The Lamentable Comedy of Willow Wood

by Rudyard Kipling

“O ye, all ye that walk in Willow Wood,
That walk with hollow faces burning white;
What fathom-depth of soul-struck widowhood,
What long, what longer hours, one life-long night,
Ere ye again, who so in vain have wooed
Your last hope lost, who so in vain invite
Your lips to that their unforgotten food,
Ere ye, ere ye again shall see the light!“

[Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) English poet, illustrator, painter and translator.]

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HE (a man).
SHE (a woman).


Grey Downs, late in the afternoon;
a sea-fog coming over the cliffs.

He. (Roan horse, second-best saddlery, double-mouthed snaffle, nose-band, no spurs, crop.) It feels as though it were going to rain. Suppose we . . .

She. (Bay horse, third-best habit, cloth cap, double bridle, martingale, and worn gauntlets.) I’ve nothing on that can spoil, and there’s nothing to go back for before dinner. I must say the Deeleys are the dearest hosts in the world. Fancy them letting me take out Mickey. I always thought he was specially reserved for Mrs. Deeley. He (aside). Exactly! ‘ Gets the pick of the stable — hauls a man out of the smoking-room, and he gets — hold up, you brute ! —a yorking hog of a hack with the mouth of a turnstile and the manners of a steam-engine, and so must wait her pleasure. (Aloud.) Yes, it’s one of the nicest country houses I know, but look at this beast. The head-groom doesn’t love me. She (aside). Hands of a butcher, if you only knew it. (Aloud.) I’m afraid you have been unlucky. But misfortunes never come singly. It was your fault for loafing so aggressively in the smoking- room.

He. As how?

She. I saw you from the garden, and it seemed that you might just as well take me out as loll on a sofa. So I suggested to Mrs. Deeley — and there really was no one else available. (Aside.) ‘ Mustn’t sulk for half an hour and not expect to be paid out.

He. Thank you. I had supposed there wasn’t. They all went out after lunch. Er — er ! have you noticed the deep interest that the young take in Norman ruins when two can look at them at the same time ? It’s natural, I suppose. (Aside.) I know she saw young Oulthorp go out with Miss Massing. She (aside.) To my address, but clumsy. (Aside.) Yes, I suggested their going. He (aside.) What an atrocious fib. I believe she sleeps regularly after lunch, and I know she never lets Oulthorp look at Miss Massing. (Aloud.) Well, shall we canter on and pick up our archaeologists? She (sweetly.) Can’t you hold him in then? He is dancing a little bit; but perhaps you are irritating his poor dear mouth?

He. Poor dear mouth ! He never had such a thing in his life.

She. But he must have some feelings, and it is hardly worth while harrowing them because your own are upset

He. You are saddling me with all sorts of sins that never came into my head. Of course I’m delighted to be your escort.

She. Of course. What else could you say?

He. This only. If it has seemed good to you to drag out an almost entire stranger for a ride in this particularly sloppy country, I don’t see that it is worth squabbling with him. (Aside.) It’s a strong face and I like it, but I hate having my riding scoffed at.

She. You are a remarkably plain-spoken person.

He. I’m afraid I was led into it. Also I’ll confess I did sulk.

She. I know you did, and I don’t wonder. After all, it must be a bore to entertain a woman who — how was it ? — ” goes to sleep over her soup and looks as though she fed on bolsters “. Eh? He (aside.) Oh, damn !

She. You should never become confidential in the smoking-room with Mr. Dollin. He tells his wife everything, and she, not being too wise, tells me. He (aside.) I wonder if this is her method of being engaging. It is monotonous. (Aloud.) I deny every word of it. Dollin misunderstood. — Did Mrs. Dollin tell you everything that was said in the smoking-room? She (aside.) ‘ Curiously alike men are when you make them uncom- fortable. (Aloud.) Thank you. I know what you mean. Yes, she did ; and I must say that you men might find some better amuse- ment than making fun of poor Mr. Oulthorp. He (aside). I thought so. (Aloud, stiffly.) Pardon me, but was it for this that I was brought out?

She. No. But since you are here I may as well speak. Is it fair?

He. There’s a certain amount of frivolity in a smoking-room, and I suppose Oulthorp gets his share like everyone else.

