Here and there is a stone at the head
Of some village magnate, now no more;
The farmer – his son now reigns in his stead–
Who held the fields that slope to the shore.
Some former pastors, but scarce a squire,
Are buried here, for these higher souled
Mix with their kindred in richer mould,
Under a distant, but loftier spire.

Caught up from their play, strong fever bore
The children hither, with panting breath,
And cheeks that glowed more bright than before,
Till laid dead white in the arms of death.
And the fishermen, and the fishermen’s wives,
Rest here as they ne’er could rest in their lives,
For nights of wind, with one on the deep,
And one on the shore who could not sleep.

Here ’mong his safely folded flock,
The pastor would think out his sermon clear,
Telling his simple crew to steer
Heavenward, through storm, and shoal, and rock;
Each Sunday they gather beneath his eye,
From the boisterous boys who play on the sand,
And up in order before him stand,
With the little hoydens, blushing and shy.

But the urchin who feared his Sunday’s frown,
Would pluck his coat on a common day,
Till he looked on the elf who had stopped his way,
And tickled his head through the hole in the crown
Of his cap. If the head was not wholly bare,
The hole in the crown was sure to be there,
For of attire, that highest grace
Was seldom in proper use or place.

’Mong his folded flock that bright noon-day
The pastor walked, and the way he took
That led to the chuchyard’s weediest nook,
The only spot where a shadow lay;
And stopped, and uncovered his head when there,
I know not whether it was for prayer,
Or because of the heat, while his grey locks float
About his neck, and down on his coat.

Truth is, no wifely, womanly hands,
Over these elf locks might claim control;
The good man had often holes in his bands,
Some rents too, I fear, in his genial soul.
I joined his walk, and with sauntering pace,
We trod in silence the shady place;
’Mong the weeds were waifs of brown sea-ware:
“You know this is called the Stranger’s Lair,”
At length he said, looking down at these,
“And here in my time I have laid no few,
Whom storms on our coast like drift-weed threw,
Strange, dark sailors, from distant seas.
And almost all had some silken string,
’Neath the coarsest shirt, some coin or ring
Or locket, whose slender twist of hair,
Has anchored the stormy heart somewhere.

“And more than one wreck from the storm of sin
Hath drifted hither, storms would cease;
And though waters of sorrow swelled within,
The shattered hulk would break up in peace.
My own last bed I have chosen here,
See that they heed my last behest,
It is writ in my will” – at the strange request
I looked in his eyes, they were stern but clear.

He added, as in defence of blame,
“It is but a stranger in disguise
We see, even when we look into eyes
That look into ours by one hearth flame.
We are strangers all, and everywhere,
We know not the heart in any breast;
They know now us who love us best,
Each grave on earth is a stranger’s lair.”

Source: Craig, Isa. Duchess Agnes Etc. London: Alexander Strahan, 1864. 167-70.
(Available on Google Books)
Periodical version: The English Woman’s Journal 1.4 (1 June 1858): 259-61.

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