ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)

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POEMS FROM OTHER SOURCES - 7

 

MORDRED

BY R. WILLIAMS BUCHANAN.

 

PART THE FIRST.

                   “FAREWELL! farewell!”
                         I softly sigh’d;
                   Clear as a bell
                         Her voice replied:
The boughs closed round, the whispering wind dropt low,
               And it was eventide.

                   While dim and gray
                         Dropt down the night,
                   Her fair face lay,
                         Snow-cold, snow-white,
Close to my heart, and, sparkling on her tears,
               Glimmer’d a pale starlight.

                   Under the shade
                         Of Arthur’s Towers,
                   Within a glade
                         Of garden bowers,
We linger’d, heart to heart, and the cool air
               Was sweet with scent of flowers.

                   In sweet unrest,
                         Forlorn and weak,
                   Upon my breast
                         She leant her cheek,
Whispering lowly, “Whither dost thou go?”
               I frown’d, and did not speak:

                   For blushful shame
                         And coward dread,
                   A face like flame,
                         A heart like lead,
Oppress’d me, and I shudder’d to behold
               The faith from which I fled.

                   I could not dare
                         To tell a thing
                   So sweet, so fair,
                         So suffering,
That a dark demon urged me on to join
               Against the blameless king;

                   That, spite of shame
                         And shame’s award,
                   A blacken’d name,
                         A recreant sword,
My soul had leagued with Lancelot’s red powers
               Against my sovereign lord.

                   Than falsehood she
                         Was fairer far,—
                   Fairer to me
                         Than spirits are;
And on the tumbled waters of my life
               She glimmer’d like a star.

                   But like a cloud
                         Rose, far away,
                   The dark and proud
                         Rebel array,
And over bloody graves to Camelot
               It redden’d day by day.

                   And I was drawn,
                         As by a chain,
                   By stealth to pawn
                         Body and brain,
Turn traitor to my liege, and to a love
               Sweet and without a stain.

                   Her beauty chid
                         My shame and fear:
                   How could I bid
                         A thing so dear
Fly from her loyal sweetness, peace, and truth,
               For falsehood sad and sere?

                   “Farewell!” I cried,
                         With heart wrung dry,—
                   The black wind sigh’d
                         Mournfully by.
And “When wilt thou return?” she whisper’d low—
               I answer’d with a lie.

                   With lips like ice,
                         And pulses hot,
                   I kiss’d her thrice,
                         And waited not,
But tore myself away, and through deep night
               Rode swift from Camelot.

                   By gleaming Usk
                         Fell branches green,
                   And through the dusk,
                         In silver sheen,
I saw the river glimmer to the hills,
               With Arthur’s Towers between.

                   And salt, salt tears
                         Flash’d large and fell,
                   And in mine ears
                         “Farewell! farewell!”
Rang as a voice from some diviner life,
               And warn’d me like a knell.

                   But blind to sight,
                         To feeling dead,
                   Along the night
                         Swiftly I fled,
Till on the ledges of the hills I saw
               The rebel watch-fires red.

 

PART THE SECOND.

                   Through summer leas,
                         Yellow with gold,
                   ’Neath shady trees,
                         The river roll’d,
And on its rush-fringed banks to Camelot
               Came lances manifold.

                   With fire and sword
                         We swept along,
                   A traitor horde,
                         A warlike throng,
And in our track the many hamlets mourn’d,
               For rapine, blood, and wrong.

                   Fairest of all,
                         And sinfullest,
                   Towering tall
                         Above the rest,
Upon a coal-black steed rode Lancelot,
               In sombre armour drest;

                   With form that stoop’d,
                         And unkempt beard,
                   A brow that droop’d
                         O’er lips that sneer’d,—
But the mere meekness of his henchman’s eye
               Seem’d something that he fear’d.

                   Forward we rode
                         ’Neath branches green,
                   By Usk that flow’d
                         In silver sheen,
Until the river glimmer’d to the hills,
               With Arthur’s Towers between.

                   The dewy mist
                         Of morn upwound;
                   And ere we wist,
                         A trumpet sound
Spake like a human cry; and, lo, the boughs
               Grew populous around.

                   And loudly then
                         Arose the shout
                   Of armèd men
                         And henchmen stout,
Who sprang upon us like a storm, and whirl’d
               Rude swords around about.

                   But swift as wind
                         We struggled through,
                   And left behind
                         That hireling crew;
While, turning at a cry, our meanest horse
               Assail’d them, and they flew.

                   When brightly o’er us
                         The morning flush’d,
                   And far before us,
                         To meet us, rush’d
The flower of loyal steedsmen—Lancelot
               Gript his great sword, but blush’d.

                   The greenwood rang
                         Again, again,
                   Till with a clang,
                         On the green plain,
We struck the foe, with hoofs that sparkled fire,
               And blows that fell like rain.

                   The shrill death-cry
                         Arose aloud.
                   Tumultuously,
                         In a pale cloud
Of fiery dust, we eddied to and fro—
               A fierce and shrieking crowd.

                   With deafen’d ears,
                         And blood-blurr’d sight,
                   Amid my peers
                         I strove in fight,
Till, hurl’d apart, I singled out for death
               A strange and visor’d knight.

                   For, in a place
                         Removed, we came
                   Full face to face
                         With hearts of flame,
And through his mask of mail he breathed in scorn
               My loyal lady’s name.

                   Then “Yield!” I cried,
                         With wrath grown higher;
                   But he defied
                         My murderous ire:—
I made a burning circle of my sword,
               And smote him down in fire!

                   With this red brand
                         His helm I clove,
                   And, sword in hand,
                         I strode above
His breast, and drew his visor down—and lo!
               My loyal lady-love!

