An Empty Glass [poem by Agnes L. Storrie]

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

An Empty Glass.

“And when thyself, with shining foot shall pass
Among the guests star-scattered on the grass
And in thy joyous errand reach the spot
Where I made one . . . turn down an empty glass.”
— OMAR KHYYAM.
Stanza LXXV.

Dramatis Personae
HORTENSE TERRY – Once a trained nurse.
MABEL FRERE – Trained nurse.
MAX ARNOLD – Barrister.
ROSE ARNOLD – His wife.

Scene I.
[Hortense Terry, seated alone in sitting-room of a Woman’s Club. She is a tall, handsome woman, elegantly dressed. She paces the floor restlessly, then takes up a pen to continue some correspondence. Throws it down suddenly and recommences pacing to and fro.]

HORTENSE —
Yes! yes! I knew life had its deserts, dry,
Waterless, and wracked by fierce simoons.
I never thought to pine in one myself,
To feel its searing winds upon my heart,
So long beneath the palm trees have I dwelt
Hearing the ripple of a living stream
Laving a living shore. An outcast! I?
Who dared to say it? Yet what would I care
To be pariah in this empty world
If still I reigned imperially to him?
Ah! that is where it cuts deep, deep, into
The very essence of me. It has come,
The blight my prescience saw while yet the flower
Ravished my senses with its matchless bloom.
Illicit love holds at its very core
The canker that destroys it, and, Oh! well
I knew within the kernel of my mind
That I should some day pay a bitter price
For these dear dreams. Only to think of them
Will sanctify the Hades still to come.

Hades? ah! A woman scorned —
Yes, let her tell of Hades, she who knows.
To leave me thus — Oh, coward blow!
Tear out my heartstrings, let the jagged ends
Still quiver on, ay! crush my demon pride
’Gainst any iron wheel of circumstance,
My fortitude would fail not, so I saw
The hand that slew me was the hand I love.
But Max! to stab me with this poisoned blade
Of silence. Just to drop me in the void
Without a word or sign — too light to stir
The balance of his careless memory,
Too light to shake the poising of his mind.
I, who have known to stand within his soul
And see myself in beauty mirrored there.
I who have known — Oh! turn my living brain
To chaos, blast my very power to think
So only I am kept from thoughts like these —
And yet — and yet ——

[Enter, hurriedly, Mabel Frere. Looks round, nods shortly to Hortense. Goes into adjoining room, returns, throws herself into a chair, grasping her temples with both hands.]

NURSE FRERE —
“Oh Heavens! this is awful! simply awful,
What shall I do? Where is she? Idiot! Fool!
To break her word at such a time! My head!
Whatever shall I do?

[Goes to telephone, rings up, then drops receiver and walks distractedly about.]

[To Hortense, who has resumed her writing.]

NURSE FRERE —
Did you — ? Oh! have you seen Nurse Grey — you know
Emmie? Nurse Grey? has she been here to-day?
She promised she’d be here at three — my head!
Oh! heavens! it will split. She said — she said ——

HORTENSE [coldly] —
Yes, she was here, not half an hour ago,
She said to tell you that she had been called
Quite suddenly — her brother’s child is ill,
And dying, I should judge by what she said.
The message came for her when she was here.
A child she seems to dote on — had some fit —
They needed her at once. She seemed to lose
Her head, as you have done, and rushed away.
I said I’d tell you how the thing occurred,
That is her basket, she will send for it.

NURSE F. —
She had to go? What foolery! She knew
That I was counting on her — left my case
Sure she would take it. “What am I to do?
And who am I to get, I’d like to know?
There’s no one — every single nurse engaged,
My head is splitting — to upset my plans —
For some ridiculous child, and leave me here
Mad with neuralgia! What am I to do?
She said she’d go — I told them she’d be there
Within an hour — and Mrs. Arnold said ——

HORTENSE —
Who?

NURSE F. —
Why, Mrs. Arnold. Oh, my head! my head!

HORTENSE —
Silence about your head. Now tell me quick
What Arnold? Who is ill? and when? and how?

