Menella Bute Smedley

Hero Herald

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I

In his tent, at fall of day,
Hero Harold loosed his mail,
As a bark which nears the bay
Drops on deck her clattering sail.
Eyes that look the looker through,
Brow that shame hath never bowed,
Lips that ne'er spake word untrue—
Where's a face so fair and proud?”
Came a stripling to the tent,
Watched him while an hour went round,
Saw his stately discontent,
Dared not greet him while he frowned.
Up the warrior looked at last,
“Friend” (his smile was something grim),
“Cheap thine hours, if one is past
Staring at my strength of limb!”
“Cheap my life,” the stripling cried,
“If it buy an hour for thee!
Harold! Death is at thy side—”
“There,” quoth Harold, “let him be.
“Death and I are friends of old.”
Then he spake in softer wise:
“Come thou near till all is told;
Shake the woman from thine eyes.
“Nothing in my life was made,
Since its fighting-days began,
Meet for laughter from a maid,
Or for weeping from a man.
“Warriors' tears are seeds of blood,
Girls go crying at a word,
Boys, if born for any good,
Cry for nothing but a sword!”
Sternly Siva set his face,
Smitten hard by friendly scorn,
And the babe in him gave place
To the savage lately born.
All the tender lines contract
When that fiery touch runs through;
As a Fancy to a Fact
Seems the old face to the new.
Change that melted as it came,
Swiftly as a hue of day.
But the face was not the same
When that moment passed away.
By such moments, hundred-fold,
Shaping life from now to then,
In those iron days of old
Babes were welded into men.
When the finished man appeared,
Strong and brave, and fierce and wild,
You might mutter to your beard,
“This has never been a child!”
Siva grasps the hero's hand:
“Hardly can I speak for shame,
For a lie is in the land,
And it creeps about thy name.
“When the silver daylight grew
Out of yonder gloomy hill,
Thorwold, found among the dew,
Lay, before his mother, still.
“Waked not when she kissed his lip,
Stirred not when they moved his sword;
Dumb as a forsaken ship,
Useless as a bowl outpoured!”
Harold shook his spear and laughed,
“Thorwold died; the word is true;
Still the point is on the shaft,
Who will try its force anew?
“On the broad noon-lighted plain
Fought we while the day went past,
Fought I till my foe was slain—
He is not the first nor last.
“Bid his mother cease to grieve,
She has still two sons of might;
Let them, ere another eve,
Strive to slay me in her sight!”
Siva spoke with burning cheek:
“There, where Thorwold lieth stark,
Not of sunny war they speak,
But of murder in the dark!”
“Who are these that say such things?”
This was all that Harold said,
But his face was as a king's
When he lifted up his head.
Out he thundered, scorning odds,
Stalked into the judgment-hall,
And his face was as a god's
When he stood before them all.
There, while warriors held their breath,
Uncomposed by patient hand
Thorwold lay, a heap of death,
Heavy on the hollowed sand.
Up, with tossing arms untwined,
Rose the mother of the Grave
(So when sinks a desperate wind
Rises one reluctant wave).
Silence waits about the place,
Hero Harold backward draws
When that white and withered face
Flashes on him in the pause.
Then the general wrath brake out
In a vast and bitter cry,
Then they judged him with a shout,
Bade him choose his death and die:
Through the forest's pathless dark
All a summer's day to flee,
Or to drift in oarless bark
At the pity of the sea.
So Huscárlas doom their dead.
Harold spake with open brow:
“Never yet my foot hath fled,
Death could never teach it how;
“Give me to the unconquered sea!
Daily, since the worlds begin,
She is beaten gloriously,
Only to return and win.”
Siva panted, “Let him go!
Three must doom him!” “Three shall doom!”
Echo answers black and slow
From the brothers of the Tomb.
Forth they pace, and as by force,
Yet with calm and reverent hands,
Lift the mother from the corse
Till between her sons she stands.
Blood-drops on her silver hair,
From the bosom of the dead;
In her settled eyes' despair,
Hunger, that shall soon be fed.
From the Dark Decisive Three,
Lead they Harold to the strand,
Set his boat upon the sea,
Part the cable from the land;
Watch him through the sinking light
With his face toward the hills,
Where through spreading tracts of night
Shine the many-threaded rills.
Eyes that look the lookers through,
Brow that shame hath never bowed,
Lips that ne'er spake word untrue,
Where's a face so fair and proud?
Watched on every moving crest,
Lost in every hollow space,
Drifts the hero to his rest
With the sunset on his face;
Till where purple curves are high.
On the last faint fading line,
Into that unfathomed sky,
Down he drops without a sign.