She. But he doesn’t like it.

He. I’m afraid that makes no difference. (Aside.) This is a revelation I object to being called to account like a schoolboy. (Aloud.) And you know Oulthorp is not very wise.

She. In that he is specially devoted to me?

He. I never said that.

She. But what do you think?

He. Nothing. Why should I ? Am I his keeper — or yours ? Indeed I was no worse than the others.

She. No worse than the others ! There speaks the man. Will you listen to me for a minute?

He. It seems that I was invited to that end. (Aside.) If I sent my heel into the beast I know he’d bolt. ‘ Question is, could I pull him up this side of sunset. (Aloud.) Frankly, you know, I never understood what you saw in young Oulthorp — I mean what your object was in taking him up. As I said just now, he is not over wise, nor, for matter of that, very amusing. She (after a pause.) Have you ever been put on a pedestal and worshipped ?

He. No.

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She. Have you ever known what it was to feel everything you said or did of more importance to one person than anything else in the world — to find yourself treated as absolutely perfect? —

He. Poor beggar! So bad as that, was he? (Aside.) 1 wonder if the beast would bolt. I don’t like this talk.

She. But have you?

He. N-no. Why should I ?

She. How can I tell? And have you ever found all that trust, all that belief, and all that adoration bore you beyond words? He (as his heel goes home). Come round, you brute ! come round !

She. And yet have you felt that you wouldn’t give it up for anybody — that it was, somehow, a refuge from yourself, when you were afraid to think or remember? Can’t you see? He believes in me absolutely. He (looking between his horse’s ears). Um ! She (quickly.) Has he said anything … in the smoking-room?

He. Certainly not. (Aside.) Dollin is a fool, but he has evidently sense enough not to tell everything.

She. Then what do you mean ?

He. Let us look this thing in the face since you will insist on scolding me. Will you do young Oulthorp any good?

She. I shall make a man of him at least.

He. I fancied Miss Massing was more than equal to that little business.

She. She is at perfect liberty — when I have finished.

He. Which will be—?

She. When he goes of his own accord.

He. Have you the courage to wait for the end, then?

She. I don’t think you quite understand. He bores me — horribly.

He. So I am willing to believe.

She. Too good of you, I’m sure, to take the trouble … It is only because he thinks me sweet and perfect. It is not (in a lour twice and slowly) it is not — that — I care ; I don’t. But I shall do him no harm — indeed I shan’t.

He. I have nothing to do with the affair.

She. Yes ; you have. They’ll listen to you for ever in the smoking- room. You have influence over them. Why can’t you keep them amused, instead of helping to make fun of him? You tell them things — I know you do — for I hear of them from Mrs. Dollin.

He. (aside). ‘ Seems to me that Dollin is making a burial-service to be said over his own grave. (aloud.) I never understood it was my mission to amuse a country-house for the sake of young Oulthorp. And, really, do you think that a — a — regard that cannot stand a little chaff now and then— ?

She. Oh, it will go fast enough under any circumstances. Only — only I don’t want to lose it before I must. He (softly, looking at her). Forgive me. I’m so sorry.

She. Do I look like a woman who needs pity? Why should you give it me ? — I don’t want it.

He. Because of what must have gone before.

She. I don’t know what you mean.

He. Don’t you? Would you like me to explain?

She. No. But what do you mean?

He. Nothing. I ask no questions. Only, as a general rule, I imagine a woman does not take a deep interest in the blind adoration that a boy like Oulthorp gives — a boy for whom she does not care either — unless she has lost something much — much — more im- portant . . . But perhaps you are the exception ?

She. (bowing her head). That’s enough. I am the rule . . . And now do you understand me?

He. Less than ever, to tell you the truth.

She. Shall I tell you the truth for a change?

He. At your own risk. Remember I can guess at the outlines, and you may hate me because you have told me. (aside). I wonder if she tells everybody. ‘ Couldn’t be, ‘r else I should have heard something about her in the smoking-room. What a chin it is !

She. Would you care if I hated you?

He. Not a bit. It might worry you a little. Well, tell me.

She. (after a pause). It’s — it’s difficult. There was — and I couldn’t help it — and I had my warnings — lots of women told me about him, and I knew that he wasn’t to be trusted, and I knew that I was the only one who knew that. So I was sure of myself — and I was, you know. But I did care — everything, in every way. That was why, perhaps, it ended as it did. After seven years. My God, after seven years !

