Just once I saw her, Josephine,
one face among the crowd, my eyes,
unwarned, were drawn to her in all
that loud mélange. A gathering
I’d chanced upon whilst visiting
a friend, a… person I had come to know;
a family reunion of some kind. But they barked
non-stop, they argued. A real smugglers’ den.
I had not much in common with
that hurly-burly clan.
A certain beauty
clung to her as it does to some, I know,
though years go by and leave their mark.
Her hair, still full, waltzed round her neck
with every dancing move, and I wondered at such
full and flowing locks which imped around
– I now could see – an amply tricked-out face…
Yes, beauty clings
to some, I know. But then, through what? Some noble
grace of being, consort of the first fine flowering,
outwardly and inwardly possessed, that echoes on
in such a soul? I like to think that’s so.
But Josie – no.
With Josie it had gone another way; what now remained
unfashioned by an inner grace or quietude of being.
She glanced at me, the stranger guest, and not just
once or twice, her heavily black-bordered eyes
in a struggle to look bright. And then, those
passive lips; coquettishness still angling from within
an all too sensuous self; within – it saddened me – the wreck
where splendid beauty once had been. A haggard beauty, now,
I made excuses,
left the crowd as soon as courtesy would brook.
And as I stood back from the door became recipient
of one final, questing look.
Note: Modelled on an incident mentioned in the correspondence of General Sir Charles William Geoffrey Estcourt, C.B., in a letter to his sister Harriet dated February 12th, 1789. The encounter with ‘Josephine’ took place earlier during that year at St. Philippe-des-Baines, Cote d’Azur, Mediterranean coast of France, where the General was recuperating after service in British India. [From the narrative of Stephen Vincent Benét].
From ‘Of Goddesses and Women’