NURSE F. —
You needn’t break my arm, your grip’s like steel,
You make me feel quite sick, leave go I say!
It’s Mr. Arnold, Max, the barrister,
Oh! but you hurt! and typhoid — virulent.
He’s very bad, in fact, he can’t be worse,
Delirious, and a shocking temperature.
I take the night — his wife — you know they are
Just lately married — she’s an heiress, too,
They say that’s why he — oh ! at any rate
She takes the nursing in the day — insists —
And will not have another nurse. I knew
The work would fall on me. You know how ’tis,
You dare not trust them, and you work and work,
And then neuralgia gripped me, and for days
I’ve just been crazy, and I must have sleep,
And Emmie Grey — I rang her up, she said
She’d come and take him for me till my head
Was better. Now the wretch! what shall I do?
The doctor will be savage too, I know,
He’s such a fidget, and he will not have
A nurse who is a stranger, and it seems
That all his own are fully occupied.
This influenza raging everywhere —
I got him to consent to Emmie Grey;
Altho’ he never saw her, he has heard
About her, and he said that she would do.
I rang her up, she said she’d meet me here
At three, and take it on, and now — and now ——

HORTENSE —
Oh hush! you whining woman, listen now,
With all your ears. [Aside: My heart ! ’tis only death!
Poor mortal death I have to fight against,
And I shall conquer, darling. I shall snatch
Your life from his cold clutches, and within
The warm core of my heart renourish you.
Oh! typhoid! only typhoid — virulent —
Oh, only this, and not forgetfulness.]
[Aloud] Who is the doctor?

NURSE F. —
Lamont of Worthington, and Templer called
In consultation, and they speak of Dix,
But what’s the good of keeping me in talk
And wasting all my time? Here, let me go —
Hortense ! I must, I’ve got to find a nurse.

HORTENSE —
Be silent! let me think. The doctors — h’m —
They never saw me — that’s alright, and Grey,
Emmie — yes — lucky! she is dark —
And much my height, and here’s her luggage — Yes,
This basket. Open it. Don’t be a fool.
Obey me instantly. That’s better. Now —
These skirts — exactly right, the very length,
And blouses, collars, cuffs, and aprons, caps,
I do not like the aprons, you shall go
And buy me others later. Ninny! cease,
I tell you I shall save you by my plan.
Now listen. You — you, Mabel Frere, you poor
Neuralgic victim. You know who I am?

NURSE F. —
I know you were a nurse. I know we lived
Together once. But that was long ago.
’Tis years since I have seen you. You are changed,
Much changed. They say that you have been abroad,
I don’t know where, and have, they say, become ——?

HORTENSE —
Yes, been abroad, and have, they say, become ——?

NURSE F. —
Well, something of a beauty, and have left
Our poor profession, that is all I know,
Or want to know, you always frightened me.
You were so headstrong, and so passionate,
And now, what is it that you mean to do?

HORTENSE —
You know I was a nurse. Now, do you know
What kind of nurse? a good one? or a poor?
Successful may be? or obscure — as you?

NURSE F. —
I never nursed with you, how can I know?

HORTENSE —
’Tis to your interest that you know. Recall
What you have heard. Did I rank high or low?

NURSE F. —
Oh high ! you know. What use to bother me?

HORTENSE —
You may perhaps remember to have heard
What Dr. Randall used to say of me?
Yes? You remember? I am glad. Now think,
Would you consider me as competent
To take this case as any nurse you know?

NURSE F. —
Why! why — I never thought you meant — you see,
’Tis years since you have nursed, I cannot know —

HORTENSE —
Ah! but I understood that you did know.
Just think again, and tell me if you could
Quite safely recommend me in your place?

NURSE F. —
Oh ! yes, no doubt I could, but what of it?

HORTENSE —
This of it, I am going to take your case
And nurse your patient while you get a rest.
It does not suit me that my real name
Should be disclosed, so I shall take these things,
Nurse Grey’s, her basket, and her uniform,
And call myself Nurse Grey, and you shall guard
This secret with your life. Oh yes! you shall,
You’ll say you never saw the basket here,
Suggest it has been stolen, gone astray.
You’ll take these sovereigns, and buy postal notes
And send them to Nurse Grey without a word
Or sign of any kind, ’twill recompense.
And you will say, when the occasion comes,
That some one found a nurse, you do not know
Exactly who it was — some Melbourne girl.
Call black things white, and never turn a hair,
And guard this secret as you do your life.
If you betray me — you — you — Mabel Frere,
Or by a careless word let drop a hint,
I’ll pay you, never fear! I’ll pay you well.
There’s more in this than you can understand.
More hangs on it than your poor head can guess.
It matters not to you what it may mean,
But keep this thought before you all the time,
That if it fails, ’twere better you were dead.
Your memory of me is not good, I know,
But you’ll remember that I keep my word.
Remember also that I never ask
For service unrequited. You shall have
The fees I earn, yes, every penny piece
Shall go to you, and here’s a week’s advance.
It happens, happily, my purse is full,
And that same purse is deeper than it was
In those old days you know of. I shall see
You do not suffer. If you ring me up,
Or write to me, or drop the faintest hint,
Or let my name leak out in any way,
You’ll learn what kind of thing I call revenge.
Now I shall go and get a drug for you,
That will relieve your head, and you must stay
Here till I come. Lie there and wait for me.
Then you shall tell me details of the case
That I may know just where to take it up,
Now you can ring up Mrs. Arnold, say
Nurse Grey is leaving, will be at her house
In half an hour. Wait here till I return.