He. And what did you do?

She. (simply). Said ” Fank’ oo “, and went away smiling.

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He. You!

She. Yes, me ! Why shouldn’t I ? It was everything in the world to me. And when it finished I hadn’t the heart to complain.

He. You don’t look like a person who would be grateful for being treated in that way. And after?

She. I continued to exist beautifully — with variations.

He. Of what kind?

She. Oh, pictures and the poor. ‘Specially the poor. You can think sometimes if you sit alone painting. If you slumgullion you can’t think. Many others have found out that trick, and the poor owe much to it. Then the boy — young Oulthorp came in, he was some sort of a rest. But I have found that I have a double brain that does its own thinking whatever I do. Did you ever find that?

He. (incautiously). Yes, worse luck.

She. (aside). I knew the fire had gone over his face. (aloud and very slowly) ‘ Pleasant, isn’t it — to find all the sorrow, and all the sacrifice —

He. (hoarsely, looking into the fog). There’s no sacrifice. I’ll swear there isn’t.

She. —all the sacrifice, the care and the tenderness, the forethought, the comprehension, and — and all the rest of it go for nothing just because one person has grown tired.

He. (with a shiver). For goodness’ sake let’s talk of something else.

She. (bitterly). What shall we talk about? Nice things — pretty things ? Books and pictures and plays ? I’m quite ready. You begin. He (after a pause). ‘Don’t think the conversation led up to nice things exactly.

She. How strange ! Well ?

He. Er — does the — does the pain last for ever ?

She. I don’t know. I’ve only had four years of it — every day and all day long. He (feebly). Not really?

She. If — if the other thing was real, this is. It begins when I wake and it ends when I sleep — and it begins again when I wake again.

He. How you must hate the man !

She. Worse than that. I only hated a little in the beginning. Now I am beginning not to care. It’s all over — all except the pain, and so, you see it’s doubly worthless. Believe me, if he were to cross the road now under my feet, I shouldn’t even turn my head to — Good God, what’s that ! A shepherd jumps into the road from a bank. Mickey Shies.

He. Drop your hands; he’s going to bolt ! Gone, by Jove ! Do I follow. She (over her shoulder). Yes. I can just hold him. Come along! Where does this road end?

He. ‘London, if you go far enough. Can you take a pull at your brute?

She. I’ll try. (leans over.) No ! Wait till a hill tires him. I’m not afraid. Who’d have thought it in a quiet steady … I believe I shall be afraid in a minute. Ow ! There goes my hair.

He. Shall I lean over and take a pull at him?

She. (gasping and pulling). No ! ‘Bring him down if you did. He’s coming in — a — little — bit. Ouch ! That’s better. Steady, Mickey darling. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Softly, old man. (pulls horse into a canter.) I didn’t like that.

He. Which ? The man that appeared ?

She. No. Trying to ride away from myself. We might have ended in a quarry.

He. It was the other beast behind him that drove Mickey mad. The best of horses get excited sometimes. By the way, have I to go back and pick up hairpins?

She. Poor thing— no. I’ll bundle it up under my cap somehow with the few that remain to me. (aside.) This man is a man. (aloud.) I wish people wouldn’t pop up so suddenly.

He. He came just in time to show how little you cared.

She. No, that was Mickey’s fault.

He. Even if you caught Mickey short by the head and drove your spur into him.

She. I deny the spur. The other thing may be. (Watching his face.) It seems to please you, somehow.

He. No — I don’t think so. But you do care for that man even now?

She. Yes.

He. In spite of everything?

She. In spite of everything — yes.

He. Good Lord !

She. I don’t think He has anything to do with it. He doesn’t even help to forget. He leaves that to the Bambino.

He. That reminds me. Since we have gone so far, I shouldn’t build too much on young Oulthorp’s absolute devotion.

She. What do you mean? Julia Massing?

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He. Yes, I think so. She (absently). Little Liar! He’s like you, though.

He. Why? I never adored you.

She. No, but you have lied to someone else. I am certain of it.

He. And if I did, what have you gained by keeping faith?

She. Seven years of life at least. I am only paying for them now.

