Menella Bute Smedley

The Decree of Odin

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“‘I loosened the bonds which bind
The Pestilence, my slave;
I sent him forth as the wind,
I bade him stand in the midst of the land
And make it one vast grave.
“‘Well hath his work been done,
But he is working still,
Scarce is the time begun,
And the dead must sink and the living shrink
Till achieved is Odin's will.
“‘Take from the King his best,
The creature next his heart;
Then shall the land have rest,
Then will I chain the fierce Plague again.
I have said the word. Depart!’”
The tones of that strange voice have ceased,
Mute are the people and the priest,
But a weight of horror lies
On their wild and wistful eyes.
Silently they stood and heard,
But, as died the last dread word,
A greyness like a sudden cloud
Fell on some of that pale crowd,
As if a stormcloud left its trace
Upon each uplifted face;
Yet the sky is calm and fair,
Not a passing mist is there;
Each man on his neighbour gazed,
Questioning and sore amazed.
Past that moment's shuddering doubt,
“The plague, the hideous plague!” they shout;
And some take flight, and some stand still;
But the grasp of death is icy chill,
One touch goes freezing to their hearts,
And hurrying life recoils, departs,
Till the steps beside the temple door
Are piled with corpses o'er and o'er,
And the monarch veils his face, and cries,
“Great Odin, take thy sacrifice!”

There stood a child at the monarch's knee,
A fair and bright-haired boy was he;
His young blue eyes had never yet
Aught save the glance of kindness met,
Nor save with passing tears been wet;
His heart like some fresh rosebud grew,
Nourished with gentle beams and dew;
His lisping tongue had never known
Aught save a blithe and fearless tone;
Wonder and terror he now might feel,
But his father's arm was a fence of steel;
He was the child of hope and care,
The only one and the kingdom's heir,
And he thought as he stood at his father's knee,
“There is none on earth that can injure me!”
But the ruthless priest drew near
With an eye whose gaze was felt,
An eye that never shed a tear,
And a heart that could not melt;
He laid his grasp on the child's soft neck,
And the father shuddered but dared not check,
He lifted the knife,—but the princely child,
Looked lightly up in his face and smiled;
Each cheek around was white with woe,
But the boy's blue eye no fear confest;
It was his father who let him go,
So he held it all for a passing jest.

Whence came that shriek which rings around?
A heart is breaking in the sound!
'Tis not the child, he is smiling still
Into the face of the man of ill;
'Tis not the sire, the hero sits
With a heart that speaks not, but submits
His eyes are hard and bright as steel,
You would not dream that he can feel.
Whose is this darting form that flies,
Swift as the flash from thunder-skies,
With floating hair, with glittering eye,
Whose beauty is lost in agony?
Make way, make way for that form so wild!
It is the mother of the child!

She hath caught the boy to her breast,
One moment's quick embrace,
Wildly and closely his form she prest,
But she dared not see his face;
One look had taken her strength away
For the deed she had to do that day;
So she turned away when her strong clasp ceased,
And thus she spake to the ruthless priest.

“Man of blood, thou hast strangely erred,
If Odin's will aright was heard;
Not dear, but dearest was his quest,
The King must give the god his best.
Away from the innocent babe! away!
I am the victim thy sword must slay.
I am the love of his youth; we changed
Hearts which no after-chill estranged;
I am the wife of his bosom; see,
His cheek is losing its glow for me,
The light grows dim in his eagle eye,
His brow forgetteth its royalty.
I am the dearest, for I can chase
The soul of strength from the hero's face;
Look how he shrinks! how pale, how wild!
He changed not thus when you touched his child!”

priest stood still; there seemed a trace
Of transient pity on his face,—
With breathless heart, with trembling knees,
That moment's pause the mother sees;
No monarch crowned with victory's wreath
E'er clung to life as she to death.
Whiter and whiter her cheek hath grown,
As she turned to the king and thus spake on.
“Dost thou not love me?” she said, and soft
Was her young low voice, and it quivered oft;
The light in her eye was troubled, yet
'Twas not with a single teardrop wet;
Those waters of the heart's pure well
Were frozen in their deepest cell.
“Dost thou not love me? Forgettest thou
When first I gave thee my girlish vow?
Hast thou forgotten that old bright time,
When two true hearts were together twining?
Hast thou forgotten Love's dewy prime
Now, when his noon is around thee shining?
Will thy cold eyes no change evince?
Have I been faithless to thee since?
Have I not still, as thine own true wife,
Smiled on thy manhood's sterner life?
And has not love in our two hearts made
A world of youth that can never fade?

Did ever a breath of unkindness pass
Over our peaceful lake of love?
Did it not mirror as a glass
The tranquil glories from above?
O! by the hours of joy and stillness
Which our true wedded faith hath known,
Turn not away with such icy chillness,
Turn not away,—I am still thine own!
Or has some false new love proved stronger?
Hast thou a dearer face than mine?
Speak to me, speak! Are we one no longer?
Dost thou not love me? Am I not thine?”

The voice of her passionate pleading died
As a low breeze dies by a river side,
But ere that low breeze sank to rest
It woke a storm in the monarch's breast.
Up he sprang, and men dared not see
How the great heroic soul gave way,—
How the brow grew dark with agony
And the lips with terror ashen-grey;
Faint was his voice and of faltering tone,
“Gudruna! Gudruna! come back, mine own!
Touch her not, priest! She is mine! Forbear!
Take ye the child, but the mother spare!”

“Heard ye? Oh, heard ye?” the mother cries,
And quick tears break from her joyful eyes;
“My prayer is granted, my truth is proved!
Take me,—for I am his best beloved!”
Eager she spake, and hurried where
The priest was lifting his knife in air!

In her own life-blood she lies,—
She lies at the monarch's feet,
And her heart looks up into his eyes
With a loving gaze and sweet;
In dumb despair he stands,
He stretches helpless hands,
Looks from her face to the iron sky,
And knows that he must see her die!
For Death is glazing fast
Those eyes of tenderest blue,
And now come gentle words—the last—
Hurried and faint and few;
One moment, one poor breath
She wrings from coming Death,

And a faint tinge trembles on her cheeks
As thus her dying love she speaks:
“Grieve not for me, O! dearest one,
Forget not how I fell,
The mother for her firstborn son,—
My heart's beloved, farewell!
What bliss was for your darling kept,
To live so loved and die so wept!”

Her spirit passed with the last soft word,
And a voice of weeping around was heard;
The monarch clasped his wondering boy,
And hid his face in the child's bright hair,
He would not that his people's eye
Should look upon his first despair.

Where she fell they buried her,
And the mountain rose's bloom
Clustered round to minister
Sweetness to her lonely tomb;
And the breeze at morn and eve
Ever loved to linger there
With its gentlest breath to grieve
Over one so pure and fair;
And for many an after year
All that sorrowing people came,
Casting garlands on her bier,
Doing honour to her name;
For the pestilence had ceased,
And grim Odin was appeased.
Never did the monarch take
Other maiden for his bride;
Lonely lived he for her sake,
Lonely at the last he died;
How could any other be
Half so fond and true as she?

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Menella Bute Smedley