II.

Under windless domes of sky,
Gradual blue that dips to gold,
Under clouds that where they lie
Melt, but never move a fold,
Slow soft dawns, unwilling, pale,
Of the coming noon afraid;
Films of moonlight, dewy, frail
(O! how fair in forest glade!),
Over crystal breadths that take
Light and shadow like a plain,
Moved by secret powers to make
Scarce a ripple in its train,
Drifts the bark; with softer will
Floats not any poisèd bird,
When the governed airs are still,
By no noise of plumage stirred.
Not a murmur where she drifts
Creeps to any listening cave;
Not a breath of summer lifts
Any foam-drop from a wave.
Where, unseen, the movements steal
Parted waters hardly chafe;
Just a whisper at the keel
Sayeth ever, “Still and safe.”
Like a chord that splits apart
Halfway through some placid psalm,
Showed that stormy face and heart
In the centre of the calm.
Ardours of rejoicing strife,
Mere delights of strength were there,
Agonies of hope and life
On the bosom of despair.
Now the morning time comes back,
All besprent with growing lights;
Now his foot is on the track,
Mounting to heroic heights.
Ha! the world is full of shouts,
Battle thunders on the blast,
He, with hand on falchion, doubts—
Is he waking? is it past?
But the waters close and clasp
All about his bright desire,
Soft as any loving grasp,
Ruthless as a ring of fire.
And the stillness and the sway
Of the boat, the sky, the deep,
Seem to coax his heart away
Till it drifts with them asleep.
As a dreamy touch that strays
On the keys at set of sun
Opens up a thousand ways,
Ceases ere it follows one;
So his eyes grow vague and vain,
Heavy with a hope unfound,
So the prelude of his strain
Dies in silence, not in sound.
Have you seen a sudden ray
Break into some woodland gloom,
Showing, shedding on its way
Streams of unsuspected bloom?
Waking where its tremors move
Such new glory in the place,
As the blush and smile of love
Wake on some neglected face?
What you saw was fair and sweet;
Fairer, sweeter far, I ween,
Flash of Ebba's dancing feet
Down the seaward slopes of green.
Where they pass, wind, water, hill,
Sing and quiver with delight;
When they pause, the world is still,
Watching for a second flight.
Now they touch the spray and swerve,
Now they brave it,—see her stand
With the shallow crystal curve
At her ankle's golden band.
Planted so, she leans, she plays,
On the wind against her breast,
While one doubtful hand delays
With the clasping of her vest,
And youth's seeking eyes pervade
All the limits, ere they bow
On a nearer wonder laid
At her feet. She sees it now,
That forlornest thing,—the sea,
Thrusts it in with scorn, and cries,
“Useless is this dust to me,—
Take it, earth!” and there it lies.
Half in spray and half on sand,
At her living feet a face,
And the pleading of a hand
Flung against her sandal lace,
But there still—and colder than
The slow waves that as they choose
Push this mockery of man
All about the bitter ooze.
Wise with sudden pity, she
Crouches on the broadening sands,
Draws the poor head to her knee
With a nursing-mother's hands,
Pours the treasure of her breath
Down on breast and brow and face,
Pleads so tenderly with Death,
That at last he grants her grace.
See, a sigh, a throb, a start,
Thrill against her clasping arm
(Near that young abundant heart
Even marble might grow warm!).
Sweet hope-murmurs in his ear
For rough wind and water-moan,
Purest eyes, that, very near,
Melt the horror from his own.
So he wakes; and so at last
Harder souls may wake from strife,
Losing all a stormy past
In the life that gives them life.

III.