                   Pale as the moon
                         On Snowdon’s crest,
                   In a cold swoon
                         She lay at rest;
And as I loosed her helm, her yellow hair
               Fell, blood-stain’d, on her breast.

                   Then, with low sighs,
                         Quick breath she drew,
                   And, opening eyes
                         Of fading blue,
She look’d upon me; and I moan’d aloud
               With heart as weak as dew.

                   Her pale lips stirr’d
                         Without a sound;
                   Without a word
                         She gazed around;
And then she smiled, as only Love can smile
               When Love is blest and crown’d!

                   And with a shriek
                         I raised her head;
                   And, cold and meek,
                         Apparellèd
In the new mystery of diviner life,
               She moan’d, and softly said,—

                   “From sorrow past
                         Come peace and gain;
                   And, love, at last
                         We meet again.—
I die, content with this poor blood to show
               Your honour its one stain.

                   “For when you fled
                         With shame-flush’d face,
                   To honour dead,
                         And dead to grace,
I arm’d my woman’s limbs at dead of night,
               And rose and took your place.

                   “Wherefore, in ruth,
                         I pay for thee
                   The love, the truth,
                         The loyalty
Which wait on noble deeds, and which you owed
               To Heaven, the King, and me!

                   “To sweeter climes
                         Of love I fly;
                   Sweet music chimes
                         Through earth and sky.—
O Mordred, take me softly in your arms,
               And kiss me ere I die!

                   “Farewell! farewell!”
                         She softly sigh’d;
                   And, like a knell,
                         My heart replied.
Then, in her eyes, I broke my sword in twain,
               And kiss’d her, and she died.

_____

 

‘Mordred’ was published in The St. James's Magazine (August, 1863).

_____

 

MERLIN AND THE WHITE DEATH.

 

I.

DARKLY I sought, in shade and sun,
Fair Uniun, pale Uniun!
Long days I journeyed, fearing not,
     Through forests dark, by waters dire;
And far behind me Camelot
     Sank to its topmost spire.
Ay, wingëd as the summer wind,
I left the haunts of men behind:
By waters dire, through forests dark,
Under the white moon’s silver arc;
O’er hill, down valley, far away,
Toward the sunset gathering gray,
         I, Merlin, fled,—
With aged limbs and hoary hair,
Arm’d with strange amulets to snare
The peerless Water-Witch, whose head
With lilies of sleep is garlanded,
     Under the earth and air,—
And all the viewless lures to break
Of that pale Lady of the Lake.

 

II.

Swiftly I near’d her region dun,
Fair Uniun, pale Uniun!
Till, lastly, trees of hugest height,
     Below them, flowers of poppy red,
And weird deep whisperings of the night,
     And breezes dropping dead,
Closed round my path; while in the sky
The moon shone like a great white eye
That watched me through a belt of cloud,—
What time, with head and shoulders bowed,
And lips that mutter’d unaware,
I gained the haunted region where
         White Uniun dwells;
And far away, through forest trees,
I caught a gleam like moonlit seas—
A glassy gleam of silver swells,—
The lake rimm’d round with lily-bells,
     Unstirr’d by rain or breeze;—
And trembled on, my own to make
The matchless Lady of the Lake.

 

III.

Nor safely wooed, nor lightly won,
Fair Uniun, pale Uniun!
She dwells within her weed-hung cave,
     Deep in the green moon-lighted water,
She glimmers in the whispering wave—
     A demon’s awful daughter!
White, white as snow her oozy dress,
White as her face’s loveliness;
Supple her boneless limbs as snakes,
And full of radiance, such as breaks
Around the cestus of a star,
And strange as eyes of serpents are
         Her haunting eyes;
And she had power, as stars aver,
To make the wight who conquered her
More young, and beautiful, and wise,
For good and ill, and great emprize,
     Than all men else that stir;
Wherefore I sought to win and take
This matchless Lady of the Lake!

 

IV.

Colder than ice her blood doth run,
Fair Uniun, pale Uniun!
Pitiless to all things that range
     Below her, near her, or above,
Till, by some marvel dark and strange,
     She learn at last to love;
Knight after knight had thither gone,
Led by fierce impulse plunging on
To something that he loved with dread,
And each in turn been conquerëd;
Yea, each in turn been held and snared
By the pale syren, silver-hair’d,
     Whom all men fear!
And side by side they lay at rest,
With folded hands upon the breast,
On beds of weed and darnel drear,
And foam-bells hung in every ear,
     And all in white were drest,
And all were watch’d till they should wake
By the pale Lady of the Lake.

 

V.

Potent her spells in shade or sun,
Fair Uniun, pale Uniun!
Wherefore I, Merlin, old but strong,
     Sweeping my breast with hoary beard,
Skill’d in deep signs and magic song,
     Much honour’d and revered,
Vow’d, with a wise man’s purpose stern,
To face the Water-Witch, and learn
What wondrous arts, unknown to me,
What superhuman witchery,
She used, those sleepers to enslave
That rested in her ocean cave,
         Nor felt, nor heard;
Nay, vowed by her strange love to free
My soul for immortality,
To woo her darkly, till I heard
The sigh of love, the whisper’d word
That proved her love for me!
And then for aye her spells to break,
The wondrous Lady of the Lake.

 

VI.

Thus arm’d, I near’d her region dun,
Fair Uniun, pale Uniun!
I passed from out the forests old,
     And, ’tween two faintly purple hills,
Saw the smooth waters glitter cold,
     And throb with silvery thrills:
Under a heaven glassy gray,
Bare to the ghastly moon they lay.
And on their marge great lilies heaved,
Slimed with the water-snakes, huge-leaved
And monstrous, floating scores on scores,
With fire-sparks burning in their cores—
         Like eyes of flame;
Afar across the lake there passed
Great shadows, multiform and vast,
That with low murmurs went and came;
And crawling things, stingless and tame,
     Came creeping thick and fast
Upon me, as I silence brake
With, “Rise, white Phantom of the Lake!