[Exit Hortense.]

NURSE F. —
Good heavens ! what a woman ! What will come
Of this God knows. For me I do not care,
I’m wax between her fingers. How she looked!
She frightens me. A tigress. Oh my head!

ACT II.

[Max Arnold’s sick room. Arnold in bed, mutters deliriously. Mrs. Arnold anxiously tries to calm him. Enter Hortense in nurse’s uniform, attends to something at end of room.]

MAX —
Oh moon of my delight, who knowest no wane,
Oh moon of my delight, oh moon! oh moon! —
What was it that I said? What was it, Rose?

ROSE ARNOLD [weeping] —
Oh, nothing, dearest. ’Twas not anything,
Just some — some idle words about the moon.
Nothing of consequence. Now will you take
A spoonful? only one, my dearest, try!

MAX —
No! No! I hate it. Go, leave me alone,
Oh! hot as Hades! What’s the use? Too hot,
Too hot, I tell you. So, your Honour, as
The plaintiff used the words with that intent
’Tis useless to deny that now he is ——
Among the guests star-scattered on the grass,
And when thyself with shining foot shall pass,
And in thy joyous errand reach the spot
Where I made one, turn down — turn down — turn down ——
Oh turn down what? Oh! tell me quickly what?
I’ve searched so long, all down the lonely lanes
Long, and so lonely and so burning hot
Surely you know? thy shining foot shall pass
Thy slender shining foot, and reach the spot
Where I made one, turn down — turn down — turn down ——

HORTENSE —
An empty glass, turn down an empty glass,
But not until you drink this medicine.
Yes — that is right. Now you can go to sleep.
A little sleep, a little quiet sleep,
There now, that’s cooler. Now you’ll go to sleep.

[Patient ceases muttering; takes medicine; and dozes.]

MRS. ARNOLD —
Why, Nurse! That’s magic! How was it you knew?
Or did you only guess? I never can.
I cannot follow when he talks like that,
So incoherently. I only seem
To irritate him. When you spoke he turned
As if you’d touched a spring, then lay quite still.
Nurse Frere could never soothe him as you do.
How wonderful! He raves sometimes for hours,
And I can only cry, and make him worse.
He’s very ill. If you could only know
The dreadful change I see in him. Oh dear!
He’s just a wreck. He has such lovely eyes,
And is so gay and handsome, when he’s well.
What is it in your voice that soothes him so?

HORTENSE —
Oh! just a little knack
I have with children and with invalids.
You must not stay to talk. You’re overwrought,
You see that I can manage him. Now go
And get some rest and I will let you know
If he should wake. This little quiet sleep
Will help him greatly. I will let you know,
Yes! Yes! I promise, when the Doctor comes.

[Exit Mrs. Arnold.]

[Hortense steps quietly about arranging chart, light, etc. Then kneels beside the bed, takes patient’s head on her arm, saying softly] —

Max! Beloved! How his fevered soul
In all its blind delirium knew my voice,
And answered. Oh! my lover, fallen low!
I hold him in the hollow of my hand
For all his legal bonds, his home, his wife,
His satisfied ambition, wealth, and power,
His foot upon the giddy rungs of fame,
And all those things for which he hungered so,
Whose price was coined from his heart and mine,
From all of these he turns heart-sick to me,
A lost ship to its haven. In my voice
His only comfort, and my breast his home.
My brilliant barrister! My budding Judge!
My rising star that lights the legal sky,
My silver-throated orator whose proud
And eager hand, disdaining lesser things
Was stretched to pluck the very topmost fruit
Upon the topmost bough, and here it lies!
Content to clasp weak fingers in my own.
Oh Max, my lover! And shall I begrudge
This poor pale heiress all her legal rights,
Her shadowy status while I hold you thus
Linked to me by a chain she cannot break,
Unlawful though it be. He stirs! he wakes.
This is my only chance. If he is sane
I must so saturate his mind and brain
With this imposture that delirium shall
Not wrest the secret from him. Max! Dear Heart,
Hortense is here, these are her very hands,
This is her voice, these, Darling, are her lips.
Nay! but, my dearest, do not strangle me.
I will not go. I swear I will not go.
I’ve come to nurse you. You are very ill.
But I shall nurse you. Only listen, Max,
You must not say you know me. I’m Nurse Grey.
Remember just Nurse Grey, and no one else.
If you forget, yes, even once forget,
They’ll send me far away. You understand?
’Tis only by deception I can stay.
Nurse Grey! You shall remember.