He. Is the price too high — are you sorry ?

She. Yes, I am sorry — bitterly sorry — that I ever knew him. There’s no dignity of tragedy to console me. I am sorry, and I laugh at myself for being sorry.

He. But if you had the chance over again what would you do ?

She. Why do you ask — why do you want to find out? So that you may measure another woman’s pain by mine ; because you have treated some woman as —. Is that it?

He. I—I don’t know.

She. But I do. (Edging in towards him.) Look at me. Even I — even I am Beatrice ! That line at the corner of the eyes comes from crying — doctors will tell you so — crying till there are no more tears to cry. That little horseshoe in the forehead — now con- sidered fascinating — comes from lying staring wide awake without shutting your eyes, night after night, thinking, thinking, thinking everything over again from the beginning. You can get that mark for life after three nights’ pain. I have it. Those are the outward and visible signs — some of them. The mouth, too — (leaning to the off side). He (dully). Yes, I see.

She. You don’t. All you are thinking of is —

He. God forbid ! She (leaning further). My dear sir, it would be quite enough if I (softening) gave permission.

He. No, thank you. Not this dance. She (resettling herself in her saddle). Then I believe you do care for her. He (aside). A chance missed. (Aloud.) Pooh ! that’s no proof. But you needn’t continue your explanation.

She. I could say such a lot if I chose. He (leading towards the cliff’s edge). Go on, then. You were talking about mental symptoms.

She. I was, but I won’t go on. (Aside, to herself.) It seems to me that the fog or something is seriously affecting your brain, dear. Never mind. Dinner at eight, two gongs, and a fat man to take me in. Let us be thankful, O Civilisation, for all thy mercies.

He. I want you to, though.

She. Then I will. (Aside.) You will have it, and I would have let you off because you understood — a little. (Aloud.) There are one thousand different ways of going to perdition. She will probably choose the nine hundred and ninety-nine that I have not taken. And it will be your fault. She may even bless you later for setting her on one of those roads. Does that hurt sufficiently?

He. I have known pleasanter things. Well?

She. There’s no more to say. You can hurt yourself better than I can hurt you. How long was your affair for ?

He. Five years.

She. Who ended it ?

He. It ended itself.

She. Sweet child of nature ! That wrought my only woe. In other words, it was your vanity — as it was his. He (aside.) My turn now. (Aloud.) Perhaps your friend got tired.

She. It is very possible. I was everything and more than everything. Now I am nothing, and less than nothing. But I never cheated in word or deed.

He. Did he, then?

She. I was thinking of her. He (wincing). I can do my own thinking there, thank you.

She. I fancied from your invitation you wanted an assistant.

He. Good heavens ! What is the use of two rats in a burning bucket biting at each other? Let’s swear eternal peace.

She. Because you are getting hurt — eh? I am hurt day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute — but you only while you are talking to me — because you’re a man, and therefore a coward.

He. And therefore a coward. It’s a consoling knowledge. (He edges horse towards cliff’s edge.)

She. Doesn’t it make you want to swear at me? He (reining up and looking at the beach below). No. Anything but that just now. Can you see down there, through the fog?

She. Yes ! It’s a remarkably pretty view. (Sees Oulthorp and Miss Massing, side by side.) Aah !

He. So much for Norman ruins.

She. Thank you. So one of them thinks. But what a finished liar Oul- thorp must be. If he had only spoken the truth. (To herself.) Why, only today . . .

He. I daresay he had a natural hesitation about approaching you on the subject.

She. He didn’t understand. (Critically and peering down.) He is kissing Julia Massing.

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He. Why not?

She. Why not, indeed? At this very moment, by the light of the knowledge you taught her, she may be— (his horse plunges away from the cliff). He (administering correction with the crop). That engagement will be given out tonight, in their faces, and announced at breakfast to- morrow. You’ll have to congratulate him.

She. If you had only kept the smoking-room amused, I might have had three days more of Oulthorp’s ” eternal devotion “. That’s all.

He. Remember, I only came into your councils this afternoon-—late.

She. And we have done each other an immense amount of good since?

He. We have sympathised at least. She (throat-note in voice). There’s nothing like sympathy—-holy sympathy, is there?

He. Nothing. Especially when one is in real trouble.