 

VII.

“The time has come, thy spells are spun,
Fair Uniun, pale Uniun!
And, lo! with hands uplifted thus,
     I weave a spell of strange device,
To awe thine eyes soul-perilous,
     And thaw thy blood of ice!”
Then, like a hum of waterfalls,
I heard a voice, “Who calls, who calls?”
And, standing on the water’s brim,
With heart stone-still and brain a-swim,
I wove the spell of strange device,
With whirling arms I wove it thrice,
         And audibly.
From the deep silence of the flood,
The answer smote me where I stood,—
“Who summons me, who summons me?”
And, straining dizzy eyes to see,
     With fingers gushing blood,
I shrieked aloud, “Awake! awake!
Thou white-faced Phantom of the Lake.”

 

VIII.

The deep caves murmur’d, all and one,
“Fair Uniun, pale Uniun!”
And, from her wondrous weed-hung cave,
     Deep in the green moon-lighted water,
She rose above the whispering wave—
     A demon’s awful daughter!
White, white as snow her oozy dress,
White as her face’s loveliness,
Supple her boneless limbs as snakes,
And full of radiance, such as breaks
Around the cestus of a star,
And strange as eyes of serpents are
         Her haunting eyes.
What time I cried, “The fates decree,
That he will grow, who conquers thee,
More young, and beautiful, and wise,
For good, and ill, and high emprize,
     Than all men else that be;—
Wherefore I seek thy spells to break,
O wondrous Lady of the Lake!”

 

IX.

She rose erect, the peerless one,
Fair Uniun, pale Uniun!
She fixed her glassy eyes on mine,
     With gaze that swoon’d through soul and sense,
And wholly robed in white moonshine,
     In vestal white intense,
She rose before me to the waist,
What time bright silver snakes embraced
Her arms and neck, and lilies white
Throbbed to her sides with veins of light;
The pale moon, trembling overhead,
Slow widen’d like a flower, and shed
         Peace on the place;
And, one by one, peept stars that grew
To silver leaf, and sparkled dew,
Shedding a sweetness strange to trace
Upon the Witch’s bloodless face,
     Until I saw, and knew,
The lovely lure I sought to break
In the white Lady of the Lake!

 

X.

Fairer than aught that loves the sun
Was Uniun, pale Uniun!
But, weaving spells and waving arms,
     I gazed upon her unbeguiled,
And gazed, and gazed, and mutter’d charms,
     Till, beauteously, she smiled!
And at the smile, —O wondrous sight!—
Her body gleamed and gathered light;
Next, silent as a fountain springs,
From shining shoulders, golden wings
Uncurl’d, and round about her feet
The water murmured and grew sweet,
         And fair, so fair!
The lady smiled upon me still,
And tranced my fate to tears, until
I, gazing on her, waiting there,
Her gentle eyes, her yellow hair,
     Seemed lost to hope and will;
Then thus, in tones like music, spake
That matchless Lady of the Lake:

 

XI.

“Not safely wooed, nor lightly won,
Is Uniun, fair Uniun!
Yet unto those who, by a power
     Greater than mine, are given to me,
I grow in beauty hour by hour,
     And immortality!
Haste, haste thee back to Camelot;
I seek not those who love me not;
Nor, till due time, can mortal gaze
Behold how fair I am, and praise
My matchless beauty at its worth;
And thou, compact of subtle earth,
         Hast yet to learn
How fair I am, what peace I keep
For hearts that ache and eyes that weep,
And how, when humbled, men discern
That mine are eyes more sweet than stern!”
     Whereat a darkness deep
Oppressed my soul, and, as she spake,
Sank the white Lady of the Lake!

 

XII.

O beautiful, and all unwon,
Pale Uniun, pale Uniun!
With wiser wonder in my brain,
     And will as weak as ocean foam,
Stript of my pride, and pale with pain,
     I, Merlin, wander’d home.
But, ever since, in moon and sun,
Fair Uniun, pale Uniun,
Has haunted me from place to place
With the white glory of her face;
And I grow old, grow old, and long
At last to join that white-robed throng,
         Who sweetly sleep,
Watched ever by the peerless one,
Who sweetens sleep when work is done
For still, within her cavern deep,
Where never eye may ope to weep,
     Watches pale Uniun,
Till, at a call, the sleepers wake,
And see the Angel of the Lake!

                                                                                                                         R. WILLIAMS BUCHANAN.

_____

 

‘Merlin and the White Death’ was published in Once A Week (20 February, 1864).

_____

 

A’BECKETT’S TROTH.

 

PRISON’D in Palestine, A’Beckett saw
An Eastern maiden flutter to and fro,
Bringing a sunshine to his prison-house;
And while she waited on him silently,
And heard his speech she could not understand,
His eyes that hunger’d on her coming said
“I love thee;” and her Eastern eyes replied
“I love thee.” Wherefore, in the secret night,
She ope’d his prison door, looking the words,
“Fly—for I love thee!” and what time he paused
In act to wander forth, his eyes replied
In toneless speech her soul could understand,—
“I go—but I will come to make thee mine!”
So fled he forth, and, touching English shore,
Forgot the angel of his prison-house;
But she, the Eastern maiden, treasured up
The promise of his face, and moved about
With an uncertain step like one who dreams,
Murmuring evermore, in her own tongue,—
“Gilbert, thou wilt return to make me thine!”

