Menella Bute Smedley

The Vow of Cortes

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Word was brought where Cortes lay
On the shores of Coronzel,
That, pent from the blessed light of day
And the free breath of generous air,
A band of Christians captive were
In the hands of the Indians fell.
Up rose in wrath that leader brave,
And sware by holy cross,
Never to rest by land or wave
Till he had loosed each captive's chain;
So did his gallant heart disdain
Death, danger, woe, or loss.
Eight weary days and nights he stayed
On the shores of Coronzel;
Far and wide his messengers strayed,
Oft they went and oft return'd,
But nought of that sad band they learn'd
In the hands of the Indians fell.
And all this while the wind was foul,
The sky was stern and dark,
Dark as a despot's threatening scowl!
But on the ninth bright morning, lo,
The wind blows fair for Mexico,
Wooing each idle bark.

The skies are lucid, clear, and smooth,
As a sleeping infant's cheek,
The breeze is like the voice of youth,
The sea is like a maiden's smile,
Sparkling and gay, yet shy the while,
On lips afraid to speak.
Sighing o'er dreams of fame withheld,
Stood Cortes on the shore,
His fiery heart within him swelled
When he saw his good ships slothfully
Cradled on that rocking sea,—
“Unmoor!” he cried, “unmoor!
A weary time have we tarried now,
But the fruitless search is o'er”
(Ah, couldst thou thus forget thy vow?)—
“'Twere sin to lose this favouring breeze,
'Twere shame to scorn these courteous seas,
Unmoor, my men, unmoor!”
Merrily rustled each flapping sail
Unfurling as it met
The cool caress of the buoyant gale;
And merrily shouted the seamen brave
As their light barks crested each dancing wave,
And the vow they all forget!
But scarce a league did that gay band sail
When the sky was overcast,
And the good ships reel'd in the clashing hail;
“Courage, my hearts!” quoth Cortes then,
“It shall never be said that Spanish men
Were scared by an adverse blast!”

The heavens grew blacker as he spake,
And their course they could not keep
Save for the flashes blue that brake
Like serpents of fire from the sable sky,
While they hear the shrill wind's startled cry,
And the roar of the stormy deep.
But the leader's voice through wind and wave
Rose calm, and clear, and bold;
“Hurrah, my mates! the storm we brave!
Stand to your posts like men!” But hark!
A cry of terror shakes the bark,
“There's water in the hold!”
And to and fro on the slippery deck,
And up and down the stair,
Came faces full of woe and wreck,
With staring eye and whitened lip,
Hurrying about the fated ship
In purposeless despair!
“Put back, put back, to Coronzel!”
Cried the chief in sudden awe,
“Put back, put back,—we did not well!”
For his mighty heart was humbled now,
And he bethought him of his vow,
And the hand of God he saw.
Then labouring in that dreadful sea,
Through many an hour of fear,
The groaning bark moved doubtfully—
Oh, weary men, but glad they were
When they felt the land-breeze stir their hair,
And they saw the coast appear!

Bold Cortes stood upon the shore
When morning glimmer'd bright;
The frenzy of the storm was o'er,
And he saw the calm blue waters lie
Under a cloudless canopy,
Curling in waves of light.
A boat, a boat from Yucatan!
It sprang before the wind;
And thence there stepp'd a white-hair'd man!
But not from age that hue of snow;
He walk'd with wavering steps and slow,
Like one whose eyes were blind.
Eager around his path they crowd,
In wild but earnest glee;
They clasp his hand, they shout aloud;
For this was one of that sad throng,
Pining 'mid pitiless Indians long,
And now at last set free.
But a wondering, troubled countenance
That white-hair'd stranger's seems,
Like a young child's uncertain glance
When reason dawns upon its heart,
Not understood as yet, but part
Of vague departing dreams.
“Come I to Christian men?” he said,
In eager tones but weak;
“Eight years have blanch'd this weary head,
And all the time I have not heard
The sound of one familiar word!
If ye be Christians, speak!

My brethren were around me slain,
And I was spared alone;
But I have suffer'd want and pain,
A captive's grief, an exile's woe;
What marvel that this early snow
Upon my head is strown?
A humble priest of God am I,
And I have kept my vow;
I saw, in speechless agony,
All that I loved on earth depart,
And pray'd but for a stainless heart:
Thank God, I have it now!”
Around that holy man they stood,
A hush'd and reverent band;
They wept, those soldiers stern and rude,
As long-unwonted words he spake,
And blest them all for Jesus' sake,
Lifting his wasted hand.
Strangely and long did Cortes gaze
Upon that stranger's face;
They had been friends in earlier days,
And now his lips half doubting frame
The sounds of a forgotten name,—
Behold how they embrace!
And Cortes seems a boy again,
Life's guilty paths unknown;
For many a change and many a stain
Have fallen upon him since they met;
Much hath his hand with blood been wet,
And hard his heart hath grown.
All laden with the sins of years,
He kneels upon the sod;
He kneels and weeps! oh, precious tears!
The good man bends beside him there;
And well we know a righteous prayer
Availeth much with God!

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Menella Bute Smedley