When Bird Ebba first was wed,
Wroth I ween was all the land;
“Was there none of us,” they said,
“Worthy of the damsel's hand?
“Other homes might make her great,
Other arms might hold her safe,
Must she search the seas to mate
With a phantom and a waif?
“Who is Harold?” Harold heard,
As the careless sea may hear
Wail of discontented bird,
Crying that a storm is near;
For his soul had set aside
All the harder dreams of youth,
And was standing glorified
In the tender light of Truth.
New unconscious dreads of sin
Steal to him he knows not whence,
And a faint voice tells within
Mysteries of innocence.
In his veins a purer fire,
In his voice a softer key,
On his heart the word “Aspire!”
This is Love for such as he.
Turning back reluctant eyes
To the tumult and the stir,
Sees he Ebba's face, and sighs,
“Not a shade must fall on her.”
Soon the old fame-hunger wakes,
And the mighty joy of swords;
But from Ebba's face it takes
Generous thoughts and gentle words.
(So the lovely morning flows
Round some dark terrific tower,
Till it softens, till it glows,
Till it blossoms like a flower.)
“Come,” he cried, “for Ebba's love,
Let us strive a summer's day!”
Then a summer's day they strove,
And he bore the prize away.
Still they show the place of meed
Where he pitched the bar and ball,
Where he clove the beechen steed,
Where his leaps outleapt them all;
Where his wonder-shafts went true,
Chased by unbelieving eyes;
Where his foes to earth he threw,
Stretched his hands, and bade them rise;
His big heart no faster beat
(Such composure in its strength)
Till he sate at Ebba's feet,
Just a little flushed at length.
Then it bounded; not for fame,
Not for shouts along the air,
But for one soft touch that came
For a moment on his hair.
“King you are!” the people cried,
“Son of waves and king of men!”
So to Harold and his bride
All the tribe bring homage then.
Raise the roof and plant the hearth,
Sow the field and drive the kine,
Great sea wedding gentle earth,
For a blessing and a sign.
So they lived through night and morn,
Peace and war, and joy and tears;
So were sons and daughters born,
Links among the changing years.
No man dared to wrong the poor,
Never foe by treason bled,
Never stranger from the door
Went unwelcomed or unfed.
Till at last a stranger came,
Standing, hoary, in the gate,
Saying softly Harold's name,
Like a man who fears his fate.
Watching strangely while he spoke
Harold with his sons around,
Like a great storm-beaten oak
In a growing garden-ground,
Saying “Harold,” and no more;
Harold lifts his stately face;
“Enter, friend, the day is o'er,
Come and rest, and take your place.”
Then their meeting looks were blent
In strange question and reply;
Over Harold's visage went
One vast wave of memory;
And his soul went swiftly through
Precious and familiar ways,
Where the very ground was dew,
In the sweet beginning days.
“Siva!” (Ebba thrills to feel
That sure arm about her waist,
Ever thus in woe or weal.)
“Harold!” And the men embraced.
“Harold, we have mourned you long,
Time has cleared your noble name;
All the land that did you wrong
Calls you home in love and shame.
“In the hall, the field, the chase,
Sombre council, festal board,
Wail they for your empty place,
Clamour for your useless sword.”
Slowly Harold smiles around;
Place so filled, and sword so tired!
For a warrior wived and crowned,
What is left to be desired?
Having played his glorious part,
Here he stands, and here should fall—
But the great tide in his heart
Rises till it covers all!
Now the morning time comes back,
All besprent with growing lights;
Now his foot is on the track,
Mounting to heroic heights.
Still for him does sunset gild
Those last hills he used to climb,
And the old man's face is filled
With the glory of his prime.
Yet he speaks not. Ebba speaks,
With that arm about her waist,
And a blush upon her cheeks,
Sweeter than the first he traced:
“Let us seek this land of thine!”
Harold says below his breath,
“Speak thine own heart, speak not mine!”
“Nay, but they are one,” she saith.
So, to satisfy his heart,
Where the great grief burned unseen,
Harold and his wife depart
To the home that might have been.
When the good white cliffs he saw,
First he shouted, then he sighed,
Then his children turned with awe
From their father's tears aside.
When his keel was on the shore,
All the tribe came down to greet;
Somewhat slower than of yore
Seem their Hero's coming feet.
To the hills he lifts his eyes;
“Nothing changed!” his lips proclaim.
Then he sees the men and sighs,
“Ah, but nothing is the same!”
Turning from the accustomed sea,
Stretching forth benignant hands,
This vast weight of memory
Makes him stagger where he stands,
Makes him fall. But, ready there,
One, for ever near him, draws
To her breast his silver hair,
While the rushing people pause;
Pours the treasure of her breath
Down on cheek, and lip, and brow—
Ah! but this familiar death
Shrinks not from her presence now.
Will the old fame-hunger rouse?
Hear the people's shout and song!
Bind a chaplet for his brows!
Praise his name, and tell his wrong!
Closer grew the wife's embrace:
“Hear you what they shout?” she cried;
But he, looking in her face,
Only said,“My love!” and died.

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Menella Bute Smedley