Two little words, two little honey’d words,
Were all the maiden’s store of English speech—
“Gilbert” and “London”—words that she had heard
The prisoner breathe when looks interpreted
Their beauteous meaning; and with these she soothed
The weary waiting for her love’s return:
She murmur’d them awake and in her dreams,
And they were sweeter than all human sound;
And one brought back the tender glorious eyes
That swore with truth sure as the silent stars;
And one called up a pleasant western land,
Where she should dwell with Gilbert till the end.

But slowly. surely, passed the nights and days,
And Gilbert came not: days and months and years,
And still he came not. Therefore, doubting not,
“He cannot come,” she said, “though he has sworn
He loves me. I have also truly sworn;
Therefore I will arise and go to him.”

Fearing not, doubting not, she wander’d forth,
And journey’d till she stood beside the sea,
And heard the murmur of the waves, that seemed
Like Gilbert’s speech she could not understand.
Then, after many days, passed fearlessly
On shipboard; for when rude men hinder’d her,
She murmured, pointing westward, sunset-ward,
“London”—half the whole language of her Soul.
And rude men drew aside, and harmed her not.
For, though her face was strange, her garments poor,
There was an errand in her eyes which seemed
Too sanctified for rough impediment.

Upon the sun-kist strand of Italy
She landed: passing on, with face that still
Turned westward, like the sunflower sunward; still
“Gilbert” and “London” sweetly made for her
A melody such as a bird’s twin wings
Murmurs in flying. Here the monk stopped short
And blessed her for the errand on her face;
The soldier, shrugging shoulders, mutter’d “Mad!”
But felt as if a spirit passed him by;
The very lazzaroni in the streets
Grew bashful at the truth of her sweet smile.
So walked she onward to the setting sun,
Piloted by those twin sweet English words;
Till barbarous peasants in the wilds of France
Glared at her under rugged locks unkempt,
And when she murmured “London” dumbly gazed
Toward sunset. Many days, and weeks, and months
She journey’d, till again she saw the sea,
And heard the murmur of the waves that seemed
Like Gilbert’s speech she could not understand;
Till standing, looking to the west, she heard
One call unto another in a tongue
She knew was Gilbert’s tongue; and eagerly,
With asking eyes, she clang to him who spake,
And utter’d her Soul’s speech; and at the last
He pointed dumbly to a ship that rode
With murmurous sails at anchor in the bay.
Then, once again, unhinder’d by rude hands,
She calmly passed on shipboard; and, ere long,
Standing on English ground, heard everywhere,
A beauteous speech she knew was Gilbert’s speech,
A hollow murmur deafening soul and sense,
A blessed tearful memory, a voice
Like the sea’s voice she could not understand.

Not yet her search was ended. Days and nights
She wander’d, shone upon by rich and poor
With charity-giving smiles and silent prayers;
But, lastly, standing in a populous street,
What time the air was rent with joyous cries,
Beheld a pageant sweeping proudly past,
And Gilbert in the midst, erect and proud,
With stately eyes forgetful of their troth.
Then, first the sweet tears came, and, white as snow,
She fell at Gilbert’s feet, who knew her not;
Next, knowing her, turned crimson, and was shamed.
But, when she rose erect and clung to him,
Murmuring “Gilbert,” with an angry joy
He caught her to his heart, crying aloud,—
“O eyes, more true than truest human speech!
O lips, that need no language but the Soul’s!
O heart, that utterest against mine own
Love plainer than all false and spoken vows!”
Whereat the Eastern maiden clung to him
And could not understand; but when he stooped
And looked into her eyes, she knew he said
“I love thee—love thee—and will make thee mine!”

                                                                                                                                 ROBERT BUCHANAN.

beckettpic03

‘A’Beckett’s Troth’ was published in Once A Week (14 May, 1864).

_____

 

HERMIONÉ.

 

WHEREVER I wander, up and about,
This is the puzzle I can’t make out—
Because I care little for books, no doubt:

I have a Wife, and she is wise,
     Deep in philosophy, strong in Greek;
Spectacles shadow her pretty eyes,
     Coteries rustle to hear her speak;
She writes a little—for love, not fame;
Has published a book with a dreary name;
     And yet (God bless her!) is mild and meek.
And how I happened to woo and wed
     A wife so pretty and wise withal
Is part of the puzzle that fills my head—
Plagues me at daytime, racks me in bed,
     Haunts me, and makes me appear so small.
The only answer that I can see
Is—I could not have married Hermioné
(That is her fine wise name), but she
Stoop’d in her wisdom and married me.

For I am a fellow of no degree,
Given to romping and jollity;
The Latin they thrash’d into me at school
     The world and its fights have thrash’d away:
At figures alone I am no fool,
     And in City circles I say my say.
But I am a dunce at twenty-nine,
And the kind of study that I think fine
Is a chapter of Dickens, a sheet of the Times,
     When I lounge, after work, in my easy-chair;
Punch for humour, and Praed for rhymes,
     And the butterfly mots blown here and there
     By the idle breath of the social air.
A little French is my only gift,
Wherewith at times I can make a shift,
Guessing at meanings, to flutter over
A filigree tale in a paper cover.