MAX—
Nurse Grey? Yes! anything so that you stay.
May I die raving if my worthless tongue
Betrays the only name it loves. Hortense!
Where have I been? Oh, hold me, keep me, dear,
Back from those awful places. Cursed I am,
Cursed, to the very coward soul of me.
The depths that I have plumbed! Hortense! Hortense!
How have I slaughtered honour, by what vile
Unnatural crime have I divorced our lives,
A threefold murder, yours and hers, and mine.

HORTENSE —
Hush! Hush! You must not talk. You must not think.
Put all the past behind you. Just be still,
Remember I’m Nurse Grey. Know nothing more.
These ghosts that gibber at you, I can lay,
These wounds that fester in you, I can heal
With one touch of my hand. And here’s a kiss,
A charm to keep you safe from evil thoughts.
Now sleep, my dearest. You shall soon be well.
Sleep quietly. I am watching. I will stay.

[Max sleeps. Hortense rises, examines medicines, reads directions on bottle, smells, and tastes the mixture.]

HORTENSE —
So this is what they’re giving him. I see.
Ten drops in every hour. Here in my hand
I hold the key of this entanglement.
Ten drops, and weak and feeble as he is
Another ten and all were over. Free
His fettered life. My jealous heart assuaged.
Another ten, and he would still be mine,
The lover of my youth. My own! My own!
That he should live means, let me think it out,
A few sweet moments stolen from the dark,
A flash of rapture edged with jagged pain,
Slow convalescence. Kisses poison-sweet
Caught at the verges of a sheer abyss,
The hot blood boiling in my jealous veins
At hideous tension. Just one fatal glance,
One word unguarded, one untutored look,
And scandal hundred-mouthed would grin at me.
And if I should escape, there still would be
The torture of her presence, and her voice,
The note of ownership, her claiming hands,
The imbecile unloosing of her tears,
Her wifely rights. By heaven! I feel my teeth
Gritting already, as a lioness
Snarls in her throat at footsteps near her cubs,
And draws her muscles ready for the spring.
I was not made for such restraints as these,
I should go mad. And just another ten,
No alien hand should ever lie in his,
No lips taste his. He’d he forever mine
Through all the ages, and what easier
Than I to follow, plunging in the calm
And icy sea of Death this quivering brain
That only feels to suffer. Cold and still!
How subtly it invites and beckons me.
Max cold and still? and dead? Oh Max! and dead!
Corruption feeding on his kingly heart,
The beauty of his face and on the eyes
That light so quick with tenderness, death’s scum
And horror upon horror. No! No! No!
I cannot see him dead. Alive and warm
And laughing in the sunlight. Quick and gay,
The red blood rioting along his veins,
A lustre on his close-clipped hair, my name
Springing in liquid syllables of love
Upon his lips. Yes! Yes! and he shall live
To love me still. To love me? Oh, my heart!
Never and never. While these walls of flesh
Shut in his spirit, while his being bends
Beneath its laws, man-made and man-enforced,
While the hereditary brand is stamped
Upon his mind, so long shall such as I
Be outlawed from the holiest heart of man.
So we have bred them. Ay, they shrug and say
Conventions are for women, made by them
And kept alive. Absurd! A woman’s heart
Would brave the breaking of a thousand laws,
A glorious rebel, if but love were true.
But man! A something sits behind his heart
And flinches should the world elect to sneer,
A code elastic for his pleasures. Yes,
And pathways broadly fashioned for himself,
And tolerance for all outside the law,
But for the woman who would share his name
Another standard. Ever in his mind
There stalks, though in the background, stark and stiff
That instinct of conventionality.
His gold must be hall-marked, his jewel set
In flawless orthodoxy. Ah! I know
That though I win his intellect and heart,
That though his real life is all mine own,
Yet I should miss that subtle something, hid
Behind his passion, and behind his brain,
That faint aroma, holy to his sense
That should perfume the woman of his choice,
And mark her perfect fitness. Yes, and she,
This poor pale heiress — she is crowned withal
Standing on this immaculate pedestal.
With something all my beauty, all my power
Cannot attain. Yes. I could see him dead,
And better, better now than dumbly wait
To see the certain day of my eclipse.
I’ll never see it! Now my hand is nerved
And I can do it. What’s the body’s death
When measured by the spirit’s? We could pass
Together now, and never know the pang
That waits us living. Yes, I can. I shall.
But Max! Beloved! just one little look,
One glance at those shut eyelids melts my heart.
Live and be happy, darling. Let me pay
My bitter debt alone. Be happy. Live.
Remembering not my name: a name accursed.
And tread an even, blossom-bordered path
Beside your wife. His wife! her little child
That is to be! the crown of human love.
Her little child, that should be his and mine,
My heart is hungry for that little child.
The immemorial instinct of my sex,
The mother in me never roused before,
Awakes and cries to hold that child, to feel
His life spring freshly from my own, and see
His eyes look at me while the little mouth
Clings to my breast. Oh, just to bear his child!
To link our lives with this so sweet a chain,
To watch the current of it mingled deep
Pass onward through the years and cheat decay
By sending through the ages still to come
Our vital spark, and so, incorporate,
Live on for ever. Ah! to hold his child,
How proud he’ll be to think it is his own!
And when the day is done and he comes home
I’ll hear his step quick ringing through the hall,
And then the sharp unlatching of the door,
So headlong, so impetuous, and he’ll snatch
Us close within his arm — the boy and me —
And I shall feel our heart-beats trebled there.
He’ll stoop his head, I know just how, and press
His lips upon the nestling downy head,
And I shall thrill through every fibre — thrill
And laugh up in his eyes. Oh God in Heaven!
The child will be her child, not mine, not mine.
Her breast will feel that little clinging mouth,
Her ear will know his step, and she will hear
The trebled heartbeats. And for me, for me
No child — no husband, just the unquiet ghost
Of an evaporated passion. Now
I know that I shall do it. Yes! yes! yes!
I know that I am mad. So let me be.
Here is the drug. Now let it do its work,
I can endure no more, the time has come.