She. ‘So sweet, when a man lays his hand on yours — quite by acci- dent— and says that he is prepared to sympathise with you to any extent —

He. Ho ! ho ! They do that, too.

She. You know. And the next minute you find that the hand has be- come an arm, and you are standing with your back to the mantel- piece spitting ” Sir-r ! ” like an angry pussy-cat, and asking what in the world he means. For comprehension and disinterestedness, give me the sympathy of a man. He (tenderly). All the same I am sorry for you — dear.

She. I didn’t catch the last word. I’ll believe the others.

He. That’s enough, then. I am sorry.

She. Because you see in me the best possible result of what you may have done to her ; and you don’t like it? Sorrow? What use is sorrow to me? If all the hosts of Heaven came down and said they were sorry for me, I could only give them tea, and tell them that they bored me. They should have set things right in the beginning.

He. Blame the poor little cherubs, of course ! I thought you were more honest than that !

She. I am only talking nonsense — you know what I mean. We have no right to complain. But we do.

He. It takes a great deal to make people understand that if they break the Tables of Stone the pieces cut their feet.

She. And then they find out that they mustn’t show the pain. It isn’t pretty, and it doesn’t amuse drawing-rooms. If it did, I should be happy to scream for hours like a steam-engine.

He. Which reminds me — by way of stoking— I wonder what there’ll be for dinner tonight.

She. The first and the last dish is Mr. Warbstow, who explains to us that we attach too much importance to the Deity. I yawn.

He. Mrs. Deeley has a gift for collecting queer people at her troughs.

She. And none queerer than our two sweet selves. Fancy her face if she could listen now !

He. She would be truly grieved. Don’t you think we might try to change the conversation ?

She. I forgot. I have my punishment here now and yours comes later. Very well. What shall we talk about? The fog? He (after a pause). I don’t see why you should be so certain of your luck. I am punished too.

She. Only a little— for just as long as you are talking to me. Wait the hereafter. He (wiping his forehead). But surely I am punished now. If I had killed anyone it couldn’t be worse.

She. Killing’s nothing. You may have done exactly the opposite. In which case, your torment will be heavier. Think of it for a minute, I was killed : and I am not grateful to the man who killed me. She may thank you yet for waking her to life. Does that hurt enough?

He. Enough to pay for all.

She. Not unless you keep on thinking. One spasm of agony does not pay. You must think.

He. I — I dare not.

She. Exactly. I dare because I must. You don’t because you have other things to do. Therefore you will be dealt with later. As my mur- derer will be.

He. How do you know?

She. I don’t — and to tell the truth I don’t care — as far as you’re concerned.

He. I know you don’t, but you needn’t have said so.

She. What mercy do you deserve? If you suffer as you say you do so much the better for you. Oh, dear God ! if I could believe that he felt for one little minute only a tithe of what I feel every hour I’d die contented.

He. Have you never tried to go through the door then?

She. Once. A year ago.

He. How?

She. The silver cigarette-case and the graduated tubes, of course. Is there any other way ? And — and when I had sat down — I was in that old black frock you spilt some coffee over the other night -— I — I thought, when it would be all over, of a hand keeping me down in the chair, and saying — ” Think. Go on thinking, dear. There’s all eternity to think in “. So it seemed to me I should gain nothing.

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He. An eternity of sitting still in a comfortable chair and thinking.

She. That was only my notion. We’re told that God’s mercies are infinite. There may be more horrible tortures.

He. Which be they?

She. For you? Oh, watching her — perhaps. I don’t think anything could make me do more than giggle. My punishment is now — now — now ! Here, at the Deeleys’ and anywhere else, and the only pauses allowed are like the vinegar to give me fresh strength to feel. It’s cruel. He (laughing). Wages o’ sin, mum, wages o’ sin.

She. It’s not fair. If the wages were death I’d have claimed them long ago — long ago.

He. On the strict understanding that you went to sleep immediately afterwards. Isn’t that a little cowardly?

She. O help me ! Am I to endure for ever ?

He. As long as the Law endures. You have given me the same comfort, and — it’s very cold. (A long pause, during which he watches her face.) She (dropping right hand on the pommel-head). Let’s protest. Let’s rebel !

He. Against what, and which, and how?

