The Draught of Life [poem by Agnes L. Storrie]

[Editor: This poem by Agnes L. Storrie was published in Poems, 1909.]

The Draught of Life.

She held a crystal chalice in her hands,
A chalice, brimming to its carven lip
With clearest water. Such an icy draught
As men, with starting eyes, and burning lips,
That mouth in agony the brazen sands
Of sun-cursed deserts, dream of, and go mad.
She held it from her, lifting tear-wet eyes
To one who sat above, and bent to hear
Her prayer, and answered with a gathering frown:
“A change for thee? Some other draught than this
To quench thy thirst and satisfy thy soul?
Did’st not thou come, a few short seasons back
To claim, as was thy right, thy draught of life,
And did I not, complying with the hot
Impetuous passion of thy eager youth,
Then bid thee choose, and did’st thou not —
None hindering — none coercing — stretch thine hand
And choose from all the rest, this very cup
From which thou now dost turn so loathingly,
To cry with tears for any draught but this?
What meanest thou?”
Then quick she cried, “Oh, stern and changeless one!
I was so young — How could I know? I dreamed
I knew, and knew not. Then it seemed to me
All draughts were equal. How could I divine
That this, which looks so clear and sparkles so,
Should prove so tasteless? Ah, then — pity me
And give me but a little flask of wine
That I may drink, and feel between my lips
Its heavenly flavour.”
The Arbiter looked down upon the face
Uplifted to him, marked the lovely curves
Of chin and forehead, and the magic gloom
Of dark eyes raying lustre, thro’ a fringe
Of darker lashes, marked the mouth’s red bow
Apart with pleading, and the slender form
A flower on tip-toe, reaching towards the sun —
Himself — yet sternly spake: “Oh, foolish one,
The draught thou hast is needful for thee — sweet
And pure, an element of life, the source and spring
And vivifying power of every draught
That ever was, or ever yet can be;
The vintage of the skies! so good and pure
That man may live from strong and happy youth
To age as happy, and across his lips
Let not another liquid pass, and thou
Did’st take it gladly, joyfully, yet now,
Tho’ still the chalice brims as full and clear
As if thou had’st not drunk, thou comest here
To bid me give thee other. Why is this?”
With passion vexed the dark eyes sudden flashed
Through lifted lashes, and a mounting flame
Across the velvet texture of the cheek
Turned lilies into roses. Dashing down
The crystal chalice till its fragments rang
A hundred death-knells on the marble floor
And shivered into silence, while there ran
Across her spurning feet the limpid tide
To flow away and fade to nothingness
In far-off corners, hotly cried the maid:
“I will not have it! Flat and flavourless,
I hate — I loathe it. Long a tasteless draught
Have I been drinking, deeming it was Life,
While others quaff the rich and ruddy juice
Of wealthy vineyards mellow with the warmth
Of garnered summers, and the poignant charm
Of far-off countries, where the very air
Is fragrant with romance, and every night,
In chiselled silver, mimics every day’s
Full burnished gold, and every honied breeze
Can whisper secrets to the dreaming fields,
And every flower that nods a perfumed head
Is full of passion. Oh! from such a land
What generous floods, blood-red and golden-brown
And amber-tinted fill the happy veins
With sweet, mysterious magic! Give not me
Thy ‘vintage of the skies,’ so cold, so pale,
So wan and spiritless, but let me taste
The rich enchantments that I know must lie
In other draughts.”

The stern brow of the Arbiter relaxed
In pity for her. “Dost thou deem,” he said,
“That passion and romance are always hid
In alien ways? A clearer spirit dwelt
In thy pellucid water than is found
In any wine, however rare it be,
And deep, within the heart of homely things
A kernel lies that hath the power to bud
And blossom into beauty if the eye
Hath wit to find it. And thy chalice held
All goodness in solution, Purity
And Cleanliness, and power to satisfy
All healthy thirst; Affection, deep and true,
That long outlives the passion thou dost crave;
And Duty plain, and pleasant that will bring
A fairer guerdon than the phantom charms
Romance may promise, and Tranquility,
A flavour hard to find in any draught,
However rich.” Then, marking how her eyes
Impatient wandered, sighingly he gave
Into her hands a goblet, ruby red,
Wherein a quivering sunbeam prisoned lay
And glinted fitfully. A fragrance rare
As incense, delicate and fine, was borne
Half fainting on the air. “Take then this draught,
Since so thy will is set. Yet know that he
Who lacketh wine may live to know he lacks,
But whoso lacketh water — better far
He had not lived at all. Yet, since so soon
It palled upon thy senses, and became
So hateful to thee, that, impetuous, thou
Hast cast it from thee, take for thy life-draught
This other — Nay! — but thank me not until
Thou see’st how it serves thee.” Silence fell
As, light as summer rain that pattering falls
A moment and is gone, her footsteps passed
Along the corridor. With head erect
And eyes agleam, triumphantly she bore
Her prize away, already feeling through
Her every vivid sense its magic steal.

Scarce Time had ta’en upon his endless march
A step or two before the Arbiter,
Still seated on his high and lonely throne,
With thought swathed like a bandage o’er his eyes,
Saw, as with drooping wing all silently
The Evening stole on velvet-sandalled feet
Into his court — a slender figure come
As soft as Evening’s self. As reeds that lie
Along the marshes, after hurtling winds
Have fiercely smit them, broken not — but bent,
And set no longer on their slender stems
To sway in poise so exquisitely true,
Their very weakness seems the grace of strength —
So was the lissom figure. As a bud
Unsheathed by human fingers coarse and rude,
Forestalling Nature’s delicate designs,
For ever blighting by their carnal touch
A fragile purity — so was the face,
And o’er the shadowy floor on trembling knees,
With little hands outstretched, and darkened eyes
She searched each separate vein that threaded through
The polished marble for some little nook,
Some hollow, haply at a pillar’s foot
Wherein a pool, or, e’en a single drop
Of water might have lodged — in vain, in vain!
And from his lofty seat the Arbiter
Though seasoned to the sight of human woe,
Drew close the bandage o’er his eyes and held
His bated breath to keep from shuddering.

Agnes L. Storrie. Poems, J. W. Kettlewell, Sydney, 1909, pages 137-143

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