[Walks towards bed, with bottle in hand, but avoids looking at Max.]

The time? to slay my love? Oh Max! dear heart,
I meant to kill you! God be merciful
To me a sinner. Is it really true?
I would have harmed him, cut the slender thread
That links him to the living? Heavens above!
I meant to kill him. Can it then be true?
What am I? and what stayed me? Sure there is
An unseen arm doth hedge defenceless heads.
Some spirit stirred, and roused me from my dream,
My wicked dream of vengeance. I’m awake,
Thank God, and I am sane. Hortense once more,
A woman, not a fiend. And he shall live,
And I shall like a noxious vapour fade
And leave his life untrammelled. He shall be
What he was meant to be, noble and good.
When I am gone, and I shall surely go —
Pass into silence utterly — he’ll turn
And learn to love his wife. So men are made,
The best among them, and those little hands
I dreamed of — they will hold him close at home,
And draw the sting from memory, and light
A new and purer flame upon his hearth.
He’ll plunge into his work, his fame will grow,
And he’ll fulfil the promise of his life
With wife and child and home and wealth — and I —
Now God be merciful to me again,
And send some power to strengthen me. I know
That I am helped. My heart is lighter now
Than it has been for weeks. My thoughts are clear,
And I dare face them. Over my dead self
My foot steps firmly. Now ’tis time to see
My patient. Three o’clock! quite early yet,
And still he sleeps. I shall not waken him.
Five minutes more and ’twill be time to give
The ten drops as directed. Quietly
He still sleeps on. I’ll kiss him once good-night.

[Turns to bed.]

“Oh dearer, dearer than the ruddy drops
That visit my sad heart ——” But what? How cold!
And pulseless! God above me! What is this?
Dead! Max, my lover. No! he would not, could not die
And leave me lonely here. You know he loved me. Max!
Look up, and speak ! No! No! for he is dead.
A mightier hand than mine has loosed the knot,
And I have lost him. Over the steep rim
That fences in the living he is slipped
Into the silence of the great abyss,
And my wan voice shall echo through the world
Forever without answer. Life and love
Still surge within my heart, and on my lips,
And his are sealed to silence and decay.
And when thyself with shining foot shall pass —
Turn down — turn down — turn down — an empty glass.

[Falls fainting.]



Source:
Agnes L. Storrie. Poems, J. W. Kettlewell, Sydney, 1909, pages 187-211

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