She. Everything that makes us what we are. Lost faith — lost hope — lost belief — and — and all the rest.

He. Then isn’t there anything to pick out of the wreck?

She. If you give everything nothing remains.

He. Are you so sure?

She. As sure as you are.

He. Every moment tells me that — I am not sure. She (aside). How like a man. (Aloud) That is the last five moments — only a little feeling born of pique and longing for the impossible.

He. It is more. I am certain of it. All things have their first five minutes though they go on for centuries— She (aside). It grows amusing. He is almost interesting.

He. —— We both stand at the same starting-point ; we have gone through the same fire. Doesn’t it draw us together? She (with a little laugh). How ; in what ? In that we have both come out on the other side with the life burnt out. The sympathy of cinders? Too late, it is all too late.

He. I don’t believe it’s possible to suffer for — (Mickey shies violently and disappears into the fog). What’s that — where have you gone to? She (from the fog). A gipsy fire, I think. Burned out. What a stupid horse; he must have seen that a dozen times.

He. The fog made it look large. Come back (voice rising), Oh, come back to me, little woman !

She. I never came. How can I come back?

He. Then come now.

She. Mickey’s ‘fraid.

He. Cut his soul out !

She. And make him happier than myself. No (To horse.) Come along, Mickey. There’s nothing to be scared at. Only ashes, little white ashes. (Cantering through the fog ; leaning off side and holding out her hand.) I am so tired, so tired — and I am here. He (taking her hand and dropping it). ‘No use. It doesn’t bite.

She. I thought it wouldn’t, and now I know. All things are finished, there is no more fire, no more life, only the pretending, and the pain, that is all. This is part of the punishment. God help us both.

He. He can’t. But I hoped somehow that we might pick up some pieces sometime.

She. We could, if you could tell me one oath that I have not heard from his lips, or I could give you one promise that you had not heard from hers. And yet you were prepared to risk it ?

He. I am still — because you understand.

She. I think I understand too well. But you shall enlighten me. Suppose, for a minute, that you really love me.

He. I have supposed that for some minutes already.

She. Then say it in a loud and cheerful voice. Can you?

He. Yes. I love you. She (quietly). Do you know anything of the state of Mickey’s hocks? (Aside.) I know if you put your hand behind the cantle he rears on end.

He. Damn Mickey’s hocks !

She. No, something quite different. (Puts hand behind cantle — Mickey rears.) Now recant quickly. Swear by the holiest thing you know — swear by her life — up, Mickey ! — that you’d let me and this dear beast — doesn’t he stand up beautifully and snort ? — drown or die, if you could get her back for half a minute. Quick ! recant, or I’ll pull Mickey over backwards. He (wearily). Let him down. You needn’t have thrown in the circus. It’s true.

She. By Her life, is it true?

He. By Her life. She (as Mickey drops on his forelegs). Then you are —

He. I am what I am. For pity’s sake, let me be. Let’s go back. (Oul- thorp and Miss Massing trot past in the fog.)

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She. Very good. Keep behind these two and contemplate the rewards of virtue. We’ll go slowly in order that we may appreciate the things we have lost.

He. Indeed we won’t. We’re going to ride as fast as we can.

She. You have no spur ?

He. He’ll answer to the whip, and you can rowel enough for both. Take him up and we’ll go. (They go.)

She. We mustn’t turn into the Deeleys’ grounds at this rate. Pull up, and I promise not to say another word till we get in.

He. On your honour?

She. You swear by strange gods — yes, if it will please you. (She keeps the promise till they are coming up the carriage-drive.)

She. Oh, the girls have been singing all the afternoon. I wish I’d stayed in to assist. Listen ! (They rein up by the shrubbery.) (Contralto Voice from the music-room; piano and violin accom- paniment.)

“I am lost to faith, I am lost to hope,
I am lost to all that should make me fain—
I have lost my way in the light of day,
God send that I find it soon again !”

He (taking her hand). Then there is one chance after all?

She. No ; (aside.) you threw it away by the fire. (aloud.) Listen for the next verse. I know the song. It’s a new setting.

“The sun went down an hour ago,
I wonder if I face toward home.
How shall I find it now night is come—
Now night is come!”

She (Dropping from her horse). Think! And — go on thinking.