Hermioné, my Hermioné!
What could your wisdom perceive in me?
And, Hermioné, my Hermioné!
How does it happen at all that we
Love one another so utterly?
Well, I have a bright-eyed boy of two,
     A darling who cries with lung and tongue about:
As fine a fellow, I swear to you,
     As ever poet of sentiment sung about!
And my lady-wife with the serious eyes
     Brightens and lightens when he is nigh,
And looks, although she is deep and wise,
     As foolish and happy as he or I!
And I have the courage just then, you see,
To kiss the lips of Hermioné—
Those learnëd lips that the learnëd praise—
And to clasp her close as in sillier days;
To talk and joke in a frolic vein,
     To tell her my stories of things and men;
And it never strikes me that I’m profane,
For she laughs and blushes and kisses again,
     And, presto! fly! goes her wisdom then!
For Boy claps hands, and is up on her breast,
     Roaring to see her so bright with mirth,
And I know she deems me (O the jest!)
     The cleverest fellow on all the earth!

And Hermioné, my Hermioné,
Nurses her boy and defers to me;
Does not seem to see I’m small—
Even to think me a dunce at all!
And wherever I wander, up and about,
Here is the puzzle I can’t make out:
That Hermioné, my Hermioné,
In spite of her Greek and philosophy,
When sporting at night with her boy and me,
Seems sweeter and wiser, I assever—
Sweeter and wiser, and far more clever,
And makes me feel more foolish than ever,
Through her childish, girlish, joyous grace,
And the silly pride in her learnëd face!

That is the puzzle I can’t make out—
Because I care little for books, no doubt;
But the puzzle is pleasant, I know not why,
     For, whenever I think of it, night or morn,
I thank my God she is wise, and I
     The happiest fool that was ever born!

                                                                                                 R. B.

hermione

‘Hermioné’ was published in The Argosy (December 1865 - No. 1, pp.47-49).

_____

 

VERNER RAVN: A DRAMA.

CHARACTERS.

VERNER, called the Raven, a Norwegian barbarian, in arms against King Oluf the Holy.
HELGA.        His Daughter.
ORM.          His Son, a boy.
EBBESEN.    A Heathen Priest.
VANA.        A Sorceress.
ULV.
ERIK.      } Barbarians.
BJÖRN.

PLACE: Norway. PERIOD: The reign of King Oluf, called the Holy, who forced Christianity on his kingdom with fire and sword.

SCENE: THE SACRED GROVES. High Druid Arches, surrounding an Altar, on the steps of which crouches VANA the SORCERESS. In the far distance, Mountains of Snow. A Dark Night, with the Moon driving through the Storm-Rack. Close to the Altar, gazing upward, EBBESEN. Distant thunder.

EBBE.    From vale to vale pale Oluf’s banners pass
               Triumphant, dreadful with the blood-red Cross,
               Leaving upon their track the whitening bones
               Of Odin’s children. Thrice hath Verner Ravn
               Flown, shrieking hoarsely, with his scatter’d hosts;
               And now, a price upon his head, he wanders
               Homeless among these wilds; while nearer, nearer,
               Comes Oluf victory-crown’d—the ghastly man,
               Like to a skeleton equip’d in steel!
               O spirits, to whom these hands have offered up
               Life’s costliest sacrifice of flesh and blood,
               Hither, from mansions of the sunless snow,
               To Verner and your children!

Enter, hurriedly, ERIK and BJÖRN.

ERIK.                                                  He is here!
BJÖRN.    He stands beside the Altar!—Ebbesen!
EBBE.      Whence come ye in such haste?
ERIK.                                                      From Verner Ravn.
               Again have we been scatter’d, and again
               Is Verner conquer’d.
EBBE.                            [Hearken, and be pitiful!]
               Where met the hosts?
ERIK.                                        Yonder in Bergendal,
               Under the hills, and fought a fearful fight,
               Till one croak’d out aloud the chief was slain,
               And panic-struck we fled. O Ebbesen,
               Our enemies are not human!
EBBE.                                                  Wherefore not?
ERIK.      Knife, bolt, and iron fail to penetrate
               Their hard and glistening skins. The God they serve
               Arms them against us.
EBBE.                            [Hear, ye pale gods, hear!]
BJÖRN.    Onward they sweep like things ye cannot kill,
               With ranks that gleam like corn against the sun;
               And in their midst the bloodless monarch stalks,
               Huge, gaunt, white-faced, with horror-gleaming eyes,
               Making a burning circle with his sword
               And striking down in fire!

Enter ULV.

ULV.        Say, where is Verner Ravn?
EBBE.                                                Ask the gods!
ULV
.        He fled this way,—I followed. O my friends,
               All hope is gone! In yonder battle, Verner
               Faced Oluf singly twice; twice, as he fled,
               The ghastly leader laughed!
BJÖRN.                                            Who comes?
ULV.                                                                    ’Tis he!
               Wild, haggard, bleeding, like a murder’d man
               Started to life, he rushes hither.

VERNER rushes in, and prostrates himself before the altar.
VANA stirs, watching him intently.

VERNER.                                                          Odin!
               Gods of the mists and snows! ye awful shapes
               Who in Valhalla sit with sword on thigh,
               Come from your halls behind the thunder-cloud,
               Gather, O gather, gather!
EBBE.                                            Verner!
VERNER (starting up).                               Ebbesen!
               And ye—O cowards, that ye turned and fled
               When victory was so near!
ERIK.                                                It is too late—
               Their god is strongest.
VERNER.                                    Liar!
EBBE.                                                It is true!
               The gods are angry. Pale and fierce and still
               They gaze upon thee from their icy realm
               Beyond the thunder: white and tame the lightning
               Plays round their dreadful foreheads silently—
               They grasp it not to wither up the foe!
               We must appease them.
VERNER.                                      How?

VANA creeps forward, gripping the arm of VERNER.

