Which Shall it Be? by Ethel Lynn Beers

“Which shall it be? which shall it be?”
I looked at John,—John looked at me,
(Dear, patient John, who loves me yet
As well as though my locks were jet.)
And when I found that I must speak,
My voice seemed strangely low and weak;
“Tell me again what Robert said”;
And then I listening bent my head.
“This is his letter:
‘I will give
A house and land while you shall live,
If, in return, from out your seven,
One child to me for aye is given.'”

I looked at John’s old garments worn,
I thought of all that John had borne
Of poverty, and work, and care,
Which I, though willing, could not share;
Of seven hungry mouths to feed,
Of seven little children’s need,
And then of this.
“Come John,” said I,
“We’ll choose among them as they lie
Asleep”; so walking hand in hand,
Dear John and I surveyed our band.

First to the cradle lightly stepped,
Where Lilian, the baby, slept;
Her damp curls lay, like gold alight,
A glory ‘gainst the pillow white;
Softly her father stooped to lay
His rough hand down in loving way,
When dream or whisper made her stir,
And huskily he said, “Not her.”
We stooped beside the trundle-bed,
And one long ray of lamp-light shed
Athwart the boyish faces there,
In sleep so pitiful and fair.
I saw on Jamie’s rough red cheek
A tear undried; ere John could speak,
“He’s but a baby too,” said I,
And kissed him as we hurried by.
Pale, patient Robby’s angel face
Still in his sleep bore suffering’s trace;
“No, for a thousand crowns not him,”
He whispered, while our eyes were dim.
Poor Dick! sad Dick! our wayward son,
Turbulent, reckless, idle one,—
Could he be spared? “Nay, He who gave
Bids us befriend him to the grave;
Only a mother’s heart can be
Patient enough for such as he;
And so,” said John, “I would not dare
To send him from her bedside prayer.”
Then stole we softly up above,
And knelt by Mary, child of love;
“Perhaps for her ‘twould better be,”
I said to John. Quite silently
He lifted up a curl, that lay
Across her cheek in wilful way,
And shook his head; “Nay, love, not thee”;
The while my heart beat audibly.
Only one more, our eldest lad,
Trusty and truthful, good and glad,—
So like his father: “No, John, no;
I cannot, will not, let him go!”

And so we wrote, in courteous way,
We could not give one child away;
And afterward toil lighter seemed,
Thinking of that of which we dreamed;
Happy, in truth, that not one face
We missed from its accustomed place;
Thankful to work for all the seven,
Trusting then to One in heaven.