VANA.                                                  By sacrifice!
               At sunrise, Verner, must our choicest blood
               Stain yonder altar.
VERNER.                              Vana!
VANA.                                          Since the sun
               Burnt to its setting, and the tempest gather’d,
               Under the naked heaven have I lain
               Communing with the dead. They answer’d me.
VERNER. Their answer?
VANA.                          Even this: “O widow’d Vana,
               Whose husband Verner in his anger slew,
               O Vana! homeless as the winter wind,
               Hearken! The gods are wroth, yet would appoint
               Verner the leader of their scatter’d children;
               And this bright boon they will deny till blood
               Appeaseth them!”—Nay, hush,—and hear the rest:
               “That which is dearest to the Raven’s heart,
               Must Verner, at to-morrow’s sunrise, slay
               On yonder altar. Let his heart fail now,
               And Oluf treads him down. Let him be strong,
               And lo! his host shall conquer, and himself
               Pass armëd to Valhalla!” (Aside) Now, ye gods,
               I hold him!—Now, O husband, Sigurdsön,
               Slumber in peace, avenged!

VANA and EBBESEN go up. ULV and ERIK whisper.

ULV.                                                  Question it not!
               Their god is mightiest of gods, and ours
               Speed shrieking from the thunder of his feet:
               Wait calmly but the issue of to-night;—
               If it be fatal, fly to Oluf!
ERIK.                                          Oluf!
ULV.      Yea,—with the head of Verner for a gift!
               For Oluf, taught by him he serves, hath offer’d
               Red gold for Verner’s life. When all is done,
               The mighty god who makes the king so strong
               Will guard our lives against the gods of Verner!                      [They retire.
VERNER. “That which is dearest to the Raven’s heart?”
               Gods, I have given ye blood of friend and foe,
               And still ye gaze with pale insatiate eyes,
               Nor send the mighty wind whereby our foes
               Shall droop and break and fall like stalks of corn.
               What further can I offer ye, O gods,
               Ere, on your fatal fields, I offer up
               This battle-bruiséd body? (ORM passes.) Who goes there?
               Speak!
ORM.                  ’Tis I!
VERNER.                        Orm?
ORM.                                      Yea, father, Orm, thy son.
VERNER.  Whence comest thou?
ORM.                              From within the cavern yonder,
               Where thou didst leave me yesternight.
VERNER.                                                            And Helga?
ORM.      Is yonder also, praying on her knees
               That the great gods may charm thy life, and put
               The battle in thy hands.
VERNER.                                    She prays in vain!
               The gods are angry with thy father, Orm!
               I am again a shadow on the hills
               Fleeing the foeman’s foot, alone, alone,
               And hounded like the bird of prey I am!
(Aside, watching ORM earnestly) Can it be thus ye answer me, O powers?
               Thirst ye for blood of one whose light young step
               Is yet so weak upon the ground, whose arm
               Would crack beneath the sword his father wields?
(Aloud) Come to my side, boy!—closer, let the moon
               Scatter her dusky silver on thy face:
               ’Tis not too like thy mother’s face to show
               Some glimmering of thy father’s soul beneath.
               It was my precious dream, when thou wert born,
               That thou shouldst be a warrior trained in arms—
               Hast thou a warrior’s heart?
ORM.                                                Ay! I were else
               No son of thine! Oh, I have knelt and prayed
               The powers above to hasten on the time
               When by thy side, in battle, I might show
               A spirit worthy thee.
VERNER.                                ’Tis bravely spoken!
               Art thou prepared to die?
ORM.                                            To die?—I am!
               To die a warrior’s death; amid the din
               Of battles, ’mong the dying and the dead,
               Blood steaming in my nostrils, to be wafted
               By spirits to Valhalla!
VERNER.                                  That is well!
               Yet, boy, the mighty gods will otherwise:
               Thy fight shall be in regions far from here,
               Beyond these hills where wearily we walk
               With bloody footprints round us in the snow.
               Yea, thou shalt die a calmer, grander death,
               Mild as the going of a summer day,
               On yonder holy Altar!
ORM (screaming).                     Ah!
VERNER.                                          Be still!
               Be silent! Is thy heart a craven, Orm?
               Or art thou Verner's son?—Were it not glorious
               To die for the good spirits who have made thee
               So strong, so bold?

VANA interposes, gazing sternly at VERNER.

VANA.                                    Verner, forbear!—and thou, (to ORM)
               Get thee within the cavern! (Exit ORM.) Verner, Verner,
               Dissemble not with thine own heart. The gods
               Demand thy dearest gifts. Thou hast a daughter!—
(With malicious emphasis.) A girl whose eyes are blue and deep as water,
               Whose face and frame are like the snow, whose motion
               Is light as clouds upon a summer heaven!
               The pale gods see that she is beautiful!
               And smiling, with their large eyes fixed on thine,
               As holy offering demand her. (A thunder-clap.) Hark!
               They answer from their clouds. Why dost thou bow
               Thy face within thy hands? (Thunder.) Hark! hear again
               The muttering gods. Ha, wouldst thou be a slave
               To slaves—that serve a petty spirit bred
               I’ the summer storm o’ the south? Thou, o’er whose cradle
               Fair Freya bent with falling golden hair,
               That made a holy radiance round thy sleep!
               Thou, by whose side immortal Bragi struck
               His fiery harp-strings, while the melody
               So blended with thy soul that it became
               Part of the very motion of thy limbs!
               Thou, bird of omen on the bloody field,
               Raven of Battle, at whose shriek the hosts
               Turn pale, and rush upon their dooms, and die,
               Echoing thee!—Arouse, and follow me!
               Strengthen thy heart with silence and with prayer;
               Pray to the gods for courage; since, at sunrise,
               Helga must die!
VERNER.                          Helga!—O gods, be pitiful!
               ’Tis doom’d! Thy dearest sacrifice once given,
               The thunder-bolt drops down from yonder heaven,
               The bloody Cross is rent, the Raven calls,
               The ordeal is reversed, and Oluf falls.
               Lo, steel thy heart and gain immortal life!
               Lay bare the Altar, and uplift the knife!
               Then raise aloft thy bloody hands and cry,
               And crave the aid gods dare not then deny!
                               [Exeunt. The clouds thicken. Thunder and lightning.

VOICES IN THE STORM.

Lo! the blood of heroes
     Stains our banquet-hall,—
Yea, the blood of women,
     And of children small!
With the red feast drunken,
     From the clouds we cry—
Pour the bright stream faster,
     Lest we shriek and die!
And, like distant thunder,
     Comes a sound of woe,
From the battles under,
     To our thrones of snow.
Lay bare the altar!
     Uplift the knife!
For the blood of mortals
     Is our breath and life.
Ho, faster, faster,
     Let the bright stream fall,
While we quaff and listen
     In our banquet-hall!

Ah woe! ah terror!
     As we cry aloud,
From the distance northward
     Comes a thunder-cloud;
And within its shadow
     Walk priests and kings,
And it floateth hither
     With a sound of wings!
And behold! it opens,
     And a Face snow-white,
Whose eyes are troubled
     With a dreadful light,
Whose brow is bleeding
     With a thorny crown,
Whence the blood-drops trickle
     And brighten down,
Smiles strangely on us,
     And approaches near,
With a peace we fade from,
     With a light we fear;
And our thrones are thawing,
     And our sceptres fall,
And the Face’s breathing
     Melts our banquet-hall.
Lay bare the altar!
     Uplift the knife!
For the blood of mortals
     Is our breath and life!
For the pale Face brightens
     From the southern sky—
Pour faster, faster,
     Lest we shriek and die.

                                                             [The voices die in the distance.    The scene grows lighter.

Enter HELGA.

HELGA.  The cave is full of eyes and tongues!—wild shapes
               Are thronging in the darkness, dreadful voices
               Dismally moaning!—and methought I heard
               Out in the tempest fearful mutterings
               Of gods at strife. How cold it is! how still!
               The storm is over, and the lightning, playing
               On yonder snowy peaks without a sound,
               Grows fainter, fading upward to its bourne
               Beyond the clouds. I would that Orm were here!
               Yea, even Vana’s cruel voice were sweeter
               Than this dark silence. Hush! What sound was that?
VERNER (without).       Hoa, Helga! Helga!
HELGA (clings affrightedly to one of the pillars). ’Tis no human voice
               That shrieks so wildly! . . . Nay, an angry god
               Beats the black air above with dreadful wings,
               And calls upon me!
VERNER (without).               Helga!

Enter VERNER.

HELGA.                                            What art thou,
               Who callest in so terrible a tone
               For Helga?
VERNER (aside).       She is here! (Aloud) Come hither, child!
               Thy father calls thee!
HELGA.                                    Father! . . . yea, indeed,
               The lightning lights thy brow, and thou art he!
               Why dost thou turn away, and hide thy face?
                                                                         (The scene grows lighter.)
VERNER. Art thou alone?
HELGA.                            Alone!
VERNER.                                      Methought I saw
               A shadow at thy back,—as of a man,
               Yet awful, like the shadow of a god!—
               Why dost thou tremble?
HELGA.                                        It is bitter cold,—
               And—and—I fear thee!—See, thine eyes gleam strangely!
               Thy voice is hoarse and awful!—and I feel
               That thou art frowning on me!
VERNER.                                              Frowning on thee!
               O that a father’s brightest smiles could equal
               The love I bear thee as I frown. Fear nothing!
               My voice is broken with appeals to those
               Who hear me not; mine eyes are bright with seeking
               The light that never dawns in yonder sky,
               Where stir the powers who heed me not. But hush!
               Didst thou hear nothing?
HELGA.                                        Only the whispering wind.
VERNER. The gods are out across the heavens to-night.
               The lift is dark; but yonder, far away,
               Faint silver streaks creep up behind the snows—
               ’Twill soon be dawn!
HELGA.                                    Why dost thou grip me so?
               Art angry with me?
VERNER.                              Angry with thee, Helga!
               I am a woman when I look upon thee!
               The blood-stained Battle-Raven, near to thee,
               Becomes the innocent dove. Until to-night
               I scarcely knew I loved thee half so well.—
               Teach me to hate thee!
HELGA.                                      Hate me!
VERNER.                                                    Creep unto me,
               Hide thy fair face upon my bosom, thus,
               And whisper in mine ears some hideous thing
               That thou hast done—that thou hast even thought—
               But speak not with thy buried mother’s voice
               To rob me of my strength!
HELGA.                                            O father! father!
               The sorcerer Oluf hath a spell upon thee!
               His black arts fret thee, and thy looks are wild,
               Thy brain is dizzy, and thy limbs are feeble,—
               Come in, and rest!
VERNER.                              Oluf! it is a name
               To make me strong as Thor. His bloodhounds yelped
               Around our hiding-place that summer night,
               When in a mountain cave thy gentle mother
               Woke on her bed of rain-soak’d reeds, stretch’d up
               Her arms, drew down the face she could not see,
               And kissing it, breath’d deep—and died. O child,
               I have sworn a dreadful oath.
HELGA.                                                What hast thou sworn?
VERNER. To tear the heart of Oluf from between
               The iron ribs where now it beats so proudly,
               And fling it to the wolves;—the toughest meal
               The famish’d ever gnaw’d! It shall be done,
               Ye gods, it shall be done? (In a very low voice) The dawn creeps near—
               I feel its clammy breath upon my brow
               From far away. O that some wondrous hand
               Would hold the round sun down beneath the sea,
               That sunrise ne’er might come.—’Twere bliss to grope
               For ever in this darkness.
HELGA.                                          Thou art mad!
VERNER. I am mad! and the gods have made me mad!
               I am the rude barbarian Oluf calls me,
               A cruel, peevish, wild, untutor’d man,
               Whose playmates were the bear and mountain wolves;
               And yet, if those cold gods would grant my prayer,
               And hurl the blood-red horror from the land,
               I could lie down between thine arms and sleep
               Mildly as any lamb!
HELGA.                                  Thou shalt do so!
               Sleep—with thy dear head pillow’d on my knee!
               Sleep—I will watch with loving, sleepless eyes,
               And at the sound of any foeman’s foot
               Will wake and bid thee fly.
VERNER.                                          Fly! Verner fly!
               Am I a wolf?—I am hunted like the wolves!
               Ye gods, it shall be done. Helga, behold! (He draws the knife.)
HELGA.  Something is glittering close before mine eyes!
VERNER. Feel!
HELGA.            Something cold is pressed against my cheek!
VERNER. Child, ’tis the knife wherewith the sacrifice
               Is slain on yonder altar! (Gripping her.)
HELGA (struggling).                   Father! father!
               Thou wouldst not harm me!
VERNER (releasing her; vacantly).   Harm thee? Nay, not I!
               I am foolish, and I knew not what I said.
               Is there no refuge from this thing, O gods?
               O that for one short hour, one little hour,
               The King and I stood face to face alone—
               He arm’d with every spell that sorcery gives,
               And I a famish'd thing, weary and weak—
               Then would I give, ye gods, a sacrifice
               To make ye glow thro’ all your banquet-halls
               And rain your smiles on Verner. Answer me,
               Ye spirits; are ye still so pitiless,
               Forgetting, in your chilly lairs of snow,
               Even the hunted Raven loves its young?
(As he walks up, the morning breaks, and the scene is suddenly bright. He screams and flings up his arms.)
               Ha! ’tis the sun! Roll back, thou horrible light,
               And leave us sightless in the happy dark!
               He hears not! Higher—higher—higher!—gods!
               He gleams upon the altar! (Sinks on the altar steps.)
HELGA.                                          Ah, he raves!
               Look up, my father!—It is but the sun,
               The beautiful god that brings the warmth and light,
               Who walks the bright blue sky, and hides his face
               In wings of blinding gold!
VERNER (leaping up and seizing her). I have thee now!
               I will not think—I will not pause to breathe
               Until the deed is done. This way! this way !
               Up to the altar!
HELGA.                          Help! What wouldst thou do?
               Grip me not so . . . thou hurtest me!
VERNER.                                                        Be silent!
               For thou must die!
HELGA.                                Die!
VERNER.                                      Ay, the gods demand it!
               It is ordained;—that cruel spirit comes
               To drink into his greedy orbs of fire
               The radiance of the sweetest eyes that live.
               Come, come!
HELGA.                        O mercy, mercy!
VERNER.                                                  Ask the gods
               For mercy—l have none.
HELGA.                                          Thou canst not kill me!
VERNER. I must!
(He stands on the altar steps, holding her by the hair, and raising the knife; she clings to his knees, looking up at him.)
HELGA.              Thou art too gentle! Long ago,
               When I was playing at my mother’s knee,
               Although thy face was rugged, fierce, and wild,
               So that I cried, and feared it, didst thou not
               Kiss me, and were thine eyes not dim with tears?
               Thou art my father! thou didst give me life!
               My mother taught me how to pray for thee
               To those strange gods who led thee forth a-field!
               I do remember many a woman’s task
               Thy great strong hands have gently done for me;
               Yea, many a merry sport to pleasure me,
               And many a simple jest to make me smile.
               Thy love conceives I am a little one still,
               And frights me thus in sport.
VERNER (aside).                                 Has my heart broken,
               Or am I Verner Ravn? Can these tears
               Moisten the eyelids of the bird of prey
               Bloody and torn from battles. (Aloud) Child, prepare!
               Stay! let me kiss thee once before thou diest,—
               I could not bear to see thee go away
               Before I kissed thee—thus? My child, my child,
               The gods are pitiless, but their will is law
               For miserable lives . . . Now, turn thy face!
               I canst not slay thee looking in thine eyes!—
               Thus!
HELGA.            Must I die?
VERNER.                              I have sworn!
HELGA.                                                      Then will I die,
               Thus hanging on thy neck and kissing thee,
               Breathing my mother’s name! Is it not meet
               A daughter should die thus? Uplift thy knife,
               And think it is the babe upon the breast
               Whom thou art slaying!
VERNER (dropping knife). O ye gods, ye gods!
               Pitiless, pitiless, pitiless, pitiless!
               Launch down your thunderbolts—set loose your fires—
               Let your fierce thunders roar our people’s doom—
               Scorch me, consume me, trample on me, curse me—
               I will not do this deed!
[He falls, weeping, with his face to the ground. HELGA clings to the altar, looking upward. Full daylight.

DISTANT VOICES.

Lo! thawing, melting,
     Are our thrones of snows,
And from them swiftly
     A rainbow grows,
That brightens southward
     With a singing sound,
And puts a sweetness
     On the Face thorn-crown’d!
And the wingëd meteors
     Burst brightly forth,
And illume the whiteness
     Of the frozen North;
And looming dimly
     On the cold white sky,
We clasp each other,
     We implore and cry,—
And the meteors drink us
     As we melt and die!
                       [The music dies away as the scene closes.

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‘Verner Ravn: a Drama’ was published in The Argosy (December, 1865 - No. 1, pp. 69-79).

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